Michele Roberts’ keynote speech at the ‘Beyond the Sheets’ conference marked, for me, a new epoch in the way we talk about sex. Here was an established literary figure seeking to change the discourse about sex, addressing at the conference pre-dominantly young writers and emerging academics; the new “intelligentsia” if you like. It was an important cultural moment for me: Roberts who was moulded as a feminist and writer during the 1970s – a much derided decade – talking and advising the generation of the new millennia. She was introduced by Professor Blake Morrison who explained that he used to judge the Mind Prize for fiction with Michele and suggested that her French nationality had affected her propensity to write about sex.
Michele began her talk by talking about the “rapture” of reading, the “jouissance” of reading, suggesting that reading can be orgasmic. You can see an short extract of this part of the speech here:
She then moved on to talk about why anyone would want to write about sex. An extract of this is here:
This was followed by an interesting categorisation of the different ways that writers can write about sex:
She categorises the different ways of writing about sex as being:
- vague (this is where sex is never properly described but only referred to in general terms)
- metaphoric (this is where sex is compared to something else such as natural imagery which Jenny Lewis in a previous lecture had pointed out was very common in ancient Summerian poetry)
- pornographic (this is where concepts like memory/character are rendered unimportant in the descriptions of sex)
- clinically and coolly (this is where sex is described in almost medical, unemotional terms — something popular amongst young writers at the moment)
- journalistic the “less is more” approach (this is exemplified by the lesbian writer Radcliffe Hall)
Her taxonomy of sex writing is a useful, clear and engaging one which points towards a new moral purpose for sex writing; that of exploring the erotic. There was a moral vein struck throughout the whole of her talk but it wasn’t a religious, repressive morality that Roberts was reaching for but a new, open-minded, forgiving, exploratory morality regarding sex, a morality which celebrated equality, fairness, “jouissance” and feminism. Her new morality is possibly best expressed in this short extract in which she says that women need to reclaim the word “cunt” away from people who have used it pejoratively:
She then discussed the writing about sex that she likes who include Ali Smith, Apollinaire, and Colette. For her, she’s never been attracted to pornographic writing about sex, rather she wants writing which unsettles, discomforts and makes the reader think again about the issues involved. Here is a clip where she talks about what she finds to be effective writing about sex:
One of the main themes of the talk was the ways in which there are still strong taboos regarding the writing about sex; she argues that there are still strong taboos regarding older women writing about sex, and even stronger ones regarding talking about incest, and the sexuality of young girls. This is a section where she talks about some of these taboos:
Her voice is authoritative here; it is tinged with rebellion but also with reason. She goes against the grain of the public hysteria that characterises the debate about sex and suggests that the writer’s job is to push against taboos: to probe and investigate them. Above all, she is keen to give the writer freedom to write about sex in the way he or she sees fit. She makes a passionate plea for metaphor and emotional discourse to be employed when writing about sex here:
When answering questions, she was asked how she felt about receiving the Bad Sex Award. Her response was strikingly honest: she talked about her anger and embarrassment, and then went on to make an important point which is often ignored when discussing the writing about sex; she pointed out how there is an upper-class, male contempt for writers who attempt to explore sensitive and emotional issues.
Overall, this was an extremely impressive keynote; utterly heart-felt and very moving, as well as brave and thought-provoking. Roberts’ ability to fuse theory, autobiography, feminist polemic and creative writing into a seamless whole made her lecture very special; the very form and genre of her lecture felt path-breaking too. Here was a creative writer and academic who has dared to speak clearly and emotionally about a very difficult topic, as well as quite consciously addressing an emerging generation. The poet Maura Dooley, a creative writing lecturer at Goldsmiths, was right when she said to me that she felt the talk was moving. I think everyone there felt moved by it. Obviously, you can never get the sense of an event from a video, but I hope you can see if you watch her full talk that it was an important one.
You can see the full talk here: