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Too embarrassed to be sexy?

Contemporary novelists feel a "commercial" obligation to write "detailed" passages about sex, the British writer Julian Barnes recently said on the BBC's Radio 3. That, I thought, explains a lot — not the proliferation of sex scenes in contemporary literary fiction, but fiction's pitiful commercial impact. If today's novelists believe that the money is in writing explicit sex scenes (and the sales of "Fifty Shades of Grey" would indicate it is), then apparently they are running away from the money as fast as they can. Literary novelists write about having and raising children, about eating, about coming of age and making a living, but when it comes to one of life's essential activities and pleasures, they mostly prefer to remain silent.

Why? Barnes, in recalling the great sense of liberation following the collapse of the 1960 obscenity case against the publishers of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," said that there was then a great sense of possibility. British fiction could finally emulate the "truth-telling" of French novels. But being free to do something and being able to do it are very different, and Barnes thinks the results were sometimes awkward and implausible. Plus, the effort went unappreciated. "Expect to be laughed at by subsequent generations," Barnes told aspiring authors, before affirming that he personally forges ahead into this veritable minefield despite all the anticipated mockery.

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