Why Michele Robert’s keynote speech on ‘The Erotic Imagination’ marks a new epoch in the way we talk about sex

9 April 2014
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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:

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 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:

 

This is Winnie’s Liveblog based on Michele Robert’s speech and Blake Morrison’s reading before MR spoke:

There’s a narrow channel you’re allowed as a woman to be sexual…. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be squished

On one hand she felt total contempt when she was nominated for the Bad Sex Award for writing…. also enraged and angry…. There’s a lot of mockery involved if you write beyond the margin.

very important that we reclaim a subjectivity when writing about sex

The commodification of bodies has increased in our society – this could lead to violence

Michele just read a creepy passage from one of her short stories…. cooking and obsession and ooh – a hint of cannibalism

Is one taboo a fear of emotion when writing about sex?  Romance has a bad name – it’s pathetic, rubbish, what silly women read.

 Updated : 17:03

The minute I see a taboo, I want to rush at it and embrace it.  One is the sexual longings of older women.

She has written piss-takes of porn and romance… plus a homage to chick-lit called READER, I MARRIED HIM

Sadomasochism can go back to relationships in the family, can be between women… She explores this in her novel FLESH AND BLOOD

Discussing the term “vanilla sex”

EM Forster’s “The Obelisk” – a straight Edwardian couple gets separately seduced by a pair of gay sailors

 

“And that night, they were not divided”

 

Vagina is Latin for sword-sheath….

If sex is a current of bodily feeling, how do we write it?  Not write about it, but conjure it?

Michele Roberts is talking about la jouissance…. orgasm = pleasure of reading

Michele Roberts is about to speak now… drumroll, please… This is the big headliner event of the conference!

“Specialty sex” indexes an economy of non-normative sexual commodity

Malcolm X rumored to have engaged in sex work earlier in his career – plumbing the depths of these rumors

AIDS – prison – and – poverty complex continues to define African-American male identity

Dr. Khory Polk speaking now (I may have spelled his name wrong…)

African-American communities use rumor to protect their icons from a white-dominated sphere

“Being lost in a sea we shouldn’t have gone swimming in”

“I became your creature”

“As we got drunker we made our own kind of sign language”

Rachel Long reading her poem now

She makes her onstage character more young and more overtly sexual, she creates discomfort in her audience by taking societal expectations to their extreme

Cyrus’ performance is a deliberate commentary on sex and age

O’Connor denies Miley Cyrus any agency!

Teenage girls are demeaned, dismissed, and devalued in the media

Teenage girls are discussed in a same way that the subaltern are discussed

Sinead O Connor’s hegemonic reading of Miley Cyrus…

Heather McConnell speaking about how colonial language for un-evolved peoples is also used to describe teenage girls who are still coming of age.

Now in the Gender, Power, and Media panel…

“I thought Caligula had plumbed the depths, until I found fisting”

Watching porn = watching gladiators in the arena

In 3 line rhyming stanza

Blake’s poem – re: Ovid coming back and encountering present-day porn

or translated from….?

Blake is talking about Ovid’s Amores – reading 3 poems of his inspired by Ovid

Sex compared to an essay contest… First time I’ve heard that metaphor before!

Season Butler: “Enters me… like the goddam 8th grade essay contest”

Seraphima is introducing Season and not re-introducing Blake.

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