Olive Ann Burns is the author of a first novel, to be published late in October, called "Cold Sassy Tree." It remains to be seen whether the book has any merits, but there can be no doubt that its author does. Asked by her publisher to supply the standard biographical information expected of authors, Burns fired back with nearly 10 single-spaced pages in which she said, in part:
"I don't know if it will help sales to say "Cold Sassy Tree" isn't a dirty book, but I don't think I'm the only person who is tired of sordid stories about unsavory people. I'm tired of books and movies full of paper-doll characters you don't care about, who have no self-respect and no respect for anybody or any institution.
"I hope this book is compelling and realistically sensual; I have great respect for human sexuality. But I'm tired of authors so lacking in sensitivity that they wallow in vulgarity and prostitute sex -- making exhibitionists of the characters and peeping Toms of the readers.
"And I don't want to sound preachy or Victorian, but I'm tired of amorality in fiction and real life. Immorality is a fascinating human dilemma that creates suspense for the readers and tension for the characters, but where is the tension in an amoral situation? When people have no personal code, nothing is threatening and nothing is meaningful."
To put it mildly, in those three paragraphs Burns challenges a healthy load of the assumptions upon which contemporary American fiction, both "serious" and "popular," has rested since the Second World War. Whether written by John Updike or Harold Robbins, Erica Jong or Judith Krantz, Norman Mailer or Jacqueline Susann, a vast amount of postwar American fiction has been about essentially valueless people who engage in explicitly described sexual activity and whose lives are largely lacking in meaning or consequence. This is not the result of any conspiracy on the part of the Authors Guild but of literary fashion and, one must suppose, popular taste; whatever the explanation for it, this odd blend of nihilism and erotica has enjoyed a vogue for several decades.
Indeed, the vogue still seems to flourish, and as a consequence Burns' words doubtless will be ridiculed in lit'ry circles as old-fashioned and stuffy; her novel may well be dismissed in those same circles, long before anyone has actually read it, as "corny" and "inspirational." Yet the tone of Burns' biographical questionnaire suggests otherwise. Burns is an Atlantan, but there's none of the priggishness or sentimentality in her words that are often associated with southern ladies who write polite novels. She doesn't say that sex is bad for one's moral health or that fiction should be all uplift and good cheer; she merely says that, as a reader, she is tired of being forced to wallow around in other people's body parts and to empathize with characters who have little or no connection with actual human existence.
On both counts she is right, but it is on the first that her words carry particular force. There's simply no getting around it: In literature as in life, the "sexual revolution" has gotten out of hand. What began as a valuable and liberating reaction against the moral constraints of post-Victorian America has turned into an orgy of sexual excess that exists for no purpose except to display itself; in fiction -- as in movies and advertising and television -- we have passed within a couple of generations from a morality that regarded public sexuality as shameful to one that regards it as obligatory.
The "vulgarity" to which Burns refers is not the mere mention of sex or even the parts of the body most necessary to it; surely she would agree that a deeply sensual short story such as Ernest Hemingway's "Up in Michigan" violates no boundaries of good taste and arouses the reader's erotic as well as literary interests without describing more than is necessary to the task. Rather, she presumably refers to the description of sexual activities as can be found in such "literary" novels as Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich," Jong's "How to Save Your Own Life" and Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance." In these books, each of them a work of consummate vulgarity, sexual activity of one sort or another occurs with breathtaking frequency, is joyless and mechanical and is depicted with as minute detail as will be found in the instructions for assembling a mail-order tricycle.
What we have in these novels, what Burns objects to so strenuously and correctly, is not a pleasurable activity engaged in by humans that occasionally results in the reproduction of the species, but a smutty exhibition of an author's freedom to write whatever he jolly well pleases. These endless passages of rubbing and moaning serve no real literary purpose, and to all readers, save those still in the hot flush of adolescence, they surely by now have precious little entertainment value. They're just there, getting in the way of things, dirtying up the bookshelves.
To say this is not to say that sex should not be written about or that we should return to the strictures of the Victorian era. Quite to the contrary. Sex is right up there with death and taxes among the inescapable realities of life, and we should be able to discuss it openly, without embarrassment. But it is unnecessary and gratuitous to describe the act in lavish detail every time it occurs; to do so is comparable to describing the methods of boiling water, scrambling eggs and toasting bread each time the protagonist sits down to breakfast. Enough is enough, already.
Not merely is all this excess vulgar but, as is implicit in Burns' words, it has the effect of trivializing and cheapening the very subject it purports to celebrate. Rubbing and moaning is all well and good, but when you encounter it on every other page it eventually becomes boring and even offensive, in the process robbing sex of its magic and mystery. Writers of real stature have always known this, in the age of "liberation" as well as that of repression, a case in point being another southern lady, Eudora Welty, who wrote this paragraph in "The Robber Bridegroom":
"Then the red horse stood stock-still, and Jamie Lockhart lifted Rosamond down. The wild plum trees were like rolling smoke between him and the river, but he broke the branches and the plums rained down as he carried her under. He stopped and laid her on the ground, where, straight below, the river flowed as slow as sand, and robbed her of that which he had left her the day before."
That, dear reader, is sexy.