Lounging on sofas and upholstered chairs around the living room, the members of this book club were not particularly impressed or alarmed by Fleishman’s antics. “There was just so much sex,” one woman complained.
She didn’t sound offended. She sounded bored.
Ninety years ago, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was banned in the United States. Today, a popular literary novel can contain so many oral sex acts that readers yawn.
This is progress, mostly. But how did we get here?
D.H. Lawrence’s horny novel uses words we still can’t print in a family newspaper, but as porn, it now feels limp, even a tad silly. If the “mystery of the phallos” doesn’t spoil the mood, the dialect surely will: “Tha’re theer right enough,” the priapic gamekeeper says. “Yi, tha mun rear thy head! Theer on thy own, eh? an’ ta’es no count O’ nob’dy! Tha ma’es nowt O’ me.”
It’s hard to imagine what a stir “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” caused in the late 1920s when Lawrence had it privately published and began mailing copies abroad. Governments around the world immediately banned the novel. Some booksellers caught selling it were jailed. In 1930, when the U.S. Senate considered loosening import restrictions on books, Sen. Reed Smoot (R-Utah) strenuously objected. Just days after Lawrence died in France, Smoot declared that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was “written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would even obscure the darkness of hell.” He expressed concern that reading it could corrupt even the morals of U.S. senators, which is possibly the funniest thing anyone has ever said in Washington.
Of course, high-profile denunciations only increased interest in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” — censorship always does that. Cole Porter mocked this new-old alarm about filthy books in his Depression-era Broadway hit, “Anything Goes”:
Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Hopes for enlightenment rose in 1933, when Judge John Woolsey took up the case of another “foreign novel” that threatened America’s fragile virtue: James Joyce’s masterpiece, “Ulysses.” Ruling against the government, Woolsey wrote, “In spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist.” More important, he went on to articulate a test: “Whether a particular book would tend to excite such impulses and thoughts must be tested by the court’s opinion as to its effect on a person with average sex instincts.”
And because everyone agrees on what “average sex instincts” are, the matter of obscenity was thereby settled forever.
Alas — no. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” stayed zipped up for another three decades until a foundational case in 1959 when Federal District Judge Frederick van Pelt Bryan ruled, “At this stage in the development of our society, this major English novel does not exceed the outer limits of tolerance.” His wider comments — 60 years ago! — are of more interest to us today. “In one best-selling novel after another,” he wrote, “frank descriptions of the sex act and ‘four-letter’ words appear with frequency.”
Whether the judge was lamenting or celebrating this pervasive frankness, he was certainly right. People were already hyperventilating over Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The Summer of Love was just around the corner, along with Philip Roth and that much abused liver, John Updike’s sexual mechanics, Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” and a thousand other books testing “the outer limits of tolerance.”
Prudes and libertines kept suing, and courts kept ruling — and sometimes back-stepping — but the trend toward greater permissiveness was irreversible. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s attorney general, Ed Meese, led a task force that climaxed with a 2,000-page jeremiad against pornography — think of the stamina! But in a delicious irony, Christian bookstores refused to carry the book because it contained too many naughty words and illustrations. By the early 1990s, the Justice Department looked weary of harassing distributors of dirty books. And once the Internet started pumping porn directly into American homes, the fight against offensive novels felt as antique as a prohibition against square dancing.
I confess, there are times when I miss the old limits and anxieties. For all their insufferable righteousness, those Puritanical standards offered a heavy red curtain to push aside. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” depended on that prohibition to create the titillating sense of something rare and intimate, even forbidden. Nowadays, the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award is an annual eruption of mirthful derision, not flustered agitation. Sexual vulgarity feels quaint, faux-ironic, the bland lingua franca of corporate marketing. Hundreds of books use obscene words in their titles. We have all mastered “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---.”
In the final days of 2019, we look back at a decade that embraced a series of BDSM novels by EL James. Spawned from “Twilight” fanfiction, her “Fifty Shades” trilogy became one of the most valuable literary franchises in history. Her books sold more than 150 million copies, which if laid end-to-end would probably enjoy it. The cultural influence of “Fifty Shades” was so dominant that every journalist on planet Earth had to rewrite the same article about the rise of mommy porn. But James’s real achievement was to make sexual excess dull. In her own schlocky way, she inadvertently disrobed the sterility of what so often passes for eroticism in our age.
Which brings us back to all those tiresome sex acts in “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” That surfeit of pleasure is not a flaw of the novel. Brodesser-Akner is getting at something tragic, not erotic, about the way we app now. Despite the wonderful freedom of living in a less priggish society, there is a cost to abandoning the electric-fence thrill of taboos, the spark of naughtiness. As Philip Larkin wrote years ago,
So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) —
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.