Thursday, 18 April 2013

Of pedagogy and penis

So, here's a post which requires a little tact and sensitivity. If you're my mother, one of my aunts (my core demographic, actually) or a low-rent tabloid newspaper, you should look away now. Read this instead. It's very good.

Gone? Excellent, we can begin. You might remember that a few weeks ago I briefly ran through the low-lights of Jilly Cooper's 1985 bonkbuster novel Riders, in which Germans 'goose-step', murderous dictator Francisco Franco is a beaming gentleman, and in which betrayed wives apologise to their husbands for making them commit adultery, then promise to try harder.

Here - from 8.05 - is Rupert's accusation, though Helen's acceptance of the charge has been cut from the televised version, presumably for being too reactionary even for commercial TV:



All glaringly free of any authorial irony at all. The book has gained even more significance recently, as the core of the novel is the messy transition from what Cooper calls 'socialism' to shiny 1980s winner-takes-all Thatcherism. But more of that anon.

No, I don't know what a 'classic bestseller' is either.


The first question is of course why I put this novel on a university course. Two of my friends were monstered by a local tabloid and a rent-a-quote MP for featuring sexual material on one of their modules. Admirably, the university stood up to the bullying and gave the answer I'd give too: a lot of humans spend a lot of time having sex. Even more humans spend even more time thinking about sex. Things humans spend a lot of time doing or thinking about doing are important and need to be examined. (This applies to attacks on Media Studies too). Sex isn't a 'thing' that's been the same forever: it's a cultural text which impacts on every aspect of society. For instance, in Riders, sex with underage girls is a bit of a naughty laugh – not exactly an attitude readers would publicly adopt now.

The other charge against material like this is that it's somehow 'dumbing-down'. That universities should act like big Booker Prize panels, picking out (in Matthew Arnold's terms) 'the best that is thought and known' for preservation and dissemination. There's certainly a role for this kind of thing, but one of the positive lessons of postmodernism is that taste is subjective and contingent, not something which would bother Arnold. Instead, we're all Raymond Williamsites now: everything people do is intrinsically interesting and deserves analysis. When it comes to pulp fiction, we need to read it to understand the impulses which fuel its writing, publication, purchases and uses of pulp. I can pick any number of profound modern poems which examine the human condition (and I do, in lots of classes), but the fact is that most people are reading Jilly Cooper and her descendants. Geniuses are often a little odd: if you want to know what everyone else is interested in, you look at the mass market.

Which brings me to Riders itself, and my slight worry about the state of my career. It is, as I've said, an interesting novel. Underneath the appalling prose and structure, it has a political and cultural purpose. It promotes a weird melange of tradition conservative and Conservative aristocratic values, and expresses a considerable degree of horror at the rise of frightful nouveaux riches types like Kevin Coley the cat food king, who sponsors horses as long as they're named after his products. It spends a lot of time ridiculing and marginalising non-Alpha males, academics (I took this a little personally), intellectuals, homosexual men, lesbians (repeatedly), liberals, bogey-man 'Socialists', foreigners and the middle-classes whom I assume are actually the readership.

But it's the sex which is really striking. There isn't as much of it as you'd expect from Cooper's reputation but it's very interesting. The book devotes a lot of time to criticising bourgeois middle-class sexual morality, hence the author's contempt for poor American suburban import Helen, who is so hurt by her husband's compulsive adultery. Aristocratic men and women are rampant, it says: if you don't like it, stay away. But there's also a covert but insistent attempt to introduce the readership to a new politics of sexuality, a very 1980s version. For instance, hairy-legged, fun-free feminist shrew Hilary is converted to patriarchy through being slapped in the face then sexually assaulted by Rupert, one of our heroes. Lazy journalist Janey (shades of Cooper?) thinks she's free because she sleeps around before and after her marriage and because she works for a living, but she's not actually organised enough to live independently, and we're explicitly told that she needs a husband and a baby to fulfil her. Silly girl! Oh, and the women are constantly being assessed in exactly the same way and using the same words as  the men examine and talk about their horses.

Yet the actual mechanics of the sex in Riders is very interesting, and demonstrates the fuzzy boundaries of 80s individualism and sexual liberation. And here's where teaching gets interesting: I never thought I'd find myself discussing the political significance of female-on-male oral sex in a classroom one Monday afternoon with a socially diverse crowd of young and mature women. And least of all on a module called… wait for it… Positions! And yet here we are. We'd read Trollope's 19th-century attack on aristocratic amorality The Way We Live Now, Waugh's disapproving expos√© of 1920s toffs Vile Bodies and Gwyn Thomas's Welsh mining novel Sorrow for thy Sons, which in many ways is the most sordid novel of the lot. But last on the list, carefully juxtaposed with these others, is Riders in all its gold-embossed glory.

On the sexual menu in Riders is: various more or less orthodox sexual encounters; droit de seigneur exploitation of more-or-less willing proletarians such as stable girls who are presumed to have no interior life at all; meaningless encounters with assorted foreigners – and repeated discussions of specific acts such as pubic shaving, oral sex, fantasies, and a very unhappy foursome in a Kenyan holiday home.

I think these are interesting firstly because it's through pulp fiction that practices previously restricted to pornography or marginalised groups become normalised. I suspect that the discussions of pubic hair removal in Riders, and perhaps the blow-job scenes, are amongst the first ones in popular mainstream fiction: and yet the book is enthusiastically endorsed by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph amongst others. In case you think I'm joking, here's a screen shot of a recent Daily Mail page (h/t: @takitaki).



 Why do these right-wing outlets approve of all these hi-jinks? Partly, I suspect, because Jilly Cooper has been very clever. In the novel, the pubic hair issue is proposed by the women's partners as being for their own benefit, and the women come to like it. The same goes for the oral sex: there is some reciprocation, but as the classroom discussion discovered, the fellatio is essentially an act of patriarchal domination: the characters talk about it as something rather unpleasant which can eventually be enjoyed, while the unspoken truth is that by its very nature, it's a one-way process. Male pleasure, followed by sleep and/or a prolonged recovery period (as you can probably tell, I'm struggling for words here: this is not in my comfort zone). The orgy scene is also highly significant. The Kenyan setting evokes – for some readers – the notorious history of aristocratic expat hi-jinks in Happy Valley, and carefully distances the scene from 'real life'. In it, poor Helen is essentially sexually assaulted by her husband, his best friend and his wife, Janey: and they explain it as being good for her. When she finally gets away, they cheer the disappearance of the disapproving 'grown-up'. It's one of the very few moments of genuine sympathy for Helen, who is largely mocked for being pseudo-intellectual, sexually inadequate, politically liberal and American. Try this clip, especially from around 3.30:



But here we see the unacceptable edge of sexual liberation. Alpha-male patriarchy reveals its own contradictions in this scene. While the men's sexual impulses are 'natural', Rupert's cruelty becomes intolerable. Additionally, the orgy raises the suggestion of male-male sexual contact (never represented here) which is clearly beyond the boundaries of what's acceptable. Finally, I think there's an unspoken and old-fashioned fear: that group sex endangers patriarchal capitalism. None of them use contraceptives: if either of the women became pregnant, the orderly transmission of identity and property rights would be in serious doubt. It's these concerns, I think, which ensure that this is the scene which teaches readers where the boundaries are.

What we've got here is an uncomfortable mix of right-wing women's liberation, old-fashioned patriarchy, and anti-feminism. The novel proclaims the rights of at least upper-class women to sexual pleasure within and without marriage, as long as they accept that fulfilment ultimately lies in heterosexual submission to √©lite men. Sexually however, Cooper makes it clear that female sexual fulfilment is available only to patriarchally-approved acts: satisfaction lies in pleasing your man. Lesbians are unhappy predators or (even worse) droopy unhappy academics: the notion of women being sexually fulfilled without men is obviously a threat to Cooper's worldview. An awful lot of effort is expended in separating women's sexual liberation from their political liberation: awful Hilary may name her children after Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, but she smartens up once Rupert sees the inner beauty hidden by her frumpy right-on clothes and attitudes and forcibly enfolds her within the patriarchy. Feminists are self-destructive monsters in this novel: women can and should enjoy sex, but that's as far as their ambitions should go.

And of course, the female sexual emancipation story is overshadowed by the novel's driving plot: rivalry between men in which women and horses are interchangeable objects to be traded between them in a homosocial – if not homerotic – competition.

Pulp fiction either specialises in Bakhtinian carnivalesque transgression: we read it to indulge dreams we wouldn't attempt to reproduce in 'real life', or its a conduit for imagining new ways of organising society. Riders is like Fifty Shades: either a safety-valve for frustration or a channel for  previously-marginalised subcultures to enter the mainstream. The success of Riders, I think, is that it beautifully identifies a bourgeois, largely-female readership which has no interest in new forms of politics or social structures, but does want to read about and even try out new sexual identities. It's therefore a Tory Liberation: the trappings of liberation are there, but reduced to individual experience. There's precious little empathy or gender consciousness in this novel.

This is why it's a Tory sex manual: all relationships and sexual practices are stripped to the status of a menu, denuded of political or cultural significance. The idea that there's a cultural history or context here, or that readers are complicated creators of meaning, is implicitly discounted. Riders definitely isn't just a bit of fun: it's a fascinating insight into the psyche of a time, a class, a place and a philosophy. You won't be surprised to learn the the sequel, Rivals combines sex with the machinations of… privatised TV stations.

Should you read Riders? Not for fun, certainly. It's just too badly written, as though Cooper has a grudge against the English language (though she's curiously obsessed with naming 'classics' of English literature as though to prove that she's self-consciously slumming it). If English is a horse, it throws Jilly off its back with astounding frequency. But as a key text for understanding the 80s… and the current government: hell yes.

How did the students respond? Well, they'd never read Cooper before but they had mostly read similar more recent texts. What they found interesting was the way in which they now read differently. Instead of consuming novels simply for pleasure (nothing wrong with that, of course), they said that they were now much more demanding readers, less easily pleased. Because of this they found it easy to talk about Cooper's techniques, the sexual politics and the reader's role pretty dispassionately. If there was any embarrassment in the room, it was mine. Of course, the module evaluation records might tell a very different story. But I'm glad I put this on the course. Nothing should be unspeakable or unteachable, and I refuse to accept that there isn't something to be learned from any available text.

Now I'll just sit back and wait for the local rag to run outraged headlines about moral and educational decay…

2 comments:

The Red Witch said...

It sounds like Jilly Cooper inherited Ayn Rand's crown. I don't read her novels just like I won't ever be reading Fifty Shades of Grey.
It is not the subject matter I despise, it's the treatment.

The Plashing Vole said...

Yes, I think there is a good deal of Randian selfishness in Cooper's work, though I doubt Cooper's ever read Rand. Rand's stuff is determinedly humourless, whereas Cooper's project is to distract people with fun (of a limited sort) from the consequences of their actions.

Like you, it's the treatment that makes these texts unreadable for me. Not a lot shocks me any more, but a lot of sex writing is just unutterably boring.