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At the risk of being called ‘an egotistical monomaniac’ once more by Alan Rudrum (Letters, 24 September), may I burden your pages again? I would like this time, instead of talking about myself, to offer some advice to Hugo Williams after reading his poem ‘Sex’ in the same issue. While I am relieved to find that he does know the basic facts of life, I think he could do with a little more knowledge of female phsyiology. The physical phenomena he writes about can be simply explained. There is an obvious reason why his heroine lacked lubricity – she did not fancy the man concerned. Perhaps he should have attempted sex instead with a woman who did.
Somewhere between the ages of eleven and thirteen I sat quietly through a biology lesson on the facts of reproduction. An elegant woman informed the uncomfortable class of something called a clitoris, about the existence of which the medical profession had not yet reached a consensus. This odd piece of information rested dormant in my unconscious for a decade or so, until I sat down last Wednesday evening with a cup of tea and the latest edition of the LRB (24 September). I turned first to Hugo Williams’s poem, ‘Sex’, which also left me a little uncomfortable. I found that my discomfort, heightened by the last third of John Sutherland’s piece, had provoked this long-stored memory into consciousness. I am not entirely certain of the logic governing the connection between Williams’s poem, Sutherland’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, and being informed of the uncertain existence of the clitoris. But a connection there certainly is. Neither am I certain of the logic governing Sutherland’s assertion that adultery ‘is tied into strict definitions of penile penetration. No penis, no adultery.’ My experience of adultery is at odds with Sutherland’s definition. Adultery is defined according to anxieties about inheritance and paternal identity; penile penetration is only involved if conception is a possible concomitant. Hence penile penetration of another man is also excluded from the legal definition. It can, however, be used as evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’.
I was intrigued by Sutherland’s comment on the probable effect of putting Winterson’s passage describing aggression towards her lover’s husband on a practical criticism paper. Surely the projected inability of students to read gender into this piece of text says a lot more about the structure of assumptions governing any practical criticism exercise (relying as it does on crude assessments of genre) than about Winterson’s passage. And that word leads me back to Williams’s poem. There is (at least I hope so) an ironic drive to the lines: ‘ “Sex” seems to be a word that most people understand,/so there is a fair chance that the woman will understand/what the man is getting at when he mentions the subject.’ Williams’s tone is a relief in comparison with Sutherland’s assumption of a readership nodding in assent to his situating of Winterson’s novel as a narrative centred on an idea he ‘still finds odd’. I found equally odd the reviewer’s implication that the idea behind the narrative could cause a ‘snigger’. This sense of oddness became severe irritation when he detailed a list of sexual acts in which the characters in Winterson’s novel might have indulged the reader. I can only assume that Williams’s poem and Sutherland’s review should be read after taking note of Barbara Duden’s remark (in Anne Summers’s article in the same issue): ‘The imagination and perceptions of a given period have the power to generate reality.’ I am as relieved not to inhabit the realities of Williams and Sutherland as I was to discover the fallibility of biology-class ‘facts’.
University College London