Column: Nothing But the Toth
By Emily Toth for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 13, 2010
Somebody had been messing with Judy’s book.
“When I first read Peyton Place,” she wailed, “it was full of sex. And now I can hardly find any sex scenes at all!”
Judy, a teacher, diver, and avid reader, is not alone.
Looking through Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956) or other dirty books from the past is now a strange experience. The world’s so changed that what used to be HOT is now—invisible.
Peyton Place does have half a dozen sex scenes in which you do know that they’re getting it on. But then there’s Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), scourged when first published because its central figure commits adultery. It now seems so vague that students don’t even know what she did (and in high schools near me, they’re told that she didn’t).
Which leads me not to prurient reflections, exactly, but to thoughts about how a book changes when readers change what they expect.
Technically, this is just post-modernism or standpoint theory: what you see depends on who you are, what you know, and where you’re standing when you look. With fancier jargon, that’s been taught to liberal arts majors for generations.
But I’m thinking about “common readers,” those increasingly rare and wonderful birds who read for pleasure. Judy and the other members of her book club in Louisiana read eleven books a year together, and they’re all women who’ve been reading all their lives—in some cases, for 65 years or more.
Certainly what can be published has changed since the 1950s, and I’m all for freedom of expression. Sometimes feces do have to be called by their real name. But I’m also intrigued by the ways that openness makes some experiences more distant or more nuanced or simply unavailable to newer readers.
There’s not much romantic yearning, for instance, in current novels. The old kind of delicious wishin’ and hopin’ doesn’t happen in a hook-up culture, yet there are women who want it. (That explains the huge, enduring popularity of Dirty Dancing among young women: it’s about wanting and desiring.)
Peyton Place, for 1950s readers, was about wanting and desiring, and that was the dirty thrill: We got to share the delightfully sinful experience with other prurient minds like our own. Getting it on, in Peyton Place, was much less exciting to teens than the raw language, as in the adolescent boys’ favorite line: “Is it up, Rod? Is it up good and hard?”
Likewise, The Awakening is about Edna’s coming to sensual awareness: touching, tasting, swimming, music. The seducer Alcée Arobin, Chopin writes, “was absolutely nothing to her. Yet his presence, his manners, the warmth of his glances, and above all the touch of his lips upon her hand had acted like a narcotic upon her.” Their actual coming together takes place in the reader’s imagination, between chapters.
Here’s the end of Chapter XXVII:
“When he leaned forward and kissed her, she clasped his head, holding his lips to hers. It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”
Then Chapter XXVIII opens with:
Edna cried a little that night after Arobin left her.
Today’s readers would expect a more graphic description: “He placed his hand on her quivering thigh…. Her hips rose to meet his thrusts….” I encourage my disgruntled students to write their own sex scene in the blank white space between the chapters, and some claim they do it.
But for long-time, sophisticated readers like Judy, I think what we remember are not the words, but the feelings that a writer evokes in us. Our memories are more powerful than anything a writer can produce, and it’s the naughty, remembered delight that makes us twitch and giggle when we think of Peyton Place. They can’t take that away from us.
Emily Toth, professor of English and Women’s Studies at Louisiana State University, has published biographies of Grace Metalious and Kate Chopin, and writes the “Ms. Mentor” academic advice column for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
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