Some twenty-odd years ago, I received a phone call at my desk at Simon & Schuster from an erstwhile colleague. Now a freelance editor, he was trying to palm off a fractious client on me as a moonlighting job. He'd grown frustrated with the client, a retired Russian general who'd fought with distinction at the Siege of Stalingrad and who now wanted to sell his memoirs of that epoch-making battle. My editor friend told the general that his memoir, while undoubtedly a record of heroic resistance to the Nazi invasion of his homeland, lacked the one ingredient guaranteed to make American publishers sit up and whinny: There was not a single sex scene in the whole book. The good general absolutely refused to embellish his otherwise admirable memoir with made-up nonsense about a weekend of unbridled passion at a Black Sea dacha with a toothsome Party apparatchik while the German mortars fell.
My friend did a pretty good impression of the general's outraged objection: "Pippil vere not fuckingk at Stalingrad!"
The unspoken thought went both ways down the phone line: Oh, yes they were, if you're planning to sell any books about it...
I popped into the Purcellville, Virginia, library this morning on the off chance that any of Jim Webb's novels -- now a cause celebre in the Webb-Allen election owing to Allen's hilariously outraged trumpeting that the books contain -- gasp! -- sex scenes! -- were on hand.
Perhaps predictably, there yawned a four-book-wide gap between Weaver and Webster on the fiction shelves. I thought to ask a librarian how long ago the books had been checked out, but realized that a good librarian might take umbrage at the question -- people's library activities being the sort of thing they're touchy about revealing. I can't help but think, though, that prurient interest in Webb's novels might have been piqued pretty recently.
I realize Allen's pretty desperate if he's reached the point of trying to shock Virginia voters with the intelligence that his opponent's novels have sex in them, but I can't help remembering this passage from a "Talk of the Town" piece by Lauren Collins in the New Yorker a year ago, about Scooter Libby's squishy attempts at writing right-wing stroke-books:
Libby has a lot to live up to as a conservative author of erotic fiction. As an article in SPY magazine pointed out in 1988, from Safire (“[She] finally came to him in the bed and shouted ‘Arragghrrorwr!’ in his ear, bit his neck, plunged her head between his legs and devoured him”) to Buckley (“I’d rather do this with you than play cards”) to Liddy (“T’sa Li froze, her lips still enclosing Rand’s glans . . .”) to Ehrlichman (“ ‘It felt like a little tongue’ ”) to O’Reilly (“Okay, Shannon Michaels, off with those pants”), extracurricular creative writing has long been an outlet for ideas that might not fly at, say, the National Prayer Breakfast. In one of Lynne Cheney’s books, a Republican vice-president dies of a heart attack while having sex with his mistress.
I'm shocked! Shocked!