Literary Sex II: the Godiva factor

The real Lady Godiva was the beautiful wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful noblemen in 11th century England. She was much younger than her husband and used her influence on him to divert support to the arts and religious orders, hoping to raise the consciousness of the common folks. In 1043, Godiva and Leofric founded an Abbey in Coventry. The town grew. Leofric initiated ambitious public works projects and levied taxes to support them. Suffering under the burden, the locals had little interest in aesthetics, so Godiva pleaded with her husband to reduce taxes.

According to legend, Leofric sarcastically pointed out that the ancient Greeks and Romans viewed the nude human body as a high expression of nature’s beauty. So if she really wanted to crusade for the sake of art, she could bloody well ride naked through the market-place at midday, and if she did, he would abolish all local taxes except those on horses. Much to everyone’s surprise, she did it. Flanked by two horsewomen (fully clothed), with noble posture and an expression of dignity and calm, she rode naked through the town of Coventry, and the taxes were repealed.

Or so the legend says. If it’s true, this was a courageous and selfless gesture, an incredibly bold political statement. If it’s not true, the story likely sprang up because of other courageous, selfless, and incredibly bold things Lady Godiva did. But what is she remembered for?

NAKED. Naked lady! Ah-OO-gah!

She is the icon for nothing but nothing on. How (must... resist... pun... agh!) revealing!

In my first novel, fire was a major theme, in my second novel, I used tornadoes. In my last novel, The Secret Sisters, I had the brilliant idea to make sex a central theme in what I thought was going to be a stinging indictment of fear-mongering politics and the media’s diversionary tactics that support a dangerous state of denial. Big mistake. I’m still digging out from under the hate mail and bashing reviews that accuse me of being a pornographer, a slut, an anal sex fiend, and… ((sigh)) et cetera. Turns out that while most readers readily see fire and wind as metaphors, they see two characters closing in, and it's all blah blah blah ah-OO-gah! ah-OO-gah! SEX! SEX! SEX! and then they fall back and light a cigarette before emailing you about what a pagan whore you are. (One outraged reader wrote, "You are sick sick sick! After reading this book several times, I still can't believe how disgusting it is!")

Not for a moment am I saying that this is a failure on the part of the reader. I really struggle with books that step out of my comfort track. All the Pretty Horses: I wanted to go there. I was willing. I'm smart enough, but dang it, I can't get comfortable with the lack of quotation marks. The readership I bring to a book just doesn't work with that. So I have to respect that the readership brought to my books by others as willing and smart -- or smarter than me -- is not always going to work with what I write.

In a previous post on literary sex, I pondered what is actually sexy or not sexy when set to words, but beyond that is the question of the purpose of sex in a story. If the purpose is anything other than character development or plot advance, the effort is most likely doomed, I fear. Not because of the way it’s written but because of the way it’s read.

It’s that Godiva thing.

If The Secret Sisters had gone through the rigorous shaking and sifting that my current ms-in-progress is about to get from Colleen and other critique partners, including my agent, I would have been alerted to the fact that only one in a hundred readers would get it. (My editor happened to be that one, and she supported my vision, God love her, focusing on pushing me to the highest literary standards of anything I’ve ever written. So I learned a lot, and that made the ensuing horse-whipping worth it, I guess. But I digress.) Would I have changed it, had I known then what I know now?

Earlier this morning, I would have said yes, but after doing a little research on the real Lady Godiva for the purpose of this post, I'd have to say no. I wouldn't change a word. She knew exactly what she was risking. So did I. That book says exactly what I wanted to say. It's good art, and good art sometimes makes people uncomfortable. (So does anal sex, apparently. Personally, I'm uncomfortable with Karl Rove, torture, and unnecessary wars. Guess we all have our little hangups, huh.)

So thanks, Lady G. I’m the one in a hundred who got it today. From now on, when I hear the name Godiva, I won’t think naked. I won’t even think naked chocolate. I will think art. I will think courage. I will think revolution.

Comments

Siren Cristy said…
Let me get this straight, it took her several readings to realize she was sickened?

Wow.

I only read it once and thought it brave and honest. Shows you what I know.
Joni Rodgers said…
Thank you for that, my dear.

Shalom and Happy New Year!
LOL on the "several readings" Puritan! I've known writers to get scathing-condemnation letters from the same person on many successive books. Guess they're checking to see whether their castigation made a difference!