Saturday, June 30, 2012

Five notable books on sex and society

Eric Berkowitz is a writer, lawyer and journalist. He has a degree in print journalism from University of Southern California and has published in The Los Angeles Times and The Los Angeles Weekly, and for the Associated Press.

His new book is Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

One of Berkowitz's five top books on sex and society, as discussed with Lindsey Ford of The Browser:
The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

...[L]et’s start with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde’s trial is also the point where you chose to end your own book.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is now a part of the canon that no one would admit to not having read. Most of us have read it and delighted in its witticisms. It’s hard to imagine, but when Dorian Gray was first published, the book was not well received at all. It was totally panned. It was held against him as being an example of an effete character. It was being serialised by Lippincott’s Magazine, and the serialisation of the novel stopped when it became too inflammatory.

One of the reasons why I wanted to recommend this book is that it is an example of literature being used as evidence itself. Most of us know the bones of the situation of Oscar Wilde being put on trial in 1895 – the father of his [homosexual] lover became inflamed and found all kinds of characters to use against him [in court]. During his trial, Oscar Wilde had to answer for the attitudes expressed by the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

We need to stop and think about that. There was a brilliant cross-examination rendered against him. In court, the lawyer who took him on was remarkably talented. He essentially said to Oscar Wilde: “Do you hold these views? Is this your belief?” Oscar Wilde was quite brilliant, but not brilliant enough to see what was being done to him. He very aggressively adopted the views, thereby admitting his proclivities and then having to answer for the fact that in England, at that time, private sexual activity between men was punishable by two years of hard labour.

The key point about Dorian Gray is whether a writer must answer for the thoughts and ideas of the characters that he writes. And in this case, he did. It worked very much against him. I wonder whether writers today – who write about murder, perversion and all of the terrible things that populate books and television – should ever be called to task for the thoughts and ideas expressed in their work. Most of us would say that should never happen. There’s a very large difference between the composer and that which is composed.
Read about another book Berkowitz tagged at The Browser.

The Picture of Dorian Gray also appears on John Mullan's lists of ten of the best locked rooms in literature, ten of the best mirrors in literature, ten of the best disastrous performances in fiction, and ten of the best examples of ekphrasis in literature.

--Marshal Zeringue