I started reading a book by Walter Mosley, whom I had heard about and never read. I liked the style, I liked the dialect, I liked the way he develops his characters. But then a few chapters in, I got turned off—by gratuitous obscenity. By which I mean graphic sexual description or language. And I’m not talking about realistic dialogue by characters who simply use obscene words habitually in their speech. These were sexual episodes described in some detail. It wasn’t the worst I ever read, but it didn’t seem necessary to the plot. Perhaps it was, I’ll never know. But it seemed, in the context of the story, to be thrown in as pure embellishment. For no legitimate reason related to the book as a work of art.
I’ve cast away books by other great writers for the same reason: Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis. Books that are probably terrific but, to me, are spoiled by stuff that seems out of place and purely prurient. It’s unfortunate, it makes me disappointed, whether in those writers or in me I’m not sure.
This is unlike Henry Miller, where sex is graphic and constant, but is treated in a matter-of-fact way without any highlighting and is absolutely essential to the plot, to understanding the character himself. The joys and hard realities of life (including sex, and other primal needs) are what his books are about.
And there are plenty of great writers who manage to tell fine stories without obscenity thrown in simply as a spice. If sex is germane, they manage to tell us all we need, or want, to know in artful ways. Those books I do not put aside. I get to read them to the end.