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Jonathan Kemp
Jonathan Kemp

Jonathan Kemp teaches creative writing, literature and queer theory at Birkbeck, University of London. His first novel, London Triptych (2010), was shortlisted for the inaugural Green Carnation Prize and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Twentysix, is a milestone of literary erotica in the tradition of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. Originally from Manchester, he has lived in London for twenty years.

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The Pornography of Language

As the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award testifies, writing about sex isn’t easy. It’s fraught with dangers, not the least of which is actually writing about sex in the first place, or choosing to.  Fools rush in, as they say. Given the central role sex plays in our culture, both symbolically and literally, it’s odd that its place in literature has always been marginal. Within English Literature – with few exceptions – the attitude towards sex is comedic, focusing on the absurdity of bodies and their laughable parts. The European tradition, on the other hand, particularly, ahem, French Letters, tends to treat sex in a more high-minded and, dare I say it, probing manner. The absurdity is still there, but it takes on a more existential colour in something like De Sade or Violette Leduc.


It was to the French tradition in particular that I turned when working on Twentysix. I took the idea of fragments of poetic prose from Baudelaire, and I took the idea of a self-reflexive prose style from the work of mid to late Twentieth century writers such as Genet, Foucault and Derrida. Genet’s prose in particular, for the aesthetic attention it pays to sex between men, was a huge inspiration.


For Genet, words are things. Their materiality sings. Words have shapes, colours, tastes and smells when you read Genet. A sentence by Genet is a thing you can hold in your hand, like a stiff prick. And there are plenty of those in his books. In Genet’s prose, the provocation of gay sex is a provocation of language. And this was immensely appealing to me.


From Georges Bataille I learnt the importance of sexual metaphor and the courage to fold into my pornographic imagination moments of reflection and intensity; how to slow things down and take them elsewhere. Take the reader elsewhere: to places that language rarely goes. I didn’t want to write pornography, but neither did I want to shy away from the graphic truth of the situations I was describing. Standard pornographic language can only do so much – the endless duplication of which body parts go where – and I wanted to do more. So I turned to writers as fearless as I wanted to be: Kathy Acker, Neil Bartlett, Edmund White, Samuel R. Delany. It became possible – especially in response to Acker’s work – to make writing about sex a political act. The politics of gay sex – from the standard cry of “Too Much Information” to the ongoing fascination with the male anus – is continuously on the political agenda, forever on the tips of our tongues, in ways that are usually derogatory or downright hateful. I wanted to celebrate sex between men and to interrogate language at the same time.  It was crucial that no form of judgment crept into the writing, and I chose a diversity of situations and acts through which to rove. Some of these, inevitably, contain moments of sexual grief. The celebration of sexual pleasure through writing is a long way away from the moment of pleasure itself, and therefore a certain nostalgia, or longing, is sometimes caught up in the descriptions. I attempted to shorten the distance between act and expression, by exploring the very process of expression, looking at how these events were caught within the web of language. How do we put the body into discourse? And what happens when we do? How can the description of an event match the intensity of the event described? These were questions I was interested in exploring if not actually answering. I don’t think there is an answer. There is only ever the exploration.  Given the book’s concerns with language, I structured it around twenty six prose poems, each piece given a letter of the alphabet. Twentysix is not an A to Z of gay sex; the letters do not correspond to sexual acts, apart from the letter P. Twentysix is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories. There are echoes and links across the fragments, but there are no characters, as such, or even complete stories. For this reason, I had imagined it would be almost impossible to publish. There isn’t currently, as far as I’m aware, a big market for prose poems. Most people seemed confused by the very concept. Following the success of London Triptych, my publisher, Myriad Editions, were willing to publish Twentysix , and it is a bold move (one that perhaps only a small independent can afford to do) because for some readers there will be no precedent. It lacks the conventions of narrative such as character and plot – and its incomplete, fragmentary nature might be too unusual for some. But I set out to write a book that experimented with many things, including a reader’s expectations. It is an unconventional book, and I am doubly proud of Myriad for putting it out there in a climate that often seems to covet the formulaic and breed fear of the unusual.



This article was first published in January 2012 in Time Out.


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