Granta’s new issue dedicated to sex reminds us that only the sin of Onan really retains the power to shock readers

It had to happen eventually. Britain’s most distinguished literary quarterly has knocked off work early, picked up some wine on the way home and taken the phone off the hook. That’s right: Granta has just published its sex issue.

The issue covers all kinds of couplings – mainly the dysfunctional and alienated, rather than the loving and rewarding kind – but one story stands out. Emmanuel Carrère’s This Is For You, originally published in Le Monde in 2002, takes the form of a letter addressed to his girlfriend, whom he knew would be reading the paper that day as she travelled across France. Arch, poised and perfectly paced, Carrère’s letter instructs her to gradually lose herself in a masturbatory fantasy, to the point where she has no option but to take matters into her own hands in the train toilet. Hilariously, Carrère then imagines that other women reading the paper on the same train might also be compelled, by the sheer impact of his erotic instruction, to excuse themselves on similarly pressing business. (In the end, he gives the final climactic scene to one of these anonymous women: “She goes for it, fingers in, too late for dainty refinements, she wants it too much and has been ready for at least an hour now.”)

It’s a heroic piece of writing, and trumps everything else in the issue, for this simple reason: it makes the lonely journey to the last frontier of literary sex. You see, we’ve read about every kind of sex imaginable. Nothing shocks us anymore. Few will bat an eyelid that Granta has published a sex issue; some are even mourning the golden age of literary sex, when there were still taboos left to smash. When, they ask, are things going to get dirty again? If you want an answer to that question, ladies and gentlemen, let me propose one. In 2010, the only sex that’s truly dangerous and unbounded is solitary.

Masturbation has always been literary. “Traffic with thyself”, as Shakespeare tuttingly referred to it, is the only sex that takes place purely in the imagination – fictional characters are its livelihood. Better still, there are no rules, all bets are off, and you can get away with whatever you like. But despite being truly democratic – if not downright anarchic – in its availability, masturbation is the one form of sex that writers have yet to truly get to grips with.

Perhaps this is because we’re still hungover from the time when self-love was seen as the cause of everything from insanity to infirmity to an early death. According to one prominent historian, we have yet to resolve our anxiety over this activity, which represents not a social engagement with another, but a retreat into the unbounded world of our imaginations. We still feel deep ambivalence about such unpoliced pleasure, even while most of us are paid-up subscribers. The horror of masturbation – which has no rules and can’t be brought to heel by society – has been handed down to us largely intact. Ninety years after Ulysses was banned for not-very-subtly describing Bloom’s “long Roman candle” joyously exploding in the air, the act of onanism retains a power to shock that no other kind of sex in literature can.

What else could explain the uproar which greeted Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands? Yes, it explored the female body with incredible candour; but equally its power came from the narrator’s unabashed confessions of where her sexual instincts goes when no one is watching. Or how about the high priest of self-pleasure, Philip Roth? His seminal (forgive me) Portnoy’s Complaint was said to have shattered the taboo of masturbation, but I wonder if that’s the case. For my money, the scene in Sabbath’s Theatre where the protagonist discovers a love-rival masturbating over the grave of his late mistress (something he himself has been doing) represents something darker and more shocking than many routine Rothian sex scenes – the primary sexual impulse, careening off the rails and unchecked by interaction with anyone else.

So let’s hear it for literary masturbation, and its power to still make us blush. And in the spirit of all things user-generated, how about sharing your own favourite moments from the literary history of self-love? The more imaginative, the better. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds