Sunday, March 15, 2009

Too much sex? Stephen Henighan's The Streets of Winter

Got your attention? Thought I could risk a catchier title!

Last week I re-read Stephen Henighan's The Streets of Winter in preparation for teaching it in my 4th-year urban Canadian fiction class. Once again, noting its many graphically-detailed sex scenes, both homo- and hetero-sexual, I wondered how crazy I'd been to put it on the reading list. Even by the 4th-year level, undergrads can be surprisingly prudish -- I'm not sure if it's the sex itself that bothers them, or if there's something about it being written down, or if it's the discomfort of having to acknowledge it in the presence of a woman older than many of their parents.

Instead of hoping that topic wouldn't be raised, I began the class by telling them about the pedagogical struggle I'd had, the reasons I'd overcome my apprehensions to put the novel on the list. I invited their participation in the potentially-awkward discussions by distinguishing them from 1st-year students, faking the confident assertion that since we were all adults, we could surely perform close readings on these passages just as on those which described other interactions between characters. I also pointed out that no credible writer with literary aspirations would gratuitously add graphic sex to a novel in hopes of selling more copies -- given the sales figures for most literary novels, sadly, that would be a false hope indeed. There are simply too many simpler ways for the general public to get their titillation these days; few folks will wade through a novel with that as their primary goal. Therefore, we should proceed on the assumption that the writer's recourse to so much representation of sex might have something to do with the themes of the novel overall.

And once I opened the discussion, I was gratified by the students' responses. One brave young man admitted that he'd felt put off by so much graphic description -- he couldn't see the point, and it made him feel really uncomfortable, altho' he liked the book overall. Then another brave fellow agreed that he'd feel awkward, even a bit annoyed, at first, until he noticed that a graphic detail from one sex scene was echoed in another -- and both the detail and its echo pointed out the emptiness in one relationship, the cheating in another. Bingo! Exactly the kind of analysis I'd hoped for, but had hardly expected. From that, we went on to discuss how sex might offer itself as a metaphor/analogy in so many ways in a book about the longing and belonging being played out in a city's many spaces.

As for my own reading, I'm always curious to see what a novel will yield the second (or third, or . . . ) time 'round. I'd read Streets last summer, but didn't find it tedious to re-read -- I've visited Montreal numerous times, but found myself getting to appreciate more about it and its politics and its separatist history as well as its multicultural population through this reading. What also energized this reading were the connections I'm now able to make with the other works on this course's reading list -- I'm alert to the way parks are depicted, for example, in a variety of urban fictions, especially since I've also been reading about them from an urban studies and landscape architecture perspective. And finally, I'm fascinated by the similarities and differences between Henighan's novel and Dionne Brand's What We All Long For, published around the same time, which similarly sets in motion several intersecting characters in a big city, Toronto. In both novels, the city takes on an important role, almost an additional -- or, perhaps, central -- character. I'll be interested to see what the students make of this comparison.

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