Sex in the literary blogosphere

It was yesterday’s discussion of gender-neutral screen names that set me to thinking about sex sliding softly, licking its tongue into the corners* of the chat on The Guardian’s books blog – a site that, like the rest of the blogging universe, ought to be keeping sexologists on the tips of their toes. I can’t say I’d be astonished to learn of some ageing, louche, Silicon Valley xillionaire endowing a chair in Incorporeal Sex and Gender Studies, some day soon, at one of those plump and overfed American Ivy League establishments.

Why, I’ve been wondering, is choosing gender-neutrality interpreted — by some of the most intelligent and sophisticated bloggers I know from GU — as turning oneself into a neutered cat?

I’m not sure whether the obvious conclusion is that sexuality really is inescapable — or whether Guardian readers, being British, are only reflecting the national libido’s responsibility for the alarming switch from No Sex Please,We’re British, four decades ago, to Britain’s new status as the West’s most promiscuous country, with a ‘a highly sexualised popular culture’. That was in a report I spotted in yesterday’s online Times.

No one should be too surprised by this, I suppose. Consider that such unlikely contenders from the literary world as John Betjeman and Iris Murdoch have in living memory been our answers to Casanova, and much admired for it.

For relief from a claustrophobic grey sky, where I am – and not just the nobler aim of advancing science — I thought I’d make a tentative list of grist for Kinseys of the blog world that has registered in my peripheral vision.

In addition to the usual suspects – spouse-hunting, single, twenty- and thirty-somethings; married or all-but-officially partnered people looking for amusing diversions; and a bisexual blogger or two trawling with an extra-wide net — here, at random, are some others in my catalogue of specimens:

• Uxorious husbands stitching lavish proclamations of devotion to their wives into comments, without ever mentioning profiles put up — recently — on other parts of the net, advertising frequent trips from home, making gaps for extra-marital adventures.

• A charming but harried domestic partner, mother and chief breadwinner saddled with an ever-aspiring novelist for a mate, writing desperate posts about his fecklessness – which work a young male blogger into a frenzy of yearning . . . only, it turns out that this woman is a shameless invention, one of a dozen screen names of the books blog’s greatest imp. (Think of Leonardo’s most famous portrait for a clue.)

• Apparently long-married middle-aged male bloggers who are also, inexplicably, raving misogynists (judging by the elaborate expressions of disgust with women that repeatedly escape into their prose and poetry) . . . who openly flirt with younger males. They put female bloggers in their place rather sharply but almost never take men bloggers to task for being dim, prolix or pretentious.

• Obviously very pretty or otherwise attractive young women so overwhelmed by attention in real life that they see nothing wrong with the commenting equivalent of just an eyelash-flutter or simper – ‘I like,’ and ‘I remember when,’ being the gist of most of their contributions.

• Women who once belonged to the last category going out of their way to advertise that fact – mainly through anecdotes ingeniously worked into literary criticism, but in some cases, by links to web pages decorated with flattering photographs.

• Young gay men half-in and half-out of the closet (I’m not sure why, in these liberated times — or why they don’t seem to have female counterparts on the site.) Most of their sexual signalling seems to be done through demonstrations of complete indifference to, or dislike of bloggers identified as, or suspected of being, female – even though some of them have warm platonic friendships, off-blog, with members of the opposite sex.

Not for the world would I wish to halt or inhibit any of these performances. But I think that they just might make it possible to see why an onlooker dithering about registering to blog for the first time could choose a gender-free pseudonym. For one thing, that makes it possible to be all things to all bloggers – flirt with a complete lack of discrimination — and vice-versa.

. . . But who has been missed in my catalogue-in-progress?

[* with apologies to T.S. Eliot and Alfred J.Prufrock]


Filed under The blogosphere, The Guardian

31 responses to “Sex in the literary blogosphere

  1. BaronCharlus

    Terms please, sir/madam.

    I’m a little unsure whether your examples refer to posters/bloggers on the book blogs (how fun, must we try and guess them all?) or people out there with their own blogs that you happen to have stumbled upon in your quest for titilation/illumination.

    The Baron/Baroness

  2. BaronCharlus

    Perhaps off-topic, but I have a proposal.

    To improve gender-invisibilty online, I suggest, instead of the tyrannical he/she, his/hers, a new word: ty.

    Taken, phonetically, from Tiresias, who lived as a man and a woman, ty (or tys for possessive, tym for, er, the other one, him/her) adoption of this word would free us all, instantly, from these shackles.


    ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew tym well.’ (Hamlet)

    ‘Ty’s the championship, ty’s the most tip-top: Top Cat!’ (Top Cat)

    ‘Whatever secret lay, restless, in those quiet reels of dusty film, Kim knew it was now tys alone to discover.’ (The Narwhal Wife)

  3. The nerd logged on just ten minutes ago — after a gap of nearly twelve hours; thanks Wise @Hazlitt and the Gracious @Baron-Baroness for your outstanding contributions, and won’t be able to reply until after you’ve gone to bed. But perhaps there’ll be a surprise to look forward to with breakfast tomorrow . . . ; )

  4. wordnerd7

    @Baron/essCharlus (how many wardrobes you must have!) :

    === To improve gender-invisibilty online, I suggest, instead of the tyrannical he/she, his/hers, a new word: ty. ===

    You see the problem, don’t you? Your solution is impeccably logical, and sensible . . . everything our language isn’t. A parallel:

    === The word esperanto means ‘one who hopes’ in the language itself. ===

  5. 3p4

    now a really wry aspect of this coversation is that i know the barons (real) name and i still cant define the gender,,cool or what ?

  6. wordnerd7

    @BaronCharlus again,

    === I’m a little unsure whether your examples refer to posters/bloggers on the book blogs (how fun, must we try and guess them all?) or people out there with their own blogs ===

    Indeed, _all_ the examples refer to comrades on the Guardian’s books blog . . . and yes, you have to guess & that’s good for you. : )

    . . . I’ll be back to answer your long post — where you put it, on the Max Perkins thread, I think, although I’m wondering whether it mightn’t be better to reply beneath the formidable 2,000 fighting words. . .

  7. wordnerd7


    === now a really wry aspect of this coversation is that i know the barons (real) name and i still cant define the gender,,cool or what ? ===

    Oh, very cool . . . particularly if you . . . quick, no one’s looking . . . spill the beans . . . ! .. . Then we’ll _all_ help you to define it … (Alex? 🙂 )

  8. Surely, s/he is the correct usage?

    Gender and online role play, what does it mean for the price of spuds?

    Are there any real wo/men left? Who was the parthenogenically birthed Uranus, Dickie and Babs?

    What’s the meat and two veg of being a double ender expert in England, right now, doin nob gags?

    Is there any correlation between me, your arse and a bag of chips?

    What am i doin wafflin rubbish when there is a very prescient and purgent debate at wordy’s about gender neutrality?

    Is it coz froo sum anomoly of wharreva, that now, when i go the books blog i do not even need an e mail validation to get on the page rantin?

    Jokes aside, i dunno if it was anything to do with some code i pasted in when i tried to upload an audio file on the books blog, but now, i just make an e mail address up, get signed in, go to the post button and am presented with the username box, without having to have verified from an e mail address first. Try it out wordy, see if it worls for you. This is a great development, as it means i do not even have to set up an e mail account, just straight in with any name i want, multiple names, an actors paradise, gender neutral, extreme anything at all, give it a go:

    1 – register in a made up e mail.

    2 – this will get you signed in

    3 – go to a thread and hit *post*

    4 – if it comes up to fill in the box, make a name up

    5 – if you can post without having to register from an e mail account, let me know, becuase i love you all very very much, as textual gender neutral constructs.

    gra agus siochain

  9. BaronCharlus


    Having re-read your specimens I conclude that you have a wicked eye for telling detail and I’m scared to even talk to you. Although I have my suspicions, I would blench from ever putting possible names to definitions as it would seem so very cruel, especially if they ever wander out this way.

    But I will have a think about some others.

    re my ‘real’ name. I think I gave it away, Wordn, when I logged on with the wrong email from Munich.



  10. It’s really never occured to me that the GU blog could be a flirting agency for the lonely and unsatisfied. The next time I have a blazing row with someone about the literary merits of a “lower” art-form I shall try and include a few signals for others to interpret.

    Or perhaps people are busy interpreting the words I have already written. The way I don’t actually say or infer anything flirtatious being THE signal for some. I am already an anti-semite for one person on the strength of my use of the word “massive” so God knows what others make of my over frequent use of the word “surely” or “seems”.

    It’s never occured to me because I assume that those whose interests lie that way are all busy buying their genitals on Second Life and doing it on the virtual sofa.

    Why waste time after all?

  11. BaronCharlus


    I’d assumed you were one of those

    ‘so overwhelmed by attention in real life that they see nothing wrong with the commenting equivalent of just an eyelash-flutter or simper’

    Am I wrong?

    Also, with your ‘frequent’ you slur Odinists everywhere. For shame.

    For myself, apart from a shameless bid for atf’s affections a while back – a long-play ruined by Des’s chivalric intervention – I think my interaction has been entirely Platonic unless, Wordn, you’ve detected louhe undertones to my posts.

    I remember one poster thanking another – both long supporters of one another’s poems – for a piggyback. Is that the sort of thing we’re talking about?

  12. Suzan Abrams and i met on the books blog, and now she lives in the same house as me.

    We started chatting when i first went there in March 2007 and we met at Dublin airport that October. It gave us a real insight into all this blather about the reality of people on the net, especially when she came under a sustained attack by a gang of middle aged blokes who were unaware we had met there, and treated her appallingly in print, calling basically saying she was a thick bint who should not be writing.

    And now, her writing has really flowered, and unlike me, never has a bad word for anyone. She is ace, a really live blog mate and someone who has given me faith in the human race, as well as a very deep bond of friendship.

  13. wordnerd7

    Dearest comrades, thank you . . .I don’t believe I’ve been reduced by any comments section to such a howling snuffling heap since one of the doggerelist’s last posts — and this thread reminds me of the short-lived Golden Age at GU that SeanMurray mentioned last week. . . @alarming, I suspect that your 3.15 post belongs in some bloggers’ hall of fame — for wicked wit unbound.

    Starting with what’s most important:

    @Des, about Suzan:

    === She is ace, a really live blog mate and someone who has given me faith in the human race, as well as a very deep bond of friendship. ===

    Lots of us have silently been watching every stage of this saga, cheering madly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two people so rapidly and dramatically strengthened and calmed by a friendship. . . . I’m not going to invade your privacy by saying any more, except, . . . thank you, both of you: your happiness has been contagious, and one of my reasons for hanging on at GU for so long, making sure I don’t lose track of all the most fascinating people there.

    Also, @Des, about . . .

    === but now, i just make an e mail address up, get signed in, go to the post button and am presented with the username box, without having to have verified from an e mail address first. Try it out wordy, see if it worls for you. ===

    Yes I noticed that some months ago. I wasn’t using a made-up email address for some new costume I was trying out, but I realised that I hadn’t been made to click on a confirmation email before my post appeared. . . I rescued some scrumptious posts of yours yesterday. Would you mind if I put one or two in my Salvage section? (okay to say no: I won’t be hurt.)

    @Baron, . . .

    === Although I have my suspicions, I would blench from ever putting possible names to definitions as it would seem so very cruel, especially if they ever wander out this way. ===

    My feelings exactly. Any observant old-timer on that site will instantly know who I mean — in all except one case, I suspect. But no, no, . . . I won’t be confirming guesses because that would be cruel indeed. It would also be implying that I’m as pure as newly fallen (if not quite driven) snow . . . which would be outrageous, considering how often I’ve inserted secret messages, in precisely the way @alarming mentions here:

    === God knows what others make of my over frequent use of the word “surely” or “seems”. ===

    . . . I haven’t had a chance to read posts on any other subject, and it could be a while before I can reply to them.

  14. No problem, put them up wordy.

  15. I think these friendships are great.

    The only point is that people pop up and then disappear again.

    I recently contacted an old flame on line and our chat is friendly and unreal and unthreatening. We are both married so nothing doing.

    I think one of the only thing that I remember grumpy Mr. PikeBishop saying of much interest to me was that we should never meet because to have this sort of ethereal communication with other people was wonderful.

    I agree.

    I’ve been gnawing at Anthony Grayling’s ankles. A waste of time I suppose. Another analogy there would be of a tomcat sharpening its claws on expensive furniture.

    Kind of the Guardian to provide him.

  16. wordnerd7

    @ISA, I noticed that you’d been busy, at Donkeyshott — and will be there as soon as I have some reading time. Who is @MrPikeBishop? — an icon next to his screen name says he’s a GU contributor.

    @Des — thank you, and if you scroll down this page . . . . . . , you might find something of interest. Look for The Annals of Guardian Censorship: the Evidence (part 2).

  17. @PikeBishop is the most well known and technically innovative bloger and poster on all the Guardian blogs. His is a bit of a right wing git, but he is a libertarian, which is quite nice.

    I’m off to South Africa this evening for four days. Lawyers and Matumi.

    For mensches and book bloggers only:

    If anyone wants to buy an incredible property in pristine bush full of animals, with a one acre Guardian containing unique plants and trees (the last yellow Jacaranda grew in the garden until grafts were taken from it) and with a river and two hills all at a very reasonable price of 2 million rands, feel free to make us an offer we won’t refuse.

    You’d have to be vetted by the neighbours and from across the valley, though. It would be a perfect place for a writer.

    Illustrated nature books have been written about this very place. Eagles – pythons – deer – mysterious glades – traces of lost Atlantis, they can all be found here.

    Matumi is a launch pad to heaven.

    Any takers?


  18. wordnerd7

    Ah, thanks — I asked because I couldn’t see Pike Bishop (#$%&*!) as anyone’s real name. Distracted by your journey, you didn’t say what that is, . . . but Google also supplied this: . . . He looks even more intimidating than the new Sam.J portrait. ; )

    Good luck in your new role as estate agent, @Isa, and consider advertising on web sites related to wine country, around the world — if there’s any chance of growing vines at Matumi.

  19. wordnerd7

    @Des and anyone else interested in SALVAGE OPERATION — the shelter for censored posts on this site. . .

    I’ve rearranged the section to put the latest additions to it at the top of the page, to make them easier to find. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet learnt how to create hyperlinks to small sections of web pages and posts, or to individual comments.

    For a comparison of two recent victims of a Guardian books blog purge with the satire of John Crace, please . . . if this link doesn’t work . . . copy into your browsers:

    . . . You might already know how to get to SALVAGE OPERATION by scrolling to the top of this page. The link is for the directionally impaired, a club that as far as I know, includes all genuine nerds — especially this one.

    . . . I owe quite a few replies to posts: will be back as soon as I can.

  20. Sorry wordy, it keeps coming out wrong.

    If you go to this page you will get the different html codes for the basics, which work on wordpress as well as blogger, so are fine for this site.

  21. BaronCharlus


    I demand some sort of compensation.

    I returned to Poster Poems yesterday after a lay-off and now I can only read others’ posts (the prosey ones, not the poems) with reference to your acidic Vasari above.

    It’s rather amusing.

  22. wordnerd7

    @Baron . . . acidic ?!??! What can you mean?

    Think of Darwin in the Galapagos, dutifully listing specimens. That was my model. Just have another look, please, and I’m quite sure you’ll be cured of your malady . . . Please don’t stop writing poems. I’ve ducked the role of poetry critic as far as I can, but cannot help telling you that some of yours have been very fine indeed — the one about the sea, for instance. . . Since I don’t go to PosterPomes very often, you might consider posting a duplicate here, every time you put one up there. . . until you launch your own blog.

    . . . But if you think you deserve compensation, what about me — for a head stuffed to bulging with all those impressions, . . . many more than I’ve set down, . . . for months. When the gender-neutral/neutered cat debate got me thinking about how many categories of odd behaviour I’ve noticed, I was drinking my morning coffee with the newspapers. Suddenly I couldn’t see the words, grabbed a pad and started scribbling my list. There wasn’t a single pause until I got to the end of it — and the examples you read are virtually an exact transcript. I don’t often have experiences quite like that, and felt immeasurably lighter — like a feather duster compared to a hippopatamus — after I’d written the post . . . But why, I ask you, did it have to be written at all?

    I can’t help fluffing my feathers just a little about Vasari. I hadn’t read or heard his name for decades so had to look up . . . . . . thank you 😉

    I’ve also been meaning to thank you for being the courageous first commenter in this particular thread. Hardly anyone else has been so brave — the ratio of visitors to comment-writers has been staggering. The WordPress site visitor-tracking chart showed a line going straight up into the blue the day after I put up the piece — but without you, how many comments would there have been? . . . Your health, cher Baron . . . [sips rooibos tea turning cold]

    @Des, many thanks for that, I’ve bookmarked the page — and now I’ll have all the instructions in one place, at last. Before that, there were little scraps in odd places in this machine.

  23. BaronCharlus

    Thanks Wordn, for the praise, for the edu-tainment – as they say in joy-forsaken, strip-lit conference rooms across the world’s outer ring-roads.

    I was in Florence in September and saw Vasari’s frescoes for the interior of the Duomo. I now imagine the frantic damned from his Last Judgement as we posters scrambling for inspiration and approval.

    Or, in deference to your topic, perhaps it’s more like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: fantastical, harmonious and sensual at first glance
    but soon revealing lechery and unnatural forms, at once repellent and erotic. Could there be any more apt representation of the GU experience?

    You’re an inspiration. Of frightening thoughts. I’ll put the kettle on.

  24. My God Wordy! 🙂
    Just read all of these comments and I am red-faced.
    Well, I was just on the GU Bks Blog like everyone else and I was on my way to London anyway but thought I would stop in Dublin first.
    Oh…I don’t think the word flirting applies at all. I am too much the dull dogged realist.
    Odd circumstances can take place anywhere… it doesn’t need to be categorized as any specific dissatisfied emotion.
    I do agree where you said somewhere that the golden age of the books blog has faded off…
    In fact, I predicted that editor C.A. would surely drum up a thread for the Guardian First Book Award and true enough on that very morning she did…
    The whole format is so set-to-order I even know from long term observation what blog themes are coming on and when.
    By the way, if I hadn’t met Des, I wouldn’t have stayed in Europe.
    I’d have holed myself up in a dusty Mediterranean port..with a shimmering sea somewhere in the Persian Gulf or Zanzibar thereabouts and complete with weather-beaten faces for acquaintances and well-worn cafes and lodging for comfort. And I’d have been happy with reading until the sun went down and with writing for assignments or any other creative pursuit. It would have been a simple life, a relatively cheap one and an alternative bliss to be sure. It took a lot to give that up. 😉

  25. wordnerd7

    Dear @Suzan, I am shocked: since when was a coup de foudre turning out well an excuse for a beetroot face? : ) . . . Only hours after I replied to @Des about a certain airport meeting in October 2007, the NYT reported on an oddly unconvincing study — which claims that a neighbour’s wellbeing has a bigger influence on a person’s sense of contentment than a spouse’s state of mind. But it contained virtually the same phrase I wrote to him:

    === a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years — [says] happiness is more contagious than previously thought. ===

    . . . I’m so pleased that he mentioned your story here, since it’s made this thread rather special, for me. There is one other pairing-off I noticed on the books blog. A river called the Isis runs through it . . . Not long after it began, the _her_ half of the couple began to get distinctly huffy about anyone, even gender-neutrals a long way from their age bracket, talking to him. And then they both stopped posting altogether — very sad indeed, since they were two of the cleverest commenters, and she is fiery . . . No names from me, of course. 😉

    You’re spot-on about the mind-numbing predictability at GU . . . I have the strangest feeling that the people in charge there are asleep on their feet, like storks.

    @Baron, . .. I forgot to mention that I did come across the email address that you say betrays your real-world identity, . . . and though _I_ believe you . . . it’s funny how it does seem possible to assess people’s integrity in this medium, given time . . . many wouldn’t. The (almost) universally beloved imp we lost in August had an email address on his own web site. The user name bore absolutely no relation to his screen name or real-world identity . . . Did you know that that can be part of the game in places like this?

    Terrific dance poems on GU, btw, even though I can’t claim to have caught all your references. I look forward to seeing your poems gathered together on your own site. I’ve said before that I find the jumbling together of styles on PosterPomes a bit difficult — like a multiculti buffet where the fragrance of a porcini risotto is doing battle with shabu-shabu, etc. . .

    What I liked most about your Vasari parallel was the idea that I was giving our blogger comrades a lives-of-the-artists treatment . . . But you’re right, Bosch is a better fit — his visual encyclopedia of human weirdness. . . Still, I made no moral judgements in what I said.

  26. BaronCharlus


    ‘Did you know that that can be part of the game in places like this?’

    Is that a warning? 🙂

    Thanks for reading my poems. Glad you liked them.

    Of course, my Vasari reference was intended in the manner in which you took it. The Last Judgement and Bosch thoughts were only intended to amuse.

    This conversation, and your descriptions, got me thinking.

    I don’t know how one would go about it – or quite how to explain it – or how much has been said on the subject, but isn’t it interesting that we all develop bonds, enmities, whatever, with people we have no visual reference for? We must, on instinct, create private visual figures for other posters – some more vivid than others (and why is that?).

    These visual figures may be cartoonish, murky, but they’re in our brains somewhere. I think it’s impossible to do, but imagine a gallery of ten different portraits of ArtPepper or Zepherine, say, each based on a different person’s impression and with no reference to the real person. Des would be a particulaly good one – he provokes and demands strong reactions – but I know what he looks like (unless the video link on his site’s a trick!)

    Just a rambling thought.

  27. No, the video link is not a trick, Baron.
    That’s Des.

  28. BaronCharlus

    Thanks, Suzan

    Wordn’s talk of masks over masks and mysteries wrapped in enigmas sent me a bit Smiley’s People.

  29. wordnerd7

    @Baron, I’ve been getting an education – working towards three degrees — in the possibilities of larking around with screen names. Stay around awhile, and you will too. A few weeks before @cynicalsteve left us, he posted on his doggytrollocks site an invitation to post on GU sharing screen names and passwords. No one publicly accepted, but I’d already tried out something like that months earlier, thanks to, shall we say, _people_, posting under ‘@thebookofsand’. A post on the books blog had invited comrades to write a comment under that name in a Cif thread – and in the post was a link not just to the Cif discussion but a comment box already signed in under @tbos. So, in a serious fit of giggles, I immediately wrote something as vacuous as, ‘I am tbos yes I am,’ .. . clicked on ‘Post your comment,’ and . . . hey presto! the post appeared as written.

    No sooner had Steve died than comments began to pop up under screen names many of us had associated with him – for several reasons, among them, the hours he kept because of his illness. He’d once mentioned that he’d long ago lost the ability to remember all his combinations of screen names, passwords and email addresses – so had written them down on a sheet of paper he kept on his desk. . . I don’t know whether some friend was given that list or whether, near the end, Steve distributed bits of it to people who had emailed him to apply for a shared wheeze. . . What has been very funny is watching attempts at imitating his style – mostly stunningly wooden, like puppets trying to pass for human beings. It’s also a bit like observing an amnesiac, since the posts under the inherited screen names show no sign of remembering cs’s history with other posters.

    Well, as @3p4 likes to say . . . rock on . . . and that’s my message to them. It’s only what the sublime imp himself would have wanted.

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