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According to the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, sexual fantasizing improves analytical skills. But daydreaming about love impacts your creativity.

This sounds downright Jill Bolte Taylor-esque. Left hemisphere versus right.

Melinda Wenner of Scientific American goes into more depth.

Previous research suggests that our problem-solving abilities change depending on our states of mind and that love—a broad, long-term emotion—triggers global brain pro­cessing, a state in which we see the big picture, make broad asso­ciations and connect disparate ideas. Sex, on the other hand—more specific and here and now—initiates more local processing, in which the brain zooms in and focuses on details. Researchers…wondered whether thinking about love might actually help people perform better on creative tasks, whereas imagining sex might prime people to do better on tasks requiring analytical thinking.

So researchers staged it this way: 30 participants were asked to imagine a “long, loving walk with their partners.” Another 30 were asked to imagine sex with someone they did not love. Then cognitive tests were administered.

As predicted, the love-primed ones per­formed much better on creative tasks and scored worse on analytical ques­tions, whereas the reverse was true of those who thought about sex. The researchers also subliminally primed a separate group of subjects to think about love or sex and got similar results.

“I was surprised about the strength of the effects,” says author Jens För­ster, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. The re­searchers wonder whether the “big picture” perspective that lovebirds share strengthens their relationship, too, by helping couples overlook personal weaknesses and daily hassles.

So is this distinction prescriptive? In other words, when my partner Dave waxes particularly analytical, perhaps the proper response should be to give him that “you’ve been fantasizing again, haven’t you?” look…


Tracy Emin at the White Cube Gallery (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Tracey Emin has cordoned off sex and sexuality as a major trope of her oeuvre. She has been outrageous, flagrant, outspoken and nakedly raw in her expression of pure id-ness.

So turning 50 changes all that? Come on Tracey, can’t you love ideas AND sex? Get a grip, and quick!

From an article by Maev Kennedy in the Guardian:

In the middle of her new exhibition, in which the most arresting piece is a looped animation of 150 drawings that depict a woman masturbating, Tracey Emin explained that sex is loosening its grip as her 50th birthday looms.

“It always was about sex, not money,” she said. “Sex was what held me in bed and got me out of it again in the morning. But now it’s fading fast. I don’t have the same craziness about sex that I had – I’m more interested in ideas.”

The artist was haloed by a pink glow emanating from a neon piece in the next room. Its inscription read: “Oh Christ I just wanted you to fuck me and then I became greedy, I wanted you to love me.”

As a follow on to an earlier posting here about awards for bad sex writing (11/26/08), I found myself fascinated by Toni Bentley’s captivating review of Ian Kelly’s new biography, Casanova in the Sunday Times Book Review. A biography about a legendary philanderer is not a topic I would ordinarily find compelling, but Bentley goes at her subject with such delight and pleasure it is hard to not get sucked in to this admittedly extraordinary story. How in the world did he get around to doing all that anyway?

Here’s a sampling from her review:

There is risk involved, however, even in just reading about Casanova from your armchair: you are left, inevitably, with the feeling, if you’re a man (I’m guessing here), that you are lazy beyond measure in all things and have missed out entirely on the meaning of woman, which is the meaning of life; and if you are a woman (not guessing here), well, you simply missed out on the greatest lover you will never have and thus also the meaning of life.

While Kelly…is clearly no prude and loves his subject, he does make a few meager attempts…to hitch his wagon to the resurrection idea of Casanova’s being not only misunderstood as a lover but oh so much more. He was a linguist, writer, poet, librettist, philosopher, notary, translator, lawyer, military officer, duelist, gourmand, healer, mathematician, bibliophile, government informer, theater manager, pimp, violinist, matchmaker, cabalist, wit. Whew! All this and the perpetual skirt-chasing, a pursuit Casanova lifted to a high art. Did they simply have more time in the 18th century, or just no TV?…

Casanova’s story is a moving testament, easily overlooked while one is in the thrall of his oversize tale, to the sheer power of the written word. We know of him now only because he wrote it all down…We think it is about the women, but it is really about how Casanova wrote about the women and how he loved them, quite a different thing. “The pleasure I gave,” he said, “made up four-fifths of mine.” Thus, he has attained an immortality even he could hardly have imagined. His name is now a descriptor. He would have been so delighted. Casanova will forever be the arche­type of the boy-man whose overwhelming ardor for women and passionate pursuit of sexual connection symbolize every man’s eternal, always thwarted, attempt to go home.

Bentley makes Casanova fascinating, but Bentley is fascinating as well. She’s a woman of many parts, including a former life as a ballerina with the New York City Ballet and as the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim award. Digging deeper I found a previous review Bentley wrote of Katha Pollitt’s collection of essays, Learning to Drive. Pollitt, a supremely intelligent and respected writer on politics, contemporary feminism and social issues, has aired her fair share of complaints about those male type people who come into your life and disappoint you again and again. Here is the closing paragraph of Bentley’s review:

Ultimately, a sharp tongue, a quick wit and ample intellect provide a powerful defense but little consolation for women in search of that phantom that is freedom from men and the vulnerability of love. They can trap the rats — with the impunity feminism ordains — but jailers are in prison too.

There’s something snappy and smart about Ms. Bentley, to be sure.

Turning the lens around, here is Charles McGrath reviewing Bentley’s 2004 memoir, The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir:

Every now and then there’s a dirty book so literary, or a literary book so dirty, that it becomes a must read or at least a must-discuss among the sorts of people who would never let themselves be seen hanging around the porn shelf…No less a highbrow than Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has declared “The Surrender” a “small masterpiece of erotic writing…”

The author is a throwback, in other words. At a time when so much sexual writing aims…to demystify and de-emotionalize sex — to reduce it to a physical and hormonal process not much different from, say, scratching an itch — Ms. Bentley belongs to the old tradition of hyperbole and overwriting, the tradition of Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, which sees sex as an avenue to spirituality, to the mystical and sublime.

Whoa Nellie! Bentley, you’re officially on my “to watch” list.

Toni Bentley (Jamie Rector for The New York Times)

In the spirit of keeping things light at this time of year when the food and the body can start feeling just a little heavy, here’s the Guardian‘s update on one of my favorite annual awards—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction.

You gotta love it, these laughable attempts to describe one of life’s greatest thrills. Ever since a writer friend confessed to me that she suffered from crippling fear while writing her novel that she would be nominated for this ignoble award, I have had a little more pity for nominees. Ouch. While of course some people treat it as just one more google hit.

At the end of the Guardian article I have also included an excerpt from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat blog flagging John Updike’s lifetime achievement award. The passage highlighted is just too good to not share. “Legs in an M of receptivity”…really John. John? Hello?

Thank you Sally Reed for being all over it and way ahead of me.

‘Slightly tortuous’: Alastair Campbell. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Alastair Campbell’s depiction of a gauche sexual encounter in his debut novel All in the Mind has won him a place on the shortlist for the literary world’s most dreaded honour: the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Campbell would join luminaries including Tom Wolfe, AA Gill, Sebastian Faulks and Melvyn Bragg if he wins the award – a plaster foot – on November 25 at London’s aptly named In and Out club. Run by the Literary Review, the bad sex awards were set up by Auberon Waugh “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”.

The former spin doctor may take heart from the implication that his debut is an “otherwise sound literary novel”. Campbell of course has some earlier practice in depicting sex, having written pornography for Forum magazine under the pseudonym the Riviera Gigolo early in his career, but a passage set on a bench has catapulted Campbell onto the list: “He wasn’t sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be, but when her hand curled around it once more, and she pulled him towards her, it felt right,” Campbell writes. “Then as her hand joined the other on his neck and she started making more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them, he was pretty sure he was losing his virginity.”

But Campbell’s prose is considerably less purple than some of the other contenders for this year’s prize, including new age novelist Paulo Coelho for his novel Brida, in which the act of sex – on a public footpath – is described as “the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation”.

“At last, she could no longer control the world around her,” Coelho continues, “her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn’t strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy.”

Historian Simon Montefiore is also a strong competitor, singled out for his first foray into fiction, the Soviet saga Sashenka, in which a formerly prudish Communist woman enjoys an encounter with a bohemian writer. “He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. ‘The blue veins are divine,’ he whispered.” And later: “He’s a madman, she thought as he made love to her again. Oh my God, after twenty years of being the most rational Bolshevik woman in Moscow, this goblin has driven me crazy!”

Other writers in the running include John Updike, Isabel Fonseca, Kathy Lette and James Buchan, as well as first-time novelist Ann Allestree for her novel Triptych of a Young Wolf.

“It’s very heartening to see what a distinguished list of writers seem to be listed with me,” said Allestree. “I wrote the book because I had written memoirs and biographies, and thought every writer has to do a novel, it’s a force majeure. So I set off to do it, and thought I’ve got to put sex in – every novel’s got to have sex in it.”

She said her novel was “essentially quite a serious one”. “It’s about wolves,” she continued. “There is wolf sex, between my young wolf, my hero, and his girlfriend, who happens to be an Alsatian … they have hybrid sex.”

If an extract from Allestree’s novel – here depicting sex between humans, rather than canines – is anything to go by, she should be in with a good chance: few novelists successfully manage to combine soup and sex. “He raised himself to his knees and bent to roll his tongue around her weeping orifice. He was bringing her to a pitch of ecstasy when she heard Madame Veuve, on the landing, put down the supper tray. Whiffs of onion soup strayed over them as he engulfed her. ‘Don’t stop,’ she clamoured; she was nearly there, it was in the bag.”

Jonathan Beckman at the Literary Review said there had been “quite a lot of variation” in this year’s shortlist in terms of how, exactly, the sex was bad. “There are some which take the sex far too seriously, like Coelho, and some which have a grating change of register, like Buchan, and others that are just slightly ridiculous,” he said. “The Campbell seems quite Alastair Campbelly-bad, in the slightly tortuous logical path the passage takes … and also, we wouldn’t pass up the chance to put Alastair Campbell on a bad sex shortlist.”

Last year’s award was given posthumously to Norman Mailer for his final novel The Castle in the Forest, in which a male member is described as being “as soft as a coil of excrement”. “It was the excrement that tipped the balance,” admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the Literary Review, at the time.

Alison Flood

And from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat:

Updike won the lifetime achievement award after being nominated four times over the course of his career. Here’s a link to Updike’s shortlisted passage from 2005 Bad Sex nominee, Villages:

“Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare a** to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.”