Just Say No or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

Lying in bed, thinking about geometry.

Like: how my arm next to her ass makes a right angle, or how her legs in either direction form an isosceles triangle (or is it scalene?), scaling the perimeter from her belly button to below is heaven, or how the distance from my rectangle to her Pi is infinity; or: A cup plus B-cup equals See. Proof: if her panties come off, then I will be pleased. Two shapes under the sheets are congruent to each other. She turns 180 degrees. I check my work. Pass/fail, graded on the curves. Obtuse, an open book exam, I ask for extra credit.


Writing about sex is like engaging in sex: it’s hard. (Or, it should be.)

Laura Miller, over on Salon.com, has an article about the annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” conducted by the Literary Review (London). She takes exception to the glee with which these awards are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the Puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. Her position asserts that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she is (wisely? cynically?) using the occasion of the Bad Sex award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have –or should have– no qualms about moments of lust (and the moments those moments lead to) in literature.

I think the issue is not so much the fact that these scenes exist, but that they are invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers are most likely not saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and not include scenes that make a mockery of the act so many people hold sacred –at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the act (the thought of it, the desire for it, the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps readers are merely admonishing those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must. Is that too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How –or why– do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the cliched rite of passage, so often rendered, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. (And those scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional, and more than a little embarrassing for all involved).

So how do you do it? Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human endeavor: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it –whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

Show, don’t tell. That is the sacrosanct rule for any type of written endeavor. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can –and should– be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate this depiction. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes than I did from our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed literary porn like Updike and Roth (both of whom have been celebrated and savaged for the arrested sexual development they so gratuitously struggle with in the cringe-inducing excerpts from their oeuvres).

Besides, experts have informed me that this is what the Internet is for. Forget books and even movies. If music and conversation (that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm), and a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover.


Take off all your clothes, I say.

No, she laughs.

So: sober, there are no easy excuses. Excuses make it easier, and the easier it is, the easier it is to make excuses. Conversation can kill everything: access, intimacy (which is ironic), and mostly it can provide a good enough excuse. Stuck between a rock and a not-hard-enough place.

“Be careful,” I say as she gets down on the carpet to entertain my dog’s playful overtures. “He’s a lady-killer.”

“Like his daddy?” she asks, making it too easy, or not easy enough, depending on how it all undresses.

“Hardly,” I say, reaching for the bottle of wine that is equal parts incriminating and inspiring. Mostly, and most importantly, it is empty.

“You two make a cute couple,” I say, equal parts innocent, honest, and envious.

“Why don’t you join us?”

Put on all your clothes, I do not say.

“Are you drunk,” she says.

“Never,” I lie.

“Am I drunk?” she asks.

“Not enough,” I sigh.

“What did you say?” she whispers.

“Nothing,” I lie.

Take off all your clothes, she laughs.

Okay, I say.


You ask: What happened next?

See for yourself, I say.

If you can, that is.



  1. As a writer of sex, I get the annoyance that Laura Miller is expressing in the article. On the other hand, if you–as the award winner did–liken a female nipple to the nose of a nocturnal animal, you deserve every opprobrium that could possibly be heaped on you.

    Any man who told me my nipple was like a hedgehog’s nose would bid adieu to my blow jobs, for instance.

    Sex is hard to write. It’s supposed to be, biologically. Our critical brains shut off during sex. Flesh memory is difficult to recapture, and all the madeleines in the world won’t help. It’s a testament to the skill of a writer when he or she can write sex well. Kundara, Joyce. Angela Carter. Henry Miller. Even–god help me–Anais Nin. All are fairly fantastic.


  2. Sean Murphy says:


    I tend to be underwhelmed whenever I encounter sex scenes in literary fiction, but when it’s done well, it is aesthetically satisfying. I think it is worth noting that even some of our more celebrated stylists fail miserably at depicting –much less inducing– arousal.

    And, for the record (and I know you know I know this), your writing on sex, sexy and pretty much any other topic, is consistently delectable, and always inspiring. Not to mention the fact that you are just a badass. Thanks, again, for being you.


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