What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 24th annual honor was awarded last week and Erri De Luca takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Day Before Happiness. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of the worst passage from 2 years ago, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits 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 (wisely? cynically?) uses 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 ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function 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. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this 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 hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

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 enterprise: 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.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. 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 my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or 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. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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