A Sport And A Pastime
The other month when I reviewed Sex In The System I wrote:
It is often suggested that sex is hard to write. Certainly sex scenes are easily mocked once stripped of context but generally that old advice “write what you know” holds true and most people know their sexual fantasies very well indeed.
I was specifically of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award and their tendency, as one MetaFilter commenter puts it, towards “institutionally poor joke detection”. Well, it is that time of the year again and extracts of the whole shortlist are available so you can make up your own mind. The Roth clearly is very bad but are we really meant to believe Cave or Littell don’t know exactly what they are doing?
The BBC jumped on the bandwagon today – a little late but admittedly not as late as me – to ask is it difficult to write well about sex? To which the answer surely is “no more than anything else.” Taking the contrary view is a reviewer called Melissa Katsoulis:
If I was writing a novel, I wouldn’t attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it’s awful. It’s a cliche, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens. When you have a dream about someone you fancy, it’s because they sat down next to you on the bus or something, not because you were at it, hammer and tongs. Either be suggestive or funny, but trying to do the nuts and bolts isn’t going to work.
Prim as a Victorian, eh? Chick-lit novelist Sarah Duncan is equally squeamish in the Guardian:
In the middle of sex I’m not thinking, ooh he’s just thrust his throbbing organ against my front bottom, so why should a character? Instead of writing about actions, I concentrate on the responses, how it feels both mentally and physically. Get into the head of the character and you can create the illusion that yes, this is real, this is happening to you the reader. I write mainly for women readers, and speaking for my sex I think we like being seduced. We don’t want bedroom antics shoved in our faces, literally or metaphorically. We like a little delicacy, a little subtlety.
The comments to that article pretty much immediately start listing good sex scenes so it is well worth a butcher’s. James Salter does, of course, feature prominently.