2021 UPDATE: Since writing this post many years ago I have had two novels published which include plenty of sex scenes, including same-sex in my new novel Scent.
This is the 100th post on the Literary Sofa and the subject of sex hasn’t come up much beyond the occasional mention in a review. Last week’s piece on gender issues in the book world attracted a lot of interest and leads neatly onto a brief look at sex in (mainstream literary and commercial) fiction. By sheer coincidence, I’ve read several good novels recently with a significant erotic element; I reviewed James Salter’s All That Is and I’ll mention the other three here.
Let’s begin with something that’s rarely disputed: sex is difficult to write about – in fact some think it’s impossible. The Elvis Costello quote Writing about music is like dancing about architecture is sometimes paraphrased to writing about sex. Fantastic line, but the fact that it originally applied to music is interesting. Surely many things are hard to capture in words but does that mean it shouldn’t be attempted?
The main problem isn’t that it’s so hard to write well about sex – it’s that it’s so easy to do it badly. Booker prizewinning author John Banville’s explanation is one of the best I’ve heard:
What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.
Sex, which Banville describes as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on ‘sharing’. No wonder then, that reading another person’s vision of a sexual encounter can provoke such strong reactions. There’s nothing like the discomfort of a bad sex scene – they can be excruciating, voyeuristic and repellent, even when penned by leading novelists, many of whom have been nominated for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, a particularly British annual source of amusement.
The best writing advice I’ve heard on the subject (though I can’t recall where) is not to mix sex and emotion (at least not love) in the same scene** – it comes back to that sense of disconnection. I’m struggling to think of a single touching and romantic sex scene, whereas various hot scenes and, unfortunately, some horrible ones I’d rather forget (from The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, to name but two) come readily to mind.
(** December 2016 – I have since changed my mind about this.)
It’s hardly surprising that men and women tend to see it differently.
Two common beliefs: that men write about sex in a more carnal and explicit way and that women readers and writers favour a more subtle ‘less is more’ approach (the advantage being that the imagination will provide a bespoke version.) I reckon there’s a good deal of truth in that, but it’s definitely not quite that simple.
Many writers shy away from writing sex scenes altogether. A natural fear is that readers might think you’re drawing on your own sex life. Obviously that’s a possibility, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. On a Word Factory Masterclass I recently attended, Anglo-French literary novelist Michèle Roberts, who is renowned for writing about sex, asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up. I astonished myself with a scene between two men which is now a finished story waiting to be sent out. When you’re put on the spot like that, there’s no time for angst and inhibition!
It would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes. When well-written and – crucially – justified in terms of plot and character, they can be very powerful. Readers’ responses will vary hugely but that’s to be expected. I read a few shortlisted extracts from the Bad Sex Award and whilst many were undeniably heinous, some seemed absolutely fine to me.
A good sex scene isn’t necessarily about ‘good sex’, nor is it necessarily sexy. It may be just the opposite. Successful sex scenes often have a fearless quality and that’s true of each of the three debut novels which have recently reeled me in. They’re very different, but in every case, the sex scenes are absolutely fundamental to both character and story. That could be a useful test to apply – if those scenes can be removed without the story collapsing, they probably don’t belong there. Readers are more inclined to judge harshly anything they see as gratuitous.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Di Sclafani (one of my Top 10 Summer Reads) and Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien (Trans. Jamie Bulloch) impressed me with their boldness. Both written by women in their 30s with teenage girl protagonists, these novels don’t conform to received ideas about how women write about sex – they are brave, sensual and sometimes disturbing. Set in 1930s Florida and North Carolina, Yonahlossee gives a fascinating insight into genteel Southern society in the Depression era when women’s lives, let alone desires, were strictly circumscribed.
Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is a short novel which is also deeply rooted in time and place: rural East Germany around the time of reunification (1990). It tackles the age-old taboo of the young girl and the older man and is starkly unromanticised. It’s left a deep impression.
The third novel is one I can’t stop talking about. Indiscretion by Charles Dubow (4 July 2013) is a superb example of characterisation and unusual narration. Set in Manhattan and the Hamptons it is a glamorous and unsettling exploration of the havoc caused by betrayal in a seemingly ideal marriage. The sex scenes often read like a clichéd male fantasy, but in the cleverest way – they’re narrated by an omniscient character in the story who wasn’t present at the time. See if this makes you wince:
I could describe even more how they fucked, how she sucked his cock, how many orgasms she had, how they walked through streets hand in hand like lovers. [….] There are few things more powerful, more intoxicating than knowing there is someone who desires you entirely. And if it is illicit, secret, forbidden, that makes it all the more exciting.
Can’t argue with that last part – another thing these three books have in common. I found one of them erotic, but as that information isn’t intrinsic to this post, I think I’ll leave it there…
Have you read any novels containing good or dreadful sex scenes? Would you rather not read them at all? And if you’re a writer, do you dare?
Next week my guest author on the Literary Sofa will be Barry Walsh, talking about writing based on his own childhood experiences in his captivating debut The Pimlico Kid.
Intriguing topic to write about – the Bad Sex in Fiction award is a testament to how difficult it is to write about. One way to get around it, as Jilly Cooper does, is to make it humorous. If you don’t take it seriously, you can enjoy it. Barbara Kingsolver’s good for a smouldering sex scene too, particulalry in Animal Dreams.
Sorry I missed your comment when doing the first batch of replies (it was on a different screen to the others!) Yes, I agree, funny sex scenes can be great, as our morning at Word Factory illustrated very well. I MUST get round to reading some Barbara Kingsolver – don’t know why I never have.
Loved this post, Isabel. I’m pretty sure it was Elvis Costello who came up with the ‘dancing about architecture’ quote.
As always, an interesting post Isabel. During my MLitt course, I submitted a piece which contained a sex scene to be workshopped by my peers. The unanimous response was a cringe that nearly knocked me off my chair. One classmate could only articulate her feelings about it in one word, “Yuk!”. It has really put me off dabbling again! As a reader, I think less is more as far as the mechanics go, unless you’re reading it as a manual! 😉
I’d say that was really poor facilitation by whoever was leading the group. Sex scenes are difficult and ‘Yuk’ is such an insulting response. Would anyone have come out with anything as flippant if you’d written about murdering someone with an axe? It seems to break the golden rule of workshopping of trying to assess the work on its own terms and not bringing in one’s own (infantile) subjective views.
Hi Mike, You’ve got a point there! I should said that “Yuk” was written down in the copy given back to me but it was in capitals and with lots of exclamation marks and no constructive feedback. Not a positive experience in any way.
Thanks Helen. I can only echo what the others have said about you receiving such an immature and silly response. Don’t let it put you off (or they have won!) – or at least if you continue to avoid these scenes, don’t let that be the reason. I’ve had some pretty awful experiences in workshops too so I know how it feels.
Congratulations on your 100th and thanks for these thoughtful words about sex writing. interesting what you say about some of the bad sex award stuff being okay because, like anything else, surely it’s a matter of personal opinion, yet it’s an area that so many others still feel so uptight about and terrified of getting it wrong. I’m much more confident writing about bad sex and, like in your exercise, stuff I’ve not experienced, as in sex between two men, but erotic sensual stuff I’ll wait for the post-coital cigarette.
sorry very sloppy writing that looks like I’ve said sex between two men isn’t erotic sensual stuff!!!!
Don’t worry, I’m sure we all got what you meant! Thanks for the comment.
I’m so interested by this post that I’ve written a massively long reply but I’ve saved that to one side and might post it later. However, I’ll post one paragraph now.
I’m glad you had the nerve to quote some frank writing about sex and said that you enjoyed it, found it relevant to the plots of the novels mentioned and also were honest enough to admit to finding it erotic as I suspect an awful lot of the trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex is driven by embarrassment and hypocrisy. It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on. Like you, I’ve read a lot of the Literary Review Bad Sex entries and the worst seem to be those that try to disguise and embellish sex with ridiculous metaphors and similes which seem to be motivated by either embarassment or literary pretension.
I know, shocking eh? Woman admits to being turned on. Anyone would think it was the 21st century…
In other words, I agree with you.
Please feel free to post your longer comment in due course and thanks for the thoughtful contribution.
Great post, Isabel. And Helen – your workshop experience sounds terrible! Anyone who is so negatively critical in a workshop doesn’t know why they are there, and also deserves similar back to jolt them into experiencing what she did to you. (Vindictive, moi?)
My first novel had to have a sex scene in it, because the rest of the plot turned on the outcome, but I concentrated on the clinical efficiency and detachment of the act (a drugged rape) because that was how that character was. I find any misogyny a real ‘snap the book shut’ moment. These days I find myself repeating what I’ve heard Dick Francis always used to say: that he never described sex in detail because the Queen Mother read all his books and he didn’t want her to have to read it!
I don’t know how to break this to you…
I’m with you on the misogyny issue. Stephen Leather’s novel The Basement contained some of the most loathesome and appallingly written sexual violence I’ve come across and I found it massively offensive. Interesting that a lot of good Scandinavian crime fiction seems to get away with it. I guess people’s sensibilities differ according to genre.
Interesting post, Isabel. As a reader, I’m much more a fan of leaving as much as possible to the imagination. People seem to have their own pet names for different parts of the anatomy, and I’ve cringed many a time at the terms authors use.
As I a writer, I wouldn’t shy away from a sex scene (there is actually one in my upcoming book) if it added weight to the storyline, however they definitely need careful penning to ensure they work. And no slang or pet terms!
Thanks for the comment Jane. The thought of writers using embarrassing pet names made me cringe all by itself – no thanks!
Great post to mark your centenary, Isabel 😉
I think you’ve hit one particular nail very firmly on the head: sex in fiction has to be relevant to the plot or the character development, otherwise it becomes entirely gratuitous and thus is almost certainly going to turn the average reader off. I don’t mind reading well constructed passages of prose about other people’s bodily functions, whether they are in bed or in the bathroom, but only if they move the story along or make sense in the context of the piece. Perhaps sex writing has developed such a bad reputation because too many authors (or their editors!) have thought they needed to add something a bit fruitier to make the rest of the story more interesting. Which says more about the rest of the story perhaps …
I think Michele Roberts makes a very good point about writing about sex that you don’t know (what a great exercise! Might try that out on my writing group sometime and wait for the gasps of horror!). In the same way as it is very difficult to effectively fictionalise any other ‘real life’ experience, perhaps this more than most needs a certain amount of emotional distance before it can be translated to the page.
There’s also a link for me with your previous post about the gender of the writer; at the risk of making sweeping generalisations, I suspect that (most) men and (most) women would write in detail about sex in rather different ways, and therefore create a reaction very different to the one intended if their audience is of the opposite gender. The same applies to age groups, I think; from my experience women in their thirties have different views and experiences of sex (and relationships in general) to my own age group, and I think that is often reflected in their writing.
That’s one of the key reasons why, for me, less is more. If you describe something in detail that I know something about, but your detail is different to my experience, you’ll lose me as a reader. Give me a window to look through, and enough of a prompt to spark my own imagination and recollection, and I’ll think you’ve done a fabulous job of describing it.
Last thought: there’s also something about the ‘contract’ an author has with their reader. Sometimes we pick up a book because we want to be surprised and even confused, and the more widely we read the more able we are to handle something turning up that isn’t what we thought we were reading. But I suspect most readers choose their next title because they know they want a crime thriller/a fantasy adventure/some futuristic sci-fi/whatever. That is what they are looking for and it’s what they expect to find. I recently read a self-published book written by someone I know; it was fantasy, not my usual thing at all, but very engaging and a real page turner – until I suddenly found myself in the middle of several pages of elvish erotica. It was well written, and had I been looking for erotic writing I would probably have enjoyed it enormously; but because it was so unexpected (and really halted the progress of the story) I actually gave up on the whole book. Which was shame, because I’d quite like to have found out whether or not they reached the end of their quest and whether the male lead was really the rotter he was painted to be or actually a misunderstood hero …
thanks for the great comments. We’ll have a lot to talk about when we meet at the York Festival. I just typed a longish reply and WordPress has made it disappear. RATS.
😀 Looking forward to it very much, Isabel!
I think I remember the awful sex scenes (Michel Houllebecq being my particular bete noire) I’ve read much more readily than the successful ones, possible because a successful one is by definition one that sits comfortably within the context of the book. Generally I’m in the ‘less is more’ camp, especially when I used to do most of my reading on the Tube, and hated the idea of the person sitting next to me catching sight of any explicit or tedious metaphor filled description over my shoulder. I agree with the dislike of misogynistic scenes too, and even as a big crime fiction reader my patience with the increasingly nasty scenes that seem to be deemed necessary is wearing thin.
That is an excellent point about successful sex scenes not standing out but being part of the fabric of the story just like any other scene. I doubt I’ll ever read Houllebecq having heard so many negative responses to his writing – I think maybe he’s got a particularly French approach. (Although I enjoy French writing generally). In certain genres sexual violence seems to be on the increase, and like you I find that repellent. It worries me that people want to read that kind of thing.
Great post as always, Isabel. There are no sex scenes, good or bad, that are coming to mind from the novels I’ve read so obviously I can’t have found any of them particularly shocking or memorable. Maybe it’s what I read?! Interestingly, in every writing workshop I’ve been in when we had to write a sex scene everyone wrote about bad sex rather than the sensual, loving kind. Last week I wrote a flash piece for writing group that contained a sex scene and for a change I was trying to write from the male POV – the result was a clunky, clichéd piece of writing that will never see the light of day! Now, the question is was it the sex or the male POV that made me write like that?
Thanks Amanda, glad you enjoyed it. This post has really pulled in the crowds, can’t imagine why….
I seem to recall you saying previously that you didn’t often write male POV, so with that as your starting point, writing a sex scene from a male perspective is about as difficult as it gets! Would be interesting to hear how you got on doing the two things separately.
Well, I tried a sex scene in my novel but it was garbage, really badly written and actually quite painful to write, and to read. I sort of felt I “ought” to have one as it’s a grown up novel for grown ups to read, but I realise now that it’s not necessary to have a blow-by-blow account, as it were (sorry). My editor strongly advised me to ditch the scene, in fact it was the first item on her first round of editing notes! That told me everything. I was really relieved to delete it and I’m not sure I’ll attempt another one.
I’m sure you and your editor made the right decision. Sex scenes are so challenging anyway that I don’t see how they can possibly succeed if the writer is horribly uncomfortable and doing it out of obligation. There are plenty of good books without any and the fact that your book clearly stands up without it just shows you didn’t need it.
Thinking a little more about your Michèle Roberts Word Factory Masterclass — it’s a really ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience — just their imagination. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny.
This post has been so interesting that it’s inspired me to write a related post of my own on my blog. Anyone who’s interested in reading it should click on my name below and the link should take you there.
Unless it moves the plot or characters on significantly in some way, I really can’t see the point of pages of description. However I could say that about a lot of other things in novels too.
In the middle of revising my novel draft, I hit that point where I was having to make decisions about how I’d written the romance, and I ended up finding your post while searching the topic of a post I’d started writing: sex in literary fiction. It was so great to read your very intelligent reflections on this subject. In expressing it myself, I’d gotten close enough in saying that whether sex fit in a work had to do with the story’s purpose — but you’ve gotten me thinking further about how the expression of sexuality fits not just the story but the character. I may had thought this instinctively in writing, but it helped to read it put into words. Thanks.
Thank you for this generous comment. It’s very rewarding to get that kind of feedback especially from a fellow writer. This post attracted a lot of attention. I’m glad I wrote it because it helped focus my approach to the characters’ sexuality in my novel. I think the more confident you are about its role and justification in a story, the braver you get. Best of luck with your book.
Hi Isobelle – read this article and enjoyed it) I was moved to respond.
Great article – thank you Isobel.
I highly recommend Jonathan Kemp’s work: ’26’ and ‘London Triptych’…
plus anything written by Adrea Kore, Kristina Lloyd, Janine Ashbless, Shanna Germain, Malin James or Remittance Girl