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Author Events, Writing

Good Sex Night at Waterstones Gower Street

they-whisperWhen I sit down to write a sex scene – and there is certainly no shortage of them in my debut novel Paris Mon Amour – I don’t think about it.  I get the characters in a room and let things take their course. And to me that is a less daunting prospect than it would be to attempt a comprehensive write-up of one of the best literary events I have ever attended, yesterday’s Good Sex Night at Waterstones Gower Street. Instead, this is very much my personal take on the points that struck me most.  I’ll be picking up on elements of my 2013 post Sex Scenes in Fiction, which continues to be one of the most viewed here on the Literary Sofa.

Firstly, I applaud Waterstones’ Elizabeth Morris and literary critic and interviewer Lucy Scholes for their initiative in organising an antidote to The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award, bestowed earlier this week for the 24th time.  I’m guessing that most of the audience at this packed event share the sceptical or critical view of it held by the three panellists, whose collective expertise, intellectual rigour and good humour made this such a stimulating and inspiring conversation.

I have seen Peter Hobbs before, at the Word Factory launch of the Sex & Death collection published by Faber, which he edited with Sarah Hall. Stories by both of them appear in an impressive line-up which also includes Ali Smith and Petina Gappah.  Katherine Angel, author of Unmastered: A Book On Desire, Most Difficult To Tell, provided fascinating insights from a female and academic standpoint.  And finally, I wasn’t the only one taken aback to find myself in the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winner, namely Robert Olen Butler, who has published six collections and a staggering 16 novels, of which the collection Intercourse (What goes through the mind of a person while having sex?) and novel They Whispered cropped up repeatedly.

unmasteredKatherine Angel started with an impassioned lambasting of the ‘contemptible’ Bad Sex Award, less on grounds of its juvenility and the inherent contradiction in condemning a piece of writing whilst simultaneously making it an object of titillation, but more because it is so ‘unliterary’ and intellectually unsound.  What sense does it make to single out sex and sexuality, such a fundamental part of the human experience, for this censorious treatment?  Authors need ‘absolute freedom’!

Robert Olen Butler made some fascinating observations about the danger of lifting passages and removing all context, which has the potential to render anything ‘meaningless in art’.  The question of what literary fiction is (and can be) arose throughout the discussion, never diverging far from the conviction that its essence lies in depth of characterisation and the power to genuinely engage the reader, rather than purely to entertain.  This laying-bare of consciousness is practically a prerequisite for the fiction which touches me most; Robert expressed this beautifully, that ‘humans desire something at all times’ and that at its most fundamental level, plot, character, everything that makes fiction comes down to ‘yearning, challenged and thwarted’ and in particular, ‘yearning for an identity’.  Our sexuality, along with issues of race, religion and culture, is central to the question we and our characters cannot escape: WHO AM I?

sex-and-death-largeFollowing his curation of the Sex & Death collection, Peter Hobbs was asked if he thinks writing about sex is really harder than anything else, to which he answered, ‘all good writing is hard!’ and that sex is merely illustrative of this wider point: suffering, pain, fear are equally difficult.  Personally, writing about grief and loss claws at me in a way that sex does not – all of these move me but there can be no pleasure in the former.  Katherine doesn’t believe that sex writing is inherently more difficult either, but that the culture of anxiety around it is not helpful; with ‘bad’ sex writing, the author’s anxiety can be detected (often cowering behind dreadful metaphors).  I feel the difficulties of writing about sex are overstated and a major contributory factor to this anxiety that is so prevalent in the anglophone world and noticeably less so in French language fiction – if you’re interested, I discussed possible reasons for this in What the French taught me about Sex for Red Magazine this summer.

This leads neatly onto the problems of anatomical nomenclature in the English language, for all its riches (which make me grateful that given my setting, on the rare occasions it is needed, I can borrow the gender- and tonally neutral French term le sexe).  Somehow in English we find ourselves having to choose between the clinical-and-not-very-sexy and the crude-or-infantile-verging-on-ludicrous.  Peter feels that bad sex writing tends toward absurdity, and to focus excessively on the mechanics.  Whilst as he says, sex is human behaviour at its most animalistic, something is missing if that’s all there is.  As a huge admirer of Alan Hollinghurst’s work, it was great to hear his ground-breakingly (at the time) explicit and yet multi-layered gay sex scenes praised.

And this, in turn, leads to gender and sexual orientation in narrative perspective, both author’s and characters’ (because the two can never be entirely disconnected).  Katherine made a really interesting (and rather satisfying) point that for once the odds are stacked against the straight male author who is, rightly or wrongly – and it’s important to acknowledge that this is completely unfair in some cases – associated with the prevailing ‘male gaze’ which underpins many of the sexual stereotypes and prejudices which surround us, notably regarding the objectification of the female body for male gratification combined with the censure of real women’s sexuality.  (I admit it – double standards are my soapbox topic.) Does the fact that ours has not been the dominant perspective for centuries make it easier for women and gay men to find something fresh to say about sex?

(By the way, don’t miss Saleem Haddad’s guest essay earlier this week on Shelving the ‘Gay Novel’.)

perfume-river-dedicationThe final point of the evening that feels very significant was made by Robert Olen Butler when he spoke of the need to write from the ‘white hot centre’ – driven by instinct and the sub-conscious, that is, not by intellect – with the quest of ‘finding the other’.  As an author much lauded for his ability to write intimately from a woman’s perspective and to write about Vietnamese refugees as convincingly as if he were one, it is not surprising that he believes ‘shared humanity’ is the most important factor in literature and that artists ‘can leap over boundaries of fact and differences’.  This constitutes a challenging view in the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation, and whilst mindful of the many sensitive and complex issues it raises, I must say I’m wary of the idea of telling writers what they can and can’t touch.  I guess it all comes back to ‘absolute freedom’ – ultimately there are no rules.

The Good Sex Night was a fabulous celebration of freedom, of openness, of the written word.  Many thanks to all involved.


Given the subject of this piece, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to two authors: the extraordinary Anglo-French writer Michèle Roberts, whose Word Factory masterclasses on sex writing have been a huge inspiration.  You can get a taste in her lecture On the Erotic Imagination at Goldsmith’s here.  The other is Nicholas Hogg, whose novel Tokyo contains by far the most erotic, frankly very hot, scene I have read this year.  We’re not all turned on by the same things, obviously, and I’m doing you a favour not going into detail as it’s a very good book all round.





About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


12 thoughts on “Good Sex Night at Waterstones Gower Street

  1. Isabel, thanks so much for attending the Good Sex Night at Waterstone’s and reporting on it. I felt as if I attended as well as I read your piece. Stimulating discussion and valid points — especially Butler’s comments about the danger of lifting passages and removing all context, which has the potential to render anything ‘meaningless in art’. When I read the “Bad Sex” article I felt nothing but empathy and sadness for the authors, all of whom I am sure struggle to make each word matter. Ethan Canin in particular is an exceptional writer who did not deserve to be singled out on the basis of sex scenes out of context. And let’s face it, the annual bad sex list is juvenile. How about a bad battle scene? Bad dialogue? Bad description? Nah. Not as apt to get the clicks.

    Thanks again for your blog — I look forward to it.

    Posted by Lorraine Norwood | December 3, 2016, 17:47
    • Thanks for your comment, Lorraine – I’m really pleased you enjoyed the post. Like you I feel badly for the writers singled out. I have heard one well-known author I hugely admire say that being shortlisted prevented her from approaching this kind of scene for over a year, which is simply awful. Regarding this year’s, in one instance I agreed with the judges’ analysis of the extract in every respect and felt that way at the time of reading the novel, but even that in no way legitimises the exercise – it is, as you say, juvenile and not a little spiteful.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 3, 2016, 18:15
  2. “Peter feels that bad sex writing tends toward absurdity, and to focus excessively on the mechanics.” – Yes, yes, exactly this! I find myself cringing most when the descriptions are of the “and then he did this, and then she did that, and then he put his [noun] in her [noun]” variety. I think this is why Eimear McBride in The Lesser Bohemians makes it work so well; she’s so much more interested in the emotional and intellectual side of sex, the actual *experience* of it, than most other writers.

    Posted by Elle | December 3, 2016, 18:06
    • I’ve heard good things about the new McBride and must read it soon. On the whole I’m inclined to agree with you about the mechanics but I think some people can get away with all kinds of things. Authors as diverse as Anais Nin and Rob Doyle prove (to me) that it’s possible to combine the explicit with sensuality, emotional candor or some kind of philosophical point, however unlikely that may sound!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 3, 2016, 18:19
      • No no I think you’re right! It’s just so much easier to sound like a poor transcription of someone’s embarrassing personal fantasy when it’s focused purely on the action…

        Posted by Elle | December 3, 2016, 18:40
  3. It was a delight to meet you, Isabel. I write this at Heathrow at the very end of the massive book tour that climaxed (ah, no pun intended, though I am obviously letting it stand) with that fascinating Waterstone’s panel. Thank you so much for your kind words. (One small factual correction. My novel total is not quite so staggering . It is only 16, with six volumes of short stories.) One of my first pleasant tasks when I get home is to purchase and read your novel. I hope to see you again someday.

    Posted by Robert Olen Butler | December 4, 2016, 08:48
    • Thank you for your lovely message, Robert. It was wonderful to meet you and hear you talk about writing. Hope you had a good trip home and that you enjoy the book – I have a few of yours lined up to keep the inspiration going!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | December 5, 2016, 08:50
  4. A really interesting post, Isabel. I find that sex scenes are both difficult and easy: difficult and inhibiting if I start to think about potential readers, and easy if I treat them in the same way as I would write any other scene.

    Posted by Claire Fuller | December 4, 2016, 11:07


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