Sex. Yes, dirty word, sex. I’d like to thank the geniuses behind some of our biggest e-book retailers for inspiring this weeks’ column. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, take a look here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-24491723.
The Well of Loneliness, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Delta of Venus…Classics? Well, I’ve only read one of them (I’ll let you guess which) but certainly they’ve all come in for plenty of flak in their time. They’ve all been banned. They’ve all been accused of encouraging (or exemplifying) ‘moral degeneracy’.
As I said, I’ve only read one of them – but I’ve read a lot in my time, read a lot of sex, and I think I’m moderately normal and no more degenerate than the rest of the herd. In fact, my first encounter with the adult world was through books. Of course, I’m not talking about the sort of things that’ve caused Kobo to temporarily suspend their entire self-published list. But take another look at the titles I’ve listed above: pederasty? Check. Homosexuality? Check and check. Public masturbation? You get the idea.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think books about incest should appear on the screen when someone enters the word ‘daddy’. You have the right to be offended by this. But the stupidity lies on the fault of the companies, not the authors. Especially not by authors who made no attempt to hide the nature of their works.
Which leads me ask: why is it so notoriously hard to write a good sex scene?
Sex is one of the most natural things in the world. Most people who are looking to put out books will have had it at some point. It’s been depicted in the cinemas for decades, either via insinuation or full exposure and all degrees in between. So why do authors struggle so?
There are, I think, two aspects to good sex. One is the mechanical pleasures – the fleshly sensations of squishing together with your partner. The other is the emotional: the reading of the senses, the instincts for touch, for whispers: that which bonds you (or not, if you’re writing a different kind of scene) to your partner and has very little to do with sticking it in and wiggling around a bit.
I’ve never written a sex scene – not what I’d call a proper full-on graphic account of hot hard rumpy-pumpy. I was planning on putting two in Chivalry, but when it came to it I ducked out. This is partly because I believe that the most vital images are in the readers’ head and, with a good enough set-up, the reader will create anything better than I could. In this regard I’m influenced heavily by American films from the 40s and 50s, when the Hays Code was in force and film-makers were severely constrained as to what they could show on-screen. The response was to insinuate sex: oh, Lauren Bacall! Those classic films noir; never more than a kiss, but the subtext…
The other main reason for not writing sex – and, indeed, it can stop people writing at all – is that someone’s going to read what you’ve done. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It may seem obvious – of course it’s obvious – but you’ve got to show what you’ve done to other people. Writing is a terribly personal thing. It’s so exposing. You’re putting your heart and soul into every word; the characters are a part of you – and not necessarily a nice part. It takes courage to present others with what you’ve done; you’re exposing your naked flesh to the world. And sex – especially anything even faintly ‘other’ – can be a step too far for an author.
I’m a member of a writing group. Every month or so I’ll take an extract of my writing and read it out. I’ll then get instant feedback from a disparate group of people (alright, not that disparate. I do live in Oxfordshire). I’ve never tried a sex scene out on them. I’ve never heard anyone else try it either. It’s not at all as if we’re prudish (I’ve dropped a few ‘c’-bombs and an ‘mf’-bomb in my time to a complete lack of flabbergastedness) but still – how comfortable would I be about this?
And then there’s the fact that my parents read my work. Hi, Mum, if you’re reading this.
So why should you write sex? Why even try? Well, for one thing, sex is normal. Lots of people do it. It can very quickly look as if you’re a bit strange if you constantly skirt around the edges. And it’s popular. Who doesn’t like a good sex scene? And it can be comic, or threatening, or boring…
And that’s the real reason. And it’s why a good sex scene is one that shows how people are thinking: not only is it more involving, a good sex session can tell us far more about the novel’s protagonist(s) then almost any other type of scene. It shows us if they’re happy, dull, adventurous, dangerous… It can set up a novel (disappointing sex showing us the character is at the start of his journey), or be the big game-changing valedictory fuck in the middle. It is an incredibly useful tool for letting us know the dynamics of a relationship.
So why do authors get them so wrong?
The two main sins, I feel are to either be too mechanical (‘I did this. She did that. I cried out in joy…’) or to get all poetic and ‘literary’. I suppose this happens because – well, it’s what writing is, right? To find new, true, ways of saying what we all know; to describe events – ordinary or extreme – with subtlety and insight. That’s the aim. And a lot’s been said about sex over the years. How many new ways of describing the act can we come up with? ‘He ploughed her fertile delta, wondering – always wondering, dreaming, delighting, fearing – whether this time, this time, his seed would find purchase in her soil.’
So: problems technical and personal. That’s why so many people duck sex or write it badly. My advice? For what it’s worth, always keep in mind that these aren’t robots you’re describing (unless they are) – they’re people and have reasons for wanting – or just having – sex. And those reasons tell us a lot about the person you’re inhabiting.
My favourite sex scene? Actually, I don’t think it’s that erotic, but in the context of wonderfully drawn romance, my props go to Jane Fletcher and The Walls of Westernfort.
That is all.