‘Well, I’ve never heard it called that before’: Good & Bad Sex in Fiction

Telle me also, to what conclusioun
Were membres maad of generacioun
And of so parfit wys a wright y-wroght?
Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght
.

– Chaucer, ‘The Prologe of the Wyves Tale of Bathe’ (c. 1386)

Thank you all again for such an enthusiastic response to my list of Top Ten Writing Mistakes. I’m delighted that so many writers feel that this is of value, and thank you all for liking, sharing and re-blogging. You are stars. Number Nine (‘Bad Sex’) seems to have set fire to a fair few haystacks, so, as promised, here are some further thoughts on writing about sex. Not that I have all the answers – I just have my preferences like everybody else.

Regarding Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s always difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. But when you criticise a bestseller, especially if you write yourself, a common rejoinder is that you’re jealous. Similarly, if it’s raunchy, you come across all square-toed, which is how Rowan Somerville challenged the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award, accusing the magazine of trying to ‘shut down literature’s erotic side’ (Independent, November 30, 2012). Somerville had won in 2010 for his novel The Shape of Her, which clinched it with the line: ‘like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.’ The award, it will be remembered, was established in order ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.’

So just to clear this up in advance, what I’m commenting on here is purely the technical structure of this (and any other) novel and its style. As Oscar Wilde wrote in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’

In terms of quality control, Fifty Shades of Grey is the exception that proves the rule, and every year some jammy beggar gets away with it so don’t bother fretting. Success in the creative arts is as much a matter of blind luck as genuine talent. This novel is also a very good example of what can be achieved if you self-publish and let the market decide. In this case, the market decided that what it wanted was rambling, inexpertly composed soft-core pornography, reflecting a hegemonic desire to be f—ed by the rich – what Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones called ‘Double-Dip Fiction’ (Introduction to Unthology 3, 2012). The ‘market’ apparently didn’t know about Black Lace Books, which are much better crafted works of erotic fiction, and understand what Angela Carter called the ‘Sadeian Woman.’ As Andrew O’Hagan noted, ‘It’s not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E.L. James’ other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote’ (London Review of Books, July 19, 2012).

E.L. James can laugh all the way to the bank either way; but once you’ve committed something to print, you have to live with it, so you might as well try to do it as well as you can, right?

Leaving erotic fiction aside – the stated purpose of which is to titillate – no non-trivial piece of fiction can ignore adult sexuality if the characters are to have any real sense of emotional depth. Let’s face it, it’s the motor that drives us – it has to be, otherwise the dinosaurs would still be in charge. The problem is, however, that sex itself is very difficult to write about. It’s one of those human experiences in which the more intense the feeling, the harder it is to articulate in any meaningful or authentic way. Quite frankly, it’s a representational minefield. As far as I can tell from my reading (done purely in the interests of scholarship, naturally), when writing about sex the author is immediately limited, pretty much, to the following descriptive options:

  1. Symbolism
  2. Euphemism
  3. Allusion – often to eating (I blame Shakespeare and Henry Fielding)
  4. Clinical description
  5. Pornography and obscenity
  6. Hyperbole and hyper-reality (Superhuman stamina, supernatural appendages, god-like perfection)
  7. Humour
  8. Suggestion and understatement

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover (originally written in 1928), D.H. Lawrence famously chose the fifth option but elevated to the sublime, and if you look at the transcripts of the obscenity trial against Penguin Books after their publication of the unexpurgated edition in 1960, you can see how much this approach divided readers, and how many didn’t get it. As the Prosecuting Counsel, John Mervyn Griffiths-Jones, famously asked of the jury, ‘Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ Lawrence somehow managed to communicate that addicted animal passion that maybe comes along once or twice in a lifetime, but it’s a difficult trick to pull off and some of the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover look rather purple now:

Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange thrills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to a culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity. This was different, different. She could do nothing. She could no longer harden and grip for her own satisfaction upon him. She could only wait, wait and moan in spirit and she felt him withdrawing, withdrawing and contracting, coming to the terrible moment when he would slip out of her and be gone.

So saying, in the context of the modernist period to which it belongs, the novel is as innovative and radical as the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and, on the whole, still really rather beautiful.

To offer a few more contemporary examples, some of the above points can be illustrated by the shortlist of last year’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award – I wouldn’t necessarily call these ‘bad’ in context, and wish the authors all the best, but see what you think:

SYMBOLIC:

The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice. – Manil Suri, The City of Devi (This was the winner, by the way)

CLINICAL:

But phew she too seemed to be surfing the waves of neuromuscular euphoria, so that as, sweating, panting, he bowed his forehead to her chest, she gripped him tight, her sharp nails stabbing; and then they were grinning and kissing each other’s noses, cheeks; and then they lay entangled for a moment, breathing; and then they rose, one after another, went for a piss, came back and settled into bed again. – Matthew Reynolds, The World Was All Before Them

PORNOGRAPHIC:

She moves her hips, pushing him deeper into her all the time, and as she does so she whispers, ‘F— me now, Lawrence. F— me now.’ – William Nicholson, Motherland

EPICUREAN:

In my mouth her nipple turned from strawberry to deep raspberry but the taste I wanted was missing. I had sweat and what had to be soap from washing her dress or herself. Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it. – Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet

Not every category is represented, however, so let me just fill in the gaps with a few classics:

EUPHEMISTIC:

Her sturdy stallion had now unbutton’d, and produced naked, stiff, and erect, that wonderful machine, which I had never seen before, and which, for the interest my own seat of pleasure began to take furiously in it, I star’d at with all the eyes I had: however, my senses were too much flurried, too much concenter’d in that now burning spot of mine, to observe any thing more than in general the make and turn of that instrument, from which the instinct of nature, yet more than all I had heard of it, now strongly informed me I was to expect that supreme pleasure which she had placed in the meeting of those parts so admirably fitted for each other. – John Cleland, Fanny Hill

SUPERHUMAN:

It’s so big and growing. His erection is above the water line, the water lapping at his hips. I glance up at him and come face to face with his wicked grin. He’s enjoying my astounded expression. I realize that I’m staring. I swallow. That was inside me! It doesn’t seem possible … Quickly, he clambers out of the bath, giving me my first full glimpse of the Adonis, di­vinely formed, that is Christian Grey. My inner goddess has stopped dancing and is staring too, mouth open and drooling slightly. His erection tamed, but still substantial… wow. – You know what this is

HUMOUROUS:

There was a gentle evening haze, I remember, and a warm sun setting on a glorious day, and after a mile or two I suggested we stop and ramble along the thickets by the waterside. Miss Elspeth was eager, so we left the pony grazing and went into a little copse. I suggested we sit down, and Miss Elspeth was eager again – that glorious vacant smile informed me. I believe I murmured a few pleasantries, played with her hair, and then kissed her. Miss Elspeth was more eager still. Then I got to work in earnest, and Miss Elspeth’s eagerness knew no bounds. I had great red claw-marks on my back for a fortnight after. – George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman

ALLUSIVE:

The spiralling tornado of Fevvers’ laughter began to twist and shudder across the entire globe, as if a spontaneous response to the giant comedy that endlessly unfolded beneath it, until everything that lived and breathed, everywhere, was laughing. Or so it seemed to the deceived husband, who found himself laughing too, even if he was not quite sure whether or not he might be the butt of the joke. Fevvers, sputtering to a stop at last, crouched above him, covering his face with kisses. Oh, how pleased with him she was! – Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus

UNDERSTATED:

And then I go to the bathroom, and clean my teeth; and then I come back; and then we make love; and then we talk for a bit; and then we turn the light out and that’s it. I’m not going into all that other stuff, the who-did-what-to-who stuff. You know ‘Behind Closed Doors’ by Charlie Rich? That’s one of my favourite songs. – Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

SUGGESTIVE:

When he came back he ran up the stairs, swept me up into his arms and carried me into the bedroom.

‘You get an extra chocolate for being lovely even when you’re squiffy,’ he said, taking a foil-wrapped chocolate heart out of his pocket. And then … Mmmmmm. – Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary

You’ll note that like Vladimir Propp’s ‘31 Functions of the Folk Tale’ different elements can be combined, so the Helen Fielding example is epicurean as well, Fifty Shades of Grey is clinical, pornographic, and laden with hyperbole, while Fanny Hill also manages to be very funny and just plain filthy.

Carter, Hornby and Fielding all get my ‘Good Sex’ prize for subtle representation. As it’s so difficult to write about the physical act itself, why bother? High Fidelity and its feminine double, for example, are novels about love and interpersonal relationships rather than sex, so it would just interrupt the narrative to explicitly depict all that hair pulling and rolling about, even though male and female sexuality is implicit throughout both texts. The scene from Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus concludes this remarkable novel with a life-affirming shag, as the heroes bow out in love, married, and in bed. It’s a sexy scene without any sex, the physical joy expressed as unrestrained laughter. This is similar to the exultant cry of ‘Yes’ that concludes Joyce’s Ulysses, which I now present as the editors choice:

PURE GENIUS:

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know … Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. – James Joyce, Ulysses.

In this concluding passage from Ulysses, Joyce’s contemporary Penelope, the middle-aged Molly Bloom, ruminates about her day, her lover, and her husband. As she free-associates, her thoughts return repeatedly to the day her husband won her heart and the couple made love on Howth Head, northeast of Dublin, sixteen years since. The memory builds in intensity to a final moment of physical and epiphanic climax in the past and the present. Lush.

In my own particular pirate’s code of practical prose, my advice on writing about sex generally follows the clarion call of the Bauhaus with regard to the removal of clutter and ornament in design, both in how often you deploy the sex scene, and how it is actually described. As Mies van der Rohe famously put it, ‘Less is more,’ or to return to Andrew O’Hagan’s elegant review of Fifty Shades of Grey, ‘it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.’ Unless your chosen genre is erotic fiction or good, honest pornography (in which, apparently, there should be at least two significant sexual encounters in each chapter), the sex scene should be a plot device. This does not mean that you should censor your writing – you should simply be aware of purpose of the scene: does it, for example, reveal something important about a primary character; does it move the main story arc or back story forward; is it essential to narrative pacing? Only you can decide if you need sex in your novel, and, if yes, how you’re going to do it and how much. If no, then don’t even try. As Newman and Mittelmark advise, ‘if you are uncomfortable writing it, we are liable to be uncomfortable reading it.’

I’m not, by the way, ruling out the commercial use of the gratuitous sex scene. I have heard it whispered in the dark haunts where agents gather that the secret of a good first act is ‘a fight or a f— in the first five pages’ (I know, depressing, isn’t it?), but tread carefully here, as ever. Remember the minefield. How many times has a gratuitous love scene in a book or a movie broken up the narrative flow, destabilised a character portrait, or otherwise annoyed you? And if this type of thing irritates you, chances are it will also bug the hell out of your audience.

Sex in general fiction should be treated like any other plot device. Its application depends on genre, theme and context, and at the end of the day it’s really all about character – as noted in Numbers Two and Three of my modest narratological Top Ten. If you know your characters well, and know how to describe their inner processes, appearance and actions with originality and style then their sexuality should emerge in much the same way as their voice. And there are many forms and expressions of human sexuality; some folks are shy, self-conscious, coy, controlling, shallow, over-confident, under-confident, young, old, hot, cold, innocent, experienced, inept, or just plain weird – use them all. Use your own inner monkey as well – think about what you find exciting or erotic and filter that through the minds of the characters you have created. Make a note of anything you read in this regard that seems to be genuinely effective, and study the real failures. When writing, avoid also casual and institutionalised sexism, and wish-fulfilment – guys, I’m talking to you, you are not James Bond – and if at all possible get a member of the opposite sex to check characters you’ve written across your own gender, and listen to what they say.

In conclusion, then, there aren’t, as ever, any easy answers, other than to be aware of the narrative codes in which you are working – the different approaches available in the literary and para-literary representation of sex and sexuality – and to know your own text, characters, theme and style. As a broad rule, if it helps, unless you’re writing hardcore or the theme of your novel is sexuality and desire (as was Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her) à la John Updike or Charles Bukowski, setting and anticipation is probably the key. In more general fiction, regardless of subject or genre, the implication invariably seems sexier than the full-on romp, while this approach also avoids sensationalism, plot interruption, and the gruelling horror of good sex gone bad. Don’t take my word for it though; read around, decide what you think works, and what does not. Be willing to experiment as a writer, discard passages that don’t feel right, and accept that you’ll need to do a lot of re-drafting. A good sex scene can give your novel a bit of sizzle, but, just like the real thing, it can also go horribly wrong, so always be ready with the blue pencil. As Kenneth Williams was fond of saying, ‘Whenever see innuendo in a script I whip it out immediately.’

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8 thoughts on “‘Well, I’ve never heard it called that before’: Good & Bad Sex in Fiction”

  1. Exactly! This is a very good essay, and illustrates how the problem isn’t ‘bad sex’.

    I’ll come clean:

    I’m a mainstream author and poet, but more than a decade ago, before I actually became a mainstream author and poet, I cut my teeth on erotica. Someone drew my attention to a couple of stories on an ‘erotic fiction’ (read ‘self-indulgent do-it-yourself porn’) site, and I thought “Stone me! I can write better than that!” So I started to do so. The first thing I realised was that the story was important, the fiction had to be good, otherwise it was simply a masturbatory fantasy and nothing more. I wrote stories were lovers had false starts in bed, cried, laughed, lost time completely, got cramp, and – yes – even had moments of perfection. I used vernacular terms or modest terms for their bodies as the context demanded, I had characters fixated on a single word (Molly Bloom and that wonderful passage seeded with “yes… yes… yes…” Wow! Yeah, I get it JJ, I get it, man!), I used metaphor if it seemed that a metaphor was needed. I cut away if the ‘voice’ of the narrative wanted a moment of privacy and I, the author, wanted the readers to use their imagination. I think the turning point came about the time I wrote a four-chapter piece of fiction about the relationship between an upper-class woman and a woman who had been her maid when they were both children; there was a scene where a third party made love with the ex-maid and made her feel special for (perhaps) the first time; there was a scene in the London Blitz where a character gets through a rape by losing herself in thinking about the philosopher Kant, and afterwards regards herself as how England would be if it let the enemy in, feeling that she had capitulated almost willingly to her violator – tricky to explain unless you actually read it. The story had taken over completely from the sex. In the very next story I wrote, the two main characters got as far as a single kiss at a bus-stop, and I realised that the story wouldn’t be made any better if they made love, so I stopped it there. I had arrived in the mainstream.

    I won’t say I never wrote a sex scene after that moment, but you know what I mean.

    Anyhow, I just thought I would visit and leave a note of appreciation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First off I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing. I have had a tough time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any ideas or tips? Many thanks!

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    1. Hi North Face Backpack Hiking, Great question! Obviously I can only answer for myself, and I expect there are lots of brilliant and Zen ways of clearing one’s mind that I know nothing about. Anyway, I write around a young family and a very hectic professional life, which means I’ve learned to snatch pieces of quiet time in which to write, although I have managed to retain a routine whereby I write every night for a couple of hours when my son goes to sleep. This means I’ve accidently trained myself to be very efficient at getting started, but I tend to block out ideas in my head in quite a meditative way in advance, if and when I grab a few moments to myself. When I was working on my last big project (which was a historical novel) I used to figure out what I was going to write first thing in the morning before anybody else was awake, or in the bath (the problem in the latter case being remembering long enough to write it all down!). So I guess, for me, the compositional process starts way before I sit down and try and write anything. For more general advice, on the other hand, it seems to be accepted among authors that when you begin a writing session expect to spend the first 30 minutes or so banging out less than perfect material until you tune in. I think the main thing to do is just keep writing because it is much easier to edit and redraft something than to do it from scratch. In that sense I don’t believe in ‘writers block’ any more, although I used to when I was younger. My favourite quotation on this is from James Thurber who advised ‘Don’t get it right just get it written.’ Another good trick is to start each session revising what you wrote in the last. Hope this helps. Best Wishes

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