BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Monday, 30 November 2009

Is it difficult to write well about sex?

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards include some of writing's biggest names. So, do authors find it difficult to write about sex?

Over the years, some of literature's most glittering names have competed for one of its least coveted prizes.

A couple in bed
Making out with a 'little pot of fire' as Salman Rushdie would have it

Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, John Updike and Philip Roth are titans among novelists, generally acclaimed for their representations of every kind of human experience - except one.

When writing about sex, says the Literary Review magazine, their standards slip.

All of these illustrious names have at some point been shortlisted for the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, which were set up by the magazine's editor Auberon Waugh in 1993, to try to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel".

This year's offending passages do not immediately scream "guilty" on these three counts.

Among the nominees is Roth...

It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be

...Paul Theroux...

Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four, and as she touched she made me weightless, lifting me off the table in a prolonged ritual of levitation

...Booker Prize winner John Banville...

She puts her hands flat against his chest and leans into him in a simulacrum of a swoon, making a mewling sound

and musician Nick Cave...

Bunny lies on his back on the sofa. He is naked and his clothes sit in sad, little heaps on the living room floor
Giles Coren
Food critic and novelist Giles Coren, who won in 2005

"It's only difficult to write about sex if you're a smutty little schoolboy. My passage wasn't very well written so I haven't got anything to defend, but really I was just the most well-known person who was prepared to show up and who had published a book with any sex in it. The reason the award exists is because of a very defeatist, embarrassing, self-flagellatory approach to literature. It's an anti-literature award."

Do even the best writers lose their touch when it comes to the most intimate of scenes?

Booker Prize judge Lucasta Miller says sex has been at the centre of most of Western literature for centuries but too much of it nowadays reads like a "biology textbook".

"A trap people fall into is an earnest anatomical description of sex. The difficulty with the anatomical is that it can read like a bit of a textbook.

"To stop it doing so, they will put in flowery metaphors from the animal kingdom, but you don't need that detail.

"When people use similes and metaphors in their anatomical depictions of the sexual organs, it's toe-curling and embarrassing."

You can write about sex in that way comically, she says, as JM Coetzee does very successfully in Summertime.

Instead, she says, authors should relate the emotion of sex, to stir the imagination of readers.

It's not something I find difficult to approach but in teaching writing workshops, I know many writers do find it difficult but that's to do with the reader, not the writer
Stella Duffy

"What do you read novels for? Because you are interested in the characters and their emotional state. That's the difference between porn and art."

Sex is a subject best avoided altogether, says Melissa Katsoulis, a literary reviewer for the Times.

"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."

Readers' fault

But one author says the problem is not with the writer, but with the reader.

[Boonyi] pulled her phiran and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked except for the little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot
Extract from Shalimar the Clown, by Salman Rushdie, nominated in 2005

"People will always assume that I've had the sex I've written about, but not the murder I've written about or the flight across the sky in the magical realist novel I've written," says crime novelist Stella Duffy.

"At that point, the critic sitting on the writer's shoulder starts to shout 'They're going to think it's you!' so a lot of writers just don't bother."

For the same reason, many writers become self-conscious and the writing suffers, says Ms Duffy, who advises other authors not to apply the same rules of writing to the subject of sex. Changing the tense or the viewpoint may help.

And why are so many men nominated for the Bad Sex award, but not women?

"In my experience men are not any worse at writing about sex, but perhaps people are just not used to hearing men in our culture talking about sexuality and sensuality."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I never know what most sex scenes are trying to achieve in books (and in other media, come to that). It's hard to tell if they're going for an emotional response from the reader or just arousal. I think the problem is that the reader doesn't know either and ends up reading the scene and trying to take the wrong thing from it.
Alexander, Durham

Terry Pratchett should win some sort of prize for the most understated sex scene ever. "After a short while, the bedsprings went 'gloing'"
Chris Boote, London, UK

I suspect the reason authors don't write well about sex is that they can't, but they think the readers want and expect it, when in fact they don't. Hence they resort to clumsy metaphors. When they do write explicitly, it still comes out clumsy, and they all seem to write the same thing, as if from a standard manual. A particularly excruciating example is Stuart Woods in his otherwise entertaining 'Stone Barrington' novels. Two examples of authors writing really well about sex are: 'The Case of Lucy Bending' by Lawrence Sanders and 'Big Time' by Marcel Montecino, both excellent stories in themselves.
Jim Robertson, East Kilbride

There are loads of great sex scenes and scenes of eroticism that occur in literature and the idea that they all occur 'when hardly anything happens' is nonsense - Crash by JG Ballard, Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis and Porno by Irvine Welsh all have some great full-on sex scenes, to name but a few...
Steve Banks, Borehamwood

Thank you for thrusting the rapier of enquiry into the delicate flower of this subject.
Edward James, Southport

As a writer myself I have trouble writing sex from time to time, but mostly because I don't want to fall into the trap of sounding like an excerpt from a dime-store smut novel. Most of the time it's rather laughable to me that a reader would expect that I've had the sex I'm writing about; I'm a woman, I don't know what a guy feels, gay or straight, but I can sure make some educated guesses. A lot of times writing sex is one part knowing how it works, one part knowing your characters and two parts actual creative skill. I've seen magical scenes that were "blurry watercolours" and others that were intensely detailed. In my opinion half the fun of writing romance is seeing the vulnerability that emerges from characters in those scenes. Just like in real life, you learn the most about someone from what they're like in those moments and sometimes it completely changes the way you see not only the character but yourself.
Stephanie , Milwaukee, WI, USA

I'm of the school of thought that if a writer can't describe a sex scene, they should do like old films and just pan the camera away, so to speak!
Sam Valdes Lopez, Sheffield

Films don't depict sex very well either, there's an obvious reason, to depict sex well, you depicts something that recreates sex in all it's sticky mechanics and endings. That's porn. And we don't need porn in our films and books, because we prefer to be able to read them without having to deal the distractions that porn brings. In the same way that you don't swallow at wine tastings, as you'll just get drunk. However if people think they're writing intensely erotically on the subject when they write such nonsense, perhaps they should just avoid it altogether and stick with the time honoured metaphor of a train going into a tunnel.
Nic, Nottingham

Not all scenes tend to be embarrassing or awkward. I particularly find the scenes in Neil Gaiman's work to be particularly... effective. There are some great sections of prose in his work Smoke & Mirrors, and especially the scene in American Gods when the main character copulates in a trance-like dream with a mysterious feline god. I think it depends on how comfortable the author feels about the subject and how well they relate to audience.
Paul Barnes, Aberdeen, UK

I hate to say it but there's a distinct difference in how men and women write about sex and in how they read about sex too. I reckon it's part of the old 'Men are from Mars...' thing. Men and Women have fundamentally different approaches to sex. I think most blokes would probably expect sex in a book to be a bit titillating, and likely be keener on more physical descriptions. I think most blokes don't mind being strung a long a little to build the tension, but we demand that it happens eventually, and when it does, the intensity should equate to the build-up. I think only women could be satisfied by reading something where nothing actually happens...
Richard B, London

As a woman I find sex scenes in books don't cover the emotions the character is feeling which seems strange to me as there are some very powerful emotions in sex - love, lust, passion, romance, security, vulnerability, trust, desire, jealousy etc...we all know about the mechanics, its how you experience it that makes it unique to you.

I'm 97,000 words into a sort of vampire novel which has as its main protagonist, a female vampire. Just like humans she enjoys sex. Writing about it is pretty tricky: I worry about what other people will think of me when they read it and I worry about the words I should use, and how repetitive they might become. Despite this, I plough on: the only way to do it is to use all the words at your disposal, your experience in the field and your imagination - as long as the words are appropriate and necessary. The only word I've drawn a a line at is the C word, but only because it's not necessary to use it. You have to be as honest and as straightforward as you can be. If you feel you can't do it, then you should stop, drop a few hints as to what's going to happen next and allow the reader's imagination to do the work. As for avoiding it altogether, what rubbish! Writers should rise to the challenge, not run away from it - it's only words, they're not bullets. And how very British to make it funny, anything but be honest and open, anything to avoid being embarrassed.
Mick Davidson

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