Bad sex writing is often a tough guy act

Dec 6, 2011
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‘Poetic language comes in handy when one sits down to pen a good literary sex scene, as evident in the work of Jeanette Winterson.’ Photograph: David Levene
The Literary Review’s bad sex awards are upon us once more – a “warm, wet” season of soul-searching on that most enduring of subjects: why on earth does so much good fiction feature so much bad sex writing? The answer, I think, is simple. Good fiction features a lot of bad sex writing for the same reason as porn actors (Sasha Grey immediately springs to mind) have a tough time crossing over into mainstream film – society’s desperate need to compartmentalise sex.

Literature should be, well, literary, we reason – for stimulation of the brain, not other parts. The ghettoisation of eroticism is the reason why you’d be hard pressed to find a “serious” book review that praises an author’s approach to sex scenes, no matter how difficult they may have been to write.

And the bar for literature is set pretty low – when reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I was practically applauding Cecilia and Robbie’s fateful library congress. After all, it didn’t revolt me. It was kind of sweet, actually. It even made me smile. Certainly, the line that these old childhood friends had instantly achieved a “tremendous change” that allowed them to recognise each other’s beauty carried psychological insight that made the scene come together (pun not intended – and anyway, poor Robbie and Cecilia don’t get that far). Sex between two people who’ve known each other for years and have suddenly realised they are in love can be pretty awkward, but describing it doesn’t have to be so, assuming the author is charitable towards readers and characters alike. And, much like characters in an American horror movie, Robbie and Cecilia are doomed to tragedy – so a brief moment of fun is the least they deserve.

Good writers are hyper-aware, neurotic creatures, which is probably another reason why so many tend to fail miserably (or entertainingly) when writing about an activity that puts much of the brain on autopilot. Some writers appear to accept their own hyper-awareness and run with it, like Audrey Niffenegger did in The Time Traveler’s Wife. As an in-depth exploration of the marriage, the book devotes a healthy portion of the narrative to sex, married and otherwise.

Niffenegger’s heroes quite literally inhabit different timelines, and Henry, the time traveller, meets his wife, Clare, when the latter is a child. Instead of writing a Nabokovian horror show, however, Niffenegger weaves a different tale altogether, one in which the human desire for intimacy battles time as if time were a super-villain. When Clare loses her virginity to Henry on her 18th birthday after years of waiting, the scene is expectedly awkward and romantic, with Henry briefly contemplating the fact that humans are “strange creatures”.

Poetic language comes in handy when one sits down to pen a good literary sex scene, as evident in the work of Jeanette Winterson. Winterson is a scholar of passion, and a fearless chronicler of physical processes. In Written on the Body, a menstruating woman “smells like a gun”; compare that for a moment with bad sex award nominee Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe, where a phrase such as “moist meat” is by far not the worst thing to happen to the reader. Winterson does not rely on pretty imagery and inventive simile alone, of course – she has a sense of rhythm, proportion and humour, her characters exhibiting just the right amount of self-deprecation alongside desire. The ungendered protagonist of Written on the Body makes fun of themselves for falling for the glorious, redheaded, married Louise – so that the reader is never swamped with pathos.

Good sex writers, like bad sex writers, explore the dark side of desire. But bad sex writing is often a tough guy act – an attempt to intimidate the reader with shocking detail – whereas good sex writers invite the reader to explore strange territory.

Bad sex writing, of course, has its place in literature – and some of it is so bad, that it’s actually good (just check out bad sex award nominee Lee Child). I just wish it didn’t take up quite so much space. There is a lot of it and it can spring on you quite unannounced, and I, for one, don’t want to be repeatedly punished with bad sex scenes in exchange for good character development, or what have you. A little pleasure for pleasure’s sake has never struck me as anti-intellectual.

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