Bad writing approximately sex is worse than terrible intercourse. There’s so much horrific writing about sex that when you consider that 1993, Britain’s Literary Review has posted an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, regularly perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the cutting-edge novel, and to deter it.” Well, maybe that’s a moderate exaggeration. But don’t we all groan while, within the midst of an otherwise flawlessly decent novel, we come across a passage with heaving breasts and fiery loins?
As a family newspaper, I can’t provide an excerpt from James Frey’s “Katerina,” winner of the 2018 Bad Sex in Fiction first prize. Here’s a snippet from 2017 runner-up Venetia Welby’s novel, “Mother of Darkness”: “The inexperienced grass curls around Tera’s left breast as she curves her smooth physique round Matty’s diabolical torso like a vine. Paralyzed, complete, the marble statue of the lovers allows itself to be painted using the dawn’s lurid orange spillage.” Longtime Bay Area novelist and writing teacher Ellen Sussman, creator of “Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex,” says, “I think that in writing approximately sex, writers get a chance to faucet into unexplored territory. They push beneath the surface of relationships, of ardor, of our urges and want and desires.”
Sussman doesn’t turn away from writing approximately intercourse in her personal novels (“A Night Like This,” “A Wedding in Provence,” “French Lessons,” “The Paradise Guest House”), and explains she tries to study the subject from a slant in place of instantly on. “I try to focus on something aside from the genitals … otherwise, we get into the whole throbbing member aspect.” Sussman makes an amazing point. Elizabeth Benedict, inside the establishing of her book “The Joy of Writing Sex,” charges from a letter Anais Nin wrote to a man paying her $1 a web page to jot down erotic testimonies: “Sex needs to be blended with tears, laughter, words, guarantees, scenes, jealousy, envy, all the spices of fear, foreign tour, new faces, novels, tales, desires, fantasies, tune, dancing, opium, wine.”
So it seems the fine writing comes with a less-is-more technique vis-a-vis the real bodily act and more-is-extra concerning the context. In Kent Haruf’s quiet, lovable “Our Souls at Night,” the two essential characters, who’re 80-somethings, revel in intimacy long earlier than they get to intercourse. And after they eventually do, it’s described with notable restraint — and all of the more impactful for that.
Clearly, any opinion about the fine of writing about sex relies upon the orientation of the reader. A straight guy reads a sex scene otherwise than a bi lady or a trans person. The same possibly goes for the cultural orientation of the reader, although it is debatable that awesome sex writing, like first-rate intercourse, transcends many obstacles. Some of the best, greater explicit literary sex I’ve examine is written using homosexual girls. Jeanette Winterson’s “Written at the Body” is one such instance. Also, Dorothy Allison’s “Two or Three Things I Know for Sure” and Sarah Waters’ “Tipping the Velvet.”