Friday, November 23, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex

Oh, why not?

Here's a column I wrote for the now defunct Chrome Magazine way back. (No-one under 18 may read this in case they are put off sex for life!):
Why is good sex such a problem?

The writing of it, I mean. For the novelist.

Because while purveyors of porn have no qualms about depicting graphic acts of bonking in full squelching detail, the task for the serious novelist is fraught with peril: badly written sex scenes can be unintentionally hilarious and as Canadian writer Sandra Martin says “Performance anxiety can lead to overwriting in an author who is trying too hard, or limpness in a writer unable to rise above self-consciousness.”

Maybe it speaks volumes about the British tendency to treat sex as a bit of a joke anyway, but the Annual Bad Sex Awards is one of London’s most glittering literary events. The prize is given to the writer who creates the most “inept, embarrassing and unnecessary” description of the sexual act published in the a particular year and was initiated by Literary Review’s Auberon Waugh. Over the years the list of contenders has come to read like a list of Who’s Who in Fiction: John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Sebastian Faulks and even the revered Salman Rushdie have made the shortlist, showing that awful writing about sex truly knows no bounds.

Let me just give you a little taster of the kind of writing that bags the award. Novelist Nicholas Royle had a character called Yasmin “making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren” while her partner Ambrose was “punching smoothly in and out of her like a sewing machine” (The Matter of the Heart 1997); David Huggins made the grade by crafting the immortal line “Liz squeaked like wet rubber” (The Big Kiss - An Arcade Mystery 1997); while Wendy Perriam writes of one of her characters: “Weirdly, he was clad in pin-stripes at the same time as being naked. Pin stripes were erotic, the uniform of fathers, two-dimensional fathers. Even Mr. Hughes penis had a seductive pin-striped foreskin” (Tread Softly 2002)

When you’ve picked yourself up off the floor, you might like to consider the case of poor Tom Wolfe. He won last year with a scene from his latest novel I Am Charlotte:

"Slither slither slither slither went the tongue. But the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns - oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest - no, the hand was cupping her entire right - Now!"

For those not in reach of a good medical dictionary, otorhinolaryngological actually means ear, nose and throat, and like the act of snogging it depicts, the word is damned hard to get your tongue round. Not surprisingly, Wolfe was not amused by his win and did not turn up to collect the award in person, arguing that the judges had missed the irony of the piece. He hadn’t meant the scene to be at all sexy, he said. "There's nothing like a nine-syllable word to chase Eros off the premises." Quite.

Other authors have turned up to accept their embarrassing statuettes with good grace. Philip Hook who won for his second novel The Stone Breakers told a sorry tale in his acceptance speech of trying to impress a rich Frenchwoman by telling her that he had won a literary award. When she learned that the award was for bad sex, she observed dryly that there must be a great deal of competition in England for a prize like that!

If contemporary writers much feel Waugh looking disapprovingly over their shoulders as they pen a sex scene, help is at hand in the form of Elizabeth Benedict’s excellent handbook for writers: The Joy of Writing Sex. She maintains that it is the sheer ordinariness of sex which makes it so hard to write about. “It’s like describing someone eating,” she says “cutting the food, lifting it to one’s mouth. Inserting it, chewing and swallowing”. The real skill, she says, is in making the ordinary look natural and yet feel unique.

If anything, the pervasive influence of pornography seems to have put many writers off including sex scenes in their own writing. Natasha Walter writing in the Guardian suggests some of the best writers are deliberately choosing to be coy in their approach. She cites Zoë Heller’s Notes From A Scandal, a novel about a schoolteacher who has an affair with one of her students. There is of course plenty of sex in the background, but it doesn’t actually end up on the page. She says that in Brick Lane Monica Ali “gets over the antique power of adultery, with its aura of taboo” ore effectively by not touching the sex act of her adulterous character, Naznen.

But in the end, no act makes the character more vulnerable or shows the deeper dimensions of a relationship than sex in literature. When it works on the page the character’s soul and heart are as engaged in the act as body parts, and the writer’s deeper purpose is served.

Because sex in literature is always about so much more than just the sex act. Lady Chatterley’s Lover shocked many at the time of the book’s publication, but Lawrence’s aim was to show how sex has the power to spiritually unify a man and a woman. The prodigious promiscuity of Hector Castillo Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love is intended as a tribute to Cuban machismo. Alan Hollinghurst’s graphic depictions of gay sex The Line of Beauty, serve to underline his protagonist’s journey from romantic student to morally corrupt individual. The ménage a trois in Jill Paton Walsh’s dark religious fable Flight of Angels serves beautifully to illustrate her character’s philosophy that bodily joys are to be relished as much as the spiritual: it is arguably the most erotic scene in contemporary literary fiction.

Certainly, I will never look at olive oil and honey in the same way again.
(Pic nicked from Wikipedia)


savante said...

Good God. I've decided to take up celibacy!

Anonymous said...

I don't wonder why women enjoy sex, it's not like there's such a thing as a maternity suit (except maybe the ones they wear !)