Here’s an audio version
This post has adult content, so if you’re under 18, pay close attention; just kidding, I’m supposed to say avert your mouse and go read my post about my robot vacuum cleaner.
Recently, I participated in a discussion on an online book forum about sex in literature. The take-home message was that, while some people like it, many consider it vulgar, obvious and cheap. A distillation of the argument against seemed to be that it’s not necessary to write graphically about sex in order to advance the story, and alluding to sex, or communicating sexual content with veiled, suggestive prose is more professional, and will lead to greater respect as a writer. You won’t have had to read many of my blog posts to know which side of the debate I weighed in on.
A distillation of my position was that sometimes passages are included in a narrative simply because they’re beautiful, fun, or well-crafted. How much does detailed landscape description advance the plot? Generally not much, but if it’s well written and engages the reader into the world of the story, then it’s all good.
When my partner read the first 4 chapters of the novel I’m currently working on, he asked, “Was it hard to write about sex without describing it?” I guffawed, then replied that it wasn’t; I get that it’s not always the right thing. Beltane, my first novel, is brimming with sex, which if I do say so, as have others, is fairly nicely done. I’ve heard other authors say that writing about sex is difficult. I’ve never found it so. I’m pretty sure I know what this means, but I find it almost disturbingly easy.
How do we know when sex scenes are badly written? First of all, because they don’t move us, except to laughter. A useful first precept I heard once was: avoid metaphors or nicknames when referring to sexual organs. This requires deftness, as slang can read wrong, and medical Latin can ruin the mood. The book I’m currently reading has several detailed sex scenes, and every time the writer refers to “Her deep well,” I cringe, but the three syllable Latin alternative wouldn’t really work either. After some time of trial and error, I found myself opting for brevity: the sense of “Her deep well,” can be fully communicated by simply writing, “Her,” or “herself.” Try formulating a sentence with the unnamed author’s phrase, then replace it with mine; you’ll see what I mean. This also lends intimacy, embodiment, and a more visceral feel. Someone I follow on twitter suggested, if you’re having a drab, depressing day, go read the one star reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey. The suggestion itself is so entertaining that I haven’t even followed it yet, and I’m still constantly amused.
How do we know when sex scenes are well written? Not laughing is a good start, a visceral response is a great sign, and feeling drawn in rather than alienated by the language is key. Possibly my most enduring favourite piece of erotic writing is The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. It’s a kind of religious love poem a little like the Song of Solomon, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s really really old. It depicts a randy, potent goddess looking for some action: and she finds it. It uses metaphor boldly and to excellent effect. It’s so powerful because it connects the physical act to something deeper. In conventional literature, even if that deeper thing isn’t true love, forging some link between the purely physical and something transcendent is what can make an ok passage remarkable.
Depictions of sex in music are a crude but useful barometer. I instantly hate any song that refers to sex as dirty, nasty or knotty: positivity is key. As a devoted feminist, I’m also really sensitive to gender politics in song lyrics, and have no trouble identifying why something offends me. Just for fun, here are a few of my favourites.
- my newest favourite, about something I affectionately refer to as watering the garden
adolescent, but, surprisingly for Nickelback, pretty sex-positive
cute and funny
possibly my favourite of all time, this song, played during the end credits of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure tells what smart guys do when they want the same woman; that rarest of rarities, a song about poly-amory
It may be true that a graphic sex scene in a novel is not essential to the story, but a well-written one will still tell you things about the characters and their relationship. These may be things you already know, but sex and intimacy are powerful ways to communicate, both between the characters involved, and between the writer and the reader. Comfort levels notwithstanding, sex is important.