Let’s write about sex, baby...all the good things and the bad things that may be. If only it was that easy to write about the ultimate deed. The best writers have faltered at the altar of Eros. Nominees for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award include Norman Mailer, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez and our home-grown Tarun Tejpal. The best of the worst, however, is John Updike, who received a lifetime achievement award last year for making the shortlist four years in a row.
The bad sex award: Márquez was a nominee. Foto Pool / Clasos.com
How odd then that the new owner of Britain’s The Erotic Review lays the blame squarely on us gals. Kate Copstick claims women are simply not up to the job of writing good sex “because they have an agenda, they complicate sex, they make layers, it’s conditional. And they lie as well”. Ouch! Yes, it’s ironic that Copstick is a woman, and more so that she is a woman who has made a career writing, what else, instruction manuals about sex.
Her claim is not just fact-free but also wrong-headed in its assumption about what makes for good sex writing. Under her aegis, Copstick promises, the Review will be entirely about “Sex. Not love, not relationships. It’s for people who have a genuine, visceral appreciation of sex qua sex”. Yet what gives sex its power is all that complicating stuff she can’t abide: the multiple, overlapping, conflicting “layers” of feelings, thoughts and sensations that make up the experience of sex.
It is why handing out Bad Sex awards in fiction is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Prose is a slave to description. Its natural impulse is to narrate, detail, document an experience, and therein lies the literary rub. Sex, when described, veers far too easily to either the pornographic or the absurd.
Those in greatest peril are writers such as Updike, whose talent for crisp, plain, unflinching prose is far more likely to make him look foolish when he ventures into the bedroom. As in this nominated passage from The Widows of Eastwick: “She said nothing then, her lovely mouth otherwise engaged, until he came, all over her face. She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin.” Now that’s both pornographic and absurd.
When looking for good sex in literature, it’s safest to stick with the poets, perhaps because poems are existential, not empirical; they capture the experience, not the deed. Like sex itself, poetry is about sensation: Poems evoke a feeling, a sensation, a mood. Unlike poets, authors are weighed down by the requirements of narrative, mainly the burden of creating context, character, milieu.
After the strenuous work of setting the scene, so to speak, comes the business of describing the act itself, which inevitably involves a string of unfortunate, giggle-inducing metaphors. In Shire Hell, the 2008 winner of the Bad Sex award, poor Rachel Johnson is reduced to describing her hero’s “light fingers” to “a moth caught inside a lampshade”, and his tongue to “a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop”.
Poems can instead be wholly, delightfully metaphorical, as is E.E. Cummings’ she being Brand: “i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her/ up,slipped the/ clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she/ kicked what/ the hell)next/ minute i was back in neutral tried and/ again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg. ing ...”
Conflate driving with sex in fiction, all you get is tacky. Do it well in a poem, and reach for the sublime.
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