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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to anyone who’s able to open their eyes enough to look at a computer today. I was way over my limit last night but finally, at two p.m. on New Year’s Day, in Chicago’s 7 degrees, I’m ready to look at the world if not to smile at it.

Because it’s the new year, and we all want it to be a good one, I thought I’d start with sex. Writing about it, to be more precise. We’ve all heard Elmore Leonard’s dictum about leaving out the stuff the reader skips many many times–but I almost always skip sex scenes. Yes, he/she took off her/his clothes. They got naked, they got into bed/backseat of car/faux-skin rug in front of fire/billiard table, and heaved about like demented hippopotami for a bit and then-can we get back to the story?

I also skip sex scenes as a writer. Every year, when the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is announced, I thank my writing muse for steering me clear of any chance of being publicly humiliated at the In and Out Club.

This past December, Philip Roth was shortlisted for The Humbling, in which an aging actor “converts” a lesbian to heterosexuality: “This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.”

The ultimate winner was Jonathan Littell, for a passage in The Kindly Ones. “Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus…”

In writing about sex, one should ask the same question about anything one’s including. Is there a reason to have it there to begin with? Narrative flow? Plot? Character development? Fun? And if there is a reason, how do you do it well?

For my money, Joyce (or, according to some scholars, his wife, Norah) does it best in Ulysses, where Molly says, “He kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower…and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

On the other hand, you can’t beat Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, for brevity. “The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots.”

Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, painted by Charles Jervais

I hope 2010 is a year of health and peace for all who visit this site.

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  • Being the prudish old thing that I am, I’d rather not read about sex, thanks anyway. I am sure it has it’s place, but when I’m reading a detective novel, or a mystery, etc., I don’t need a graphic description of mattress calisthenics. It’s enough for me to know there was something going on in the bedroom. Just as I can imagine what the detective is doing in the bathroom, (which, thank the powers that be, rarely ever gets mentioned!) I can also figure out what is going on in the bedroom! I tend to skip over any of that icky stuff. If I wanted to read about sex, I’d buy a Harlequin romance (apparently, they’ve changed a little since I was 13 and spent an entire summer reading about heaving bosoms in romance novels….)
    Thank you for not including too much detail about VI’s bosom-heaving experiences!

  • The comments on sex strike me as being about the author’s choice: is it important to explain about the story and/or the people that populate the actions. Approaching geezerdom I rarely find the sex offensive (I did some times), but perpahps the quality of what I read has improved.

    While it has been some years since I read “Sons”, the sex was key to the individuals and where they were within their generation(s). It was meaningful to me. My wife has a very different reaction to sex in her reading… we have overlapping interests… than I do, but we trust the writer a lot. I hope I do not need manuals, yet.

    Thank you for “Hardball”. I am a product of the busses to Mississippi, and this helped me understand the big city integration a bit more.

  • Yeah, the top boots bit is charming and brief, but let’s not forget Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent sex scene in Animal Dreams, where the narrator decides that if her friend has a condom in his pocket, this is her lucky day.

    “He did. It was.”

  • I don’t remember the Kingsolver quote, but I’ll use it (recycle it) in the future.
    Katie Roiphe had a thought-provoking essay on this very topic in the January 1 NY Times Book Review http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/books/review/Roiphe-t.html
    I can’t exactly summarize it here, but it did make me stop and question my own assumptions. I’ll be curious about your reactions to it.
    Someone else sent me a like to another essay on writing about sex:
    http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/12676.html?thread=96132

  • Saule

    Happy New Year!

    I’ve read “Hardball”. It makes me think over my days around 1960s to 70s also. I especially was touched by Sister Francis who fought for social justice and civil liberty, and Tony’s letter to Tori.

    By the way I found a nice review on the New York Times, P.D.James’s comment on the female detective. Have you read it?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/books/07book.html?_r=1

  • Saule

    Excuse me, I found a comment in December of this blog which had already told about this review.

  • Sally

    In an unfortunate episode in my soon-to-be dissolved marriage, someone sent emails that had been exchanged between my husband and Cupcake. As I said to him, and I meant it, I don’t know if it’s worse that you’re fooling around or that you would seriously use the phrase “throbbing cock” in a note to your light o’ love. I mean…!

    Writing about sex is a perilous pastime.

  • Well, I was traveling on New Year’s eve…on our way from Minnesota to Bainbridge Island in Washington. We had driven from Dickinson, ND to Moses Lake, WA – I think almost 800 miles. We arrived at the hotel, tuned in CNN just in the nick of time to watch the New Year arrive in New York, gave each other a little kiss, said, “Happy New Year” and fell into bed. To sleep. So much for sex!

    I personally do not like graphic sex in a book. I have a fine imagination and do not need to have a picture drawn. I will say that the Duchess of Marlborough certainly could draw a picture with very few words – ha!

  • Sally, I’m so sorry for the hard time you’ve been having. Years from now you will laugh this off and realize you’re better off without someone who uses “throbbing cock,” but the process right now must be incredibly painful and stressful.
    Cheryl, we had neighbors over for New Years, so we stayed up until midnight and what a struggle that was! It made me sad to remember parties twenty years ago where I kissed everyone goodnight at four a.m.
    Thanks to all of you for your comments, and I hope the new year is a good one for all who visit this space

  • I know I’m a bit late arriving, but on emerging from a pile of work this discussion was too good to pass up. I mean who could resist: – “The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots.”

    Magic!

    And I must confess that it did trigger a memory of Hugh Jackman in some movie where he played a Victorian toff, gadding about in top boots and riding a white horse.

    I must admit that I don’t mind a bit of well-written heat! But no, “throbbing cocks” isn’t really it, is it? A few beautifully rendered lines about the nature of the passion can tell me a lot about the characters, their relationship and even how it is changing; eg, is it tender or wild; familiar and loving or all sensory discovery of the hectic and haptic persuasion.

    Writing well about sex is something that most writers feel self-conscious about. And trying to depict “good sex” is really, really difficult. The writer feels exposed, literally, which is why (I reckon) many male writers who are held up as being part of the great literary “canon” (definitely no pun intended) cop out and write deliberately about bad, cheap, tawdry, ugly, nasty sex.

    A few years back I attended a conference where a Literary Professor gave an address titled “Bad Sex” and analyzed some of the sex scenes written by Beckett and Coetzee. I was really struck by how misogynistic their depictions were. They all involved revolting men and awful women engaged in unlovely couplings loaded with disgust, repulsion and hatred but zero joy, pleasure, delight or love.

    I got a bit cranky! I thought to myself, “What cowards!” They’re not prepared to expose themselves, or real emotions in their writing so they hide behind these awful literary constructs and garner praise for writing so savagely about something that can be so beautiful.

    So, I guess my contribution to the debate is, that it takes more guts to try and present something lovely than something ugly and doing so without resorting to Playboy’s Letter-of-The-Week-Language ain’t easy.

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