Saturday 16 December 2017

Impossible to write about sex? Don't be silly Mr B, says Jilly

Last week, John Banville was in the news with his intriguing new novel, Ancient Light, an erotic tale of a man remembering an affair he had as a boy with his friend's mother.

On the subject of writing sex scenes, Banville said, "to write about sex is almost impossible".

Indeed, it's a long-held belief amongst writers, reinforced by the fact that there is such a thing as a bad sex award for those who plumb new depths in the subject.

Jilly Cooper has won that award but legions of fans love the detailed sex scenes in her passionate novels.

"The Literary Review bad sex awards have screwed us up because it has inhibited us," she says. "Sex is part of the story of people falling in love. Sex is funny and fun."

Thanks to EL James and her Fifty Shades Of Grey series, sex is back in publishing fashion. Sex in literature has always caused a fuss. Remember Lady Chatterley's Lover or Women in Love? They were around long before the bestselling bonkbusters of the 1980s.

Cooper's name has been synonymous with the genre for the past 30 years, so how does she set about writing a sex scene?

"Writing is difficult full stop," she says. "Sex is no more difficult than writing any other scene. Instead of stopping at the bedroom door you go in there and just censor yourself not to be too crude."

She used to take inspiration for her sex scenes from her friends' adventures and admits to having done 'the odd naughty thing' herself, but says, "when you're in bed with someone you can't have a notebook beside you and write things down".

When asked if she has a favourite sex scene, she cites the 1920s erotic novelist and screenwriter, Elinor Glyn.

"Elinor Glyn describing a mad sex scene is terribly funny. Sex scenes should be preposterous, as they are in life."

American author Madeleine Miller won the Orange Prize earlier this year with her debut novel, Song of Achilles, a homoerotic retelling of the relationship between Achilles and his friend Petroclus.

'I used to have a lot of fear about sex scenes, since getting it wrong seemed somehow worse than normal literary failure," she says.

"But once I began writing I realised that they aren't any different from other sorts of scenes -- yes, the material is heightened, but there are plenty of heightened scenes in novels (deaths, births, wars). As long as you're fully immersed in the life of your characters, the rest will take care of itself."

Her favourites include, "the linguistic fireworks in Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body; the earthy yet innocent frankness of Gertrude and Claudius' unions in John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius. And, if it isn't too predictable for me to say so, I have always loved Vergil's perfect depiction of Venus seducing her husband Vulcan in the Aeneid."

Former Miss Ireland and television presenter Amanda Brunker is also the author of three raunchy novels.

"When I started writing my Champagne trilogy I was hit with a negative brick wall by many publishers. As far as they were concerned, the bonkbuster died in the 1980s but I knew that sex needed to be a part of my first book because it was about a young single woman finding her way in the world.

"I never had a problem writing my sex scenes though I still blush when reading some of them back."

Brunker says the best sex scenes are the ones that appear most real.

"My books aren't Mills & Boon where everything is perfect; I like my sex scenes to sometimes have humour in them. Like if your hip goes wonky and you get a cramp. That happens in real life and readers identify with the honesty."

Brendan Barrington, literary editor at Penguin Ireland and editor of the Dublin Review, says sex has as much right to be in literature as any other place.

"There's a queasy prudishness towards sex in Irish culture -- a sense that it does not belong in serious literature. I find that strange and depressing given that Joyce wrote brilliantly about good sex and Beckett wrote brilliantly about bad sex in much less liberal times.

"It's hard to write well about sex, but it's hard to write well about everything else, too, so that's no excuse."

It's not just novelists who have difficulty writing sex scenes, however, but playwrights too and probably even more so when you remember it all has to be acted out on stage.

Director of the Gate Theatre, Michael Colgan, says sex on stage can be distracting: "If somebody is saying a line and she takes her kit off the mind of the audience goes, 'I wonder does she mind doing that' or 'I wonder how they do that in rehearsal' and the next 10 lines are lost to them. So nudity can upstage literature."

Author Claudia Carroll says sometimes things are best left to the reader's imagination.

"In some of the most romantic love stories ever told, not only do you rarely get to see anyone's wobbly bits, but you tend to reach 'The End' without so much as a kiss.

"For God's sake, Darcy and Lizzie are doing well if they're even left alone in a room together without heavy duty, 19th-Century chaperoning. You see, if you ask me, in any romantic comedy, it's the build-up and the chemistry between hero and heroine that's the sexy part; that slightly teasing, 'will-they-won't-they' element.

"Course you'd drive a reader mental if you didn't eventually have some kind of a pay-off at the end, more often than not involving a love scene."

Perhaps, as playwright and filmmaker Carmel Winters suggests, the real problem is that in writing about sex the writer is somehow revealing their inner self.

In one of Winters' favourite sex scenes in the 2006 film Red Road, she says: "That a ripe pear was used to simulate oral sex is often quoted, but more significant, I think, is (director, Andrea Arnold's) own practical and unashamed erotic gaze. It isn't just the actor that risks total exposure in a sex scene, the writer and director is unmasked too."

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