Monday 20 November 2017

Yes, yes yes!

Warning: the following article contains scenes of a sexual nature and strong language. Readers may find them to be (i) giggle-inducing and/or (ii) pretentious claptrap and may wish to skip to the cookery section in Weekend magazine.

That, in short, is the problem with writing about sex, as identified this week by Martin Amis when he spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Descriptions of sex in modern fiction often end up being unintentionally hilarious or laughably portentous.

"Very few writers have got anywhere with sex," said Amis. "My father (Kingsley) used to say that you can refer to it but you can't describe it. It's inherent in the subject. It's not that someone's going to hit upon the right way (of describing it). It's that there is no right way."

Sex scenes are difficult to write and can go badly wrong. The worst ones end up on the shortlist for the Bad Sex Award, instituted in 1993 by London's Literary Review to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it".

The Bad Sex Award has gone to such literary stars as Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, AA Gill and Sebastian Faulks, and John Updike won a special lifetime achievement award in 2008 after making the shortlist four times.

Irish writers Roddy Doyle (for A Star Called Henry), Jamie O'Neill (for At Swim, Two Boys) and Brian O'Doherty (for The Deposition of Father McGreevy) have been shortlisted before, and John Banville has been nominated twice (for Shroud and The Infinities).

"I never write graphically about sex in my books," says Maeve Binchy, whose new novel Minding Frankie (Orion, £12.99) has just been published.

"I've had a very limited sex life myself. I've never been to an orgy, for example. I've never had a threesome," she adds, "and I'd be afraid to get it wrong if I wrote about such things."

"I'm always telling people to write as they speak, and I don't talk about sex among my friends. At least not since I was 16 or 17. I think it's better to write about urge and longing and unfulfilled desire, and better not to describe the actual sex. I just close the bedroom door."

But why should sex be so difficult to write about? Well, often the scene in question is the climax (ahem) of the plot or sub-plot, and the writer is striving for a heightened sense of passion or intensity. Such striving can easily tip over the edge into farce.

England's former poet laureate Andrew Motion (nicknamed 'Pelvic' Motion for his raunchy poetry) was one of the Booker judges this year. "Many writers are steering clear of sex altogether," he said after ploughing through the 138 books on the long list.

"It's as if they're terrified about being nominated for the Bad Sex Award or something. Many of them are writing about drugs instead."

Popular fiction writer Sarah Webb is terrified that her teenage son and his friends will be reading what she writes.

"I'm also conscious that my mother will be reading my books, so I'm afraid to say that my work has become less racy over the years. I tend to lead my characters to a sex scene and leave it to the readers' imagination to take it from there."

Writers wary of taking on the sex scene may also be aware of the long and chequered history of literary sex, from the banning of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover to the seizure by customs officers of Joyce's Ulysses.

They may also feel that, ever since Molly Bloom's orgasmic soliloquy (1922) and gamekeeper Mellors's manly thrusting (1928), there has been little new to say about sex.

Then there's the whole business of vocabulary. "The words 'penis' and 'vagina' still hold an uncanny power to disrupt narrative flow," says novelist Jojo Moyes, adding that going "all metaphorical" has its dangers too.

And what about the mechanics of it all? Do you describe what went where, in which case your erotic prose ends up reading more like a first-aid manual?

None of this stopped the American alpha-males of the fiction world -- Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike -- from writing about sex. In fact, Updike positively revels in long and detailed descriptions of various couplings.

Amis referred with awe to Updike's relentless pursuit of verisimilitude in matters sexual: "The textural contrast between your first and second wife's pubic hair is something that most writers feel their readers can get along without," he noted.

By and large, Irish writers can handle sex with just the right mixture of bawdiness, humour and desire. Indeed, the first line of Anne Enright's novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch ("Francisco Solano Lopez put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris in 1854") sums up our approach.

Not for us the hyperventilated metaphor of the modern French or American novel. The current holder of the Bad Sex Award is American novelist Jonathan Littell. His description of his hero's orgasm as like "a spoon scooping out a soft-boiled egg" was a particular judges' favourite.

Of course, some writers get it right when it comes to the ripping of bodices. Ian McEwan's library sex scene in Atonement is well regarded, while the sex scene in Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks also garners praise in the literary journals.

But one of the best I've come across is also one of the shortest. It's in Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver and comes when the heroine thinks that if her friend has a condom in his pocket, it could be her lucky day.

"He did," she writes. "It was."

Irish Independent

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