Friday 13 December 2019

Putting passion into the heart of your story

Writing about sex in fiction isn't as easy as you'd think - there's even an award for the worst example of the year. Claire Coughlan asked three brave writers for their advice

A scene from '50 Shades of Grey' starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson
A scene from '50 Shades of Grey' starring Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson

Claire Coughlan

They say if you're going to write about sex, then you'd better do it well. As the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards at the end of each year highlight, many people go too far with overblown similes and metaphors, with a less-than-convincing end result. US novelist Christopher Bollen won last year's award for his novel, The Destroyers. The judges of the prize said in a tongue-in-cheek statement: "Christopher Bollen has prevailed against strong competition. In the week that Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle, it seems only fitting that Britain's most eligible literary prize has been snapped up by an American."

EL James's 50 Shades of Grey may have put erotica firmly on the map over the last few years, and it's easy to pick out random passages from authors' works and scoff at them, but what about those writers of non-erotica who bravely, and effectively, include sex in their works of fiction?

Writing about sex is one of the most difficult subjects to get right, yet some make it appear effortless.

One of those writers is Irish-born author Eimear McBride, whose debut novel, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, won the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction in 2014. McBride's second novel, The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, 2016), is about a young drama student's relationship with an older man.

McBride says that she writes about sex as she is interested in people, language and power structures.

"Sex is an interesting lens through which to examine people and, if you allow it, can make you think about the possibilities of language very differently," she says. "If I was only describing the mechanics of it over and over that would become very dull, very quickly. But by using it as a context through which the reader can better understand who the characters are, a whole realm of possibilities opens up. The beauty of following a relationship is it's constantly changing, as power moves back and forth, and using the body to reflect those changes, rather than reported speech, lets you play with how language best captures that."

Power structures and sex certainly feature in Imogen Hermes Gowar's debut novel, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock (Harvill Secker), which is about the life of a courtesan in 18th Century London. It has already received favourable comparisons to the writing of Sarah Waters and Michel Faber since publication last month. Hermes Gowar has said that she wanted to explore women's lives before feminism, where she was thinking about "the leverage that sex might have for women". The novel features a colourful orgy scene a third of the way through.

"For me, that [orgy scene] embodied that thing about Georgian sex and display - at first it sounds fun, hilarious and bizarre and then once you delve beneath the surface it feels quite tawdry and unpleasant and from this distance it's hard to gauge exactly how much consent the girls were giving," says Hermes Gowar. "Every part of these brothels were to give men exactly what they want and to deliver a spectacular experience they wouldn't get anywhere else…it's a one-sided sexual fantasy. I think lots of people are really struck by that scene and I think it has the OTT qualities that I wanted but I also don't read it as necessarily fun."

But how to approach writing about sex? True, there seems to be a certain cringe element involved. McBride says that she ditched any cliched words in order to create a sense of authenticity.

The main pitfall is the severely limited vocabulary available for writing explicitly about the sex," she says. "It's been stunted by generations of censorship and social disapprobation, and this makes writing it very difficult to do without falling back on all those old cliched thrustings, pumpings and grindings. Once you're in that territory it's hard for the writing to really live any more. So, the first thing I did was forbid myself use of any of the usual sex words. While this made it harder to write, it also became more interesting and forced me to focus on different aspects of the sexual experience as a better means of expressing it."

For debut author Emily Phillips, who is also features director at Grazia magazine, the sex scenes in her debut novel, Trying, which is about a couple's struggle with infertility, were her biggest worry about the book.

"I definitely felt that I needed to do a bit of research for sex scenes in terms of not wanting to make it too cringey, but also not wanting to make it romanticised, or rosy, because I wanted it to be real and ridiculous and quite toe-curling at times. But not toe-curling in the way that I was writing it and I worry about it; it's probably my biggest worry about the book," she says.

Trying (Hodder), is a bittersweet romantic comedy, which came out last month. The novel begins with a literal bang, in a very funny sex scene where a wife and her husband who are trying to conceive for the zillionth time. The novel mirrors the author's own struggle with infertility and she says that she deliberately began the opening scene as she meant to go on.

"I did feel as though I wanted to confront the reader as soon as we'd got into it," says Phillips. "Because that is the main part of making a baby, and the repeatedness of it, and failing, becomes very wearing, but also quite ridiculous and often funny and sad at the same time."

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