Forget 50 Shades, let's celebrate good sex in novels
Sex scenes are difficult to write but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try, argues novelist Freya North.
This week satisfying the judges’ desire for “sea imagery, astronautical travel and ripe use of alliteration”, Nancy Huston was awarded the Literary Review Bad in Sex Fiction Award. Shortlisted were some very good writers writing some very bad sex.
Or, rather, sex ridiculously written – because obviously the characters think they’re having amazing sex. Previous winners of the award include Melvyn Bragg, Philip Kerr, Sebastian Faulks, AA Gill, Giles Coren and Rachel Johnson – the Bad Sex Award is pretty cool to win.
Good writers can have a ball (sorry) thrusting phrases such as "full cushiony swell" and "the Braille of her viscera" – along with Huston's award-winning "archaic kingdom that brings forth tears and terrors, nightmares, babies and bedazzlements" – on the reader.
In its 21st year, the Bad Sex Award has gone mainly to men. Cue much concurring and innuendo from vindicated women moaning (normal moaning) that most men don’t know what they’re doing between the sheets anyway, let alone within the pages of a book. We shouldn’t give men a hard time (though they might disagree). Indeed, when I asked my readers for the books that tickled their fancies Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins came again and again (pun intended.) Certainly, when I was a teenager, it was these two authors, along with Jackie Collins and Shirley Conran whom we furtively snuck into our bedrooms.
One of the sexiest books I’ve read in a long time was this year’s Love And Other Dangerous Chemicals by Anthony Capella – featuring a geeky scientist perfecting a wonder drug for female sexual dysfunction and the cynical academic who is his final case study. It’s down to Capella’s lovely turn of phrase and good storytelling rather than any explicit show-and-tell that makes the book so erotic.
My favourite sex writer of all time is John Irving because he can so masterfully handle raunch and sensitivity – the qualities many would say epitomised good sex.
To write a compelling sex scene an author needs to take the readers’ needs, as much as the characters’, into consideration. Readers want the sex in books to be aspirational (oh, if only! if only!) yet realistic (do try this at home). The author needs to take apart the mechanics of the act. It’s no good letting the heat of the characters’ moment run away with you – I did once in one of my novels but, on rereading, realised the bloke had three arms.
Sex isn’t that hard to write as long as the right bits are hard and the chosen vocabulary is horny not corny. For author, character and reader alike, context is key. Scene setting and anticipation make a sexy tangle in a mainstream novel far more fulfilling and erotic than porn. The reader wants the characters to be going at it with heart and soul, not just body bits. Sex in glorious Technicolor, if you like, rather than monotonous shades of grey. However, I for one think that bad sex is the best sex to write about because melding squelch and embarrassment is fun for the author – and carnal catastrophe always makes for a good read.
Freya North's latest novel is Rumours Harper Fiction, £7.99