Here’s something funny. The cover quote on Erica Jong’s groundbreaking Fear of Flying calls it “the most uninhibited, delicious, erotic novel a woman ever wrote.” That was in 1974 and the praise came from John Updike.
Fast forward 34 years, when Updike – no stranger to erotic writing – won a Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex in fiction. The Literary Review, which bestows the dubious distinction, said in 2008 that Updike had received four consecutive nominations for passages from The Witches of Eastwick. Phrases sited included the following (and if you’re offended by porn-ish writing, please don’t read on):
“She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin.” (This is a minisample. For the full passage, click here.)
Few would say that Updike, who won the Pulitzer for Fiction twice, is a lousy writer. And yet, in at least this instance, he failed when writing about sex. He is hardly alone. Other recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction award include Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Nancy Huston.
So the question arises: Why is it so hard to write about sex?
I had to grapple with this question when writing Desperate to Be a Housewife. It’s the story of a young woman coming of age at a time when the sexual revolution was in full flower.
The writing was going along well when suddenly, in the third chapter, I found myself describing my heroine’s encounter with a sexy East European graduate student. I wanted to make it true to life, and the scene was hot – so hot that I had to quit writing and go get some air, three days in a row! And there was more sex to come.
When I showed the first draft to a friend, herself a writer, she cringed.
“Be careful when writing sex scenes,” she warned me. “The sex needs to move the story forward. If it amounts to ‘insert tab A into slot B’, you’re on the wrong track.”
On the other hand, she added, if one waxes too flowery or romantic, “there’s always the danger of being compared to a Harlequin when writing about sex and relationships.”
So there we are, the double bind. If the sex is too graphic, it will be viewed as porn or simply trashy. If it’s coy, the work risks being classed as romance fiction.
Maybe this is why many literary writers fall back on the old Hollywood solution – a long kiss and a fade-out, leaving what follows to the reader’s imagination. They hint at sex without actually describing it.
As I set out to revise my first draft, I decided that this solution would not be right for my book. My heroine’s sexual encounters were key to the narrative as she tried to figure out what counts most in life – is it love or freedom, or a combination of the two? These are questions that affected an entire generation, and the tremors they caused are still reshaping the sexual landscape today.
Kiss-and-fade-out wouldn’t cut it in the story of an era where women were exploring the new possibilities that had opened for them on many fronts, including sexuality. I wanted my readers not just to imagine what happened, but to feel it. To feel the longing, the flood of desire, the power that drove women – once the pill made it possible – to experience the pleasure offered by their bodies. With all the risks that entailed.
But how to achieve the “uninhibited, delicious, erotic” writing for which Updike praised Erica Jong – without qualifying for the bad sex awards?
There is no easy answer to this question. But here are some thoughts.
First, the sex needs to advance the plot. If it’s a gratuitous scene, cut it out. Second, it doesn’t have to be serious. Humor can play as much a role on the page as it often does in bed. Third, what happens during sex – and before and after – can illuminate aspects of character. If a protagonist evolves as a result of the experience, the scene is crucial.
As a society, we tend to compartmentalize sex. It’s in a private world, not to be spoken about. But as authors, we need to challenge ourselves to break through those boundaries.
When I’ve read from my book at readings around Paris, people often ask about the sex scenes. Were they hard to write? And why include them?
Why write about sex? That’s an easy question, and I always give the same answer.
Because it’s part of life.
Do you agree?
Yes, indeed, hard to write about and AWFUL to read when done poorly! I personally tend to like the Hollywood fade out, or the humourous approach, when dealing with these issues myself. I haven’t revisted her work for years but in my memory Judy Blume always had great success writing pretty graphic sex scenes but keeping it real and palatable. Great topic.