Saturday, March 09, 2013

Writing about sex is not easy

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It should be. It should be the easiest thing in the world to write about. But it's not. Last month in the New Republic magazine, commercially published author Sam Lipsyte wrote about the challenges he faces when confronting a sex scene in a novel:
We might have the tendency to quickly cover up from the embarrassment of seeing our characters in the buff or else take on the role of salacious puppeteer. The prose can suffer from these reactions, as well as from overly clinical description, or, in some notorious cases, overcooked metaphor. Being caught with your aesthetic pants down can be a writer's worst fear.

Maybe the headline should be: “Writing well about sex is not easy.” If you’re not careful, it’s easy to slip into pornographic depictions of sexual positions, moans and gasps and twitching body parts.

I try to write truthfully, to show readers what I and my characters think and feel in every situation. I try to be original by examining the naked basis of every movement, sensation and intention. Then I have to edit to make sure I’m not over-writing it. Readers are smart; they can figure things out.

Getting into the swing

To prepare for writing my erotic satire, One Shade of Red, I thought I should see how other writers wrote about sex. Not just writers of erotica, because I wanted OSOR to be about sex and other things, too. I turned to an anthology, a compendium of excerpts of the “best erotic writing in modern fiction” called The Good Parts, edited by J.H. Blair.

Among the writers sampled in this anthology are Don DeLillo, described as “a stylist without peer”; Amanda Filipacchi: “uniquely original”; and the “unique voice” of EL Doctorow.

All well known, all excellent writers. But their work all reads as if … as if it were edited by the same person.

Part of the genius of writers like Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike and William Styron, part of Philip Roth’s breakthrough was their ability to depict the most intimate, sensual and human activity honestly, recognizably and enjoyably. Their ability to write descriptions that we can all agree with. Yes, exactly.

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 And yet, all these serious writers, the cream of the literati, take a similar approach to writing about sex. They often employ a breathless stream of linked, long sentences, and somehow avoid naming the most important body parts involved. Here’s a typical example from Steven Erickson’s “ARC d’X”:

For a moment he was confused, wondering where she was in the dark, until he realized she was on the bed that he stood alongside. Lying at its edge, she unbuttoned his pants and freed him and put him in her mouth. …
Erickson’s stringing of clauses echoes EL Doctorow’s sex scene in Billy Bathgate:

We lay in the dark cellar of dust and ash, and I was passive and on my back and Rebecca lay on top of me and cleaved herself on me letting herself down with a long intake of her breath which I felt as a cool flute of air on my neck, and slowly awkwardly she learned her rhythm upon me as I was patient to allow her to do so.
It seems that the accepted way to describe sexual act in “serious” fiction (as opposed to porn) is either to link those breathless clauses like Doctorow, or just to hint at it, like Joyce Carol Oates in Last Days:

Now she felt the kiss deepen, and a feathery-light sensation ran through her body, her belly, her loins, a sensation familiar enough but always in a way new, and reassuring, and impersonal; and in another second or two the tenor of the kiss would change and become more serious: the man would part her lips, his tongue would prod at hers, his teeth grind lightly against hers, they would still be smiling but the kiss would have become serious, and Marianne’s plans for the rest of day — was this Saturday? — might have to be substantially altered.
Or like Joan Mellen in Natural Tendencies: “she opened herself to him” and Susanna Moore in The Whiteness of Bones: “He opened her gently.”

Using frank language tends to get one relegated to the “erotica” or “porn” categories. But aside from any prurient interest (none of us have that, right?), just from the style, I prefer a writer who can deal honestly with the one subject that unites all of humanity.

Charity Parkerson is an independent author who has written erotica as well as paranormal fiction and stories that are just plain about people. Here’s an example of her writing about sex honestly and openly in The Society of Sinner — I’m just putting a small sample here to preserve this blog’s PG rating:

He moved a step closer, and she allowed her knees to fall open. Running a hand over the smooth planes of her belly, she made a downward descent. She kept her eyes locked on his as she brushed her finger over her own core. Her eyes fell closed on a moan. She never heard him move, but her hand was pushed away as he licked a path through her curls. Taylor’s mind froze at the feel of his strong tongue. By the time her mind thawed enough to recognize that he was no fantasy, his tongue was being replaced by a much larger organ, and she felt herself being stretched wide. She let out a small squeak as she realized this was indeed a real man [not a fantasy-ed] but he covered her mouth with his own, swallowing the sound.
To me, calling a vagina “herself” seems childish, prudish, embarrassed — as if the writer wanted to be explicit but just didn’t have the guts.

That’s why I will write honestly about sex, and try to put the intentions, sensations and movements into as clear terms as I can.

Leave a comment below — how do you feel about depicting sex in a book that's not solely concerned with sex?


  1. Since a never to be forgotten and abortive attempt to write a sex scene in one of my earlier novels(long confined to the trash) I have not tried it again. Replacing selective parts of both anatomies with "him" or "her" has never worked for me. I sometimes wonder if that is the reason most of my characters are either too young or too old for such things.

  2. Personally, I think calling a vagina by that name sounds very clinical when I read fiction, but I rarely ever see it. Maybe that's the reason. On the other hand, I'm not at all a fan of calling it something ridiculous like "her portal of pleasure." Seriously? There are writers who have found a nice balance between the two and their books are considered 'steamy' romance, not erotica. But, again, that's a personal opinion I'm giving as a reader. As a writer, I hear this topic debated often. I think what it really comes down to is writers will use their own comfortable words and there will be a group of readers out there that like reading that style of sexy scene. Ultimately, that's what I fell back on as I wrote the scenes for my first paranormal romance this winter. And no, at no point do I call a vagina 'her honey'.

    1. I think that if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, and you really want to connect with your audience, you have to be honest. And that includes calling things by their proper names. The challenge is that, at least in English, there are many terms for the same thing: the clinical, formal term; the "dirty," often pejorative term; and a range of word in between.
      Words also carry a lot of baggage, and that baggage for each person is different. So that just makes the writer's challenge even steeper.
      "Portal of pleasure?" Geez, where did you read that? "Honey" isn't quite as bad, and I can imagine how you could use honey as a metaphor ... oh, now I have to stop thinking those thoughts. It's still Saturday morning!

    2. LOL! I mean, now that I write adult, I spend time on the sites of bloggers that read romance. They have looong lists of things they've read that are ridiculous (like the two examples I gave you) and the things that bug them personally. It's quite an education!

  3. This is an interesting discussion. I wrestle with the idea that perhaps my sex scenes are too explicit in novels that are not primarily about sex/romance. But I too feel one has to convey clearly what characters are feeling and seeing, because the sensual experience plays into the emotional transformations these scenes create. And if the character is swept up in the moment, I want the reader to be there, too. It's always about balance - I strive for words that are not too timid and not too clinical. There's a romantic gloss to the language, but the actions are explicit. Whether I achieve that balance is something only the reader can say - and readers bring all kinds of biases to such scenes (but that's another discussion).

  4. On erotic romance: Sex is hard to write well. Period. My favorite part of any romantic love story is the sexual tension that proceeds the sex.

    And then there's lots of foreplay.

    Men writing commercial erotica would likely read more like Penthouse letters.

    I don't know about you, but after the couple has had sex ten or twelve times, I'm getting bored. From then on, it's the emotional aspects of the story that have to be intriguing enough to keep me turning pages––that, and a tantalizing hint of more disturbing kink to come.