Monday, 14 December 2009

Le Fiasco..? ( a sort of continuation)

Sex is a part of life, obviously, but it’s not just any part of life. Double entendres, well timed and conceived (ahem) can still afford even the most sophisticated of us some amusement – so clearly there’s something about sex that sets it apart from everything else we do. It is the very exemplar of marketable commodities, the thing the whole world supposedly wants more of…

And yet there are, with the honourable exceptions of Lawrence, Miller and Nin, no recognised ‘great’ writers on sex – not even sex-genre masters of similar stature to, say, Elmore Leonard or Robert Heinlein (though Heinlein dealt with sex in his SF and Fantasy). De Sade is certainly no Proust. Is there a good reason for this? The privacy aspect? Tolstoy and Dostoevsky both wrote openly about violence, but sex in War and Peace is present mostly in the shape of Helene Kuragin’s shoulders. Or is it that most writers feel description of sex is simply not essential to the development of their story? Fiction Books Perhaps; The Corrections author Jonathan Franzen nodded approvingly at Nick Hornby passing lightly over a sexual encounter in High Fidelity, but in his puzzling over why other authors didn’t do the same, Franzen seemed to (deliberately?) overlook the possibility that in some cases, showing characters having sex is precisely what will reveal most about them, about the way they view each other or even themselves. There is still, somehow, a nagging feeling that writing about sex is not something mature authors should do. Maybe this is partly because it’s so easy to do badly; even the likes of Will Self have not escaped censure in this field.

Or maybe I’m perceiving a problem where there isn’t one – but somehow I don’t think so. Sex has its place on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs just above the basics of food and shelter, but while we’ll all happily browse cookbooks and look longingly into estate agents’ windows, we’re less sanguine about being seen scanning the shelves of adult stores. And yet is bondage any less unnatural, fundamentally, than cooking food? Children are fiercely protected from sex, but how many of them have to eat up their greens…? (Food doesn’t have the same psychological complexities surrounding it? Consult an anorexic.)

There is another aspect to this. Pornography, of the most explicit/hardcore kind, tends to be very boring. I suspect this is because there is no tension, no real yin-yang about it. Sexual desire is fuelled precisely by the sense of other, of division, of a gap to be bridged – which is in essence the same force that drives writing. (‘Why do writers write? Fiction Books Because it isn’t there.’ T. Berger) Pornography has an inevitability about it that dispels all possibility of drama. And maybe something of the same holds true for most sex scenes; the goal has been achieved, what more is there to be said? (cf. William James’ reaction to the Chautauqua community as cited in ‘What Makes A Life Significant’)

Is it possible that despite its great significance in our lives, despite it being perhaps the provider of many of our greatest personal experiences, sex is simply too trivial a subject, viewed on a broader canvas, to be worthy of sustained attention?


  1. How bizarre. I was actually thinking this morning about bad sex writing and planning a short story about a bad sexual encounter (not dark, just awkward, fumbling and British) to see if I could write it well. If that makes sense. I think rule number one is to avoid lofty metaphors.

  2. Yeah, in the above-mentioned essay Franzen talks about how the sentences in sex scenes get progressively more Joycean - and a friend of mine reminded me only yesterday that Norman Mailer got a Bad Sex Award, as well...

    I'm a pretty down-to-earth writer, fortunately - I don't even know what metaphors are...


    Check out this link! There's even an award for the worst sex writing!