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The trouble with sex in fiction

Anybody reading this who has tried writing about sex will know that doing it well is bloody tricky. In fact, it is considered so notoriously tricky that the Literary Review felt compelled to set up the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, if only to accommodate the vast number of contenders for the prize.

So what is the issue? Why do even the most highly regarded novelists slip below their usual standards when it comes to writing about sex?

One of the reasons, it seems to me, is that sex scenes in novels are often gratuitous. That’s to say, while it might occur with enviable frequency that two (or more) characters in a novel sleep together, it is seldom necessary for the reader to witness the act itself. If its role in the action is simply to show a progression in two characters’ relationship then surely, you’d think, we can be spared the carnal details.

The problem is that when a sex scene has no other purpose beyond being a sex scene, the writing, with no substance to cling to, tends to deteriorate into protracted floral metaphors (who knew the many uses to which tulips and roses can be put) and an overemphasis on anatomical description that leave readers squirming – and not in a good way.

Seeming to have reached this same conclusion, Salman Rushdie for many years avoided writing about sex at all. If the plot of his one of his novels called for it, he would manoeuvre so as to have the sex occur ‘off-stage’.

Eventually, however, he rose to the challenge in his novel Shalimar the Clown. And wouldn’t you know it, his attempt landed him on the longlist for that year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his memorable description of the female sex as a “little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot.” What a poor reward for artistic bravery.

The greatest danger of the enterprise, he explained afterwards, was to try to make the sex in any way ‘sexy’, in any way pornographic. Rushdie seems to be on to something here.

Indeed, the risk in trying to write ‘sexily’ is that quite often the effect is the opposite of what was intended. What seemed sexy in the favourable lighting of the mind’s eye ends up on the black-and-white page being either awkward, or ridiculous, or both.

Real sex is not pornography, which in any case is best left to the professionals, and fiction that tries to present it in this way will end up being at best dishonest and at worst ridiculous.

Then again, some writers have seized upon sex’s more ridiculous qualities and used it to their advantage.

Hanif Kureishi is one example of a writer who deploys comedy to moderate the difficulty of writing about sex. Take, if you will, this example from The Buddha of Suburbia, where the protagonist, Karim, is witnessing his step-brother, for whom he has long harboured amorous feelings, endure a sadomasochistic sex session with a New York prostitute.

“She tipped wax all over him – stomach, thighs, feet, prick. This was where, had it been me with hot wax sizzling on my scrotum, I would have gone through the roof… Christ, I thought, what would Eva say if she could see her son and myself right now?… And it was at this moment, as she blew out a candle, lubricated it and forced it up his arse, that I realized I didn’t love Charlie any more.”

Comedy helps to prevent the pretentious tone that can creep into even the best writers’ prose when trying to tastefully present lewd and lascivious subject matter and thus can be a very useful approach for writing fictional sex. It also helps to relieve the tension a bit, letting the reader relax and allowing the writer room to explore the funny, ridiculous and sometimes disgusting aspects of sex.

Speaking of disgusting aspects of sex, Charles Bukowski, in whose novels the beast with two backs is a rather frequently recurring character, had a different method for tackling the issue.

Bukowski preferred to neutralise the difficulty of writing about sex in his novels by making it either perfunctory (“I pushed my tongue into her mouth, kissed her, and climaxed”) or perverse (“When I came I felt it was in the face of everything decent, white sperm dripping down over the heads and souls of my dead parents.”) Charming.

Though in fairness to Bukowski it must be said that in both his poetry and his prose he devoted extensive effort to documenting the loneliness, boredom and self-loathing that drove him to womanising.

Through his prolific exploration of the subject, he also managed to represent the highly variegated nature of sexual experience; how the same act could be an expression of apathy, hatred, love, anger, joy, jealousy, and so on.

Or to take another example: James Joyce… or, in fact, don’t. In his fiction, James Joyce wrote about sex as James Joyce would write about sex. But if there is one thing to be said about his contribution, at least he cannot be accused of expending any effort in trying to make sex ‘sexy’.

By the by, anybody who might be lusting for a taste of literary filth would not be ill-served by reading Joyce’s remarkably depraved loveletters to his partner, Nora.

Let us instead consider a writer who attempted none of the above deflectionary tactics, who wrote about sex with a characteristically bold but delicate touch.

Among his many other superb qualities, James Baldwin is the best writer about sex that I know of, and having explored this sensitive terrain this should be considered no trivial achievement.

To return to an earlier point, what makes Baldwin’s writing top this particular list is that sex in his fiction is never gratuitous: there is always a point to it.

In particular, Baldwin uses the vulnerability and exposure inherent in sex to reveal aspects of his characters that they otherwise do their best to hide from the world. “For the act of love is a confession,” he writes in Another Country, “One lies about the body but the body does not lie about itself; it cannot lie about the force which drives it.”

Baldwin presents more starkly and with more intensity than Bukowski does the motives that drive people to bed with each other. Take the following passage from Giovanni’s Room: “Her lips parted and she set her glass down with extraordinary clumsiness and lay against me. It was a gesture of great despair and I knew that she was giving herself, not to me, but to that lover who would never come.” He exposes better than any other writer the emotions that storm within people during the act itself.

Consider the following from Another Country: “Yes, he had been there: chafing and pushing and pounding, trying to awaken a frozen girl. The battle was awful because the girl wished to be awakened but was terrified of the unknown. Every movement that seemed to bring her closer to him, to bring them closer together, had its violent recoil, driving them farther apart.”

Notice the language of violence. The actors are clearly terrified: sex is a battle, bringing out the inner torment within them both, each partner fighting a battle not with the other but with themselves, attempting by loving another to love themselves.

This is what makes Baldwin’s writing about sex stand apart from the rest, and is perhaps the key to writing sex well in fiction: what you get is understanding, not description.

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