Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lessons I have learnt about writing novels - Sex

Today is not my day in so many ways. However, I did say I would blog about sex and I did write most of this already, so here I am. Today, this blog contains very strong language and sexual references.

So about sex, or more precisely, writing about sex. I don’t just mean writing about the act. There isn’t a lot of actual sex books anyway. For example, it occurred to me that I cannot remember reading a single book that involved the act of oral sex. If you can think of an instance, I bet no-one got a pubic hair between their teeth. Fact is that many actual "sex scenes" are superfluous to the narrative.

Occasionally you feel short-changed w
hen after two hundred pages of increasing sexual tension, especially when you too have fallen in love with one or other or perhaps both of the characters and finally their eyes meet and finally, finally after two hundred pages they both understand that the feeling, this deep ache, this knot in the stomach, this throbbing tension, is entirely mutual and then – suddenly it’s the next morning, the sun comes up and they’re drinking coffee together.

But most of the time, we can happily fill in the blanks and are only embarrassed by the authors' attempts at erotica. At least I am. Sex in novels shouldn’t need to be at all titillating to the reader, but authors start using slang words for anatomy where there hasn’t been a single slang word in the prose of the book so far, the urgent and spiky language of pornography; [no see, I did put it in here, but then I got scared].

They also resort to terrible clich├ęs, the same uniform version of heterosexual sex we see in films where the male partner always initiates, they always end up on or in a bed, always in a state of complete undress and usually with the female partner on top. This is because in films, we can then see as much as we are allowed to see within a 15 certificate, i.e the breasts. In books this device is entirely pointless, and yet they still do it.

Nobody ever laughs to utters a word at any time between initiation and orgasm. Everyone is beautiful and sex is almost always mutually mind-blowing. Unless they're married, in which case it is awful and the whole affair takes place in the dark.

I know. There are notable exceptions to the rule. I guess I have read a lot of trash. So why is the case? I mean this problem with sex, not my shameful reading habits.

Well, I reckon, that almost every one of us thinks that we are personally, a complete and utter pervert. Either that or we’re a complete freak because we don’t know what the hell other people are going on about. Because nobody’s experience and observation of sex and sexual behaviour is exactly as it is the movies or the books or anywhere else except in real life. And the main reason that this sort of sex, this presumably ordinary experience of sex and sexual behaviour, rarely exists anywhere else is that we’re all too afraid to be seen as complete and utter perverts or frigid or whatever.

And like I say, this just isn’t about the act. This is about everything between the amount of eye contact made between strangers on a bus right through to the actual business. Our awareness of each other as sexual beings even in the absence of any real attraction; casual flirting, intimidation, the games we play with that stuff, the rules we must adhere to all the time with everyone, all this complicated signalling malarkey.

When I write, I find myself feeling extremely self-conscious about all of this, anything vaguely sexual or sensual. Is it normal to think about this or react like that? Would someone feel this way or am I the only person in the whole wide world who ever had that thought? I don’t want to write anything which my readers will find unconvincing. And I certainly don’t want to write anything which is going to deeply offend or disgust anyone, if it turns out I am really wide of the mark.

Lessons I have learnt? Hmm. To be honest, I’m still struggling. In my editing process this is coming up time and time again as an area of difficulty; these bits are either very stilted or they are fine, but so honest and explicit and make me very nervous. I’m not talking about the most bizarre sexual act I can bring to mind, but just ordinary imperfect things going on between ordinary imperfect people. There’s really very little sex in this book.

However, as I have written about before, I very much believe that being honest, truly honest is the most important thing in fiction (rephrase that sentence until it makes sense. There? No, never mind). It is an almost moral responsibility, as well as an artistic one.

My golden rule is not to write these things within twenty-four hours of speaking to one’s mother, one’s grandmother or one’s good friend who is a novice nun. That is perhaps half the battle. It can help to write this stuff when you are tired or perhaps slightly drunk and to try and write it all at once without going over it too many times. Even turning off the computer monitor so one cannot see one's own words until it is all down.

Another thing that helps is to read really good brave fiction. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the best books ever written at all and is unflinching and at times very beautiful about the most inappropriate sexual attraction and obsession one could think of. D H Lawrence does pretty well, although some of his language is very dated now. Sarah Walters also writes very sexy books. I guess one should avoid pornography and erotic literature which is a means to an end, thus not too concerned with realism.

And even now I’m thinking, nah, I should cut those bits out and write it all the way it happens in the movies.


Anonymous said...

I think you will find that there is a decidedly anaphrodisiac description of fellatio in The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. No hairs between the teeth; but at one point, one protagonist is moved to exclaim "Don't bite!"

I must admit I cannot recall ever reading a novelists' account of cunnilingus.

The Goldfish said...

I did write about cunnilingus in one draft of my novel, but only as a discussion of language - the fact it doesn't sound anything like it is. Felatio does, perhaps, a bit. But c. sounds like one of those archaic insults like scoundrel or poltroon, as in "Take that, you measley cunnilingus, and let that be a lesson to you!"

I'm sure I have read Day of the Jackal, but it would have been some years ago. In fact you've reminded me, I used to read those espionage and adventure books (most far inferior to Forsyth) as a child and would frequently be baffled by events in the bedroom. I remember reading a passage where a woman got hold of the chaps organ - that was the word - and put it in her mouth. I assumed she was some sort of cannibal, the organ was a heart or a liver, and this was an extremely gruesome killing. It kind of disturbed me, which is why I remember it.

I certainly couldn't understand why he was still alive in the next chapter.

Sage said...

Well, at least 'organ' is better than 'member'!

I can tell you the worst sex scene I ever saw - in "Better Than Chocolate." It's a movie that could be good, it has good intentions, but it's so poorly acted that it's actually hard to watch. The sex scene in question has two lesbians going at it in missionary position. Hmmm.

My favourite scene of a sexual nature is in "It's a Wonderful Life" when the Jimmy Stewart has to share a phone with Donna Reed after they've just had an argument, and he smells her hair, then they get all jittery, and start hugging and kissing wildly. Okay, now what I just wrote, THAT's the worst way to write a sexy scene. I couldn't have done a worse job of relating something so beautiful it makes me tingle all over! (I don't do fiction.)

Marcelle Proust said...

David Lodge, in Changing Places, suggests though does not describe cunnilingus by having Morris Zapp remove a coarse hair from his teeth and say "That was lovely," to Hilary, who blushes.

Katie said...


I'm really interested in this: 'And I certainly don’t want to write anything which is going to deeply offend or disgust anyone.' Why not?

I went over some short stories of mine, and realise I write about wanking a lot, more than two-person sex. Let's worry about what that says about me! But the key is not to worry... I think. See that's all very well for me to say, but I once had to read one of my particularly graphic female masturbation scene aloud in a posh central London bookshop. Self conscious? Moi? Especially when my boss decided he wanted to show me support and come along.

The Goldfish said...

Sage - I too love that bit from It's a Wonderful Life. I believe they actually did that in one take, which is amazing.

Marcelle - Well spotted! I am afraid I read one David Lodge book Thinks and really took a disliking to the guy, even though lots of people say Changing Places is worth a read. Is it worth overcoming my prejudices?

Katie - Fantastic! You are a great role model. I supppose offending someone is an inevitable consequence of writing about the world as it is - many people don't like the world as it is, so take offence at the suggestion of any kind of sexual behaviour that they haven't partaken in themselves. However at the same time, I am generally a person in danger of worrying too much about what others - perhaps the wrong others - may think of me.

Still, if you can do that, I can perhaps be a little braver. My romantic hero has spastic hemiplegia, you know.

Sally said...

Dear Goldfish
I have just returned David Lodge to the library after a few pages; I didn't think it worth persisting ...
Loved the ladybirds; but where was the head of one, then saw... the lady underneath appears to be peering down below to see what he is faffing about at ... left a bit, no, right a bit more, yes ...

Anonymous said...

What I've discovered is that some of the best writers - or, at least, writers whom I consider to be very good - can write dreadfully, dreadfully badly about sex. Step forward Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro. Their sex scenes have about as much passion as dry humping a sofa, frankly.

Sally said...

Dear Goldfish
Back in the eighties Jean Auel wrote the 'Earth's Children' series, and in 'The Mammoth Hunters' are many prehistoric encounters between the hunters and huntresses; nice one on page 431.
Not great literature, but well researched and with pictures - of the goddess figurines.

The Goldfish said...

Vaughan has just reminded me of a scene in Jonathan Franzen's Corrections in which someone actually did very passionately dry-hump a sofa - no, I'm wrong, it was a chez-longue. Actually, I had forgotten, that book was quite good on the sex and everything else, although it was a bit like a beautiful painting without any pale or bright colours in it. Ian McEwan went to my school. Kind of. I'll tell you another time.

Disshiresw, I'll have to check out Jean Auel and I have never heard of her or him.

Katie said...

Aw. It is flattering that you think it, Goldfish, but I do not believe I am that inspirational.

I have got to the point where I write what I want in the privacy of my own laptop, and then want to cry when my mum asks if she can read an extract...

I wrote a story once in which a dog was killed in a nasty way. My best friend was horrified. It's sort of the same with sex, I think. Even if our fiction is not autobiographical, by writing certain things down, we are admitting that we are capable of thinking that they might happen: dog murder, getting pubes stuck in teeth, female onamism... The list is endless.

Everyone is capable of thinking about such things, it is usually only writers who admit it. And that puts us in a weird position of vulnerability. My best friend thought I was a nice, smiley, gentle person... All the time I was thinking about a dog getting killed because someone fell on top of it... (Actually, that is quite a crip thing to imagine, no?)

But anyway, that 'gulp' moment - as in 'Gulp! My boss is about to hear me using the word 'clit'! - still exists for me, although it now has some kind of delay setting so that it doesn't occur until it is far too late for me to do any editing...

I am not convinced that's a good thing.

midwesterntransport said...

You're bound to offend someone, Goldfish, especially if you write a plain ol' missionary sex scene like every other novel - now THAT's offensive. ;)

PaulaO said...

I think that if you write a sex scene, if you do not horrify, disturb, shake up, offend or even, dare I say, turn on, at least one person, then you didn't write it good enough.

Lesbian fiction, including romance and erotica, is on the rise here in the states. There in the UK is Jane Fletcher and others. We write about cunni-whatever and we also write about fisting, dildos and other toys, and just plain sex between two females. We write about having several orgasms and still be dressed. And about getting it on whilst on the sofa and the dog come over lick someone's face.

I saw "Better Than Chocolate" and yeah, it was weird. But what's wrong with two women doing it 'missionary style'? Do you need me to explain? :D

The main problem with writing a sex scene when the two participants are the same gender, is trying to keep track of whose body part is where on or in whom. Some of us call it 'naked twister'.

Oh, and Katie, when I need to do a sex scene, I often write it in a seperate document and don't put it in until later. It keeps me from being distracted when I am going back over it. I also have a folder on my laptop where I keep an assortment of sex scenes that may never see the light of day on a printed page. But sometimes, in keeping a sex scene clean enough for human consumption, I feel the need to have them do more. So I write it then put it in that folder. My partner loves it when I read some of them to her.

So Goldfish, write away. Let it out. If later it is over the top for the book, you can cut it down. But meanwhile, you've not stifled a bit of yourself. Remember, no one is offended at that point other than those imaginary critics that reside in every writer's brain.

Unknown said...

Writing about sex is like writing about any pleasure, say for instance eating chocolate ice-cream, the pleasure is described to bring the audience into the experience of eating chocolate ice-cream, “I put the ice-cream between hot lips, feeling the cold chocolate melt around my teeth and slowly bit into the creamy mousse, the chocolate covering cracking and I bit through, releasing the bar from my mouth, chewing slowly and allowing the cream to melt down my throat, my tongue feeling the taste and craving more.”, Switch the ice-cream for a penis and there you have it, its not really difficult at all, and should not be a twenty-page experience defining warts, rashes, birth marks and other such unnecessary things that we really don’t think about during sex, we simply focus on the pleasure, don’t we? Authors, like anyone else, have inhibitions, and fears about who may be reading what they wrote, like for instance, their mothers, but truly it is not necessary in a a good novel to include pubic hairs stuck between the teeth, I mean who cares? I prefer writers who leave me to my imagination, like the chocolate ice-cream paragraph…