The Daily Telegraph
Why novelists and sex are seldom happy bedfellows
HSex scenes on TV or film feel less intrusive. On the page, the words simply get in the way
ow many times have you been told that sex sells? We know this to be true – from the subtleish advertising campaigns of Levi’s to the grimier corners of the internet, there is no doubt that everyone is in search of a bit (or a lot) of titillation. But what about the book industry? The phenomenal success of the parochially erotic 50 Shades of Grey proves that there is a market, but I don’t think this extends to general fiction.
Recently, Sally Rooney revealed that she felt uncomfortable with the sex scenes she had written for her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Speaking at the Southbank Centre last week, the Normal People author said: “I don’t even want to read this, let alone write it.” Her publishers, however, encouraged her to keep the sexy bits in, saying it was a crucial part of how the characters related to each other. This to me sounds like craven disingenuity. Her bosses seem, to me, to have a slightly outdated view that readers of literary fiction want a bit of light arousal within the framework of something more serious, and that what people used to refer to as the “dirty bits” bring in the punters.
The thing is that, for the past 20 years, people have got their kicks in a far more direct fashion and (the success of 50 Shades aside) no one is going to read a serious novel in order to be aroused. Long gone are the days when schoolboys sent round scrunched-up copies of Anne Desclos’s Story of O in samizdat. Such behaviour now seems rather quaint.
Indeed, sex has always been something of a problem for book lovers. I remember reading a rather graphic scene in Jonathan
Safran Foer’s (otherwise excellent) Here I Am about a Gen X’ers midlife crisis and getting to a scene which made me feel as if I had just opened a beautiful toy box and discovered a marital aids catalogue inside.
It begins thus: “She raised one foot onto the sink and held the doorknob to her mouth.” I could go on but, really, I think I should spare all our blushes. Part of the problem with such passages is that sex feels like an interruption; as if an over-zealous publisher with one eye on the money has asked for it to be, ahem, inserted. There is no real plot point, nor does it really add much to your understanding of a character (in spite of what Sally Rooney’s people might think). Those who say that a sex scene makes you confront certain truths about a person’s nature are merely scrambling for some sort of legitimisation.
The idea of erotic literary fiction might seem like a contradiction in terms, but for years there were those who held works such as the aforementioned Story of O or Henry Miller’s Tropic novels in high esteem. Yet I challenge anyone to read these books and not fall into a coma. In fact, so dull are these works that you are likely to be sound asleep before you get to anything that could be described as mildly provocative. Strangely, I think that out-and-out filth works better. The American novelist Nicholson Baker has made a career out of shocking readers with the extremity of his descriptions. I think I may still be recovering from The Fermata, about a man who can stop time and embarks on a series of very pornographic episodes. Pleasant it is not, but at least there is a verve to his writing and a comic brilliance.
Indeed, comedy is often a more suitable playground for authors to write about sex. I am thinking of course about the peerless Jilly Cooper, who can merely use sex as entertainment which, of course, is one of fiction’s main purposes. Take this from her 2002 novel Pandora: “The ensuing romp so excited Trafford he nearly fell out of the wardrobe, knocking over a canvas. Furiously, Jonathan kicked the door shut. But by this time Sophy was too excited to notice. Later, as she ecstatically cradled a snoring Jonathan to her breasts, she wondered if she’d dreamt it, or had a man really slithered out across the floorboards.”
If only Henry Miller had written with such joie de vivre.
Funnily enough, sex scenes on TV or film, although often cringe-inducing, feel less intrusive. The days of a rising saxophone solo signalling the beginning of soft-lit intimacy are over, and it now feels there is a commitment to realism (as anyone who saw Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You will confirm). But actually, those working in a visual medium have it much easier – to suggest sex on camera feels much more natural than doing so on the printed page. The words simply get in the way.
In fact, I would suggest that any novelist embarking on a serious career should avoid writing about sex altogether, unless they want to end up being nominated for the infamous Bad Sex Award. Actually, read in isolation, these are pretty hilarious. Take this from Luke Tredget’s Kismet: “Eventually she loses her sense of the context altogether – of what she is doing or who she is with or where they are – and becomes an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness.”
This reads like the sort of thing that you might come up with in a creative writing workshop, and it really shouldn’t have passed the hands of professional editors. When it comes to sex in literature, you could do worse than follow the advice of journalist Harold Ross who famously said: “Be funny, and if you can’t be funny be interesting.” From my experience, very few achieve the latter.