SEX SCENES IN FICTION.
Good authors too, who once knew better words
Now only use four letter words writing prose
“Buddy, that sex scene you’re planning for your suspense adventure thriller. The one where Mike, your hero, makes his move on that lovely Japanese lotus blossom, Kitty, and gets her up to his hotel room and……”
“You mean the one in chapter four, just after she……..”
“Yes that’s the one; the hot, steamy scene where you go to town, stun your readers, and really show your mettle as a writer.”
“What about it?”
“Do yourself a big favor and leave it out.”
“It’s not necessary. It doesn’t advance the plot or enhance the story.”
“But it’s the best….”
“Believe me. Just leave it out and forget about it.”
Good advice I believe, but often spurned by so many writers of fiction. Even well-known, highly rated and respected authors have fallen into the sex scene trap. In my opinion, unless you’re writing in the genres of erotica and romance, intimate sex scenes are better left out. Written poorly, as they usually are, vivid sex scenes can kill an otherwise excellent novel.
In works of erotica, highly descriptive sex scenes are de rigueur; the reader expects them. That’s what the genre is about. Writers of romance novels usually don’t go that far, are more restrained, sailing as close to the wind as good taste allows. But in both cases, the love scenes should be well written and most often they are not. Writing credible and exciting sex scenes is a specialized skill few writers have. But, unfortunately, the temptations to go into that quagmire, the graveyard of so much good writing, are many and for some authors irresistible.
For so long it was impossible. In Britain, The Obscene Publications Act saw to that and other countries, such as the USA had similar draconian laws. But, in London in November 1960, an Old Bailey jury found for the publisher, Penguin Books, the defendant in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the floodgates cracked open. Writers pushed the envelope against the bulwark of Puritans and “defenders of decency” and eventually prevailed. They could now write anything they wished, and publishers could publish it and purchasers buy and read it. And so it was. And so it is. Anything goes.
But are we any better off really. Despite the strict censorship that constrained them, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and so many others produced beautiful books. Would their works have been improved by explicit sex scenes? Would The Great Gatsby be a better novel if Fitzgerald had included a hot scene with Jay Gatsby screwing Daisy Buchanan? Would A Farewell to Arms be a better work if Hemingway had added an intimate scene with Frederic Henry making love to Catherine Barkley? It takes a lot more than the freedom to write pages full of “F..k you, you motherf…er” or descriptions of sexual intimacy that would embarrass the mamasan of a Mumbai whorehouse, to produce an outstanding novel.
But sex sells, I hear you say. It sure does. And isn’t having sex what people do? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. And I think it’s fair to say that there’s nothing wrong with having your protagonist make out with a beautiful woman once in a while. Some suspense thrillers do have intense sexual passion at their core. It was this that drove such classics as James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But knowing how much to describe and how much leave up to the reader’s imagination is where the difficulty lies.
That accomplished writer and cool dude, Elmore Leonard handled sex skillfully in his novels, never intruding too far and as often leaving it out. And, given the zeitgeist of his time, Ian Fleming also handled it well. We know that James Bond made out with Vesper Lynd, Tatiana Romanova, Kissy Suzuki, Tiffany Case, Pussy Galore and others, but it happened in the reader’s imagination. Only once, in the case of Vesper Lynd, did Fleming take us into the bedroom, but he did so with reason; it advanced the story as Vesper was a KGB operative, a double agent.
Sex, the most intimate of human acts, usually takes place in the privacy of a bedroom with no witnesses. Writers should show their respect and keep it that way. But if an author feels impelled, he’ll find it much easier to handle if he’s writing in the first person because the narrator is also an actor in the scenes. Writing in the third person, however, is problematic. Following the lovers through the bedroom door the narrator intrudes, becomes a voyeur, a peeping tom observing the action on the bed and taking notes. I believe it’s better to take the lovers to the bedroom door, have them kiss and embrace and then walk away and leave it all up to the reader.
So do I practice what I preach? Of course. I’ll go so far and no further, mainly out of respect for the reader. Watching a movie is a passive activity. Reading a novel is an active pursuit. The reader’s imagination is involved, and I believe he should be encouraged to use it and that way he enjoys the reading experience more. If the writer does it for him by describing a love scene in detail, the reader may not like the way it unfolds. By letting the reader imagine the scene as he or she wants it is a far smarter move.
Here’s my take on it. In a time of total license, with no restraining hand, a writer becomes his own censor. He has to judge how far to go. Provided it’s not gratuitous, a well written, appropriate love scene can enhance a story. An inappropriate, highly descriptive, one will do the opposite. But why take chances? If it isn’t essential to the story line, a writer should err on the side of caution and skip it. The last thing a writer wants is to make a fool of himself and become a contender for the Bad Sex Award.
Once a year, the British magazine, Literary Review hands out its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. And some of the prose that earns this dubious honor is hilarious. Ben Okri was the 2014 winner. Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 and has received, among other prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction; awards I’m sure he’s proud of. But he didn’t have the guts to take his medicine and attend the Literary Review ceremony and accept his Bad Sex award. Instead, the insufferable diva issued a short and less than ecstatic statement: “A writer writes what they write, and that’s all there is to it.” But here for your edification and enjoyment is his winning piece:
“When his hand brushed her nipple, it tripped a switch and she came alight. He touched her belly, and his hand seemed to burn through her. He lavished on her body indirect touches, and bitter-sweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been concealed there by a god with a sense of humour.
“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”
Isn’t that something? It took some effort to create that hilarious nonsense. I’m just glad I didn’t write it.
No less a writer than Norman Mailer earned his Bad Sex Award in 2007 for a silly sex scene in his novel: The Castle in the Forest. And John Updike, poor chap, was awarded a Bad Sex Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. It is without a doubt the most dreaded and undesirable award in English literature and any writer worth his salt should avoid it like a poisoned chalice.