In response to this year’s Bad Sex Award (given to Nancy Huston’s Infrared), Rick Gekoski at the Guardian proposes a Good Sex Award, though he acknowledges that it might never get off the ground for lack of nominees:
But if we must scourge bad practitioners of the art, why don’t we have a good sex award? Might it be because there are so few candidates? When I ask myself where I can find sustained high quality erotic writing, the best example that comes to mind is Sonya Hartnett’s pseudonymous novel (as Cameron Redfern) Landscape with Animals, and not much else. And even that book has passages that don’t read very well when quoted out of context. Sex-writing rarely survives such a process of extraction.
Martin Amis has a theory about why this is:
Sex is hard to write about because you lose the universal and succumb to the particular. We all have our different favourites. Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do – like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.
I’m hesitant to say that there’s something fiction can’t do. There’s a lot of fiction out there, more than anyone could read in multiple lifetimes. Buried in that giant pile of pages could be a brilliantly transcendent yet thrillingly rotten erotic novel. Or maybe there’s an unrecognized genius out there ready to lay us all flat in one paragraph. Still, writing a good sex scene, much less a great one, is a tough assignment. Hewing too close to the physical risks turning the scene into the prose equivalent of gif porn, while flights of metaphor draw the focus away from the moment itself and more toward the writer, usually in ways that lead to unintentional humor. Witness this from Craig Raine’s Divine Comedy:
And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.
This one actually gives us the double: the eight repetitive shots of jism combined with the “wubbering springboard” simile. First I get hung up on the question of whether springboards can, in fact, wubber. Then I wonder if Mr. Raine actually thinks about wubbering, a word that sounds like Elmer Fudd trying to say “rubbering”, when with whoever he interacts with while undressed. Then, just as I’m trying to clear the Looney Tunes aspects of the scene from my head, Raine goes for the money shot, and the rights-free porn music plays.
In the end, it’s probably not just a question of trying to make the particular universal, as Amis put it. It’s more that the tool we all work in, prose, can express brilliantly most, but not all, of our thoughts. While our thoughts leading to sex can be profound and our reflections on it afterwards compelling, our actual thoughts during good sex aren’t coherent enough to report in prose. The head space we’re in at moments of intimacy may be translatable into poetry, or music, in oils (the ones you paint canvases with, pervert), or in a film montage. But prose–sequential, ordinary, rational, born-in-Sumerian-wheat-contracts prose–may be too clumsy an instrument to access our hottest, sweatiest mental state.
But maybe I’m sheltered, so I’ll leave the question to you. Is there a sex scene that you’ve read that you think can survive a careful reading? If so, share it in comments.