Why Good Writers Write Bad Sex: An Exploration of Literary Prudery

Last year, Arifa Akbar wrote an interesting article in The Independent: Bad sex please, we’re British: Can fictive sex ever have artistic merit? I’ll be honest, I’ve been ruminating over this piece for about a year. First, let me give you some quotes from prize-winning writers and critics as to why they purposefully write unarousing sex scenes:

“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.” Martin Amis

The only point in writing a ‘he puts that in there and she puts this in here’ scene is to arouse, and I’m not interested in doing that. Some critics who should have known better complained that my last novel, The Act of Love, didn’t arouse them. It wasn’t meant to. It was a book ‘about’ compulsive jealousy. It wasn’t intended to make them jealous or otherwise titillate them.” Howard Jacobson

All the same pornography has no place in a serious book…It’s not the posture of people in bed which reveals their characters. You don’t advance the story by giving details of their favourite positions. You merely attract the reader’s attention towards very trivial points.” Graham Greene

The best sex scenes are the ones that are quite clinical and precise. Colm Tóibín’s short stories are quite good, there is a good sex scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms; Dyer wrote perfectly reasonable scenes in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He just tells you what happens; what’s not good is the over-florid writing that imbues sex with transcendental meaning.” Jonathan Beckman

“Nobody needs it anymore…Not that long ago, people would read quality fiction (as well as, of course, lots of rubbish) to discover what actually went on during sex, how people did it. Virgins wanted information, and experienced people wanted inspiration. If you were too young or poor to buy pornography or instruction books and had to go to the library, it was a lot less embarrassing checking out Lady Chatterley than a sex manual.” Rhoda Koenig, co-founder of The Bad Sex Awards

There are a very few literary fiction writers who use sex, like any other part of life, as fodder for their fiction and write it accordingly: good when the sex is good for their characters and bad when the sex is supposed to be bad.

But on the whole, the the last 30 years have seen a massive trend – oh, what the heck, call it a fashion – to represent fictional sex with as much eroticism as a barium enema. And the telling thing is, they do it even when the sex between the characters is supposed to be excellent and meaningful.

This studied avoidance of leaving their readers with even a moment of arousal is telling, in my view. It tells me that they still believe they are the ultimate makers of meaning. It tells me that, although they feel perfectly free to engender sadness, frustration, disgust, etc. in their readers, they feel that sexual arousal is somehow beyond the pale. This from a group of people writing in the 21st century. Please don’t tell me we’ve lost our hangups about sex. This valuing of all reader-responses over arousal screams of a truly unnatural social engagement with the concept of eroticism.

I write many sex scenes. Some are written with an eye to arousing the reader, some are written specifically to preclude it, some I leave open – with the traces of erotic imagery there for those who want to indulge. Many of my sex scenes are written with a view to triggering an ambiguous sort of arousal. A state of ‘critical’ arousal which, if I’ve written it well, invites my reader to be both aroused and analytical.

Maybe this is because I’m a woman and I know, despite the stereotyping, that both men and women can rub their tummies while walking. There is a myth that erotic arousal is the equivalent of a hormonal lobotomy. And, to adolescents, it is. But I write for adults.

Do these literary luminaries? Or does this deferral of any balanced and honest treatment of one of the most basic drives we have say less about a reader’s capacity to do two things at once and more about these writers and their inability to grow past adolescence themselves?

There is an almost hysterical tone to the insistence that arousing your reader is a ‘cheap trick’.  But underlying this denigration of a sexual response as a normal reader reaction to an imersive sex scene, I suspect, hides the spectre of author as either premature ejaculator, erectile dysfunction sufferer, or simply a fear that people are going to notice that you’re a lousy lay. After all, if you never attempt to write anything but banal, hollow and utterly depressing sex scenes, then you never run the risk of anyone wondering if your hamfisted attempts to arouse in prose may, in fact, be a reflection of your lack of skill as a lover in real life.

Writers should not be timid in the exploration of any human experience. Nor should they fear “embarrassing self-disclosure”, as John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, says. Yes, we’ve all had real experiences of bad sex. But to read the bulk of literary fiction sex scenes in the last 20  years, you’d think it was a fucking epidemic!

I’ve noticed this trend in other areas. It’s as if, in the midst of this media fest of explicitness, we have become terrified of pleasure. Real pleasure. Not momentary, banal, cum and leave pleasure. But the authentically felt deep pleasure that arises from a surrender to the sentient and sensual beings we actually are. We think and we are aroused. And we manage, as grown ups, to do both at the same time.

Let me leave you with a more enlightened view by Doris Lessing:

The description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders is a vital and valid documentation in literature

One Thought on “Why Good Writers Write Bad Sex: An Exploration of Literary Prudery

  1. What’s interesting to me is how literature seems to be the last artistic realm in which this retrograde thinking remains dominant. Visual arts grapple with sex, and eroticism, forthrightly, well, and have done so for quite a while. So too cinema. Not porn, but cinema. Some of the best filmmakers depict sex well, hot, thoughtfully. And don’t seem to worry about charges of prurience.

    But you’re right about literature.

    I would add, the same is true in many of our (my) close friendships: we discuss many intimacies, but sex, sexuality, remains more private than the level of intimacy of a given relationship might imply. And then even more so as we move from friendships to public discourse….

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