Sex scenes should be: Unobtrusive and Undemonstrative?

“Good sex writing, by contrast, is clear, precise and unillusioned in both senses: it refuses to take part in a diversionary pantomime of imagery; and it knows that sex is rooted in the physical. It is generally unobtrusive and undemonstrative. For this reason it makes no sense, as our critics have often argued, to institute a good sex prize, any more than it would to reward the best scene involving a kitchen garden or the most skilful use of semicolons. The awkwardness and evasion with which some writers describe sex, however, frequently point to more widespread stylistic flaws.”

Says Jonathan Beckman in his Financial Times article on the Literary Review’s 2011 Bad Sex Awards.

But I have to disagree. Clear – yes, precise – yes, but unillusioned –  no. Eroticism is not mating. A clear, precise and concrete narration of a sex act will give will give you the equivalent of a Nat Geo documentary passage on mating in humans. Eroticism is illusioned. Our inner erotic worlds are filled with imagery and metaphor. Sex is rooted in the physical, but eroticism is rooted in the brain, Mr. Beckman. And we don’t have sex, usually, for its procreative function but for its erotic pleasures.

Mr. Beckman commits the error of the bulk of literary critics, academics and social commentators in considering that sex scenes in literature should not arouse.

If he really believes that there is no difference in the well-wrought description of a sex scene and that of a kitchen garden, then I have to assume he’s got a problem with eroticism.

26 Thoughts on “Sex scenes should be: Unobtrusive and Undemonstrative?

  1. …or he is an incredibly keen gardener. In some ways I see his point. There is a thrill to the senses in reading any good descriptive writing. Elizabeth David’s descriptions of food are a favourite of mine. Stimulation of all the senses is a part of good erotic writing, but then that would seem contradict his point that “sex is rooted in the physical” which indicates a far more limited perspective.

    • er… perhaps you and I read different article. Because that’s not how I read his point at all. What I read was that descriptions of sex should be concise, concrete, physical and eschew all imagery. Good descriptive writing IS illusion and imagery and metaphor.

      • Which is why I stated the contradiction. The comment that he is perhaps a keen gardener was tongue in cheek. What I was trying to acknowledge is that good descriptive writing is not unobtrusive whatever the subject matter, it moves all the senses. So in likening sex to gardening (or cooking or any other physical act) he is underestimating the impact good writing can have.

  2. a clear, precise and concrete narration of a sex act will make me either laugh or turn me off of sex forever – if you take away the imagery it isn’t pleasant, not at all

    • And I think the believe that imagery somehow ‘prettifies’ the carnal shows a real lack of understanding as to why we find sex so compelling. Imagery doesn’t have to gloss over the real. It should magnify it, but also underscore the semiotics of the sexual text – of what we, as humans, have come to perceive as erotic.

      • The imagery takes the place of the mental subtext we would normally insert while having sex. The lack of such subtext is why I find most pornography so boring.

        • This–times a million. 🙂

          Imagery is *exactly* what makes spicy/erotic scenes *not* porn. Imagery *is* the beauty in the writing and what elevates above Tab-A-Slot-B accounting. Sex might be rooted in the physical, but the emotions are what make it more interesting than working in a garden, so the emotions–and the imagery we use to get across those non-concrete ideas–are what we focus on in our writing.

          • Imagery: But I’d argue that it’s not just the beauty in writing, it is what makes sex so intensely important to us, far beyond its function as a means of procreation. Presidents have almost been impeached over this. Do you think that if Clinton thought about sex rationally or unillusionally, he would have risked what he risked? No.

            We bring an enormous number of illusions, sub-texts, etc. with us to the erotic. And to write about it without acknowledging them is to write humans falsely.

          • “Imagery: But I’d argue that it’s not just the beauty in writing, it is what makes sex so intensely important to us, far beyond its function as a means of procreation. ”

            Agreed! It’s not the physical that makes sex irresistible. It’s how it makes us feel beyond the physical–from the internal sensations, the emotions, the cravings, etc. Any writing missing those pieces is missing the whole point.

  3. there’s not much more I can add, other than you nailed it. As it were…

    A good sustained, recursive metaphor is better tna sex anyway. But that may just be me

  4. Wonderful. Thank you for this darling. The idea that sex and gardening are the same is annoying, unless you write gorgeous poetry about your garden. I think he’s insulting my writing, my sex life and my garden in this… No matter what you write, there’s a place for beauty. There’s a place for bringing a joi de vive into your prose to make it evocative and emotional. Whether that be sex or semi-colons.

  5. WHenever I raed something like that, I’m tempted to quote Feynman, so I will. “Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

  6. For me, writing sex is about more than the act, more than the mechanics (who did what to whom and how). It’s about the sensations. How does it feel? And why does it feel that way? Perception is just as important as the physical act–maybe even more.

    • Oh, I think you hit the nail on the head and encapsulated exactly what is so ‘bad’ about a lot of literary descriptions of sex. To pretend that you can represent any real experience of sex as objective is absurd. It denies the very human habit we have of giving it far more meaning that a simple physical function.

  7. But maybe I get the author’s point in this paragraph:
    “Prudishness lies at the heart of poor sex writing. You can sense the urge to shy away from sex, to displace it with simile or hide it all together. It’s striking how frequently the view becomes cloudy or obscured. In previous years Carlos Fuentes got “lost in a leafiness like that of a forest of fleshy ferns”; Amos Oz was “like some piece of sonar equipment … anticipating and consciously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef”; John Banville has ‘a passionate dalliance … on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out of them’.”

    There sometimes seems to be a fear of sex in art, and a need to gild it in order to emphasize one’s distance from impolite carnality. But I don’t get the need for unobtrusiveness. It’s almost as if he is saying, “Fine, include sex if you must, but don’t make too much of a scene about it. And if anyone gets aroused, you’re doing it wrong.”

    • I think a lot of people, like well-drawn characters in novels, do shy away from sex. And if you have a character like that as narrator, then that’s what you have to do for them. But I think his statement that ‘prudishness lies at the heart of poor sex writing” and his admonition to make it as unobtrusive as possible is paradoxical.

      Our erotic lives are seldom unobtrusive, and that is why they present us with such good conflict in narrative.

  8. I take this comment by Mr. Beckman to apply only to fiction authors who don’t write erotic literature, as it would hardly make sense otherwise.

    I’ve heard variations of this before from writers/editors who consider writing the action of sex to be nothing more than describing the procreative act, that one should only write “just to the point” of sex, but no farther. It’s not unlike the thinking of old Bollywood films where the romance scene is cut as the hero and heroine are just about to kiss. The viewer is left to imagine what comes next – it’s a tease.

    Though I agree erotic literature is more about stimulating what’s between the ears than what’s between the legs, it’s undeniable the two are intricately linked. Writing beyond the kiss would most certainly add to the story. That’s what good erotica does. It builds the plot—from tease to passion to climax (no pun intended) to resolution.

    There are varying levels of eroticism in real life, and so should there be in literature. The build up and tease are erotic, but so is the down and dirty heated sex in a back alley, which cannot be left to the reader’s imagination—which is hardly undemonstrative and unobtrusive, which is a scene that transcends genre.

    Writing sex, after all, is not just about the what/where/who of body parts.


    • Absolutely. He’s not talking about erotic fiction writers. However if verisimilitude is what we’re after in literature, then excluding the illusional is self-defeating, since as humans, we experience eroticism illusionally. Yes, it’s physical, but its the physical translated through the lens of thousands of years of interdiction, which has essentially changed the way we interpret it in our brains.

  9. I’d love to sit down with someone who believes that sex scenes in literature shouldn’t be arousing, have them reel off a list of ‘classic’ novels, and I’ll tell them just how many of them turned me on, and why. And I’d watch the eyebrows rise…

    You can’t avoid everyone’s erotic imagination. And you really shouldn’t have to.

    • And, what is more to the point is: what is the virtue in doing so?

      We engage a reader’s sense of nostalgia, their sense of sorrow, loss, joy, loneliness, fear, disgust. Why should a sex scene leave them feeling uninvolved in the narrative when we do not aim for that with any other narrative event?

      My central argument is that a studied avoidance of engaging a reader erotically is as artificial as dressing it up in purple prose, euphemising sex organs or painting a blow-by-blow pornoramic and hyperbolic sex act.

      The stance of studied literary indifference or erotic detachment is just as artificial as all the attempts at avoidance that came before it, whether they were caused by external censorship or by internal priggishness on the part of the writer.

  10. I’m being petty and perhaps a bit juvenile (but isn’t that part of my charm?) I can’t help but think his thesis says more about his attitudes about and experience of sex than writing. He speaks as someone who compartmentalizes any such urges in a tiny dark place far from emotion and, well, life. So he misses the possibility of sex in literature as integral.

    • I get the feeling that a lot of people think ‘literary sex scenes’ should eschew emotion in sex scenes to sound like they don’t care too much about it. It’s fashionable to pretend you don’t really care about getting laid. It’s even trendier to pretend you aren’t the sort of sap to make fatal mistakes, lead by your dick.

      This, of course, turns out to be the greatest fantasy of all.

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