Let’s write about sex, baby.
This summer appears to be the summer of erotica. Take for example the staggering amount of money E.L. James pulls in (weekly!) for her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Or the amount of self-published erotica novels topping the self-published bestsellers list. The trend seems to be sticking around: readers have grown tired of vampires and dystopian futures. They want to read about sex.
The erotica/romance/”mommy porn” genre aside, how do writers in other genres, namely literary fiction, write about sex in a convincing way? What’s the difference, for example, between Fifty Shades of Grey and Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds? They both contain explicit sexual encounters and don’t hold back on the juicy details. For me, the difference is that the former makes sex the main attraction and the latter uses sex as a way to develop character and push plot. Let’s be honest here. Nobody reads Fifty Shades of Grey for its literary merit (how many times can main character Anastasia Steele say “Oh jeez, he’s so hot”?). It’s book porn. I’m not condemning this, by the way. Everyone is entitled to read what they want on their e-readers. I’m simply saying I would prefer my sex scenes to come with something more, a bit of meaning to accompany the act.
If I had to think of great sex scenes in literature I’ve read lately, my mind immediately goes to Tom Robbins. He is a master of the sex scene, combining lurid details with his usual Robbins wit and obscure references. Even Cowgirls get the Blues was the first book I ever read that depicted a lesbian sex scene. Let’s just say, Tom knows how to write a sexy sex scene, but beyond that he knows what that sex scene meant in the development of his protagonist, Sissy Hankshaw. The sex is not purely for the reader’s pleasure (I think I blushed while reading it on the bus); it’s about showing (through this physical act) how Sissy has grown up and expanded her horizons.
In Steve Almond’s humorous essay (because let’s face it, it’s easier for everyone to talk about sex if we can joke around) “Hard up for a Hard on,” (available in the Tin House anthology The Writer’s Notebook) he breaks down sex scenes in numerous books and explains why they work (or don’t work). He suggests you start out by first writing the most awful, over-the-top sex scene you can imagine, just to get it out of your system. He argues that “if you remove the pressure for the sex to be good, it frees you up to write about what really matters, which is the way sex reveals character.” I agree with this. What details you choose to highlight or avoid, whether you write around the sex and play with euphemisms, and whose perspective the sex scene is being viewed from–all of these mean something. Anaïs Nin frequently writes about young women finding sexual liberation in the art world. The female characters are often naive and inexperienced, while the male characters are worldly and bold. Nin uses sex as a way to push her characters into adulthood, into their womanliness.
This is my favorite E.E. Cummings poem. It paints a picture using familiar characters and setting from the Christian Bible, but it subverts this story using sing-song couplets and re-shifts the focus to the positive. It’s like a dirty little limerick with the undertones of poetic genius.
Almond’s final piece of advice to those considering the sex scene: don’t do it unless you feel comfortable. Because if you don’t feel comfortable you’ll write a scene that’s the equivalent of the camera panning to the window in a PG-13 movie. If you want to write the good stuff, then write the good stuff. Make the scene reveal a character’s vulnerability or force them to face an addiction. Make them learn something or feel something or see something in a new light.
Or forget what I just said and write the next Fifty Shades of Grey. Money is more important than literary credibility anyway, right?