Sex and the single author

First published: Mslexia

IMG_3957A badly written sex scene can kill a novel stone dead. Danuta Kean finds out how to keep readers satisfied.

A while ago I was reading a novel by a woman who had won a clutch of awards. Indeed, this novel was shortlisted for an award. It was good, if a little gloomy, but suddenly a third of the way into it I stopped dead thanks to the following phrase: ‘her clitoris exploded’. Not with desire or in ecstasy, just ‘exploded’. A man was involved, but who cared. All I could do was cross my legs, wince and close the book. The spell she’d woven was broken.

As in life, so in fiction: bad sex dampens enthusiasm. ‘Sex scenes: well almost all are awful,’ says Amanda Craig, who admits to being burned by the critical reception of the scenes in her début. ‘I hardly ever write them after my first novel Foreign Bodies got oceans of scorn poured on it by a woman critic. I now think it dangerous for women writers to describe sex if they want to be taken at all seriously.’

Craig has a point: most of the reaction to E L James’s Grey concerned eye-watering descriptions of genitalia, especially Christian Grey’s insistence that his penis ‘spoke’ to him (I’d have paid good money to see that happen at a supermarket checkout). With priceless lines like ‘she looks radiant. My cock agrees and stiffens in greeting’ it is easy to see what caused the derision.

Even when love scenes are well written, there is a tendency for them to be sado-masochistic, and unlike in Venus in Furs, the original S&M text, it’s almost always men in control. Take Susanna Moore’s fine 2003 erotic thriller In The Cut: though well written, lead character Frankie is sadistically dominated by detective Malloy, which begs the question: is it possible for sex scenes to be empowering and well written?

Monique Roffey is no stranger to writing about sex, particularly in her own life. Her memoir With The Kisses of His Mouth was a raw read about the grief of a break up and, in Roffey’s case, recovery through a sexual road trip that took her to the outer limits of erotic culture. Her first piece of advice for anyone writing love scenes is to ‘show not tell’. But what does this mean? ‘Avoid writing about your own fantasies, as you’ll get into trouble,’ she explains. That is because we all have different ideas of what is sexy: one woman’s whip and boots may be another woman’s chocolate spread.

It is important, she adds, to treat it like any other scene: ‘You need to get into the minds and bodies of the characters, their sensations and reactions. And, most of all, remember that a sex scene shouldn’t just be thrown in for the sake of it. It should move the characters or plot on in some way.’

In this, sex writing is no different from any other kind of writing – we have all read crime novels in which a murder victim’s eviscerated remains are thrown onto the page more for sensation than story or character. It’s distracting and uncomfortable. Sex scenes thrown in for titillation are no different: the impact is as unalluring as Kenny Everett’s Cupid Stunt popping up and shouting: ‘And then all my clothes fell off.’

That there is little good sex in women’s fiction is as much to do with the rise of Bad Sex Awards than that sisters aren’t doing it for themselves. When it comes to column inches parodying your excruciating erotica most writers would rather avoid. Though that seems not to deter male literary stars: past recipients of the award include Ben Okri, William Nicholson and 2014 Man Booker winner Richard Flanagan.

Sam Eades, senior commissioning editor at Orion Fiction, says where authors go wrong is in using flowery language. ‘I wouldn’t worry about trying to come up with new terms and descriptions (and positions),’ she explains. If you do you risk the unintentional humour that creates a Bad Sex Prize winner. ‘Sex scenes always make me giggle – unintentionally – when they are too lofty and poetic or juxtapose words that one wouldn’t expect in a scene.’ Back to that exploding clitoris. She adds: ‘Instead just use the language that feels real to your character, time period, genre and setting.’

This is advice with which Mitzi Szereto concurs. Szereto has compiled erotic fiction anthologies as well as writing her own books. ‘To write an effective sex scene that isn’t cringe-worthy requires a skillful balance of knowing how much detail is enough and how much is too much,’ she explains. For her as bad as flowery prose are crude descriptions. ‘My biggest pet peeve is juvenile language for body parts. A sex scene written in the style of graffiti in a toilet stall isn’t quality prose.’

But, there is a problem when writing about women having sex says novelist Julie Cohen, who has written erotica under a pseudonym and also teaches a workshop on how to write sex scenes for the Romantic Novelist Association. ‘There is a real lack of acceptable terms for female genitalia. There are loads for penises, but with women it ends up sounding either medical (the word ‘vagina’), or so coy (Fifty Shades’s ‘the entrance of my sex’) as to be meaningless or words that reflect a male viewpoint. I feel really uncomfortable with the word “pussy”. It’s not a good term and, what is more, it’s not very empowering.’

This awkwardness about what you call body parts is why it is better for authors to concentrate on the exchange of emotions rather than bodily fluids during sex. Diana Gabaldon, whose Outlander novels stand out for the quality of sex writing, advises authors to concentrate on emotion not lust.

How does do you do that? In a recent blog she wrote: ‘There’s a little trick called the Rule of Three: if you use any three of the five senses it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional. (Many people use only sight and sound. Include smell, taste, touch, and you’re in business.)’ Read any her and you’ll see how she has used this rule to create sex scenes that leave readers wanting more, not less. If the author whose clitoris exploded had followed this, I may have finished her book.

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