Sex and the Literary Novel

Sex and the Literary Novel.

This is a propos of an the article I read somewhere by Isobel Costello.

The reason I was moved to respond was this…

“The best writing advice I’ve heard on the subject (though I can’t recall where) is not to mix sex and emotion (at least not love) in the same scene.”

This got me going. Why on earth not? Why would you remove (especially in a literary novel) emotion?

But that’s not what this means. I think this is referring to writing specifically about the sex act. That is to say the, ahem, nuts and bolts. The plumbing and the acrobatics. In that context, then yes I would leave the emotion out. In fact I would leave out everything and concentrate on what’s happening. What is going where. Rod B into Flap C, as it were.

Except that I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t write it at all.

You see even in that little bit of fun I had there (rod and flap) wasn’t it a little uncomfortable to read? Yeah. So avoid it.

Perhaps avoid is the wrong word. I think that it’s not that often necessary to write specifically about sex. Most of us know how it works. You’d rarely write about masticating…. no I meant masticating. You wouldn’t write a scene about eating a hamburger, applying the sauce and lifting the bun and biting into the tender flesh. Bleuh. It’s eating. You could describe a meal and its setting and maybe what was on the menu, but the chewing and the drinking itself. No. (Unless of course it was a kind a proxy for sex of course, but let’s leave that for now or else this will get awfully complicated.)

Like with all writing you have to stop before you dash it off and ask yourself – how is this serving my story? Does the reader need to know that he then put his III into her YYYY.

They had sex. Ok. That’s important. It was good, bad or somewhere in between. Also important.

The other reason to avoid writing about the ins and outs of the extraordinary act (thanks Isobel (and John Banville)) is that its damnably hard. Difficult.

It reminds me of something Martin Amis said about writing physical descriptions (I think he was talking about the natural environment rather than of people) he said something like ‘yeah, that’s tricky, I need to get my sleeves rolled up for that.’

I do like Martin A. (come to think of it, he wrote a very long and I can only assume hard, sex scene into his first novel ‘The Rachel Papers’. Which is fascinating to read. I think he did it as a challenge to himself.) But they are actually fairly rare, and no wonder.

Here is another reason not to write them. A most specific one. And this crops up in writers fora (plural of forum?) and Twitter and the like. What do you say for cock.

Cock is such an exuberant term, no? So in-your-face (sorry, but it is). It’s a hard word (yes), which takes the reader away from the words for a second (so too long).

Willy? A risible item.

Length – hiliarious, but unlikely to be suitable. (Oh I am reminded of a friend from school who when asked if you could borrow his ruler would insist you ask for his ‘length’. He is now a Vicar, this is staggeringly unsurprising.)



And so on. Oh and don’t get me started on the ‘frou-frou-tixibelle’s

It’s an almost impossible task of finding a word that isn’t freighted with a meaning that you don’t intend. But as I said I can’t imagine why you’d really need to.

But… I hear you chorus, your novel ‘A Glorious Endeavour’ (hopefully coming soon) is full of The Sex, and a lot of it fairly extraordinary.

Yes, it is. But there’s not too much of the close physical description. The sex is more about how they are approaching it. Why they are having it. And how it makes them feel  (this is why I baulked at the line above). (Also where they are having sex. This can cover a lot of ground.)

These things are the Context of the Sex. This is crucial. How urgent and exciting and how much of a release it is – that is where we are trying to go with the sex. And that is crucial to what’s going on in the novel at those points. I recently read ‘Boy A’ by Jonathan Trignell and he does this really well. Its such a good revelation of what the sex act means to the two characters personally and to their relationship. Its beautiful. (Great book, nuanced, intelligent, every scene comes alive, thoroughly recommended).

What I am trying to say is the sex act is the same as any other part of a literary book. How does this act – being on a train, being in work, sitting at home, having sex …… does it animate your character…. and your plot. When there is a description of the act (in my novel) it’s regarding the buildup. Because you can begin to have sex with someone in the restaurant way before you hit the sheets 5 pages later (and no, not like that you dirty bad pup).

Just like in real life, sex is best when the fuse is lit early and left to smolder just as long as you can let it.

Oh yeah.

So, sex and the novel – thank you Isabelle for stimulating me.

<smokes fag>


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