Category Archives: On Writing

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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Genre vs Literary fiction….

Genre versus Literary.

This is often a silly argument. It’s Hendrix vs. Clapton, it’s Gibson vs. Fender. It’s a false dichotomy. And I’ll tell you what else it is.

A fallacy. That’s right and here’s why.

(so this is how you write a column…)

Its Beatles vs. Stones. (get on with it…. Ed.)

There is a certain kind of person who delights in this argument. The black – white position. You’re either For or Against. Pro or Anti. And you see it a lot in newspapers. It’s tiresome. But a lot of weary people like to read it.

I mean, in a column, with the columnistas tongue firmly in cheek, then it’s ok. It’s a bit of fun. (But Christ so many people miss that.) But in opinion pieces or anywhere really it’s important to realise that this is not a good way to think. Most barriers are artificial.

(get back to the point!…. Ed.)

The truth is always a blend. And that’s not dull. It’s not a compromise. Do you know how hard it is to finesse a good synthesis? (Very?…. yup.)

So, Genre versus Literary….. Oh, Genre’s all plot and no character. It’s formulaic. It’s dull. Well Literary Fiction has no plot. Back and forth it goes. Who was it who said, by the way, when asked to describe what Literary fiction is ‘Man says something, woman says something, describe the sky.’

I do like that.

Yes, sometimes literary fiction is a good writer doing an exercise in writing – over the length of a (fairly short book). There’s not enough plot, it’s all weeping’s leaves and wistful gazes into the distance and those chapter endings that feel like someone stirring your soul. I love them – but it’s all a bit empty, no?

And yes sometimes Genre is formulaic – but a bit like those people who read the Daily Mail – their readers want crap – they want their awful reactionary opinions and prejudice propped up by some vile money grabbing column fomentation generator. Straying off the point there again into Daily Mail baiting. But I’ll bet there is a strong correlation between those who read only (crap) Genre books (Action/thriller nonsense for the boys and ‘Romantic Fiction’ for the gals) and Daily Mail readership. Mark my words…….)

And it’s awful but there you go.

But the bombshell is coming. Good Literary Fiction has bags of plot and engaging genre novels have well rounded characters.

(Is that it? Wait the controversy is coming up.)

How hard must it be to write good genre fiction (A Police procedural. An historical novel. A humorous novel. Christ that’s hard. Or even Sci-Fi. *

To set yourself those limitations and achieve around them, something that’s engaging and (in some way) original. Now that’s clever. I love Henning Mankell and Ian Fleming and others. How do they do it? It’s a lot like genre music.

People who know a little about early rock n roll or blues say – how hard can it be – the musical form is so simple, there are so few chords. That’s exactly the point, to play a blues song well… takes a little bit of genius. That indefinable edge that glints off the strings and hides in the voice; and in the blend of the two.

I do read genre but I’ll reach for Fitzgerald and Waugh and Ian Mc Ewan time and time again when I want to be moved deeply. To be stirred. To learn something about the plight that we all share.

But here’s the thing that would cause controversy most likely if there was a big audience for this. Good Lit Fiction is more common than Good Genre Fiction. Pound for Pound that is. There I said it.

When the Lit Author sits down they are aware of these issues and are more often than not trying their best to place their characters in a twist of a plot as well as writing the beautiful sentences.

The Genre writer, often also aware of the issues discussed here, but also not (and that’s the really bad stuff), s/he just writes the same book over and over again, with a few wee alternations. And he hates himself a little, but takes the money. I know they don’t all do it. But I think pound for pound, this goes on more in the genre world.

Look, we are all basically remaking cakes that have been made before. Who’d form a band after the Beatles….. well lots of people did – but the ones we remember pushed and pushed and made something new out of it. It gets harder and harder though.

And the best of it all lies in the place where all the aspects of fiction meet. It’s a hard hard long road to walk. But it’s worth it when you get there. Or I imagine it will be.  

  • Footnote, how exciting. Every decent sci-fi novel is ‘literary fiction’. What’s good about them is nearly always that thing that we can use to define Lit fiction – they are books examining the human condition.

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So what…

I try hard to write beautiful sentences. To emote and describe and to create a tone that takes my reader away (hopefully to the same place where my imagination resides). And that, is a good thing.

But for a long time it’s where I started out from. When I approached a short story this was my initial concern. And that’s wrong.

All (prose) writing is about telling a story. Everything must begin with the story. Everything must service the story.

This I think is something that literary fiction writers in particular must be most aware of. Because when you are describing the sky, has it actually got anything to do with relaying to your eager reader the drama that you are trying to relate? If not. Get it out.
Its All About The Story. Everything has to start with Plot and Drama….and Conflict…. once you’ve established that, then and only then do you try and do it in a beautiful way.  

The ‘So what’ test is very useful here.  

A man holds big parties and has a shady past …so what?

A man holds big parties and has a shady past and is trying desperately to get his old flame who lives next door back into his life……aaaah!

A man wakes up in the morning……… what?

A man wakes up in the morning and he finds he has turned into a giant cockroach………. Aaah!

A man moves into a guest house and fancies his landladies daughter ….. so what, ho hum.

A man moves into a guest house and fancies his landladies daughter….and she’s 14. ….Hello?

The right answer to the ‘so what’ is what the writers bring to the table – the cockroaches and the ennui and the mysteries of love and lust and everything in between … Its where we find the moral dilemmas. Where we find the grist. Where we take stories told before and put an interesting twist or sheen or a new approach to them.

(another way of putting this is the ‘long and’… aaannnnnnnnnnd, what happens then, what’s the point of this)

The correct answer to this is what gives you permission to write.

It also helps with pitching. (It is pitching.)

It’s the edge – the story. Your take on how hard it is to be a human and the drama that weeps out of that condition at times. That’s what people want to read.  

Write beautifully of course, but put it into a (very) close second to getting your engaging, interesting, gripping story sorted.

So what? Apply it mercilessly.

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