There was more about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award on this morning’s Today programme at 8:55am. The two novelists interviewed, Howard Jacobson and Lionel Shriver, agreed that if you want to write sex scenes, you don’t write them graphically.
Howard Jacobson:- I do desire, I don’t do the what goes where kind of sex. [You can’t put it more succinctly than that.]
Lionel Shriver:- I think they make the mistake of being geographical about it. After all, if you were going to describe what’s going on between two people when they had dinner you wouldn’t want to write “he picked up his fork, he had a piece of salmon, he dabbed his mouth with a piece of napkin.”
Geographical is spot on (so to speak – when writing on this subject everything turns into a double entendre). Lionel Shriver then went on to say:-
“I’ve had readers indicate that they thought a given book of mine was full of sex. Actually there is no literal sex acted out in the book but it is sexy. The intercourse happens in the reader’s mind.”
I’ve only read Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, an intelligent page-turner of a novel, and she did convey the kind of sexual relationship the parents of the murderous Kevin enjoy. In fact, a theme of the novel is to show, to the most extreme degree, how having kids screws up your sex life. Satisfied lovers turn into frazzled parents of difficult, demanding creatures who have invaded your love nest.
Howard Jacobson thought the mistake that the writers on the Bad Sex short list made was “not of being gross, not of being ribald or coarse but actually trying to write too beautifully about it. The person who is going to win Monday night because he’s been too literary, too elegant and too well mannered about it.”
Howard Jacobson writes beautifully himself but doesn’t do graphic passages of sex between characters you are supposed to take seriously and sympathise with. His sex passages in Kalooki Nights, are oblique and perverse (the scenes are in Buchenwald, between Ilse Koch and her Jewish victim and I found them disturbing to the point of not wanting to read them at all). In Act of Love he described an orgy that was so miserable you wondered why anyone had shown up for it.
So writers can do successful comic sex, e.g Kingsley Amis in One Fat Englishman .
At the end of Chapter 10 the anti-hero, Roger, has got his love object to dispose of her child for an hour or two.
“Conticuere omnes,” Roger was saying urgently to himself half an hour later, “intentique ora tonebant. Inde toro pater Aeneas sic fatus ab alto: “Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem; sed. . .” No, it’s. . .Hell: colle sub aprico celeberrimus illic lucus. . . Trouble with the damned stuff it’s all chopped up into lengths so you have to know the beginning of each line and never get a clue out of what’s gone before. Oh God – hic haec hoc hic-haec-hoc yes yes yes now hunc hanc hoc three huises hoc hac hoc right his hae ha…. Ha? Ha ha ha horum his his? That can’t be right, can it? No, of course, it’s huic, you idiot. Get on with it - hi hae haec then straight on to the Greek irregulars esthio and good old blosk-moloumai yes now back to hic hoc haec hos has hos three horums. . .’
What Roger was saying to himself might have struck a casual observer, if one could have been contrived, as greatly at variance with what he was doing. In fact, however, the two were intimately linked. If he wanted to go on doing what he was doing for more than another ten seconds at the outside it was essential that he should go on saying things to himself - any old things as long as the supply of them could be kept up.
There’s good comic sex and plenty of bawdy in English writing, where it’s plain exactly what’s happening. There’s also eroticism eg the King James translation of the Song of Songs and John Donne's poetry. That again deals with desire rather than the what goes where, and that's what seems to work when writing of sex between lovers who the reader is supposed to respect.