Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Good Sex, Bad Sex....

Shucks, there's another award I didn't win. Jonathan Littell has collected the bad sex award handed out by the Literary Review. I really don't know how they can have ignored my efforts in 'Death Force'. "Orlena's body felt supple and warm next to him in the bed. Steve was cradling her in his arms, aware of the way their sweat was mingling. Her hair was lying across his chest, and he could feel his breath on his skin, and her nipples squeezed up next to him." I would have thought that stood a chance. Then again, when I read some of Littell's efforts, I suppose I have to concede defeat. "This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head," he writes. Cripes. That really is terrible.

For any writer, however, there is an interesting issue here. How do you write well about sex? I've always taken it as a given that a great thriller needs a great sex scene (unless it a police procedural, of course, in which case the hero will be a miserable Scottish bloke with a drink problem who no one would fancy). It is part of the mix of popular escapist fiction, which is what thrillers are all about.

But, of course, it is extraordinarily difficult to write well about sex. Elvis Costello, who's a big hero of mine, once remarked, in the course of taking his usual pot shots at the critics, that "writing about music was like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do." And as usual the great man is onto something. Sex just doesn't lend itself to description. You either slip into soft porn cliches, in which case you end up coming across like 1970s edition of Penthouse. Or else you start getting ambitious, in which case you end up sounding absurd very quickly.

The key, I think is to keep it brief, and to make it integral to the story. But I'll return another day with the tips for a perfect sex scene. In the meantime, I'm still chuckling over Littell's efforts.


  1. OK, I get the nipples being squeezed up next to him blah blah, but what in heaven's name is a spying Gorgon's head doing there? Littell's effort makes mingling sweat sound positively erotic.
    I wasn't shortlisted for this award either. Maybe I should brush up on my Gorgons.

  2. I came across a great technique in a humorous Dutch science fiction novel, of all places.

    There was a wedding night. The author suddenly stopped the action and went into intrusion mode, saying: OK, now there are two options here. Either you've been through a wedding night yourself, or you haven't. If you have, there's preciously little I can tell you. If you haven't, it's not my place to tell you about these things; you should really have a talk with your parents. In either case, I wasn't there at this particular wedding night, and the characters do have the right to a minimum of privacy. I'm leaving the next page blank for the reader to fill in details. I have an idea that the details dreamt up by readers who haven't been there will be much more interesting than the details dreamt up by those who have.

    The next page was blank.

    I still think it's pure genious. And one thing I certainly don't want in my thrillers is steaming sex scenes: they invariably look plastered on afterwards, and they are invariably suitable to get shortlisted for the bad sex award. Far better to just sort of hint. Show clothes flying in all directions, and then skip to the next morning.

    By the way, registering for the Curzon newsletter doesn't seem to work...?

  3. Sex having no meaning requires that we trust ourselves when being sexual. First, it means making choices from a vast array of options. Will we make good choices? Choices that reveal things about us we're defended against? This is far worse than simply being exposed as having lust in your heart. Will we be attracted to activities that "good people" are not? Will our choices hurt our partner, our family, our country?