Thursday, May 12, 2005

my day; and, bad sex.

today: a little light revision, some extravagantly loud spine "manipulation" from the chiropractor, and started reading martin amis' 'the rachel papers' which i purchased for the sum of 50p in chapel market. i'm only two chapters in, but i think i've already fallen in love with it. i hear he writes a mean sex scene too - something i consider to be the most challenging task a novelist can attempt.

in fact, what is the best sex scene in a novel? this may make me sound like a pervert (no!) but i'm going to nominate the encounter with the two prostitutes in brett easton ellis' american psycho. admittedly it gets a bit freaky later on, but i admire the way he calls a cock a cock. euphemism is the enemy of a good sex scene.

looking over at my bookshelves, i realise that everything i own is either pre-1830 or determinedly non-sexual (a history of the press complaints commission, bill bryson's mother tongue, remains of the day being typical examples) so i haven't any other nominations to hand. The first sex scene in Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong is quite good, but from memory there is a phrase along the lines of "he was like a key in the split lock of her flesh", which is grounds for instant disqualification. it reminds me also of the description by an ex-lover of massive tory mp nicholas soames, "sex with him was like a wardrobe falling on top of you with the key still in the lock". genius.

and by the way, i don't think that a sex scene has to be sexy to qualify as "good". some of the best sex scenes describe sex that is clumsy, funny or painful, and i'd say that i find reading a well-written account of 'bad' sex one of the best things novels have to offer. given the hundreds of pitfalls, however, i'm mildly surprised anyone manages to write anything worth reading about sex.

a non-exhaustive list of problems with writing a sex scene:

1) euphemism. as mentioned before, it's incredibly distressing to find a euphemism-heavy sex scene in the writing of an otherwise excellent author, and all too common. so, no flowers or manhoods.

2) stock phrases: nothing, repeat nothing is to be engorged, throbbing or glistening.
absolutely no dripping under any circumstances.

3)use of irony - can redeem otherwise laughable phrases. tumescence may be allowed if used with appropriate irony, ditto veiny. but too much irony is also a no-no. it's a sex scene - now is not the time or place for the writer to usher in a new style of novel-writing.

4) "i'd rather not be writing this" syndrome". some writers try to adopt the posture that really they are too cool to buy into the whole sex-scene thing. it happens; don't get hung up on including it, but equally don't write the sex scene as if you'd much rather the characters were having a chat about Barthes. the hallmark of this sort of writing is use of fantastically unsexy terms, like "vagina" and "perineum". which leads on to...

4) inappropriate detail: the creepy brother of euphemism. no, i don't need to know about the female participant's pubic hair management system; neither do i want a loving description of anyone's anus. save that sort of talk for when you see your doctor.

and for anyone who'd like to sample some truly hideous sex-based prose, here's the winner and shortlist for the 2004 bad sex writing awards.

some sample phrases:

  • "Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns - oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest - no, the hand was cupping her entire right - Now! She must say "No, Hoyt" and talk to him like a dog..." - WINNER! Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons
  • "Shiva still noticed - with lofty, Brahminical pity - the sprinkling of livid spots on the inside of her anal cleft" - will self
  • "He had peeled her like a kiwi fruit and she was all glistening-moist and sensitive as his unstinting tongue went deeper" - serial nominee wendy perriam
  • "She was riding naked on a big horse, among a pack of hunting wolves, at night" - possibly my favourite.
  • "the vulva itself ... was of unusual plumpness, almost spherical, like a large exotic mushroom in the fork of a tree, a little pleasure dome if ever I've seen one" - andre brink (spherical? how could he tell? the mind boggles).

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