Do sex scenes in novels make your toes curl with embarrassment? If so, you are not alone. Many readers find them excruciating and many novelists find them hard to write. Let me be clear that I am not referring to sex scenes in erotic novels or pornography. This post is about sex scenes in mainstream books – literary and commercial.
Suppose you’re a writer and you’ve written a sex scene that you’re pretty happy with. The next step is to get it past your editor and publisher. You achieve that, your novel gets published, you wait for the accolades… and what else do you hope for? That you’re not shortlisted for the literary honour that no one wants –the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
This award was established by the Literary Review in 1993. It explicitly excludes from consideration pornographic and erotic literature. You may be interested to learn that male writers predominate on the shortlists, and that in 2010 The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian author beloved by many, was shortlisted for the award (see www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsex.html). Equally as interesting, was the 2014 inclusion of another wonderful Australian novel, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Roadto the Deep North, which won a number of prestigious prizes including the Booker ( see http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/ben-okri-pips-richard-flanagan-in-bad-sex-award-20141204-11zrmr.html)
It’s helpful to make the distinction between bad-sex scenes on the one hand and bad sex-scenes on the other. The former refer to a frame in which the sex is not going well. The latter refer to a frame in which the sex may be going brilliantly but the writing is not good. If you look around you will find rather a lot of these. For some examples, see: http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward
An example of a bad-sex scene can be found towards the start of the novel On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. This brilliantly chronicles a sexually inexperienced couple’s disastrous encounter on the first night of their honeymoon. The plot is dependent on this bad sex and the characters are changed by the experience. In fact it ruins their married life.
Bad sex-scenes are badly written. They describe the activities of the relevant couple in great, and often toe-curling, detail that is secondary to plot development or to characterisation.
A third type of sex scene might be thought of as transcendental. The scene takes one or other or both of the couple out of themselves to some higher level of emotion. There are many nice examples of this in the novels by Patrick White. (For example, see the union of Ellen Roxburgh and the escaped convict Jack Chance in A Fringe of Leaves.)
Have I ever written a sex scene? Yes, in Stillwater Creek (page 22) there is a scene that relates to character development – and it is a bad-sex scene (and hopefully not a bad sex-scene!). It is written from the viewpoint of George Cadwallader, who is unhappily married to Eileen. It summarises all that is wrong with their relationship.
If you are a writer, it’s useful to bear in mind a simple idea – that the sex you write into you book needs either to advance the plot or to reveal more about the characters involved, or both. If it doesn’t, remove it or rewrite it so that it that does.