In the Independent, Arifa Akbar asks if “fictive sex” can “ever have artistic merit.” The context here is the annual Bad Sex Awards, given out by the Literary Review. Since I think the answer to that question is indubitably “yes,” I was particularly intrigued by this piece of information:
Ironically, the bad sex awards were originally conceived, in 1993, to celebrate good sex, before the editor, Auberon Waugh, was advised by co-founder, Rhoda Koenig, that this might be “less interesting” than plucking out the clichéd and the corny.
I would love to see a Good Sex Awards shortlist. (It could be a cute stunt for the Review, if nothing else.) I’m sure Koenig was right that Bad Sex Awards get more attention — pointing and laughing usually does — but I’m not sure that mocking poorly-written scenes is automatically more interesting than celebrating good ones would be. Good sex in literary fiction is probably rarer than bad, and sex that many readers can agree is good might be even more uncommon. For example: I totally don’t agree that writing good sex is reducible to Geoff Dyer’s claim, quoted in Akbar’s essay, that descriptions of sex must “be absolutely explicit — no metaphors, no hyperbole.” (Then again, I do remember some of the horrifying metaphors cited in previous Bad Sex Award lists, so maybe that’s not a bad place to start.)
And I think Akbar’s onto something, here:
The most interesting writing about sex in the past two decades has arguably come from gay and lesbian novelists – Hollinghurst, Jeanette Winterson, Edmund White – who have touched ground where there has still been sensibilities to disturb and imaginative barriers to break down.
I’d also be interested in a broader conversation about sex in genre fiction, if we’re discussing the breaching of imaginative barriers.
Finally, Akbar covers the point that writers usually make when talking about sex in fiction: the “so what?” question.
Koenig casts doubt over this rationale: “I do think writers should ask themselves ‘is this sex scene necessary?’ In other words, what will we learn from following the people into the bedroom that we will not learn from simply being told that they have gone to bed together and liked it or disliked it or felt guilty about it or whatever?”
There are three sex scenes in Alcestis and one almost-sex-scene that dissolves into chaos thanks to some god-conjured reptiles. (Seriously. Drawn straight from the myth.) In my opinion, these scenes are all necessary for plot and character development, but their existence has made me squirm on occasion. I remember copy-editing one of the sex scenes while sitting at the laundromat — the scene with dubious consent, of course, because what else would you end up copy-editing at the laundromat? — and hoping that the bored middle-aged lady next to me wasn’t peering over my shoulder at the manuscript.
I don’t really feel that way about the published book; I think I’ve become comfortable with the idea that the book is, in large part, about desire. But giving public performances where I read about desire can still make me blush a bit. In a talk last spring, I read the almost-sex-scene along with a few other sections of the book. Even though I’d practiced the reading in advance, I hadn’t quite realized what it would be like to read in front of an audience a scene that sounds like it’s about to include sex. There was definitely an anticipatory and slightly uncomfortable feeling in the room, right up until the snakes appeared and the audience realized I wasn’t actually about to read a detailed account of the main character’s deflowering. I haven’t yet decided whether or not to include that scene in any future talks I give. Maybe I’d be able to enjoy the slightly uncomfortable vibe, now that I know to expect it. Or — maybe not.
Anyway, to sum up, here’s Seanan McGuire posting on Twitter, just a few hours ago:
… though I should add that the eighteenth century proved that even books full of nuns aren’t necessarily sex-free. (I’m looking right at you, Monk Lewis.)