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Of Burning Hotness & Tightly Curled Monkey Paws: Bad Sex Writing

You’re a writer—committing words to paper or electronic storage media—in the hopes that others might later read, and vicariously enjoy, the fruits of your labor. So when an award comes your way embodying recognition from your peers for demonstrable excellence in execution of the craft—popped champagne corks, streamers, and confetti all around, right?

Not so fast.

What if the recognition that comes your way is for writing some of the most descriptively awful, tortured-metaphor, laugh-out-loud-funny sex scenes ever committed to print—    then how would you feel?

Such is the position two 2019 novelists find themselves in: Didier Decoin and John Harvey. Britain’s “most dreaded literary prize”—the Bad Sex Award—was, err . . . awarded . . . to these two gentlemen for the creation of grammatical hydra-headed monsters of such overwrought metaphor, mangled syntax, and ”    wait . . . what?!” disorienting narrative description that awed judges truly could not decide upon a winner between the Gallic or the Anglo-Saxon contestants. They co-share the prize.

Readers in search of saucer-eyed, hand-to-mouth diversion may peruse this link for further details:     https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/02/bad-sex-award-twosome-prize-goes-to-didier-decoin-and-john-harvey  

I considered re-posting some of the passages quoted in the Guardian article here so that drive-by readers may get a feel for the exquisite excrescence of the award-winning bad writing thus recognized by Britain’s Bad Sex Award, but . . . no.     :::shudder:::    Just . . . no. . . .

Once you’re done reading the article, however, let’s regather here and discuss. Have you ever written a sex scene in your fiction? How did it turn out? What is your opinion of sex scenes in fiction, generally? Are they necessary? (Let’s exclude, for purposes of this discussion, “one-handed books”—explicit erotic fiction primarily targeted at cisgender men: “I never believed this could happen to me: I hawked my wad of chewing tobacco onto the macadam, took a swig of whiskey from my flask, slung my reflector vest away, and stripping down to my tightly bunched gray underwear waded into the writhing, moaning mass of naked women softly trilling my name:  Ebenezer, Ebenezer . . .”)

David Foster Wallace once notoriously dismissed John Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus”. Are there writers you think take things an explicit passage too far? Perhaps offend by tone, subject matter, and/or authorial voice? Obsessive “sex focus”?

On the other hand, do you think there is something to be said for writers who dare to write against the grain of “contemptible bourgeois morality” and Puritanical prudishness? Are there writers you think handle sexual passages well? Do you regard titillation and/or sexual arousal as a legitimate aim of literary or genre literature? (After all, we applaud the writers who best evoke the senses when they write, so why should sex—an essential part of the human condition and a most poignant and transfixing experiential phenomena—remain “off-stage” in literature?)

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29 thoughts on “Of Burning Hotness & Tightly Curled Monkey Paws: Bad Sex Writing

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Delany wrote wonder-full sex scenes.

    Laughter raised her face to the moon. He leaned forward; the odor of lemons filled the breezeless gap. Her round face was compelling, her eyebrows un-Orientally heavy. He judged her over thirty, but the only lines were two small ones about her mouth. He turned his mouth, open, to hers, and raised his hands to the sides of her head till her hair covered them. The cartilages of her ears were hot curves on his palms. Her knees slipped in leaves; that made her blink and laugh again. Her breath was like noon and smelled of lemons . . . He kissed her; she caught his wrists. The joined meat of their mouths came alive. The shape of her breasts, her hand half on his chest and half on wool, was lost with her weight against him. Their fingers met and meshed at his belt; a gasp bubbled in their kiss (his heart was stuttering loudly), was blown away; then air on his thigh. They lay down. With her fingertips she moved his cock head roughly in her rough hair while a muscle in her leg shook under his. Suddenly he slid into her heat. He held her tightly around the shoulders when her movements were violent. One of her fists stayed like a small rock over her breast. And there was a roaring, roaring: at the long, surprising come, leaves hailed his side. Later, on their sides, they made a warm place with their mingled breath. She whispered, “You’re beautiful, I think.” He laughed, without opening his lips. Closely, she looked at one of his eyes, looked at the other (he blinked), looked at his chin (behind his lips he closed his teeth so that his jaw moved), then at his forehead. (He liked her lemon smell.) “. .. beautiful!”

    – Dhalgren

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I think the bad sex award is unhelpful. They claim the award is supposed to encourage good sex writing but last I check they don’t describe or give examples of good sex writing. Rather, they take passages out of context just to mock them. Sure, the passages are funny, but all sex by its very nature is comical and borderline absurd. There could be a buildup of emotional or symbolic relevance in these ‘bad’ passages that we are missing out on, etc. Who says that certain passages aren’t intended to be funny or ironic, for example?

    One of America’s greatest writers, Rick Harsch, I’m happy to say, lauded my first book that just came out. There are two explicit sex scenes. There’s one that he said he enjoyed in particular and (jokingly) said should be longer. Out of context, or even in context, who knows what others would think. Like I said, sex is by its very nature almost unnatural seeming. Paradox and parody in one.

    Good sex scenes? I’ve honestly been impressed by John Updike with the sex in his Rabbit trilogy. Philip Roth is good in Portnoy’s Complaint if not elsewhere. And there is a very strange, almost transcendent sex scene between a Queen and a plebian in Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings. I realize I just named three post-war white male writers so I’ll add that Rikki Ducornet has written some amazingly sex-laced prose.

    The one thing that cannot be defended is sex writing that employs cliches. Like Ben Okri who won the award a few years ago or so and used the metaphor of a rocket going off in the distance. Jesus.

    Nota bene: a good sex scene should mean something for the characters. It should change them or express something beyond the surface of the flesh. These are factors in context that should be explored in order to determine if a sex scene is ‘good.’

    Liked by 7 people

  3. You raise a number of valid and interesting points, George. I couldn’t agree more that the award is “unhelpful”–let’s be honest; it exists primarily to serve as click-bait and a source of rueful amusement (bemusement?) to writers and readers everywhere who groan and remark to themselves, “I could do better.”

    Having said that–nothing wrong with a little amusement now and again, eh?

    For a sterling example of sex writing as an accumulation of bad cliches: https://www.salon.com/2004/01/14/bad_writing_2/

    On a more serious note, I am struck by something that I have not yet heard (here or elsewhere) discussed: that sex, like hunger and thirst, is a drive; and that depictions of such a primal, compulsive act in literature can be so powerful, transfixing, and arousing that they function as “show-stoppers”: acts that derail a reader’s consciousness of plot, theme, symbols, and motifs in favor of more immediately pressing tactile diversions.

    As for myself: I have never written an erotic scene intended to arouse the reader. (Understand that I am not sneering here at erotic fiction: that is a genre and topic for another day.) I have dealt with the issue of sexual abuse as an originating cause of long-lasting psychological trauma and derangement in my weird fiction; the challenge there is to write in such a fashion that the reader is not turned on or otherwise aroused.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Of course, Carl.

      I wonder what reader has thrown down their copy of Updike after getting theirs up so that they can up something into something? Would anyone admit to it?

      I think arousal can often be unintended. And it’s interesting that you make an attempt to make sexual abuse unarousing. I understand why, of course. I remember a conversation with my wife in which she told me that victims of sexual abuse/rape can feel guilty because it ‘felt good’ at one moment or another. My point is that even if your scene is accidentally arousing, I think it would be fine considering the primitive nature of sex, pleasure popping up even where it’s most unwanted, etc.

      Liked by 5 people

    • MamaSquid says:

      Arousal does happen for abuse survivors sometimes, I think that’s part of the horror of it, and you can use any element of arousal that pops up in a depiction of abuse or assault to really give voice to what a mindf*ck assault really is. It can be a fine line to walk, but if you pull it off it can be quite validating for survivors. I’m a survivor and a professional sexual assault prevention advocate (which imbues everything I have to write about this with a nerve-racking feeling of *responsibility*) yet a major theme of my own work is “You can’t control what turns you on.” That may be rather controversial, but I am not the thought police. I am into holding people accountable for their behavior, not their fantasies. I’ve clashed with other feminists on this subject before, but sexuality is just one of those bizarre and nebulous and largely instinctual things. I think as writers we can exploit this to tell the harder truths about what it means to experience and survive abuse. We can tease apart all those little internal contradictions that make it such a difficult experience. My MC has a history of sexual assault by a 25 year old man when she was 15, and one of the issues she grapples with is that she was attracted to him, was excited about his interest in her, and had fantasized about him before he raped her. What most reasonable people would see as normal 15 year old girl stuff she’s been using as an indictment against herself and why she deserved what happened. And I’m sorry to say I’ve encountered a number of people who would defend the man’s actions and condemn her. I’ve been hurt by similar attitudes about my own abuse in the past. The only way I can really fight back against that attitude as a writer is to show how much such an experience can mess the victim up psychologically. It goes a much longer way to try to create that point of empathy rather than scream sexual assault statistics into a bullhorn.

      So I encourage people to write about these realities. What really bothers me is when people use things like rape or sexual assault to make their story interesting and don’t put any thought into it at all. Sexual assault and abuse are such common experiences for so many, and often come packed with so much shame, fear and helplessness, I just wish more writers would think it through and use these issues with intention.

      Liked by 5 people

      • You bring up some very compelling, valid, and important points for writers to consider if they are going to explore themes of sexual abuse in their writing. I am currently working on a short story entitled “Who Sat Down Beside Her” that tackles head-on the theme of abuse of daughters by their fathers (especially self-professing arch-conservative, Christian, patriarchal, misogynist ones). I was moved to write the story when I ran across a recent statistic that reported one in nine girls (!!) have been raped by an adult while underage.

        https://www.rainn.org/statistics/children-and-teens

        How can this be, I wondered. My first instinct was to question the validity of the statistic. More sober reflection led me to recognize that predatory “rape culture” machismo and bravado is still very much with us, celebrated and apologized for by a certain dysfunctional ideological type: men and women alike. I read a handful of these accounts and . . . they are of a piece. In many instances the men involved (usually in some position of authority) convinced the victim that . . . yep . . . they somehow asked for, encouraged, or otherwise deserved their abuse.

        Now, all of this has turned our conversation re: bad sex writing a bit dark and grim–and that’s okay. We can keep this particular ball in the air as we juggle others. I like to think that the contributing members of our Co-Op regard this online place as a safe haven for working writers of all experiences, backgrounds, beliefs, and temperaments (save those of abusive sociopathic bent, eh?), so please know that I deeply respect and appreciate what you have shared with us today, MommaSquid. It needed to be said–by someone. You are that brave someone. Thank you.

        BTW: Speaking of “you cannot control what turns you on”, Anne Rice once wrote an entire bisexual s&m trilogy (later turned into a quartet: The Sleeping Beauty series) under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure to explore–in a safe way–these issues of restraint and control and master/slave role-play. She took great pains to triple-underline the fact that s&m between consenting adults isn’t what it seems: The “slave” is in control (at the utterance of a safe word all activity ceases immediately); the “master/mistress” is in fact working hard to heighten the sexual release of their supposed submissive. (What’s that old joke? The masochist cries, “Hurt me!” The sadist barks back: “No!”)

        But to return–for a moment–to the original intended lighter tone of the blog post, I want to invite other writers (and readers) to chime in here on a subject that, erm . . . touches us all. So let me re-ask and/or reframe those opening conversation-starter questions again: Do explicit depictions of sex belong in “literature”? Or genre only? Can you cite an example of “good” sex writing? Bad? Have any writers here (beside the ones who have already responded) written a sex scene in their fiction? Why did they do it? How did it turn out? Any comments re: my theory that an explicit voyeuristic sex scene in a novel tends to cause the book (authorial intent or no) to immediately jump the tracks into erotic genre territory, all other literary elements temporarily bleached out and backgrounded in favor of foregrounded lust and the writhings of couples caught in flagrante delicto?

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Stephanie Barr says:

    So much to unpack. Have I written sex scenes? You bet though I don’t always – I often fade to black. But I write lots of scenes intended to be titillating and the key for me is whether I’m invested in the characters and whether the sexiness means something more than just a meeting of bodies, which interests me not at all, and consensual, which means I need a character to be killed before the book is over.

    That’s true when I read, too. I’ve no interest in characters out for meaningless conquests and sex focused just on the physical is as interesting to me as pornography (i.e. not at all). Though that can be taken too far (think Barbara Cartland and her boy-girls so pure God came down to bless the union–yuck)

    I like an emotional involvement which may or may not be love and some aspect of it that involves something out of the ordinary otherwise you might as well fade to black. I don’t write erotica but I’ve had compliments on the handful of scenes I have had and many people praising the arousal factor of the sexual tension I’ve genned up before sex.

    Interesting conversation about making sexual abuse non-arousing. I don’t normally have a problem with making it non-arousing; it doesn’t seem the least bit arousing to me and I think it only would to someone who’s probably creepy to begin with. I have a single exception: one of my characters (Sword and Sorcery) was a sexual slave to a sorcerer who could control her with her jewelry. To escape this monster with her unborn child, she feigned that she’d been won over with passion so he wouldn’t paralyze her (his own ambition) so she could score his skin with poisoned fingernails, killing him. And that was a titillating scene, in part because she was torn, hating him and yet he was the father of her children and the only passion she’d ever known. I needed to capture both aspects for it to be effective.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. MamaSquid says:

    Beautiful entry. I adore the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, and yes, I will admit it’s totally so I can feel better about myself. I write a lot about sexuality and that includes, at times, scenes with explicit, kinky sex. I celebrate sex and sexuality in writing, I think it ought to be done more, and I think honesty about sexuality can even be a kind of revolutionary act in the right context. Interesting you mention abuse, as I’m a survivor and I write about sexual assault too. My WIP Killer, which is best described as a romantic thriller, deals heavily with the difference between dark fantasy and the reality of sexual assault and what consent and equal power really mean in the context of fantasy role-play. I took great pains with the depiction of sexual assault to ensure it wasn’t gratuitous and plot devicey. What bothers me in a lot of dark romance I read is authors who want to have their cake and eat it too – they want to talk about sexual assault as this deeply traumatic thing but they also want it to be fodder for fantasy and titillation – all for the same character. I didn’t really set out for it to be like this when I wrote it, but my book is really taking that abuse-as-fantasy trope and deconstructing it.

    Surely I wish to evoke desire in the reader (myself, mostly), but I take great pains to make sure the sex is serving the story and characters. I suspect a lot of writers avoid writing about sex because it’s one of those things where you’re really laying your own private thoughts and hangups bare – there’s no feeling quite so vulnerable as having a group of eight people critique your kinky BDSM sex scene that also includes sexual assault flashbacks because that’s the reality of a survivor’s life. And I had at least one man tell me it’s unrealistic for a woman to have a flashback of sexual assault while she’s having consensual sex with someone she loves — which like blew my mind as to the depths of ignorance it’s possible for someone to have about women’s lived experience… I had to explain sexual assault and PTSD to him. And see writers just don’t have to deal with this kind of private stuff when they avoid writing about sex altogether. But I think it’s dangerous to pretend that sex doesn’t matter as a literary topic, it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be human (for most people – some are asexual and not feeling it — but hey, one of my biggest fans in an asexual which tells me there’s meaning to my work beyond just getting people worked up.)

    My point is that writing about sex in any capacity is incredibly vulnerable work, but it’s important work and I’m proud to do it.

    Liked by 4 people

    • MommaSquid: your wisdom, intelligence, and hard-earned, life-lived experiences serve to educate and enlighten us all.

      I share your concern re: “dark fantasy authors who want to have their cake and eat it too – they want to talk about sexual assault as this deeply traumatic thing but they also want it to be fodder for fantasy and titillation”. Definitely don’t want to be that guy!

      I also agree whole-heartedly re: your comment that “I think it’s dangerous to pretend that sex doesn’t matter as a literary topic, it’s a fundamental part of what it means to be human . . . for most people. . . .”

      It’s a compelling, fraught, and tricksy topic that is as difficult to handle in-story for most writers as humor: tastes, expectations, and reactions of the reading audience vary wildly. And we are not all on the same wavelength or even wired the same way, sexually speaking: tastes, proclivities, and erogenous zones vary as much as tolerance, expectations, and appreciation of humor do from person-to-person–perhaps more. Vive la difference?

      Liked by 2 people

    • Puts in a nutshell my own approach, Liz. I’ve written sex scenes in the past but now less and less. Mamasquid has a very good reason for writing about sex as she does, and an important point to make about the ways its darker side can operate, but I’ve never (yet) sought to write on such a topic.
      Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach – the superbly written sex scene is central to the whole book. The very opposite of titillation – a factual, detailed account of a totally unsuccessful encounter.
      A long time ago, I wrote a blog post on the topic, in which I compared sex to frying pans.

      Liked by 4 people

  6. mimispeike says:

    I haven’t read any graphic sex scenes, that I can recall. But, believe it or not, I had an idea once to write a pornographic novel starring cats.

    I’ll read this later. I’m wrestling with a new illustration for my website: The Duke of Danger and the Marquis of Mischief. (Pedro has a reward on his head. He and Sly put together an act and go incognito in a circus.)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. victoracquista says:

    Thank you, Carl for a titillating post. I’ve written some sex scenes in my novels but they are tame and not overly descriptive. The sex scenes I have read that have been written by others I generally find to be not particularity well written. I think it’s difficult to write a good sex scene; indeed, I have seen specific writing workshops devoted to writing these scenes well.

    Because sexuality is so much a part of our human experience and is an element of so many relationships, I think sexual themes and circumstances are going to be represented in our literature and writing endeavors.

    As such, perhaps workshops devoted to this topic are in order. I suppose one could parse out physical aspects and descriptors, psychological and emotional aspects, feelings, etc. and how to describe them. Things to avoid, stereotypes, and other characteristics of bad writing could all be explored in an effort to help us improve the craft.

    At the end of the day, I also think there is a lot of individual taste and preference for both writers and readers in what is depicted. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Yes indeed, Victor–sage comments all.

    My preference re: the well-written sex scene in literature is the “fade-to-black” technique. If the writer has described the lead-up to the act well, that is all the eroticism I need or desire in a story. Please jump forward to the next narrative scene that advances plot or character; thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

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