“bad sex”

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Pinky made a comment about sex scenes in Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet on her blog:

That said, the affair’s sex is great. I mean, never devolves into crummy sex, and the sex scenes are genuinely sexy. Enough so that when I was sitting at that diner, I really hoped neither of my countermates turned their eyes to the pages I was reading.

Which brings me to thinking, “How long has it been since I’ve read some REALLY good sex in a literary novel?” Because my immediate response was, ‘That’s a rare kind of compliment.”

I was once in a workshop in my MFA program where I would sit, cringing at how many times a manuscript had the word “nipple” in it. (as in, “I brushed her nipple, I sucked her nipple, I–” you get the idea). It read like a sex manual. At one point I raised my hand and said, “How do you kiss someone on the lips WHILE sucking on a nipple?” (the manuscript had the protagonist doing both, simultaneously–really, how do you do both?). I vowed NEVER to use the word “nipple” in my writing, ever.

And it didn’t end there–this particular workshop had a piece with a sex scene in it nearly every week (some weeks, both manuscripts would contain sex scenes). BAD sex scenes. Not bad as in good. Bad as in bad.

Bad, as in mechanical sex scenes. Bad, as in logistically impossible. Bad, as in lacking passion and emotional depth. Bad, like porn. Bad, as in gratuitous because the sex, as written, has nothing to do with the story or characters at hand. Bad, like a horny teenager beating off in the closet because he lives in a Puritanical household that would so not be cool with what he’s doing. Wait. That might be good story. But you know what I mean.

The workshop turned me off entirely to sex scenes in literary work. I overdosed, essentially, on written sex scenes, even though I do think one of the ultimate writing challenges is to write a good sex scene.

But what do I think is a well written sex scene?

One of my favorites is the scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary where Emma Bovary is in the carriage with her lover Leon, obviously getting it on, hissing to her driver, “FASTER (don’t stop)!” And then the driver of her carriage frantically rides through town, as we, the reader, take in the description of the crazy pace and sweating horses.

Now, when I first read this book, I was in junior high and had no idea of the double entendre at hand. “Wow, those horses are going crazy!” I got the idea of the mood, but missed the sex. The scene still had significance in my mind, the scene still gave me a sense of emotion, the scene still drove the novel’s narrative forward. The URGENCY came through.

Of course, now I realize there was a lover in that carriage to whom she was saying, “FASTER!” And the scene is even more incredible to me in its complexity.

Did we see a nipple? No. But I don’t need to.

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8 Comments

Filed under MFA, Writing

8 responses to ““bad sex”

  1. Tea

    Ha! This cracks me up.

    My old managing editor at the published company had once worked for HarperCollins. Her office there had a tradition that any editor with a submission that included a truly awful sex scene would stand up and read it aloud to the entire office. There were many.

    I cringed in one of Isabel Allende’s books when she described a woman’s nipple like a garbanzo bean (?!?).

    And woah, that was a sex scene in Madam Bovary? I don’t remember that one–must have gone over my junior high school head as well.

  2. Lee

    Well this was definitely an interesting post Jade. Got my attention! So a dual meaning that has a simultaneous emotional response (one of which is considered sexual) is a good written sex scene? Hmmmm….I’d like to read one you created someday!

  3. Kev

    Smiles… blushes…

    I wonder – and this is little verifiable, whether it might depend on how writers approach a sex scene, and even whether one is necessary at all. Are they trying to write a sex scene, or does it flow from the demands of the story and the characters? I would hope that a sex scene would be informed by who the two (usually I guess LOL though conceivably 2+) characters are, how they feel about one another and their bodies, their fears, hang ups, the context and surroundings.

    One thing sometimes missing (though done well often enough too) for my mind, and this goes for writing about relationships too, is the tentative and awkward nature of a lot of sex, particularly new lovers. I do get the impression sometimes that the sex, even if written well, plays like sex between couples with a lot more experience of each other than the context suggests. Like a kind of perfect well honed act of consummation, not one of discovery.

  4. The sex in “You Don’t Love Me Yet” is probably closer to porn than Madame Bovary, to be honest, but it was still fairly sexy. Thankfully, no garbanzo nipples.

  5. Tea: garbanzo bean?! i wonder what they would have done at your former publishing company’s office with that one. it would have been good lunchtime fare (badum pum!)
    Lee: my criteria for a “good sex scene” is a bit varied but mostly, it definitely should have a REASON to exist in the story for sure!
    Kev: well exactly–if the scene doesn’t befit the characters–well then it’s not a good scene.
    Carolyn: a sex scene can be great, if it’s written well and in any form (steamy, emotional, befitting the characters). Madame Bovary was just my (extreme) example of well crafted sex scenes. i really thank you for getting me thinking about this topic, one that often doesn’t come up for discussion.
    I’m up for hearing about others. For some reason, I can’t recall other well written sex scenes right now.

  6. mel

    I remember the sex scenes in Susan Minot’s “Evening” being well-written. (Also from an affair!) And no mention of nipples, either.

  7. psiness

    My ex girlfriend used to indulge herself in so many sex books it was ridiculous. I peeked at a few of them and had no idea what she could possibly get out of it. Every other word was cock and wet. Seemed pretty boring. I get what you mean on the challenges of writing sex scenes since I have seen what is being published. It really does seem like a hard feat to pull off though.

    I like nipples.

  8. jn

    haha i love this post! sometimes my friends randomly flip the pages of those thick romantic novels and read them aloud for fun (any random page is bound to come up with a sex scene), always good for a laugh. =)

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