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.