Writing About Sex in Novels

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I have a litmus test with most everything I publish online, a way to keep me (and my mouth) in check, something seemingly easy to lose hold over in this digital era when instant communication to broadcast even the most mundane of thoughts is right at our fingertips. Before I post anything, I ask myself, “Is this something I’d be okay with Jamal’s mom reading?” If I’m even a little bit in doubt, I don’t post it. (I’ve saved myself from some pretty curse-laden, reactionary tweets about everything from The Real Housewives franchises to people on my morning commute this way.) My own mother’s favorite piece of advice has always been, “When in doubt, don’t.” And while it applies to all manner of things –the suggestion to not do anything until you’re confident in your decision has served me well in relationships, work, finances, etc.– it’s equally as relevant to resisting the urge to post absolutely every unfiltered thought.

This has been a helpful self-imposed rule for my blog/twitter feed/various social media accounts, but the same standard, when applied to writing my book (though with a different relative) has been somewhat…restrictive? I’ll back up a bit. There are two characters in my novel for whom a romantic involvement is an ineluctable outcome. It seems weird to suggest that I have no control over fictional people I’ve created, I know, but I’ve written and re-written different plotlines countless times, reworked things in my head, and the end result is always the same: these two characters have to have a dalliance. You’ve read a bit about them before, about these two walking up the stairs to her apartment, his hand on her shoulder, the door closing behind them. I’ve been on the other side of that door for months, unable to write about what goes on when they stumble into her bed. Because…because what if my brother reads it? My older brother! (That’s obviously not the only thing keeping from writing about sex in my novel, but it doesn’t help the cause any, either.)

So I did some digging, and it turns out, plenty of authors struggle with writing sex into their novels. It’s hard! (That is not a euphemism.) How do you articulate it adequately? What words do you use? Does it seem gratuitous to include it, or a cheap cop-out to have a ‘fade to black’ moment? Here are a bunch of authors on writing about sex:

Lorin Stein, in The Paris Review:

Not all writing about sex is meant to titillate. There are other reasons to describe what people do in bed…It strikes me that fiction and poetry are especially good at dealing with sex—are in some ways designed for handling subjects that are private or shameful or deeply subjective—and that sex is inherently interesting (maybe especially to readers of fiction?)

Alexander Chee, also in The Paris Review:

Too much writing about sex tries to either make it prettier or more serious, sexier or funnier or shocking, or anything, really, except what it is. On its own terms, sex is information…When my teacher told me to read James Salter, what she meant was that this kind of sex writing…describes sex so that it tells you something about the story and the characters and yourself, all at once.

Dennis Cooper:

Sex is such a confusing situation that your ability to communicate what you’re thinking and feeling in the moment is severely hampered. If you try to articulate your thoughts and feelings in words, you’re reduced to saying the quickest and easiest epithets you can come up with—porn language, ­essentially…That’s why, when writers attempt to describe sex accurately, the scenes all tend to sound the same, no matter what the writers’ individual styles may be. I think most writers just want their sex scenes to be realistically sexy.

Adam Thirwell, in an interview in Salon with author Gary Shteyngart:

I think for me it’s always interesting to write about extreme experience, or experience that’s not really meant to be written about, that’s on the edge of the linguistic: where it merges with, I don’t know, brute noise.

Steve Almond, in the Utne Reader, lays out 13 guidelines for writing about sex, and they are wildly funny and insightful. Number 12 is my favorite:

If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying, and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your lovers in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: It’s called pornography.

And finally, author Rachel Kushner, in an interview with the NY Times, being very smug about the whole thing:

I don’t think of sex as any more difficult to write about than any other human behavior. Writers fail or soar at anything. Everyone thinks about sex, engages in it. It’s the secret we all share. Just acknowledging its constant presence in people’s thoughts is a good direction for a novelist.

Fellow fiction writers and readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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May 12, 2015 / life / dog / read / watch / LEAVE A COMMENT / 22

22 comments

  • OK…here’s my thought…Jamal’s Mom? I was a little offended, as in your mother didn’t walk the streets to support you….. until I read “When in doubt, don’t”. That’s actually your father’s expression and he was referring to meat. Don’t get me started with what direction that conversation would take if your Dad were still here. I just know that your hands would be over your ears and you would be yelling about how you’ve been scarred for life….again.

    • Yes, Jamal’s mom. The woman who has never cursed or said a bad word against anyone, whose lovely virgin ears would be scarred if I let myself run my mouth like the sailor I really am! I don’t have to worry about that with you. Like, you and I were texting last week about Dorinda’s hideous boyfriend from RHoNYC and talking about hippo penises. Do you think I need to operate with a filter when it comes to you? No. Jamal’s mom on the other hand? Definitely. Don’t be offended! It doesn’t mean you were a street walker, JFC, haha. It just means that not everyone in the world is used to our brand of acerbic, expletive-laced sarcasm, and I have to be conscious of that. If anything, you should feel proud I don’t have to worry about offending you!
      And that’s really daddy’s expression? Huh. I’ve been falsely attributing it to you for years. It comes in so handy! Meat! Adding it to the list. xo

  • That was such an interesting read! I am translating a whole series by an author who specializes in New Adult and I must say I wasn’t comfortable with the sex scenes AT ALL at the beginning! But I got used to it after a while and, in the end, I’m not the author, so it’s not as tricky as I thought it would be. I don’t think I would contemplate writing scenes like these if I wrote a book one day.

    And I agree with Steve Almond’s advice. “If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t.” I don’t have this option as a translator, but I would go for it as an author. :)

    • It’s so interesting to hear it from a translator’s perspective! Wow, the nuance between the languages must be hard enough to maintain, let alone when it comes to sex scenes! I give you major credit for it, girl. And again, your job is so fascinating and if I were bilingual it would be the first thing I applied for. (Well, second, after flight attendant, but only on the route between Philadelphia and Paris, haha). xoxo

  • I am not a writer but I am a full-time painter and was struggling with a similar issue a couple years ago, of painting something I would feel sort of, well, embarrassed at sharing with my family. I got over it, because if I am self-censoring because of my family, then my art suffers for that, and that means I am not a good artist, since my job is to make my art as good and honest as possible. I thought of all the paintings and books and songs I like and thought, what if these artists were making their work more tame because of their family? Then the world wouldn’t have these pieces.

    Presently, my parents and I just don’t really talk about or acknowledge my paintings, but I am free to paint what I want! And that is more important to me.

    • Thank you for sharing this, Taylor! There’s the same amount of vulnerability with painting as writing, I’m sure, because it’s your creative “baby” so to speak. You make a really good point about the work suffering as a result of self-censoring. If a certain scene is truly integral to the plot of my book, I can’t keep it out just because I am embarrassed, right? Right! Although I might just employ your method and tell my family not to talk to me about my book, haha. That might be the safest bet. xo

  • Heeeey, don’t blame me for your writers block! I stopped blushing years ago. Your nieces need to find out about all this stuff somewhere, why not their Auntie’s blog. Naughty Aunty I mean;-)

    • So, two things: 1. I forgot you read my blog!! 2. I forgot the girls would one day read my book!! (assuming it gets published). Pardonnez moi while I slink off to a corner in embarrassment ;) xo

  • I love that your mom and brother both commented on this, haha.

    As far as writing about sex goes, I think that so few people do a good job describing what is actually happening as it’s happening without it coming across as pornographic or intentionally titillating. Or inversely, intentionally revolting, as in the book I am reading now – the character’s attitude towards sex is kind of awful and it’s meant to be. He’s not likable.

    One option is maybe to have what actually takes place behind closed doors revealed elsewhere in the novel, through the character’s perspective. That way it stays true to the characters rather than just being a gratuitous sex scene? I don’t know. Interesting to think about – good post!

    • Haha, nothing like family, eh? ;)

      So few authors really do get it right, really, that it makes it even more daunting. Ignoring all of my embarrassment about discussing the topic with my brother, as a writer it’s just as nerve-wracking to not come across as pornographic, as you said. I want it to be realistic, first and foremost. I do love your idea to not really be “in the moment” with the scene itself, but let it play out later in other situations and scenes. That’s a really great idea, Allyson! Thank you so much. xo

  • This is fortuitous timing, because I was just reading a very funny piece on Jezebel talking about how Jonathan Franzen is truly awful at writing sex scenes. Maybe not something to click at work, but it made me laugh/cringe: http://bit.ly/1JaxVNM

    I think for me as a reader, it’s not necessarily explicit Cosmo-esque descriptions of the physicality that make a sex scene, er, come alive—it’s more about seeing the characters emotions and thought processes. Some people have a way of writing those scenes so that the vivid, insightful prose elsewhere in the book all falls away and suddenly it’s just very…mechanical. I think it’s possible to leave a lot about that side of things unsaid and still make the scene feel rich just by exploring the characters’ reactions to and inner monologues about what’s going down (no pun intended!).

    But then, I’m not a fiction writer, so take my opinions with a grain of salt!

    • Okay, so that was one of the funniest things I’ve read in a while! I read “Freedom” four or five years ago and remember not liking it too much, thinking it was just really, really long. But I have a whole new appreciation for just how bad it really was after reading that article. Man! He sets the bar pretty low for believable sex scenes, which works in my favor! Haha, thank you for sending me that!

      Teehee, loved your “er” hesitation there, and your unintentional pun! ;) But yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head with the word “mechanical.” It’s a really fine line between not being too pornographic and having a level of description that rings false, and being very clinical about the whole thing and having it come off as a textbook. I definitely love your insight, and if anything, readers are probably more help than fellow writers. :) xo

  • UGH. I proofread some ridiculous New Adult, so I can 100% agree with Charlotte. The problem of how to write about it as a grownup (NA writers are not) never even occurred to me, though! I loved Alexander Chee’s comment–I think it sums up everything. If you tell us what we need to know about what happens between them, and why/how it’s important to the story, then you can’t go wrong, and honestly, I think if you stick to that metric, Jamal’s mom probably won’t worry too much about it either. We get the mechanics; it’s probably more about if he touches her hesitantly or eagerly, or if they do it Pretty Woman style, without kissing. It doesn’t have to be uncomfortable to be intimate and relevant to the plot. I love that Jamal’s mom is your guide, also–some people’s opinion’s matter more than others, and a mother-in-law is at the really interesting intersection of 100% supportive and wanting to preserve an angelic impression of you. I can’t wait to read what you finally come up with! And don’t worry–the right words will make their way to you. :)

    • I would loooove to pick your brain about an average day at your work, lady. You and Charlotte, both. You guys work with books all day, I’m sure you have some amazing (and amazingly bad) stories. Case in point: New Adult (I didn’t even know this was a genre? What qualifies?). But yeah, you make some really good points, and I think I’ve forgotten that it doesn’t have to be too intimate to be persuasive and believable and, well, good writing. Since you’re a proofreader, mind if I nominate you in advance to be the first set of eyes on my manuscript? I can pay in macarons and other dainties. ;)

      Oh, that angelic impression is so important to maintain with a mother-in-law! xo

      • Haha don’t tease me–I’d be honored to proofread for you! Macs are my preferred currency.

  • oh well, that’s a tough once. all I can say is that I’m grateful no one in my family speaks English, will ever read anything I write, or even know about the fact that I do. that said, it’s fiction and not your unfiltered thoughts. isn’t that enough?

    • Hahah, I think you really have an ideal set up when it comes to your writing. If only I could write this book in French, then I wouldn’t have to worry about anyone I’m related to reading it ;) xo

  • Je ne suis pas une expert dans la matière ! Mais je pense que “less is more”, je veut dire, que ça doit être un peu comment dans les films, moins tu montres plus excitant est !
    Je te souhaite des très belles vacances Erin !! Régale nous avec tes belle photos de Rome, Paris…et Carpe Diem ! xoxo

    • “Less is more” est une bonne règle, pour ecriture. Je suis d’accord, il marche bien dans les films, donc aussi dans les romans, non? Merci, mon amie! Je pars ce soir! xoxo

  • I have a computer program that sends me a notification whenever the term ‘My Older Brother’ is used on the internet.

  • The Steve Almond one over and over and over again. It IS really funny how it really all does read the same. I was reading a fairly entertaining and harmless series a few years ago and then happened upon the sex scene, described in hilarious yet realistic-ish fashion, during which I couldn’t stop laughing and couldn’t take the writing seriously anymore. Granted the character was one you couldn’t take too seriously in the beginning anyway but that kind of just murdered it for me. At least I got a good laugh?