I’ve been studying how the novelists I most admire handle sex scenes. There are hundreds of examples to choose from. There also seem to be quite a lot of articles on the internet about this so you’d think modern writers have it easy; they should all be experts by now.
But, as with every artistic topic, it is fraught with controversy. Some people think novelists shouldn’t write sex scenes at all, while others think no novel is complete without at least two.
But how much detail should you go into? And what sort of sex should the characters have? Modern relationships are messy in every sense.
The modern novelists I admire are subject to copyright laws, which makes it difficult for me to quote examples. Two of them are Tom Wolfe and John Updike. Unfortunately, they have both won the Literary Review’s bad sex award. Tom Wolfe’s winning passage was exquisite, I thought. It wasn’t meant to be erotic; it was meant to be funny. Judge for yourselves…
Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth. She tried to make her lips move in sync with his. The next thing she knew, Hoyt had put his hand sort of under her thigh and hoisted her leg up over his thigh. What was she to do? Was this the point she should say, “Stop!”? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, “No, Hoyt,” in an even voice, the way you would talk to a dog that insists on begging at the table.
Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns – oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest – no, the hand was cupping her entire right – Now! She must say “No, Hoyt” and talk to him like a dog. . .
. . . the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers until they must be only eighths of inches from the border of her pubic hair – what’s that! – Her panties were so wet down. . . there – the fingers had definitely reached the outer stand of the field of pubic hair and would soon plunge into the wet mess that was waiting right. . . there–there–
[From I am Charlotte Simmons p368-9]
So how do you write an unfunny sex scene? For all the good advice out there and fine examples to follow, it’s not easy.
One of my favourite sex scenes is the one in Madame Bovary when Leon takes Emma for a long bouncy ride in a carriage. It manages to be serious and funny at the same time. It gains in excitement from the fact that they are rushing out of Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral where a persistent beadle is determined to give them a guided tour. At once erotic and sacrilegious, it’s no wonder the book was the subject of a sensational obscenity trial in 1857.
Flaubert achieves his erotic effects partly by leaving as much as possible to the imagination. But the real power of this scene comes not from the details that have been omitted but from what has been included before. The sensory detail packed into the description of Leon’s preparations is lavish, beautiful and witty. Then comes the sexual tension. Leon is forced to wait for two hours in the cathedral, first anticipating Emma’s arrival and then waiting impatiently for her to finish her prayers at the altar of the Virgin. The irony is obvious but the subtle ingenuity of Flaubert’s technique is not. In erotica, anticipation is essential. Without the elaborate build-up, and the boiling frustration that Leon endures while fending off the tenacious beadle, the carriage scene would be flat and uninteresting. It is in the cathedral scene, just before the non-stop sex in the carriage, that Flaubert demonstrates the full range of his talent and the consummate mastery of his art.