Sexual intercourse is getting on a bit. Not only has it been boosting the human population since we emerged from the primordial swamp, it’s more than half a century since Philip Larkin noted its arrival on the cultural scene in his poem Annus Mirabilis. Until then it was, Larkin writes:
A shame that started at sixteen And spread to everything.
For thousands of years, sex had lurked behind curtains and in the sub-text of innuendos. Suddenly, it was a matter for discussion, celebration and artistic exploration. This was good news for sex, perhaps, but not for writers, as Ben Okri has just found out after winning the Literary Review’s 2014 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
I speak from experience, having essayed a few torrid moments in my last novel Dark Aemilia. Given that my protagonist had inspired the later, bleaker Shakespeare sonnets, which give a compelling insight into the pain of unrequited or rejected love, it seemed appropriate that she and the infatuated Mr WS should engage in an obsessive sexual romance. So the script demanded that they take their clothes off, and, having taken them off, that they engage in the sort of sex that was likely to obsess them.
In our lust-soaked culture I felt there was no way the reader would accept a chastely sanitised Lurve without some robust consummation. But I worried that the spirit of bad writing might be chasing me down the Jacobean corridors, so I kept it brief. The fairly elliptical bouts of shagging which enliven my narrative will not give EL James pause for thought – there is no throbbing, few body part references and not a silken cord in sight.
But perhaps omission, metaphor and suggestion are sexier than, well, sex. It is difficult to write about the act of love without resorting to knicker-dampening cliché, or the most appalling schmaltz. New words should be made available if we want to carry on depicting “scenes of a sexual nature” – and the fact that the language of raw physicality is limited is demonstrated by the rarity of raw physical writing.
Most novelists don’t explore the animalistic elements of our being in much depth. When we write about eating and drinking, we focus on the food and the wine, not the act of chewing and swallowing. The delineation of everyday living doesn’t usually include trips to the loo – though in my first novel I did have an explicit weeing sequence, written from the point of a man. And vomiting is relatively underexplored. Orgasm has had far more literary attention than the ungovernable heave.
Which brings me back to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Given that both Booker prize winner Richard Flanagan and Haruki Murakami are on the shortlist, it’s clear that being a great writer is no protection against poor sex prose. (Other former nominees include Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.) So who is writing about sex well? Where is the excellent literary shagging to be had? Is the library scene in Atonement a best-practice example? Are there brilliant sex scenes that have slipped my mind?
As in fashion, pop music and all forms of culinary art since Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal, it has all been done before. It’s hard to “make it new” as Ezra Pound exhorted writers to do. Readers have already been shocked by the inchoate loin-count in Lady Chatterley’s Lover; the joys of compulsive teen masturbation in Portnoy’s Complaint; the fetishisation of the “c” word in Tropic of Cancer and by Fear of Flying with its “zipless fuck”. It says something about the current state of sex writing that the most exciting innovation of the last five years has been the mainstreaming of “mummy porn” in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Perhaps the way lies ahead not in explicit writing but in experimental fiction. DH Lawrence wrote about sex very badly indeed – ludicrously, insanely, improbably. In an attempt to be honest, direct and – yes – animalistic, he boldly overwrote where no man had overwritten before. Conversely, he also wrote about sex with courage and originality, using impressionistic sensory description to convey the sexual sensibility of women in a way that few male novelists have attempted since. And he should also get some points for his willingness to write about bad sex. Paradoxically, the sex in contemporary bad sex writing usually attempts to depict very good sex indeed. It’s as if the couplings described must emulate how we imagine the pretty writhings of Hollywood’s finest.
So where does this leave my future relationship with the sexual paragraph? Will my characters get down and dirty again? I’m not sure. If I can find a way to write about the “inchoate” without sounding like a breathless purveyor of lady porn, I may give it a try. I’m certainly not put off by the idea of winning a Bad Sex award. With so much dire sex to contend with, it would be an accolade of sorts.
Sally O'Reilly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.