Why Good Writers Write Bad Sex: An Exploration of Literary Prudery

Last year, Arifa Akbar wrote an interesting article in The Independent: Bad sex please, we’re British: Can fictive sex ever have artistic merit? I’ll be honest, I’ve been ruminating over this piece for about a year. First, let me give you some quotes from prize-winning writers and critics as to why they purposefully write unarousing sex scenes:

“Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do — like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.” Martin Amis

The only point in writing a ‘he puts that in there and she puts this in here’ scene is to arouse, and I’m not interested in doing that. Some critics who should have known better complained that my last novel, The Act of Love, didn’t arouse them. It wasn’t meant to. It was a book ‘about’ compulsive jealousy. It wasn’t intended to make them jealous or otherwise titillate them.” Howard Jacobson

All the same pornography has no place in a serious book…It’s not the posture of people in bed which reveals their characters. You don’t advance the story by giving details of their favourite positions. You merely attract the reader’s attention towards very trivial points.” Graham Greene

The best sex scenes are the ones that are quite clinical and precise. Colm Tóibín’s short stories are quite good, there is a good sex scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms; Dyer wrote perfectly reasonable scenes in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. He just tells you what happens; what’s not good is the over-florid writing that imbues sex with transcendental meaning.” Jonathan Beckman

“Nobody needs it anymore…Not that long ago, people would read quality fiction (as well as, of course, lots of rubbish) to discover what actually went on during sex, how people did it. Virgins wanted information, and experienced people wanted inspiration. If you were too young or poor to buy pornography or instruction books and had to go to the library, it was a lot less embarrassing checking out Lady Chatterley than a sex manual.” Rhoda Koenig, co-founder of The Bad Sex Awards

 There are a very few literary fiction writers who use sex, like any other part of life, as fodder for their fiction and write it accordingly: good when the sex is good for their characters and bad when the sex is supposed to be bad.

But on the whole, the the last 30 years have seen a massive trend – oh, what the heck, call it a fashion – to represent fictional sex with as much eroticism as a barium enema. And the telling thing is, they do it even when the sex between the characters is supposed to be excellent and meaningful.

This studied avoidance of leaving their readers with even a moment of arousal is telling, in my view. It tells me that they still believe they are the ultimate makers of meaning. It tells me that, although they feel perfectly free to engender sadness, frustration, disgust, etc. in their readers, they feel that sexual arousal is somehow beyond the pale. This from a group of people writing in the 21st century. Please don’t tell me we’ve lost our hangups about sex. This valuing of all reader-responses over arousal screams of a truly unnatural social engagement with the concept of eroticism.

I write many sex scenes. Some are written with an eye to arousing the reader, some are written specifically to preclude it, some I leave open – with the traces of erotic imagery there for those who want to indulge. Many of my sex scenes are written with a view to triggering an ambiguous sort of arousal. A state of ‘critical’ arousal which, if I’ve written it well, invites my reader to be both aroused and analytical.

Maybe this is because I’m a woman and I know, despite the stereotyping, that both men and women can rub their tummies while walking. There is a myth that erotic arousal is the equivalent of a hormonal lobotomy. And, to adolescents, it is. But I write for adults.

Do these literary luminaries? Or does this deferral of any balanced and honest treatment of one of the most basic drives we have say less about a reader’s capacity to do two things at once and more about these writers and their inability to grow past adolescence themselves?

There is an almost hysterical tone to the insistence that arousing your reader is a ‘cheap trick’.  But underlying this denigration of a sexual response as a normal reader reaction to an imersive sex scene, I suspect, hides the spectre of author as either premature ejaculator, erectile dysfunction sufferer, or simply a fear that people are going to notice that you’re a lousy lay. After all, if you never attempt to write anything but banal, hollow and utterly depressing sex scenes, then you never run the risk of anyone wondering if your hamfisted attempts to arouse in prose may, in fact, be a reflection of your lack of skill as a lover in real life.

Writers should not be timid in the exploration of any human experience. Nor should they fear “embarrassing self-disclosure”, as John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, says. Yes, we’ve all had real experiences of bad sex. But to read the bulk of literary fiction sex scenes in the last 20  years, you’d think it was a fucking epidemic!

I’ve noticed this trend in other areas. It’s as if, in the midst of this media fest of explicitness, we have become terrified of pleasure. Real pleasure. Not momentary, banal, cum and leave pleasure. But the authentically felt deep pleasure that arises from a surrender to the sentient and sensual beings we actually are. We think and we are aroused. And we manage, as grown ups, to do both at the same time.

Let me leave you with a more enlightened view by Doris Lessing:

The description of what happens in the bedroom, between the sexes with all the power-play between the genders is a vital and valid documentation in literature

  28 comments for “Why Good Writers Write Bad Sex: An Exploration of Literary Prudery

  1. January 4, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    Great post! It frustrates me too that such a complex human experience is so badly investigated, and when well done, often pigeon holed as too extreme, or labelled dirty. Thank you for sharing your well thought out ideas.

    • January 4, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      You know, I wish erotic passages were labelled ‘dirty’, but actually, they are treated with even more contempt than that. They are immediately interpreted as pornography and therefore ‘commercial’ in nature.

      As you said – desire and sexuality are complex human experiences. Not only that, but our sexual desire and images of sexual self so deeply inform who we are and how we ‘are’ in the world, such a hidden and powerful motivating factor. How often is sexual desire at the root of our creative aspirations, our cruelties, or criminal intents? To me, it’s beyond absurd to arbitrarily decide that THIS ONE DRIVE can’t be explored honesty.

      • January 4, 2012 at 2:18 pm

        *applause* it is time to redefine desire, eroticism and sexuality and how important that is to our human experience. To reclaim it from societies idea of porn, and give it back to new generations to use, understand and help enrich the amazing experience life is.

  2. January 4, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    I have been thinking about this lately as one of my recent rejections was too “sexy” for a lit mag. Not because it was explicit but my usage and the situation was too close to arousing the reader in a sexual manner and therefore too dirty. Never mind that, that is a big part of the story and without that bit of sex the story goes flat and the metaphor is dead.

    The editor in question was very kind. Helpful even but ultimately believed that their readers would be scandalized.

    I will never submit there again.

    I find that idea gross and dishonest. There is this ugly shaming that goes on when someone even hints at being both literary and blatantly gloriously sexy.

    I hate the idea that only something pornographic or deemed prurient is supposed to arouse the reader and that anything that does excite the reader this way intentionally cannot be literary or art or quality writing. I find that view pale and boring.

    When I read, I want arousal. Not just sexual arousal but make me angry, make me sad, make me feel uncomfortable. What is the point if there are 40,000 pretty words that leave you cold?

    If that is what is acceptable I want no part of it. I want to write things that are salty hot and living.

    This, is yet another reason why I’m not famous.

    • January 4, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Not only is it ludicrous, but it’s a relatively recent development. Who could possible imagine that Rodin’s ‘The Lovers’ was not meant to evoke erotic feelings? Or that Miller or Nabokov weren’t intended to incite both arousal and also difficult, contrasting feelings?

      This new puritanism is a puzzling thing.

      • January 4, 2012 at 4:10 pm

        I do think that a good number of people don’t want to say yes, I read Miller, I read Miller telling his lover he would leave her cunt cavernous and got turned on. That seems so absurd to me. No one would write as to their lover about the insane and magnificent things they are going to do to their cunt and not mean the reader to feel -something-.

        People still whisper about the “hot” parts of Miller. I’ve gotten into rather heated arguments about my love of Nabokov.

        After too many muddy discussions about it, I think it comes down to a mix of prudishness and making literature of whatever flavor hierarchical. When “certain” kinds of books or stories are called simply pornographic or dirty, it’s very easy to decide those nasty things are less than.

        At that point it’s easy to turn the conversation into an academic circle jerk about how “low” and awful -those- certain things are.

        Do take all this I’m saying with a grain of salt. I’m not an academic and I’m basing my opinions on how it’s been explained to me by “adviser” types. And of course it’s not a good explanation of anything aside from a desire to be in a perceived dominant position and have people/art to look down upon.

        • January 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm

          But the thing is… a lot of literary novels have very explicit sex in them. It’s just almost always awful, depressing, dehumanizing sex. And I don’t mean dehumanizing for the sake of kink, either. It’s simply vacant and banal. Very much like a detailed description of taking a dump, and just as quotidian.

          If most of us had to suffer through what passes for sexual realism in literary novels, we’d be buying a lot more sex toys.

        • January 4, 2012 at 4:41 pm

          It is. But I think that it’s easier to digest if it’s just that and not something that moves someone.

          If it’s that dehumanizing awful sex, there is no chance that anyone will say oh this writer likes to fuck. Or knows how to fuck.

          It makes sense if you assume that sexual desire is base and you don’t want your readers feeling such terrible things. You know what I mean? That’s often how it feels to me.

          That bit you said about the idea that arousing the reader is a cheap trick. Looking at a lot of fiction that is just what’s happening but it’s not sex. It’s the terrible tropes authors trot out to make you feel everything but aroused. I’m yammering while I think.

          How it is that, that kind of manipulation tends to get lauded yet if you give your reader a hard on it’s just a cheap trick.

          I find it hard to understand or adhere to. I need to think about this more it actually intersects nicely (damn woman but you are timely) with an article I’m working on for a magazine.

          • January 4, 2012 at 5:06 pm

            But here I think is a the rub. Writing unerotically about sex doesn’t preclude a reader reaction. It either disgusts – which is in itself, a powerful reaction – or it arouses perversely.

            I found it funny that Howard Jacobson disavowed any intent to arouse in ‘The Act of Love’, because there is an intensely fetishistic scene in which the protagonist waits, like a lamb to the slaughter, for his wife to come home. His waiting is an act of absolute submission and, to anyone who is turned on by those power dynamics in sex, it is arousing. So either a) Jacobson doesn’t have enough control of his writing to preclude reader arousal or b) he is so absolutely oblivious to a dominance/submission eroticism that he doesn’t realize what he’s done or c) he’s a fucking liar and a hypocrite. None of those options do him any credit as a serious writer.

            Sex constantly portrayed as empty and banal doesn’t produce a neutral reaction in the reader. It produces a sex-negative one.

  3. January 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm

    Sex scenes are also not properly edited- mainly because the editor was feeling squeamish too! (I have seen this happen because I do a lot of fiction editing)

    • January 4, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      Isn’t that just, somehow, laughable? That people are so uncomfortable with this that they can’t do their jobs in the face of it? What have we become?

  4. January 4, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    You raise some good points here. Sadness, anger, and joy are all emotions that an author would be pleased to effectively call forth from their readers, and they are all often experienced viscerally, physically. Why then should it be shameful to elicit arousal as a response to effective writing? Besides which, sex can be at least as revealing of character and of relationships between characters as if they were taking tea together, so why not dwell on this form of interaction as well as any other? I agree that the trend seems to emanate from a kind of snobbery dictating that the appeal of literature should be ‘purely’ intellectual.

    • January 4, 2012 at 7:22 pm

      But I think that this is the thinnest sort of ruse, because depicting soulless, banal sex isn’t any more likely to elicit ‘intellectual’ responses than eroticism. As I said, the depiction of awful sex doesn’t produce a sexually neutral reaction.

  5. Ortiz
    January 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Akbar should rename his article to “Why contemporary British Writers must Write Bad Sex to sell their books to idiot people”. This article is a huge pile of crap Remi, don’t waste your time with that! Journalists… XD

    • January 4, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      Well, you may be dismayed with the content of the article, but it’s not a pile of crap. It reflects a very real situation in the world of literary fiction. And I don’t think it’s the people who are idiots. I think people have been slowly trained to what they’re given, and the subtextual cues – eroticism is not ‘highbrow’.

  6. January 4, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    This is a great piece of writing.

    i’m not claiming to be the next great literary writer. i write erotic fiction. My entire *goal* is to engage and arouse my readers. It’s neither plot device, or scene filler…it celebrates, as you have said here, that we are sentient, sensual beings–and i feel that (most) of my writing celebrates just that! Truly a great essay rebuttal!


    • January 5, 2012 at 12:34 am

      Hi Nilla,

      Well, I can’t in all honesty say that my entire goal is to arouse my readers. There are definitely portions of my stories that are aimed at arousal but there are lots of parts that aren’t. The point is, most grown adults are fully capable of being sexually aroused while having a functioning brain.

      I would like to believe that I’d absolutely lucked out and found a group of extraordinarily mature readers who can get aroused and still think. But I don’t think so. I think writers who don’t believe their readers can find depth and insight amidst eroticism are underestimating their readers very badly.

  7. Lauren
    January 5, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I love reading your expoundings on literature and writing. I’ve been reading your work since I was 16 and I was and am always pleasantly surprised. In your stories, I feel that the sex between your characters is layered and is driven by myriad factors–just like real people. Your writing also turns me on more often than not, but whether it does or doesn’t, it gives me food for thought and allows me to explore/discover something new about myself. I feel that writers aim for that in any other scene, why not sex? In any case, I was glad that I read Akbar’s article and I find myself confused and mildly irritated that real pleasure is so heavily censored and childishly categorized automatically as porn or pointless.

    • January 5, 2012 at 8:47 am

      *Looks scandalized* Hey, you weren’t supposed to be reading my work at 16!

      Bad, bad girl.

      You need a spanking. *snicker*

      • Lauren
        January 7, 2012 at 8:41 am

        I also wasn’t supposed to be reading Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy when I was 12. I suppose it’s only fitting that my husband was reading Marquis De Sade at the same age *grins*.

        This article has been on my mind, especially since I work with preteen girls who are constantly barraged with music and tv filled to the brim with sex. In an effort to understand what they’re facing on the literary front, I attempted to read ‘Twilight’. I just couldn’t. Any description of sexual interaction between the two main characters was so unappetizing and disturbing, I was certain Meyer was on a campaign to discourage full-bodied female sexuality in order to propagate the idea that sex is awful and will be so even with your ‘one true love’. Now Meyer is hardly the epitome of literary art, but from the article, it’s obvious that she’s not alone in this trend. I find this as unsettling as the MPAA’s hard-line resistance to the exploration of real desire and pleasure, especially in women, in American films.

        Koening said, “I do think writers should ask themselves ‘is this sex scene necessary?’ In other words, what will we learn from following the people into the bedroom that we will not learn from simply being told that they have gone to bed together and liked it or disliked it or felt guilty about it or whatever?” In all other scenarios, budding writers are drilled to show and not tell in their writing, so why is sex getting special treatment? Funnily enough, I’m reading a novel now where the main character is supposed to have this incredible night of sex. It was completely hazed with euphemisms and lasted all of two paragraphs, so when the main character feels astonishment at how neutral his partner is the morning after, I’m left feeling disconnected from that experience.
        Unfortunately, this poor handling of sex in literature doesn’t just make for bad sex — it makes for bad writing, too.

        • January 7, 2012 at 9:53 pm

          “In all other scenarios, budding writers are drilled to show and not tell in their writing, so why is sex getting special treatment? ”

          Interesting that you should ask this. I’m going to write my next blog post on what I think is going on here.

  8. January 5, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Excellent post.

    I found the Jonathan Beckman quote particularly telling. I wonder if he would consider any other human experience best told in a clinical way.

    Graham Greene’s comment simply dismisses the power of expression in sex, and he could not be more wrong. People’s behavior in bed tells so much about them; this is what I love so much about writing erotica. Yes, sometimes we arouse, but sometimes we repulse, sometimes we express neutrality. Sexuality is like that, a fundamental part of life, and to dismiss or marginalize it denies a deep spectrum of human behavior.

    To your comment:

    But the thing is… a lot of literary novels have very explicit sex in them. It’s just almost always awful, depressing, dehumanizing sex. And I don’t mean dehumanizing for the sake of kink, either. It’s simply vacant and banal. Very much like a detailed description of taking a dump, and just as quotidian.

    So well put.

    To digress from the literary, I find it interesting that it is acceptable, even desirable, to try to drive a person to feeling fear when reading, or watching, horror. Of course, in horror movies, it’s okay to bring in titillation as an element, where scantily clad women are victimized by the axe (or whatever) wielding killer.

    Such an irony.

    • January 6, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Hello Craig,

      Yes, the quote by Graham Greene is particularly telling, considering his own personal problems. And, I think, more than a little insincere. He wrote about obsession and passion so well (if you will forgive his sexism and the time he was writing in) but always veered away just before his characters hit the bedroom.

      I think your digression is actually germane to the issue. Why is it okay to titillate but not to reveal? Why is sexuality in the face of violence okay but not in the face of other things?

  9. January 9, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    a good point…i guess i assume (maybe wrongly) that people are looking for some meaning. Which is not to say that i don’t write “jerk-off” pieces, but i like to think they, too have some content to them!

    I posted a survey, inspired, i think by this discussion here…i’d started a story but it grew deeper, with lots more depth to it…and then polled my readers…

    and the ones who responded to it enjoyed the full richness of the tale…which made me smile and fist-pump and shout “YES”! Writing erotica is first and foremost…*my* release…but i’m really glad that my readers are right there with me, even if they must wait a while for “release”…*smile*

    Thanks RG for a really thought provoking essay!


    • January 9, 2012 at 11:45 pm

      I think when I first started writing erotic fiction, it had a lot to do with my own release. As the years went by, it really became more of a lens through which I looked at other parts of the human psyche. It became more like questions about how what we desire forms significant parts of who we are, and often how what we fear and what we desire are so often so tangled up together that there’s no separating them.

  10. January 13, 2012 at 1:11 am

    I find, when writing non-erotic fiction, that writing good sex rarely helps the story progress, and thus writing it can seem self-indulgent. Perhaps this is what other writers experience too; there is a strange sense, as a writer, that writing something that is purely descriptive is somehow lazy. That’s my experience anyway, and it seems like one that might apply to other writers as well.

    However, I see that as something to overcome, because it is important to write the full spectrum of human experience and good sex – thank GOD – is definitely in there. Therefore the quotations at the beginning of your article come across as excuses. Writing good literature about good sex is difficult! But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

    The other thing that immediately sprang to mind when I read the quotations – particularly Graham Greene and Howard Jacobson’s comments – was that these writers are missing a really obvious point: I agree that describing the act of sex in clinical “he put it in there” etc terminology doesn’t have many new insights to offer. It’s been done. BUT, the psychology and emotions behind sex hold infinite possibilities for writers and are important, if not essential to write. Furthermore, writing the psychological side of sex can be just as, if not more, arousing. But what can you do? You can’t police people’s psychology and say what should or should not arouse. There’s a line in The Shining – something about her sleeping with his seed between her legs? – which, when I read it, I found extremely arousing! But I don’t think it’s intention was to arouse.

    You can’t know what will arouse people, and dismissing a whole field of human experience because it might arouse seems ridiculously naïve.

    • January 13, 2012 at 8:28 am

      Hmmm, well, I think we have a fairly good idea of some of what arouses most people. And I think we mostly know how to avoid it too.

      As to purely purely descriptive scenes being self indulgent, I agree. If it IS purely descriptive. But like the emotive and visceral description of battlefield, emotive and visceral sex transports the reader. If the sex does nothing to move the story forward or show the outcome of a dramatic sequence, I agree – leave it out. But very often, literary writers write characters whose motivations are very sexually or romantically driven. And it’s not that they leave the sex out, it’s that they write it in a way that would put most people off sex for a good long time.

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