My thanks to my dear friend Gossamer Beynon for supplying the title to this post, which was her response to the revelation that I had spent the day writing a sex scene. Like Jake Thackray before he sings ‘The Lodger’, I must warn you that this next post is dirty. Don’t look so surprised, dear reader. It’s not called the filthy comma for nothing.
Those of you that read my blog regularly will know that I’m writing a novel (see House of Holes, Seven for a secret never to be told and The lucky seven meme). And you probably also know that, for reasons entirely germane to the plot, my novel contains several sex scenes. Actually, that’s a lie: it contains several sex scenes, of which at least one is entirely gratuitous. Chapter five, for example, involves some outdoor hanky-panky that is only there (indeed, the whole chapter is only there) to allow me to make a terrible joke at the end of it. It isn’t even a proper joke, but that most offensive of humour’s offspring, a pune or play on words (see Laugh as we always laughed / At the little jokes we enjoyed together). In fact, said pune (and I cannot over-emphasize the feebleness of it) takes the place of any kind of emotional climax or proper plot. I make no apology for this, because it’s my book and I can do what I like, Goddamnit. If I want flying unicorns to break through the sky in the middle of an otherwise dull set-piece at a children’s sports day and start running people through with their horns, I’ll damn well do it. Anyhow, in the process of writing the aforementioned sex scenes, I have come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with me as a writer, and possibly as a person, in that I don’t see why it should be difficult to write about sex. Can’t one just follow the oft-quoted advice ‘write what you know’, and then fill in the gaps by, I don’t know, making stuff up? I’ve noticed that many otherwise talented writers seem to lose their way here. For example, I don’t like John Updike’s books very much, but he can write when he wants to (Rebecca’s death in Rabbit, Run, for example, is gut-wrenching work). When it comes to sex, however, he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. In Couples, he writes the following, apparently with no sense of irony: “[she] let him gather himself into his groin and hurl himself painlessly into the dilated middle amplitudes of herself”. If that doesn’t work for you, how about some sexy geometry: “suddenly, she felt to be all circles, circles that could be parted to yield more circles.” Not doing the trick, you say? Maybe something cryptic will get us all in the mood: “Birds chirped beyond the rainbow rim of the circular wet tangency holding him secure. Her hand, feathery, established another tangency, located its core.” Shut up! That’s why.
I don’t think it should be any more difficult to write about making love than it should be to write about making spaghetti bolognese. I should say at this point that I really hate the phrase ‘making love’ and I’ve only used it here because the repetition of ‘making’ illustrates my point. I also hate its weasel of a sister, ‘lovemaking’. Why does this word exist? Nobody would say ‘foodmaking’ or ‘furnituremaking’, and even the perfectly acceptable term ‘dressmaking’ has the grace to shuffle its feet. I’ve been married to Garden Naturalist for nearly twelve years, and I’m pretty sure we have never done anything together that either of us would be comfortable to describe as ‘lovemaking’. To return to the analogy, however: everyone knows how to make spaghetti bolognese and everyone has their own way of doing it, and everyone likes to think that they’re pretty good at making spaghetti bolognese. Could most people write a reasonable account of how to make spaghetti bolognese? I think they probably could. Would it be interesting to read? If they knew how to write, yes it would, and writing about sex should be absolutely no different. I use the spaghetti bolognese analogy, incidentally, because my book contains two accounts of making spaghetti bolognese, and a third reference to a memorable spaghetti bolognese cooked several years earlier. I didn’t find any of these cooking-and-eating (foodmaking?) scenes hard to write. I didn’t find any of the sex scenes hard to write. And yet there are courses advertised in the back of the LRB where you can go to learn how to do this properly, presumably along with a bunch of other people with earnest faces, ambitions that outstrip their talent and suitcases of moleskin notebooks. What’s wrong with everyone?
As research for this post, I read some of last year’s nominations for the Bad Sex Award, which was given to David Guterson for his book Ed King, a reworking of the Oedipus Rex story. The Guardian published some extracts from this supposedly bad sex, and I have to disagree. It seems to me that the mind can sometimes wander, making associations that can’t be shared with one’s partner (or at least, not at the time), and that therefore can make one feel strangely alone, even in the most intimate moment. This simultaneous oneness and twoness is part of the wonder of sex, and he captures some of that for me in this beautifully deadpan line: “what she thought of, as Ed slaved away, was a boy from her village who had fingered her adroitly in a greenhouse”. There’s an honesty to this that I like (also, ‘adroitly’ is a great word, especially when juxtaposed with ‘fingered’). I also liked the extract from On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry. It got the Bad Sex Award equivalent of Highly Commended at a flower show and goes like this:
… we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young, in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last, and we breathed each other in, and in those moments both knew we would marry each other after all, and not a word needed to be spoken about it.
This is fine, isn’t it? I think it’s rather beautiful. Compare it, for example, to the work of fellow nominee Christos Tsiolkas, who wrote the following in his novel Dead Europe:
She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.
The protagonist then proceeds to bite his lady-love in the thigh, sending her into a frenzy of something or other. If that doesn’t put you off sex (and compost) forever, I don’t know what will. Oh wait, yes I do: the rest of the extract, which makes these three sentences look tender and romantic. I’ve linked to it in the interests of allowing you to make up your own mind, but for the love of God don’t read this rubbish on a full stomach, or while you have a mouthful of tea (although you will probably want to swill your mouth out afterwards), or when you’re at work, or when you’re tipsy, sober, in company, alone or conscious. Unbelievably, this is not just because the sex is gross: the writing is equally horrifying. Exhibit A: the inexcusable phrase ‘her moist meat’. Even worse is the following: ‘Her body convulsed, shuddered, trembled once more, and then fell to stillness.’ Thank goodness that’s over, thinks the reader. Clearly, we have reached some kind of end-point here (or rather, she has) and can all move on with our lives. But no. Tsiolkas has further observations to make, viz. the next sentence: ‘She had come’. REALLY DO YOU THINK SO HOW CAN YOU BE SURE.
In further defence of Sebastian Barry, he has no gross-out ‘my eyes’ moments, no baffling infantile terms for body parts, no eyebrow-raising gymnastics, no perpetuation of myths from writers who should know better and no far-fetched variations on, you know, just having sex, that are only possible in the fantasy world that the writer has been compelled to create, such as a man with one mind but thirty-eight bodies. Of the nominations, I think both Tsiolkas and Lee Child (The Affair) have both produced writing that is far, far worse than the eventual winner. Just as Des O’Connor declared ‘I want to sing’ and Eric Morecambe replied ‘I want to marry Raquel Welch, but some things are just not possible’, Lee Child wants to write. Unfortunately, he constructs his lamentable prose from truncated fragments rather than actual sentences and continually states the obvious, as in the first three ‘sentences’ of the extract below, the second and third of which are entirely redundant. This sort of useful-to-crap ratio has no place when writing about sex, or indeed anything else. Here is his woeful attempt, which sounds even worse when read aloud:
We were both thirty-six years old. All grown up. Not teenagers. We didn’t rush. We didn’t fumble. We took our time, and what a time it was. Maybe the best ever [anyone else having a flashback to Patricia Hewitt declaring the NHS had had its best year ever? Just me?] … It was a great kiss … We kept that first kiss going for whole minutes. Five of them, or maybe ten … We were very good at it.
A particularly horrible sub-genre of bad writing about sex is bad writing about sex that involves animals. Anyone who has read the Duncton Wood books (any of them will do; they’re all basically the same) will have explicit sex between moles burned into their memory. I’m not going to quote any here, because this would mean the following things would have to happen. One, I would have to make a special trip to the library. Given that my house is basically a library with some beds and a kitchen, this is not a good use of my time. Two, the librarian would form a very low opinion of me, which I don’t deserve. Three, those of you lucky enough to have escaped William Horwood and all his works so far would no longer be safe, and it would be my fault. Finally and fourthly, I’d actually have to read some more of this claptrap, having sworn never so to do. If you haven’t read any of these books, please take it on trust that they are a conjunction of horrible writing and horrible sex. I know that a lack of realism is an unfair criticism of a series about the pseudo-shamanistic culture of telepathic moles, but I’m going to make it anyway when it comes to the sex scenes. Surely, moles simply just bump into each other in a tunnel when they’re on their way to somewhere else? Having ascertained the gender of the other mole and determined whether sex or a fight to the death is going to ensue, it seems most likely to me that the two moles, unable to turn around or really see anything, probably indulge in a quick bit of uncomfortable soil-based nooky in complete darkness, after which they continue on their way. I doubt very much that moles gasp the mole equivalent of ‘more!’ in passionate tones to each other (does anyone? Answers on a postcard). They’re moles. If ever there was an animal whose lifecycle made the phrase ‘nasty, brutish and short’ frighteningly real, it is the mole. In the context of writing a good sex scene, I suggest that these should not be our watchwords.
 As yet, there are no flying unicorns, no children’s sports days and absolutely no dull set-pieces, but you take my point. I may be a little bit drunk on power.
 There is also the opposite problem, of course. In Atonement (a book I really hated), the only decent writing concerns an aborted attempt to have sex in a library.
 I apologise for the lack of page references here; when I went to find the book, it turned out to have been removed from the house for reasons of taste between drafts.
 I couldn’t possibly use either of these terms to describe anything I might want to do myself: they’re so terribly po-faced. Who are these people that take sex so seriously? Have they never whacked their partner in the face with a belt-buckle, twanged a bra across the sitting-room or otherwise ruined the moment with a badly-timed question (‘Did you remember to lock the back door? That’s not a euphemism, darling; I mean our actual back door’)?
 Not two different spaghetti bologneses, but the same spaghetti bolognese made twice, because there are two chapter twenty-twos for reasons that needn’t detain us here (although see above about me being drunk on power).
 I’ll tell you something else for nothing: simply stringing a load of sub-standard sex scenes together like mucky beads on the tenuous, twanging thread you are choosing to call a plot also does not constitute a novel. Fifty Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you.
 That’s what she said.
 Thanks for that, Peter F. Hamilton. Thanks for your completely terrible book, which I’m not even going to name. Have you written others? Lets hope not.
 ‘We were very good at it’? Is he kidding? In my capacity as a totally unpublished writer with a half-finished novel, a literature degree and nothing more than a load of opinions derived from reading that can be described as scatalogical at best, may I give you a tip, Mr. Child? Show, don’t tell. That is all.
 This is not to say that sex involving animals can’t be done well, however. Both Stephen Fry and Alberto Moravia have written well-realised sex scenes involving people getting it on with horses and/or ponies, and Gerald Durrell writes movingly in The Whispering Land about the mating of sea-lions (with each other, I hasten to add). I’m not sure I would describe any of these accounts as especially lubricious, but at least they don’t expect me to believe that moles are tiny rodent sex-fiends.