‘Did he bang her back doors in?’

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, but at least one of these 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.[1] 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.[2] For example, I don’t like John Updike’s books very much, but he can write when he wants to (Rebecca’s death in RabbitRun, 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 a bit less 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 bolognaise. 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’.[3] 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 bolognaise analogy, incidentally, because my book contains two accounts of making spaghetti bolognaise, and a third reference to a memorable spaghetti bolognese cooked several years earlier.[4] 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 filled with euphemisms for the word ‘penis’. What’s wrong with everyone?[5]

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). 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 apparently felt the need to write 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, 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[6]), 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.[7] In Sebastian Barry’s defence, 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.[8] 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 I can remember Des O’Connor declaring ‘I want to sing’ and Eric Morecambe replying ‘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 trunctated 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.[9]

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.[10] I can’t bear to quote any to you, mainly 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 rubbish, 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 to make of a series about the belief systems and 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 therefore determined that sex may be on the cards rather than a fight to the death, 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.’)?

[4] 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).

[5] 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 GreyI’m looking at you.

[6] That’s what she said.

[7] 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? D’YOU THINK?

[8] 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.

[9] ‘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.

[10] 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.

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Chicklit

The following extract is from Jezebel.com and you can and should read the whole article here. It’s what I will describe as a book review (for lack of a better term) by Lindy West of Field Guide to Chicks of the United States by the brilliantly-named Joe Bovino. Again, I urge you to read the article (and this one from Dame Magazine, in which Joe Donatelli lists twelve kinds of women that won’t be having sex with Joe Bovino). However, to sum up the book: for a mere $27, you too can own an illustrated list of stereotypes. You know how bird guides show pictures of various species you might hope to encounter while crouching forlornly in a hedge clutching a pair of binoculars? And you know how they then supply useful information about what they eat, how they breed, how to identify their calls, what their offspring look like and how you can tell them apart? That’s what this is, but the pictures are cartoons of women, and the ‘facts’ are about women and oh my God the whole thing is an actual, honest-to-God straight swap: take birds out, put women in. I’M NOT JOKING. THIS IS A REAL THING. Helpfully, Bovino has come up with new, super-offensive names for all the different ‘species’, which I can’t bear to repeat. The worst one is the ‘Peace of Ass’, the natural habitat of whom is a yoga studio, so I guess that’s my category (see Busting a gut). This is the level of brain-deadening stupidity we’re dealing with here.

Lindy West says pretty much everything there is to say about this piece of sexist racist mindless tosh, but with my professional hat on (it’s green and woolly, with an important-looking strap to hold my big red pen), I just wanted to add that, like West, I would be only too delighted to offer my copy-editing services for free. I’ll also proof it, index it (‘Women, unrealistically hot, passim’), typeset it, bind it and design the dust jacket (provided I don’t have to copy it, distribute it or read it). West finishes the review as follows:

‘… I took it upon myself to offer some pro bono editing services! Here’s a sample paragraph, with my notes:

Two-page species profiles on each chick are the key to the guide. Each profile includes a ¾ page illustration of each chick, as well as its species name, common name, group (regional, ethnic, other) name, and its most distinguishing physical characteristics, song, behavioral tendencies, mating patterns, (chick) magnets, location, and habitat. It also includes a behavioral trait chart, promiscuity index, and color-coded range map. And there are even a few (whoa! and fetch!) tips for guys in the field.

‘Weirdly, by the time I got done editing the whole book, all that was left was the word Field. So pre-order Field, everyone! It’s about … a field, I guess. Best book ever.’

The uncharitable goat

The idea for this post came from a fabulous[1] Coope, Boyes and Simpson[2] song, ‘Unison in Harmony’. There are a couple of versions of this song on YouTube, but the quality of the recording does not do them justice.[3] You’ll just have to buy their albums, which you can do at No Masters. If you’re lucky you even get a little thank you note from Jim (Boyes) with your CD (I love this. You don’t get that when you buy a Steps album. Or perhaps you do, to make up for the fact that you now own a Steps album). I have been thinking about the function of music in a church context. As I understand it, the sacrifice of praise is the idea that we no longer sacrifice animals for God, but instead sacrifice our time, energy and thought in making music that glorifies Him in His infinite variety. Not only is this a lot less messy (and more meaningful) than setting fire to pigeons or similar, for me it is the fundamental expression of faith. Even that isn’t strong enough: I believe that music and religion are the same thing. I should point out that Coope, Boyes and Simpson don’t share my faith[4] and that’s just fine. I think, however, that we do agree on this point: what we sing is what we are.[5]

Elbert Hubbard says this:

Picture in your mind the able, earnest, useful person you desire to be, and the thought that you hold is hourly transforming you into that particular individual you so admire.[6]

I think this can usefully be applied here. The blessing often includes asking God to pour Himself out, but I suggest that this is already happening. I also suggest that Hubbard’s idea that thought can be transformative also describes something that is already happening. If you accept my premise that music and religion are one and the same, then what is happening during the process of making that music is that God is pouring Himself through your instrument (or your voice, or your limbs) and out into the world as sound, so that you overflow with music and assorted holiness. The music is literally transformative: the musicians become His instruments, simultaneously praising God and conducting Him outwards through themselves. It isn’t simply telling God that He is brilliant; He doesn’t need to hear that, and certainly not from the likes of us. It is so much more, and so much more important, than that.

However. I must at this point admit to two personal failings. Firstly, I am only able to apply this to music that I like. Music that I like = religion. Music that I don’t like = not religion, and therefore (by my logic above), not music. Secondly, Duke Ellington[7] said there were two kinds of music (good and bad), and I like both. I like Run DMC (gangsters), Duran Duran (WTF?), Spandau Ballet (terrible lyrics), Huey Lewis and the News (favourite band of Patrick Bateman) and the B52s (the chap basically can’t sing at all). I like ‘Show Me The Way’ (some of the stupidest lyrics ever written[8]) and ‘Girls, Girls, Girls (really sexist) and ‘The Look Of Love’. This last is obviously not the Dusty Springfield song, but the stupendously silly song of the same name by ABC. Click on the link to watch the preposterous video, complete with an Alpenhorn, a guy eating spaghetti while Martin Fry bellows in his ear, followed by an altercation with a Punch and Judy crocodile. And I don’t like it: I fucking love it. This merely scratches the surface of my total lack of taste when it comes to music, so I hope you’ll see that a song has to be truly awful for me to dislike it. And yet, I’m struggling to choose just one example of a song that I hate from the hundreds available. This is bad, bad stuff. Oooh, it’s bad. Take ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine (I include the link so that you can judge for yourself, but for the sake of your own sanity I beg you not to read the comments underneath the video as they will make your brain bleed). As Mitchell and Webb’s snooker commentators might say, oh and that’s a bad hymn (it actually pains me to describe it as a hymn. I think the correct term is ‘worship song’, but that’s even more horrible). It has everything: ghastly lyrics, a disjointed verse tune that puts the emphasis in the wrong places, a stubbornly unsingable chorus and a load of unnecessary clapping. Although my problem obviously isn’t just with Graham Kendrick (who wrote this sentimental drivel, and so much else), but rather with all of that kind of rubbish, nevertheless I’m at a loss to tell you just how much I dislike his work and everything it stands for. It is bland, wet, waffle-ridden, predictable, simplistic, derivative braindead nonsense. It’s lame and ridiculous and embarrassing, and entirely inadequate as a response to any of the things I believe God has done.

Sacred music for evensong, Christmas, Holy Week and other such purposes aside, even if one just focuses on hymns for Sunday morning, we have ‘O Praise Ye The Lord’ and ‘For All The Saints’ and ‘Eternal Father, Strong To Save’ and ‘Abide With Me’ and ‘Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven’ and ‘Love Divine’ and a hundred others: proper hymns with proper words that everyone can belt out without embarrassment. I include atheists here because I think everyone likes a good[9] hymn. I think even people who don’t believe that God exists would like to think that, if He did, He would be the kind of God those hymns describe (‘His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form/And dark is His path on the wings of the storm’. Now that’s religion). Proper old-fashioned gospel would also be fine, of course, and entirely appropriate as a sacrifice of praise. But not wanky, whiney rubbish, bleated out over the rainbow-encrusted strap of a badly-tuned guitar, probably sung with eyes squeezed shut (sincerity or shame? Nobody knows), while in the background a motley assortment of instruments twang and hoob and blart their way through, I don’t know, ‘Meekness and Majesty’, in never-before-seen combinations of flute, trumpet, viola, ukulele, tom-toms and a tambourine no-one knows how to use or when to put down. It’s terribly well-meaning[10], but does it really take the place of a goat breathing its last?I think even a goat earmarked for destruction would feel a little bit cheated to be spared death and immolation in favour of three horrible verses of, say, ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ (does ‘Knowing You, Jesus’ even have three verses? I don’t care enough to check). Here is a link to a particularly hateful version of the song for those of you fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with it; the sub-gospel pseudo-improvisation over the chorus just after the completely gratuitous key-change is mind-blowingly horrible. I suggest you get out your cigarette lighter for the final chorus (so as to have something to stuff into your ears if it all gets too much). Oh, I could not hate this song more; I can feel my skin prickling into a rash as the nauseatingly soppy chorus approaches, which, in case you’ve not managed to listen as far as the chorus (and who could blame you?) has the following words:

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you
There is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord.

Doesn’t it make you want to vomit out of sheer frustration? It’s just not good enough to say ‘You’re the best’ to God. You’re the best? He made the sea and sky and you and me and everything else, and then, for reasons we cannot possibly grasp fully, He died for you, Kendrick. Take it seriously.

This kind of thing leaves me trapped between the Scylla of judgementalism (‘I really hated that. Were you playing the descant on a glockenspiel?’) and the Charybdis of hypocrisy (‘That bit on the glockenspiel was awesome! Can I jam with you guys?’). I’m ashamed to say that I would rather be judgemental than politely hypocritical. I am the uncharitable goat.


[1] What am I saying? They’re all fabulous.

[2] For my money the best vocal group in the UK. As well as being phenomenally talented, they are also tremendously humble, nice chaps. I met them at a vocal workshop at Queensbury Festival 2009 and came over all unnecessary. Garden Naturalist says I’m allowed to divorce him for one of them if I so wish, as (in his words), he’d do the same if he had the opportunity.

[3] Instead, here’s their amazing cover of ‘Now Is the Cool Of The Day.

[4] I base this assertion on another line from ‘Unison in Harmony’: ‘hearts on fire but/no Messiah’, which I believe they also wrote.

[5] These people, for example, are idiots. The lyrics make Jesus sound like a predatory caretaker: ‘Once I tried to run / I tried to run and hide / But Jesus came and found and He touched me down inside’ <face/desk>. Even small children can see through such nonsense, as you can see from this completely wonderful parody.

[6] Seymour quotes a much longer passage and has some interesting things to say in this post.

[7] I’ve heard this quotation attributed to Stevie Wonder as well, and I’ve also heard Ray Charles repeat it with the caveat ‘I don’t know who said this, but I agree’. I think Duke Ellington is the most likely originator.

[8] This is also in total defiance of High Fidelity and what it has to say about Peter Frampton (that’s mainly focused on ‘Baby I Love Your Way‘, but who cares – I love that song too).

[9] The words ‘good’ and ‘God’ come from the same root, and effectively mean the same thing: ‘good’ just means ‘of God’, so there is no excuse for hymns to be anything other than ‘good’.

[10] Of course when done by people under the age of twelve this is utterly charming and therefore I like it and therefore it is music and holy. The nativity play at church this year featured just such a random ensemble of violin, trombone, piano and percussion, and it was adorable.