For something that we do all the time, obsess about when we’re not doing it, think about, worry over, take pills to enhance, and even define one’s identity by, sex seems curiously absent from literary fiction. Oh sure we have bad sex, unrewarding sex, adulterous sex, paid for sex, deviant sex, even interspecies sex (Ok, guilty) but no real sex. We’re particularly good at exploring the implications of post-sex but never in medias res, in the thick of it so to speak. The human body goes through all sorts of wonderful and scary stuff during sex yet nobody writes about it. What gives?
Instead what we have what Barbara Kingsolver called spacebreak sex. You know what I’m talking about. It goes like this:
He touched her hair, she looked in his eyes, they both headed for the bedroom.
The next morning the woke up in each other’s arms...
So what the hell happened? Were they lost in pleasure? Did one of them in the act of sex realize that they were making a horrible mistake? Did somebody fake it and why? Did they think sex was a blanket panacea for everything else and realize that it wasn’t (or it was)? What happened? Who was dominant and why? If a writer loses nothing by describing how a bullet enters a person why does he lose point for describing the entry of genitalia?
I think literary fiction writers are scared of sex. It was so weird in creative writing class when I would submit something explicit and I would be counseled by well meaning adults how to write with more subtlety so that I could get the feeling across, you know, so that I wouldn’t HAVE TO go into the act. Why not? And why use the phrase HAVE TO? Maybe we fear that we would suck at it. Maybe that demon of sentimentality that hovers over all writers would run amok and ruin our stories with lines unfit for even Cinemax After Dark. Maybe we would just end up writing porn. That’s not an unreasonable fear, The Bad Sex in Fiction Award is usually given to otherwise fine novels that stumbled spectacularly in this area. How about this one from literary luminary and 2005 bad sex nominee John Updike:
“..his prick stared back at him with its one eye clouded by a single drop of pure seminal yearning. He felt suspended at the top of an arc. Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare ass to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.
Faye took him in hand. He slipped in. He became an adulterer. He went for the last inch. She grunted, at her own revelation. His was that her cunt did not feel like Phyllis's. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze. It was soon over. He could not help himself, he was so excited, proud, and nervous. When he was done, he opened his eyes, and saw this stranger's face an inch from his, seemingly asleep, the closed eyelids showing a thin pulse, her long lips curved self-lullingly.”
Notwithstanding that no good sex scene could start with the word prick (Is this a white male writer thing?) it’s no surprise then that most times we resort to the good old space break.
Maybe great writers, unlike great poets are simply not having good sex. Or maybe it’s only the straight ones. When it comes to good explicit action the gays guys seem to have it locked even if the straight audiences may not want to read it. Alan Hollinghurst can get into literary raptures when writing about man-man action. His Booker Prize winning novel, The Line of Beauty is filled with them, but they work for the novel precisely because the main character was trying for this rapture, with a certain erotic desperation to lock into a 70’s style hedonism in the AIDS encroaching 80’s and failing miserably, especially when class, no respecter of persons or sexualities got in the way. Next to the gay guys are the dirty old men of the Latin boom, such as the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who’s Infante’s Inferno would probably never have been attempted by an American or a Brit. Whenever I mention that only the gay guys and Latin Americans got it, Henry Miller is frequently trotted out. But Henry Miller died way back in 1980 and his last books were the words of somebody trading in his own detritus and not even aware that he had become just another Henry Miller imitator.
Maybe we are just aware that other art forms, pardon the pun, do it better. A particular accomplishment is the new movie Short Bus, which opens with a man satisfying himself in a way that few men can and then goes on to a sex therapist who’s never had an orgasm and a couple playing way out of their league by bringing a third person to the party. That this film is buoyed by explicit sex scenes (we have a go for penetration, folks!) underscores rather than undercuts it. I was incredibly pissed off and envious that I hadn’t written a novel like this first. In music Prince nailed the knife-edge between pleasure and perversion way back 1980 with Dirty Mind and Patti Smith rode through with Horses even further back in 1975. Even photography boasts of Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano.
I think we literary fiction writers need to take our pencils, or laptops back into the bedroom. Something pretty fascinating is happening in there. Everybody seems to know this but us.