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“Like wind chimes, freshly mown grass, goat cheese, new car interiors…” The problems of writing and bad sex

The thousands of brave, rash souls around the world who have been participating in National Novel Writing Month will have typed their last word by midnight on Monday. According to the rules of the competition, they should have completed a 50,000 word story by the end of November, and will now presumably be able to call themselves novelists.

One of their toughest tasks, possibly second only to storytelling against the clock, will have been how to write honestly and well about human sexual relations. A few will avoid the subject altogether, while others will employ the fast-fade tactic, but those with real ambition to be writers will recognise that what the people they write about do in bed is an unavoidably revealing part of their story. It was Martin Amis who once said that, in order to get to know the characters he was writing about, he would first ask himself, “What are they like in the sack?”

By a trick of bad timing, the end of National Novel Writing Month coincides with the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, an annual prize run by the Literary Review and announced on Tuesday night. Nothing quite sums up attitudes to writing, and perhaps to sex, of a small section of our cultural establishment  – knowing, metropolitan, superior, oddly prim – than this event at which passages of erotic description are taken in isolation and laughed at, with the winner being award a prize of a plaster foot.

Explaining in the Sunday Times why the Bad Sex Awards is so important, Tom Hodgkinson argued that no mockery was intended since major authors have tended to be bad at sex. There was DH Lawrence: “the ginger-bearded northerner set himself up as a kind of guru in sex matters”, Hodgkinson explained.  Henry Miller was obsessed by his own endowment. Anais Nin boasted about the writers with whom she had slept.  There were more sneers for John Updike and Norman Mailer.

Perceptive readers will have noticed that that these novelists have one thing in common: they take sex seriously as a subject for fiction, rather than giggling about it in the manner of the Bad Sex Award. They were also quite brave. It is technically difficult to convey passion in a way that is not absurd. There may also be a niggling fear that descriptions are more revealing of the author’s personal erotic moods or preferences  than intended: over- or under-enthusiasm, frustration, shyness, some dark and previously unnoticed bit of perviness.

On the other hand, the November novelists might be wise to avoid the more obvious pitfalls of the bedroom scene. For them, here are a few basic guidelines, illustrated by some examples I have collected down the years.

Don’t be shy. Many writers seem to freeze as a sex scene approaches, as if anything physically intimate belongs to a different sphere of experience – one which writers should avoid describing – to other everyday matters. Others quickly dim the lights or change scene in the manner of a Hollywood feature anxious to keep its family rating.

These tricks are simply irritating, and are best avoided by taking a gruff, British attitude to the whole thing. In The Green Man, one of Kingsley Amis’s sexier novels, he kept things general and non-specific. “There was a lot of wool, and other material, some cheek, some panting, some movement, some pressure and lack of everything else,’ He wrote. And that is the entire scene.

Avoid military images. A surprising number of rather good writers resort to weaponry of quite the wrong sort when describing the act of love. In his autobiographical novel The Married Man, Edmund White describes a lover whose “nipples, his penis, his mouth, his arms were all glowing; a heat-seeking missile would have found five sites to bomb” while John Updike took a similarly militaristic  line in a late novel Towards the End of Time, describing how a lover’s “vaginal canal lifted upward at the proper tilt, like an ack-ack gun, to bring down ecstasy from on high.”

Metaphors can quickly slip out of control. Many of the contenders for the Bad Sex Award have made the terrible mistake of setting off down the highway of metaphor before discovering that there is no escape route – I have read a first novel in which the sex act was likened to an airport security scanner, an image the author found increasingly difficult to maintain.

Other writers allow their personal enthusiasms to infect  the metaphors they use. In a Corbynist mood, the novelist Stewart Home once described a male character’s moment of climax as being “like workers pouring out of a factory after a mass meeting has decided on a strike.”

Try to keep it simple. A sure sign of a writer losing control, and not in a good way,  is when they start throwing images into the scene in the hope that at least one of them will work. In Fifty Shades of Grey¸ there are several instances of metaphorical overload – “my inner goddess is beside herself, hopping from foot to foot, anticipation hangs heavy over my head like a dark tropical storm cloud, butterflies flood my stomach…”  –  and, more surprisingly, the literary novelist Rick Moody went even further over the top in Purple America. “The first electrical storm passes through her at once, like a break in the clouds, like alliterative quatrains, like wind chimes, freshly mown grass, goat cheese, new car interiors, church choirs, grand slams.”

It is admittedly, almost impossible, to describe that magical goat-cheese moment without embarrassing oneself, but my advice to November novelists is to avoid worrying whether your literary sex life is good or bad, to grit your teeth and keep going.

Those who snigger at such things were around long before the Bad Sex Award. “Doing dirt on sex; it is the crime of our times,” a great author wrote over 80 years ago. It was, of course, none other than that “ginger-bearded northerner”, DH Lawrence.

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This article was first published in the Independent, 1st December 2015