On writing bad sex

There comes a time in the life of many novelists when the terrible possibility begins to dawn that he may not, after all, win the Booker Prize, that even a sniff at the Whitbread might be beyond him. He has learnt down the years that prizes rarely have any connection with real, lasting worth – look at who wins them, for heaven’s sake – and he knows that fiction is not, officially at least, a competitive sport. All the same, it would be good to pick up the odd literary trinket, if only for the pleasure making other writers jealous.

Inevitably, at these dark moments, thoughts will turn to the Bad Sex Prize, an award given by the Literary Review for the year’s most embarrassing attempt at eroticism. It is national. It garners an acceptable amount of publicity. It even confers a sort of skewed prestige on the winner.

Writing bad sex, though, can be almost as difficult as doing it well. The timing has to be just wrong. Words and images must be appropriately mood-shattering. Stylistic choices have to be made. Should you employ prose that is so bewilderingly metaphorical that it is impossible for the reader to know who is doing what to whom? Or is it better to deploy bluntly graphic detail that sounds like a swearing contest between two Chelsea fans?

Fortunately, some true masters of the form have, down the years, provided a sort of master-class for the rest of us and many of their better efforts are available on the Endpaper database.

It is important, first of all, that the bad sex writer should establish what on his or her mind from an early stage. The novelist Simon Sebag Montefiore effectively introduced one of one of his characters with the physical description of her entering a room, “her breasts steering her like a rudder”. After that, there could be little doubt as to the direction in which that rudder would be steering her.

Female novelists, dealing with the inner workings of their male characters in pre-foreplay mode, can also produce some alarming physical peculiarities. One of the protagonists of Candida Clark’s The Constant Eye anticipated sex with the comment, “it makes the hair on my balls crackle with anticipation” while, for one of Alice Walker’s heroes, “something hot and passionate was opening in him and it wasn’t in his trousers: it was in his chest.”

Then, unavoidably, there is the act itself and here, in art as in life, there is endless scope for blunders and embarrassment. Many English male authors favour a gruff, let’s-get-this-over-with approach – “She was like a warm lozenge. Her hand went to my thing” was the way of one of Leslie Thomas’s narrators got going. Kingsley Amis, in The Green Man, took a more non-specific approach with “there was a lot of wool, and other material, some cheek, some panting, some movement, some pressure and lack of everything else.”

Braver novelists go for the big metaphor, frequently reaching for that useful source of erotic imagery, the arms trade. So, in Edmund White’s A Married Man, “Austin’s nipples, his penis, his mouth, his arms were all glowing; a heat-seeking missile would have found five sites to bomb.” John Updike, one of whose heroines unforgettably had nipples like pistol barrels, went one better in Toward the End of Time describing how his protagonist’s “vaginal canal lifted skyward at the proper tilt, like an ack-ack gun, to bring down ecstasy from on high.”

Neither of these novelists can quite compete with Stewart Hone who, in Defiant Pose, daringly combined nuclear war, militant industrial action and nationalism in a tender moment when his protagonist’s “love juice boiled through his prick like workers pouring out of a factory after a mass meeting has decided on a strike. As he came, he imagined his orgasm as an all-out nuclear attack on what braindead patriots insisted was his country.

On the other hand, a few old-fashioned types prefer not to see love-making as an act of war. Robert Stone, in A Flag for Sunrise, favoured the poetic approach with “the ram beat against the shuddering gate, echoing along the walls. She did not hide. She was there” while Madeleine St John allowed a touching hint of intellectual uncertainty at an important moment in A Stairway to Paradise when “they drifted and soared through another, occult universe contingent on this one (or is this one on that?).”

But perhaps the most sensible approach for the bad sex writer is to go into full metaphor overdrive, throwing everything into the mix in the hope that at least one image will work. “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,” was the way Rick Moody handled it in Purple America.

In the end, some writers will simply prefer to be deft performers between the sheets in the hope that one day someone, perhaps Rowan Pelling of the Erotic Review, will institute a Good Sex Prize. For them, a rather good new guide The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, has recently been published. Benedict mentions some fine examples of erotic writing but surprisingly fails to include one of my favourites: “Roger caught himself wondering whether, at the first, a little precursory love-making would do any harm. The ground might be gently tickled to receive his own sowing, the petals of the young girl’s nature, playfully forced apart, would leave the golden heart of the flower but the more accessible to his own vertical rays.”

Tender, sensitive yet strangely arousing: could this scene have been written by anyone else but that master of the erotic, Henry James?

Autumn 2002