Vagina Masks, Four-Handed Women, And The Pitfalls Of Sex Writing

The nominees for The Literary Review's 2009 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards are in, leading critics to opine about why it's so hard to write about boning.

Some of the offending passages, excerpted on BBC News, are pretty poorly written. Paul Theroux's line, "Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four," recalls a scene from one of the Naked Gun movies, which is not usually something you want from serious literature. But really the only laugh-out-loud example is from Philip Roth's The Humbling:

It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be.

It's possible that Roth's actually trying to be funny with his vadge-mask image (is this like a cock bib?), and none of the other nominees is really all that terrible. But neither are they hot. As Booker Prize judge Lucasta Miller points out, it's not so hard to write about sex in a silly or funny way. But why is it so tough, at least in capital-L Literature, to make sex actually erotic? Miller offers a clue:

A trap people fall into is an earnest anatomical description of sex. The difficulty with the anatomical is that it can read like a bit of a textbook. To stop it doing so, they will put in flowery metaphors from the animal kingdom, but you don't need that detail. When people use similes and metaphors in their anatomical depictions of the sexual organs, it's toe-curling and embarrassing.

So penis is out, but so is pork-sword? Miller's words sound pretty restrictive, but she also has a point — it's easy for sex writing to sound too clinical, but the farther it veers from straight-up health-class vocabulary, the more it risks being silly. Book critic Melissa Katsoulis says the solution is to avoid writing about sex entirely. She tells the BBC's Tom Geoghegan,

If I was writing a novel, I wouldn't attempt to write it except in the most Victorian and prim way, because it's awful. It's a cliche, but the moments of genuine frisson in books are when hardly anything happens. When you have a dream about someone you fancy, it's because they sat down next to you on the bus or something, not because you were at it, hammer and tongs. Either be suggestive or funny, but trying to do the nuts and bolts isn't going to work.

I'm not sure what kind of sex Katsoulis is having (hammer and tongs?), and I also can't cosign her statement about dreams (a bus?). And in a larger sense, it's a shame that people shy away from sex writing just because it's difficult. Miller says literary sex should focus on "the characters and their emotional state," because "that's the difference between porn and art." But I'm not so sure there's really a clear-cut difference, and I think that if literature is allowed to manipulate our emotions, it should be able to turn us on too.

This is not to say, however, that I have any concrete answers regarding sex writing. I tend to prefer the cheerfully vulgar to both the metaphorical and the clinical, but these are obviously matters of taste. As with actual sex, no sex writing is going to please all the people all the time. But — also as with actual sex — that's no excuse for not doing it.

Is It Difficult To Write Well About Sex? [BBC News]
2009 Bad Sex In Fiction Award Nominees Announced [Seattle Post-Intelligencer: Book Patrol Blog]