Saturday, 26 November 2011

If Haruki Murakami is nominated for a Bad Sex Award what about You?

Every year the Literary Review Bad Sex Awards shame writers of the highest calibre with a selection of intensely non-fibrillating scenes of copulation. I have yet to make their list. Not for want of trying however. I remember my early writing involved a lot of 'members' and 'openings', but now the sex act, well, for fear of falling into cliches or getting too swept away with the erotic moment, I try to take away what I might be tempted to pop in. Take last week, for example, I was setting up a sex-scene-that-fails-to-happen in a short story I am working on: when I reread I realised I had leapt to the table like Britney Spears in laced-up boots and a g-string. Yerk!

So the young man did not remove his clothing. The young man had no hard-on. I gave that piece the cold shower.

Interestingly, Rowan Pelling, the admirable ex-Editor of The Erotic Review, asks Why are male writers so bad at sex scenes? (The Guardian, Fri 25th Nov). She notes, I can only posit a theory, but I tend to blame the higher rate of mortifying sex scenes in novels by men on the nature of their fantasies.. ..Meanwhile those women authors who do apply themselves to the hard task of writing about sex tend to do so with veracity and a distinctly grown-up sensibility..

Could this be true? Are women more succinct, more investigatory, more permeating with their portraits of lovemaking?

On the Literary Review's list, we find the much-loved Haruki Murakami, whose new book sits on my table and will nonetheless probably be adored, and Australian Christos Tsiolkas, whose extract involved words such as 'gaseous bouquet' and 'churning compost' and was far too full of odours to be fully read with green tea.

What makes even the best writers go loopy over sex scenes? Can they be forgiven? Is anyone game enough to lay down some text?


  1. Fascinating post! I'm a fan of Haruki Murakami but must admit I can't remember a single sex scene from any of his books.. they must therefore be at least unmemorable, if not "bad"?! :P

  2. The scene in Birdsong makes my face want to yawl off my head and hide. It starts off "Come to the red room" - which is a great euphemism. It should have stayed there. TWO pages later, after "yes" and "please, please, please" and some fiddling with a lock - a lock?! - they finally get it done with. Sheeesh!

    Who was it wrote something about asparagus smells? That made the list one year - made me laugh.

  3. Oh, God, writing about sex is...a puzzle. Mostly I don't feel I want to read the nuts and bolts when I'm reading a novel, so I guess I feel I don't need to write it. I know how it works and I know what goes where. Usually it descends into gloopy and down right embarrassing. If it's not well written, I think it should be left out. If you know what I mean.

  4. Updike wrote a lot of sex in his novels and nearly all of it made me laugh, but I have to say that as I get older, I sort of crave that man-centric thing.

  5. Hi Hannah,
    I'm ashamed to say I've only read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and haven't caught up with the rest (never enough reading time!) and yes discomfort and isolation are the things that come to my mind first. Perhaps I should start working through Murakami's other works!
    Ciao cat

    Dear Rachel,
    Teehee, the lock and the red room! If you read the Guardian extracts there was another one with lots of use of the word 'cave' !! I dunno, maybe the intentions are good the writer just gets swept away. But I really think sex scenes should be edited very very severely with a giggling reader in mind.
    That said, I did like Birdsong however!
    Ciao cat

  6. Hi Valentina,
    Thanks for your comment. I also think it's best to allude to the act rather than deliver a biology lesson. Not easy to strike a balance between sensual and silly!
    Ciao cat

    Dear Elizabeth,
    Thank you for writing. I seem to remember Updike making the list one year. And didn't he write that memorable scene involving a car crash and a blow job gone (very) bad?
    Ciao cat

  7. I got so flummoxed trying to write a sex scene recently that I decided not to do it. I hinted plenty and left the details out. Cop out? I can't decide!

  8. Yes these days I leave a lot more out than in my more explicit past. Usually I throw it all out there in the beginning, then blush cringe and tone down! Nothing wrong with some well-placed (and flavoured!) hints though, I agree.

  9. I don't write a ton of sex scenes (though it's more common for me to write about sex than a romantic, falling-in-love story, which I seemt o completely avoid) but when I do, they're often of the subtle variety. That is what comes naturally to me. If I tried to write earnestly about the mechanics, I bet it would be stilted or weird. I also think it's really hard, (heh) which is why so many writers end up writing about "his throbbing member."

    I like to do build up and anticipation sex scenes, but the actual, explicit act is something I gently bypass. In my current novel-in-progress, I essentially take the old-movie route of fading to black and the returning to the characters the morning after. I certainly don't consider myself a prude, but maybe there's a little Victorian-era lady hanging out in me somewhere.

    Oh wait. I have a story about a man stalking (and contemplating ravaging) a teenage figure skater. And another story about a man who has photographed his naked sister and is a little unsure which side of the line his feelings fall. Hmm. Scratch the Victorian lady theory.

  10. Hi Laura,
    Thanks for writing. Your last comments sound not-so-Victorian at all! Both stories sound kinky and interesting - rather than 'throbbing member' style.

    I also have a couple of morning-after scenes in my novel, but there is also some suggestive soft porn on the tv and a visit to a leather dive in Milan!
    Ciao cat

  11. "gaseous bouquet"...oh that, hahahaha!

    I recently ventured into a sex scene. Up until now I've avoided them, doing more of a fade-out. I wrote it though from the distance of a third party watching so I could avoid "throbbing members" and any talk of orifaces. Any talk of that and the affectation is palpable.
    I think it worked, but then again, my sex scenes are usually so awful I can't get through them for my own laughter.

  12. I did a post about this last year when Tony Blair was nominated. Allow me to share his purple prose:

    "That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. On that night of the 12th May, 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct…"

    As for writing my own, so far it's pretty non-specific!

  13. Hi Lyra,
    I've also done the third party listening in once or twice, much less performance anxiety that way!

    Dear Downith,
    Doesn't Tony just take the cake, selfishly?
    I mean, what word choice!

  14. I suspect men are so awful at writing about sex because for them, it lacks mystery. Orgasm is quickly and easily obtained from whomever, wherever, and is therefore less interesting. They're most passionate about the chase; after that it becomes mechanical. (Also, culturally, they're stymied by a need to be sternly male at all times. Women can be more lyrical.)

  15. Oh yes, there's power to be savoured in the chase, but what is really surprising is that these (mostly male) writers are really making an effort, an effort that falls flat and makes you cringe for them, makes you want to say It's okay, can we talk about something else?

  16. Oh Lordy Downith that Tony extract is still making me laugh!

  17. Please allow me to risk your contemptuous laughter by adding a male perspective.
    Averil's ability to write about sex is astounding. As good as I've ever read.
    And yet, her take on this seems to me almost exactly opposite to the truth.
    The real problem in my opinion, is that for men, sex is a complete mystery. We have no idea, Seriously. The intensity of the feelings is exactly what we've been trained to ignore and exclude from the beginning of time, and it shows when we try to write about it.
    As for orgasm being quickly and easily obtained from wherever, perhaps it is so for George Clooney. But for most of us, having a head that looks like a dropped pie and a body like a stack of used car tyres, the orgasm is only achieved by tremendous application of effort and focus, great expense of money and time, and a willingness to expose ourselves as the butt of many a cruel jibe.
    Ooooh, I wrote a sentence with the words head, pie, orgasm, butt and jibe in it. If this was a sex scene it'd be the best one I ever wrote.
    Yes, seriously, mine are that bad.
    BTW, after reading your George Clooney post, I am now wondering what he'd look like while having sex. Tuxedo sex, same suave expression... special condom tailormade like a tiny tuxedo...

  18. ooooh look, I also had expose ourselves in that sentence. I'm so proud.
    I may win a Bad Sex Award yet.

  19. Dear harryi,
    thank you for your generous comment and no worries I am not the contemptuous type. I agree that men are programmed to divide sentiment from sex, it is sad to see this being played out as my sons turn into guys turning into men. But then, in this country at least (Italy) I loathe put-on latino romanticism (see my blogpost Love and String Theory) and prefer a man who knows how to put on his snow chains.

    I am less keen on your sexual imagery, however honest, and do have serious doubts about the whole Clooney machine.

    I guess you're in the running then. Do give yourself a pat on the back.