They say about sex, “Even when it’s bad, it’s good.” That’s true of the real thing, but I’m not so sure of the literary kind. Here are the nominees for the 2015 Bad Sex Award in prose. My “favorite” among the contenders is the passage from Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers.
We were having a discussion the other day about the difficulty of writing a good sex scene over on Ramona Wray’s blog, My Bookish Life. My own view is that such scenes fail when the writer over-writes the scene, when he or she fills in the gaps that are better filled in by the imaginations of readers. Every one of this year’s nominees for the Bad Sex Award is guilty of that failing to some degree. In writing a sex scene, less is always more. Leave something out, no matter how explicit the scene might otherwise be, and let your readers do some of the work.
What do I think is good sex in writing? A couple of scenes really stand out as exemplars of the “less is more” principle: the scene before the fireplace between Rainer and Justine in The Thorn Birds has a splendid balance between physical details and metaphorical language to convey the meaning of the moment. The encounter between Louise and the Cuban in Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus is as physically-explicit as possible; over the top, even, by Nin’s own estimation, but it still is restrained in what the characters say to each other. They speak but, as we read, their words, and their desires, become our own.