Monday, December 6, 2010

Bad Sex, Writing, and Inappropriate Speculation on Alan Alda's Sex Life

Today at our morning coffee/de facto literary support group, my gorgeous novelist friend said that it's actually quite difficult to write a good sex scene. You can't just plop in any old bow-chick-a-wow-wow scene and have it work.  Not only does the scene have to propel the story in some way, but the characters have to be having sex in character. "Once you put in sex, it can get tawdry fast," she said. "And there are no good words for body parts."

It's true, even the hottest sex scene would be ruined--for me, at least--if a male character slowly unzipped their pants to reveal their... jade stalk. ("Cockstand," however, would be okay. I have made my peace with cockstand.) Sexual language is so personal and all tied up with the particular brain synapse connections we've made over a lifetime. One person's hot talk is another's desire killer. For example, I can't stand the term "making love" because that's what my parents called it during "the talk" with us, thus rendering the term permanently icky. (Subsequently intolerable 1970s songs: Feel Like Makin' LoveFeel Like Makin' Love, et al...) But to someone like, say, Alan Alda, "make love" is probably a sexually-charged phrase, imbued with all sorts of longings, memories, and images. "Pull off that cowl neck sweater and let's make love, Ellen Burstyn," he perhaps whispers in one of his fantasies, an old favorite. (Alan Alda, if you're reading this, I apologize for speculating on your sexual fantasies. It won't happen again.)

The problem of writing a decent sex scene confounds even the most acclaimed writers, hence the existence of the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award.  This year's winner, announced last week, was Rowan Somerville for The Shape of Her. His competition was tough--Jonathan Franzen was among the other nominees--but it was prose such as this that pushed Somerville to the top:
"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her." 
That sentence alone would probably be enough to put Somerville on the top of the list (except perhaps to that one weird dude from the Entomology Department who keeps taking The Shape of Her into the bathroom with him) but he kept the bad sex coming. In one passage, he described pubic hair "like desert vegetation following an underground stream" while another read:
"He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her."
For a man who though it would be a good idea to describe a breast as a salt-dispensing rodent's nose (albeit the "loveliest" one), Somerville gave a surprisingly well-worded acceptance speech. "There is nothing more English than bad sex," said Somerville, upon receiving his award. "So on behalf of the nation, I thank you."

By the way, if you are contemplating writing a sex scene and want to avoid winning such an award, you might eschew the talk of salt-dispensing nipples and go with more generally accepted sexual language. One dude calculated the top penis synonyms used in romance novels and found that most common word in penis references was "hard," followed by "manhood," "erection" and "throbbing." Feel free to mix n' match these words--throbbing manhood! erect hardness!--or borrow something from his frighteningly exhaustive list of bulging, jutting, straining synonyms like "evidence of his arousal," "fullness" and "aching shaft." If Somerville had just replaced his weird-ass insect imagery with an "aching fullness" or two, he wouldn't now be world-renowned for bad sexual writing--an honor I imagine has thinned his dating pool considerably.

In the meantime, I have to ask: what sexual words make you cringe? That is, what is your "making love"?


Unknown said...

I'm with you on the 'making love' term. If a guy suggested we make love, I'd be more apt to punch him in the nutsack than get busy with him.

Annah said...

The really dirty dirty stuff puts me off. Like cock and cunt and all those other words. I think they have no place in a book or passage that's intended to make you *feel* something (pun intended).

Dana Van Sinden said...

Thank you for this,"salt dispensing rodent nose" made my week:-). Where on earth is that statue you have pictured? I may have to put going to visit it on my life list.

HSky said...

I'm dying to read the Franzen scene from Freedom since I read that book and can't recall any awful moments of coitus. Link por favor? I had trouble finding.

Enid Wilson said...

I write Regency romance mostly so I tend not to use obvious words like penis, cock etc. But I know some of my readers didn't like secret garden. LOL.

Fire and Cross

CkretsGalore said...

I enjoy the bad words like cock/cunt/twat etc. There's a time and place mind you.

Those penthouse letters and whatnot smut books are my fave! I love to see how creative they can get.

Jill Hamilton said...

Ah, Tricia, I do so like to picture some guy asking you to make love and you responding by punching him in the nutsack. If he reads this, he should try those moves on--
Annah, who does not like the dirty stuff. Be advised, anyone whose planning on hitting on her.
And (no) thanks, The Beaver, now I will think of stinkin' pretzels when I hear the term rod now, too.
Dana, that picture is from a South Korean sexual theme park, Jeju Loveland. Here's a link to a post on itL
Heather, let me find the passage. Back in a sec...
Enid, I so have to get one of your books.
And Ckrets, if you ever open a porn store, you should definitely name it Whatnot Smut Books.

Jill Hamilton said...

Okay Heather, does this Jonathan Franzen passage refresh your memory?

One afternoon, as Connie described it, her excited clitoris grew to be eight inches long, a protruding pencil of tenderness with which she gently parted the lips of his penis and drove herself down to the base of its shaft. Another day, at her urging, Joey described to her the sleek warm neatness of her turds as they slid from her anus and fell into his open mouth, where, since these were only words, they tasted like excellent dark chocolate.


Hills said...

I have to say I'm not a big fan of any of it, though particularly when it's verbalised.

Coffee and scones are for chatting.

Whips and harnesses are not.

What? Don't all of your sexual encounters involve either a whip or a harness?

Pfft. Amateur.


- B x

Paula said...

I completely agree, making love sounds so corny, even if you genuinely love the person. I sleep with people, I have sex with people, I fuck with them (maybe that's a little unromantic), but I certainly do not make love. How is love made, anyway? Urg, and my mother calls it that which is really uncomfortable.

Can you recommend any good sex writing? The kind that would win a Good Sex in Fiction award? :)

bogart4017 said...

I HATE the word pussy. Its so second grade. Twat is even worse. Those are words written on the bathroom wall in Junior High. I love some of the terms my wife and her sisters use. Cookie-box is my favorite!