Wednesday, November 28, 2007
Now there's a title that drew you in, I bet.
I want to talk about sex because I've just finished reading a book--- a pretty good one--- that had a number of fairly explicit sex scenes, all much less worth reading than the rest of the book. All the sex scenes "threw me out," as we writers say, of the hypnotic trance into which readers ideally fall.
I do believe I laughed out loud at some of the choicer bits, but it was an embarrassed laugh. Not because I was reading about sex, but because the writing was just so awful, and I was embarrassed for the poor writer.
Sex is hard to write about: you've got this complex physical act going on, with various body parts both squishy and non-squishy; and you've got a whole lot of emotional texture; and there are hormones and the limbic system kicking in. There's affection, and aggression, and acceptance, and delight. And--- if you're the author writing this--- there are also the elements of plot and character revelation, which real people in real beds don't worry about so much.
Sex scenes come in three broad categories, which I will call the Swoony, the Clinical, and the Baaaad. Which is not to say that the Swoony and Clinical scenes can't be Baaaad in their very own way.
The Swoony scene is all about emotional textures. If physical details are included, they're present in order to heighten the emotion.
The best Swoony writer I can think of is Nabokov. He'll cut away from the sex for a paragraph on the blue butterflies swarming around a nearby bush, and then return with something like: "He had resolved to deal first of all with her legs which he felt he had not feted enough the previous night, to sheath them in kisses from the A or arched instep to the V of velvet, and this Van accomplished as soon as Ada and he got sufficiently deep in the larchwood which closed the park on the steep side of the rocky rise between Ardis and Ladore."
From Ada. Which also has a really terrific fellatio scene, involving the recollection of "the first time she had bent over him and he had possessed her hair."
I confess that, where sex is concerned, I am a Swoony writer. The emotional stuff is more important to me than whose organ gets impaled on whose. (I've written precisely one clinical sex scene in my life--- and boy did I get mail!)
The perils of the Swoony approach to sex scenes is that you can forget what planet you're on. "She knew at the touch of his lips that she was one with the sun and the moon and the stars, and that she wanted nothing more than to remain in his arms . . . Forever."
(Thank you, Barbara Cartland Correspondence School.)
The Swoony writer can get so lost in romance that the scene loses touch with reality. Which is not a problem you're going to encounter with the Clinical school.
The Clinical sex scene is just that: a cold and rather detached description of the physical act, as if you were a hemipterologist describing coitus among the beetles. John Updike and Paul Theroux are very good at this. I remember A.S. Byatt giving us some really grim deflowering scenes in one of her novels (the title escapes me).
The danger here is that your scene can read, well, as if you were a hemipterologist describing coitus among the beetles. The scene can end up so antiseptic and remote that it detaches itself from the rest of the book.
And as for the Baaaad . . . it's a combination of the Swoony and the Clinical. Clinical description with an overlay of Swoon. You can tell right away by the choice of adjectives and nouns--- if both are non-specific you're in trouble. It's like the real dreadful 1950s pulp porn, the kind that Silverberg used to write, when women had "dripping flanges." If the writer starts going on about "elusive globes"--- whatever those are--- you know that what follows is going to be Baaaad. When every body part gets its own semi-Swoony, or "elusive," adjective, it becomes Award-Winning Baaaad.
Back in the early days of personal computers, there was this program going around called "Pornography." It generated sentences on the following model: "Adverbally, he verbed his adjective noun into her adjective noun." The verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and nouns were chosen randomly from a list. It reproduced exactly the affect of a Baaaad sex scene.
What sex scenes work for you? Are you Swoony or Clinical? And if so, why?