Writing about sex
Reading about sex should make you smile – not gag

5-star writer Jill Marsh recently drew attention on Facebook to a Guardian link to the Literary Review’s annual awards for the worst writing about sex (Bad Sex Awards). I wouldn’t have seen this because the level of dishonesty in this country since the referendum has reached a level that means I no longer read newspapers, but I was grateful to be pointed at this article.

There is a description of the sex act as a vaginal ratchet swallowing a boa constrictor. Frankly, I hope I never meet a woman with a vaginal ratchet. Just imagine the damage something like that could do. And the thing about a boa constrictor is that it bends and wraps itself in loops, which at the moment this writer is describing is the last thing either party wants to happen. James Frey thinks the bathroom sink is a good place to have sex (I refuse to use the expression ‘making love,’ because that’s not what they’re doing). For Julian Gough, finding a female nipple in his mouth as an adult recalls being breast-fed as an infant. (Giving away more about yourself than you intended there, Julian). Haruki Murakami describes an ejaculation so powerful the sheets are sticky. (You have to spend the night in those sheets, Haruki. Unless, of course, you’re planning to clear off as soon as you’re done – which would not be nice behaviour, Haruki). Luke Tredget imagines being ‘slurped’ like a stick of rock. And so on…and on.

 In my house, ‘What dis shit, ma’an?’ has become the standard response to something not understood

But why? It’s many years since I lived in the West Indies, but I still cherish the memory of a question asked by a surprised Trinidadian: What dis shit, ma’an? In my house, that has become a standard response to something someone does not understand. And I don’t understand what these writers think they are doing – or why they are doing it.

Are you a novelist? Or a sex therapist?

If you have either been commissioned or have decided to write a sex manual, then explaining the mechanics of the act is likely to be necessary– though I suggest you don’t refer to vaginal ratchets because that would call your knowledge into question. If you are writing a novel, then sex is quite likely to come into it – but that doesn’t mean your reader is looking for a detailed description. As well as making love, your characters will eat, shower and urinate. And you can make it clear that all of those things happen without the need to explain how they do it.

As it happens, writing about sex is something we discussed at the November ALLi meeting in Cheltenham. My offering was from my book The Making of Billy McErlane. There are two things you need to know as background:

  1. Billy and Poppy were boyfriend and girlfriend at school, and the relationship was chaste. They were separated by events but have now met again after several years, they are in love, and they know that they would like to consummate their relationship
  2. Way back then, Poppy asked Billy, ‘How much do you love me?’ and Billy didn’t have an answer. He couldn’t think of any way to measure love, so he asked, ‘How much do you love me?’ and Poppy answered, ‘Up to the sky and down again a million times.’

So here they are, and they know that they want to get it on, and so does the reader. This is how it happens (the book is written in the first person):

She walked round the flat looking at things while I made coffee. After she’d taken her first sip she said, ‘It’s decision time, Billy.’
‘That makes me very nervous.’
‘Oh, I’ve made mine. It’s you, Billy—you’re the one who has to decide. Is this for ever? Or just a nice interlude?’
My heart beat fast. ‘It’s for ever, Popps.’
She nodded. ‘When you got out of prison, did they give you your condoms back?’
‘Eh? Oh, I…’
‘I’m asking if you’ll keep me safe, Billy. I still don’t want a baby.’ Her eyes came up to hold mine. ‘Not till I’m married.’
‘I’ll take care of you.’
‘You’ll be gentle, won’t you?’
I wrapped my arms round her. I kissed her: on the forehead; on the cheek; on the throat; on the lips. She kissed me back. She eased herself out of my grasp, took my hand and led me towards the bedroom. Just before she gave herself to me she said, ‘How much do you love me?’
‘Up to the sky and down again, a million times.’
‘You’d better, Billy Mac. You’d better.’

“Just before she gave herself to me.” That’s the sex scene. That’s it. That’s all the reader gets. It’s all the reader needs. My job as a writer is to get inside the characters’ heads and show what they are thinking and feeling in a way that the reader will understand. My job is not to describe the nuts and bolts of the sex act. I assume that the reader knows what people do when they go to bed together with love in their hearts but, if the reader doesn’t know, it isn’t my job to explain it.

And it certainly is no part of a writer’s job to talk about vaginal ratchets and boa constrictors. To the question, Why do people write that stuff? I would add, Why do people read it? I don’t know how many copies that book sold and I don’t know who bought it – but I’m fairly clear that I don’t want those readers.

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