What makes a good sex scene?

Our judges discuss their favorite (and least favorite) finalists -- and the delicate art of erotic writing

Topics: Good Sex Awards, Love and Sex, Books,

What makes a good sex scene?

Over the last four days, we’ve been rolling out our eight finalists for Salon’s first-ever Good Sex Awards (to read all the excerpts, click here). Some of the passages were erotic, others clinical and detached, yet each showed that sex writing at its best can capture the complexity or beauty or ugliness of the real thing.

Below, our panelist of four judges — Louis Bayard, Maud Newton, Walter Kirn and our own Laura Miller — discuss what they learned from the eight nominees, and how they settled on the winner: James Hynes’ “Next,” a scene in which a middle-aged Austinite recalls a steamy encounter on a farmhouse porch. (The whole excerpt is worth a read.) But what makes that scene better than runner-up, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”? Or eighth-place winner, Jim Carroll’s “The Petting Zoo”? Our judges talk about their decisions, their dilemmas and the delicate art of writing about sex.

Laura Miller:

For my part, I think I waffled the most about Jim Carroll’s “The Petting Zoo.” Obviously, the writing itself was pretty bad, but it got points for being substantial and detailed, and for what I can only call its sincerity. I’ve read some of the novels these excerpts were taken from but not others, and this was a novel I hadn’t read. I’m not sure what the history of Billy, the male protagonist, is, but I’m guessing he’s had some sexual experiences with men (paid, I’m thinking), although this is his first with a woman. The author is trying so hard to do justice to how sex with Marta affects his sense of his own identity. It’s a little absurd that it makes him feel manly when she essentially ravishes him, but teenagers often do think in this muddled, overwrought way, and sex is so monumentally formative at that age. This, to my mind, is one of the things literary writing about sex ought to do: describe not just the fact of sex, but the way how it happens changes how characters understand who they are.

Several of the other candidates we looked at were well-written (certainly better written than the Carroll) but too perfunctory. I don’t blame novelists for not wanting to write longer sex scenes, given the widespread discomfort with the idea evidenced by stuff like the Bad Sex Awards, but since this contest is meant to celebrate the ones who do, I did downgrade a candidate for not actually writing about the sex itself. To me, the Maggie Pouncey excerpt (from “The Perfect Reader”), whatever its other merits, doesn’t even constitute a sex scene.

Similarly, I like the Gertrude Stein thing that Jillian Weise is doing in “The Colony” but was too disoriented by her style to get much from the excerpt out of context. I love the line “I made none of my usual flourishes,” though!

My two favorite excerpts, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and James Hynes’ “Next,” are great at capturing the way an erotic experience can be shot through with ambivalence, as well as fleeting thoughts and feelings about unrelated stuff. Both are about men having sex with one woman while emotionally entangled with another. In the case of “Freedom,” the hurt and anger Walter feels towards his wife makes the much-anticipated tryst with his assistant less unequivocally thrilling than he hoped. It’s more funny and wry than hot, but it’s very true to that experience of the mind and heart racing to catch up while the body is charging full speed ahead.

In “Next,” Kevin’s lust is fueled by imagining that the woman who’s rejected him will see him with Lynda. One minute he feels only pleasure, the next he’s afraid they’re going to fall over the railing. He’s aware of every sensation — the music, his partner’s sweaty flesh — then he’s distracted by a shadow in the window. In this case, the ambivalence makes it hotter. It’s paradoxical: The two of them don’t care much about each other, which leaves Kevin free to pour all his frustrated erotic longing for the Philosopher’s Daughter into their fucking. One of the ironies of desire is that it’s often more powerful when it’s denied, and in a way this is both fulfillment and languishing in a single act. I love the combination of emotional intensity and physical detail, which are all reasons why it was my first choice.

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Louis Bayard:

I was hard pressed to choose between the Hynes and Franzen excerpts because they were both human and painful and real. The Hynes gets points because it’s both hot (i.e., the only excerpt that actually made me want to have sex) and technically assured: that sly interplay, for instance, between the cab driver’s chattering and the erotic reverie. It’s exact without being mechanical, and its details are spot-on. I particularly loved the porch rail threatening to give way the whole time.

The Franzen excerpt very convincingly portrays a unique species of performance anxiety — a man trying to have sex as good as he imagines his estranged wife is having. A doomed business from the start, with that sad and devastating finish: He comes in his lover’s hand. Juvenility and senility in the same breath.

I liked the sensuality of Chang-Rae Lee’s “The Surrendered,” although it has a cinematic “prettiness” to it. I could see it being directed by Rob Marshall for a prestige Hollywood release. Joshua Ferris’ “The Unnamed” had two lines I took a shine to: “She moved under him with an old authority” and “They calmly restored respectability to the room.” Jennifer Gilmore’s “Something Red” had a very close appraisal of a man’s body, which you don’t often get in sex scenes. The Carroll excerpt was not just bad, I thought, but bad in that flatulent, sub-Lawrentian way (as the Lawrence allusion painfully underscores). “Unique female fragrance” … “masculine instincts” … “He intuited the resonance of its mystery and command … ” They’re fucking, OK? I will give my old copies of “Women in Love” and “The Rainbow” to anyone who can tell me how green eyes can press down rapaciously and how a tongue can be unfettered to the air. Or, for that matter, fettered.

Maud Newton:

 

The problem with these excerpts is that — and I didn’t entirely realize this until I started reading for the contest — the sex I respond to most in fiction is really fucked-up. It’s definitely not that I want to experience the anonymous sexual assaults of Nicholson Baker’s “The Fermata” (though I confess, I did think that book was hot, in its autistic way), or get involved with a porn-obsessed televangelist as in A.L. Kennedy’s “Original Bliss,” or abduct a man and use him as my sex slave, as in Rupert Thomson’s “The Book of Revelation,” but these stories stay with me because they reveal something incredibly dark and twisted and, to me, true about desire and obsession. I like fiction, whatever the subject, that exposes the surprising longings its characters harbor in their heart of hearts. Mary Gaitskill’s “The Other Place,” in the latest New Yorker, is a perfect example, though it’s not actually about sex at all.

Maybe because I overdosed on D.H. Lawrence and explicit pseudo-transgressive fiction in college, most of the (for lack of a better word) vanilla sex scenes that stay with me now are brief, vivid ones, as in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair, “when the narrator, Bendrix, remembers in just a couple of paragraphs having to muffle his lover’s “strange sad angry cry of abandonment,” lest her husband, in bed upstairs, hear her them through the partly-open door. Afterward Bendrix crouches on the floor beside her “and watched and watched, as though I might never see this again — the brown indeterminate-coloured hair like a pool of liquor on the parquet, the sweat on her forehead, the heavy breathing.” The reverie ends when they hear the squeak of her husband’s foot on the stair.

The Franzen scene was the most vivid and real of the ones we were given, and also the only one that, as Louis said of the Hynes, made me feel at all like having sex. I guess responses to people fucking in fiction are as inexplicable as attraction itself, so I’m not sure exactly what got me about the Franzen — some combination of the details about her body and his desire, the activity and the gymnastics, and the narrator’s intense arousal and weird dissociation, and maybe also (TMI, probably) the idea of a guy going on for so long and being so into it but never coming. The contrasts between the girl and the wife are masterful, woven in beautifully.

 

James Hynes is an amazing writer — in fact, we became friends years ago after I couldn’t stop praising his fiction on my blog; hi, Jim! — and this passage is well-done, but to me it’s a more technical feat, as in, I can envision what they’re doing, but, the insight into the narrator’s inner world notwithstanding, it’s hot like porn without the pictures. Lots of cock and cunt, plenty of energetic hammering on despite the fear of losing balance, but I don’t know enough in this excerpt about The Philosopher’s Daughter to care that she’s the one he really wants. I can’t see her, don’t have a sense of her. I want to feel his desire in a sharp, particularized way, the way I feel the confusion of the Franzen character.

Though I ranked it more highly than the rest of you, I agree with Louis that the Lee excerpt is too pretty, too cinematic. I read “The Surrendered” in a single day last year when I was in bed with the flu and remember very little about it apart from the scenes in the orphanage about the relationship between the man, the woman, and the girl depicted in this passage, and it was difficult for me to tell when judging how much of my rating was based on just this section and how much was about the residual feeling I had from reading it initially. I have also read the Hynes and Franzen, though, and parts of some of the other novels excerpted here, including the Gilmore and the Ferris, and don’t feel that familiarity impeded my judgment. (I should probably mention that I loved Ferris’ first novel, “Then We Came to the End,” and gave it a positive review and subsequently met him a couple of times.) The short bit from “The Unnamed” didn’t do it for me the way it did for the rest of you. I would guess the appeal is the urgency and the unlikely setting, but as with the Hynes I just didn’t feel it.

The Pouncey isn’t sexy — I agree with you, Laura — but I liked it more than you guys did because unlike the Carroll it was entertaining. As a night person who’s had the (fortunately long-past) experience of being with a morning person who wanted to pull open the blinds at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and go at it, I could relate to the narrator’s visceral aversion to that sort of thing and probably ranked the excerpt more highly on that score than I would have based on the sex alone.

 

Walter Kirn:

Since everyone has done such a good job analyzing the individual sections, I want to make a few general remarks on sex scenes in fiction. I still have a problem with them, even the “good” ones, because I find it fundamentally difficult to read dispassionate descriptions of an act that is always (or almost always) experienced passionately in life (even if that passion involves revulsion). Reading detailed scenes of eating or vivid evocations of cuts of meat without any accompanying hunger might be similar. Sex on the page, when its goal isn’t simply arousal — porn — just always feels odd and clinical and wrong to me. The excerpts that I find tolerable here — the Hynes and the Franzen — are basically comic scenes that reproduce in their narrators’ minds the same distance toward the encounters they’re engaging in that I, the reader, feel toward the narratives of the encounters. In other words, sex scenes with lots of awkward self-consciousness in them at least address the awkwardness and self-consciousness they engender. Still, it’s a one-note accomplishment and, to me, the Hynes scene and the Franzen give the same feeling, basically, and transmit the same ironic message: We’re most alone in our heads when we’re supposedly merging as bodies. Got it.

One odd thing I’ve noticed about sex scenes over the years is that the more nuanced and specific they are, the more alienating they are. What constitutes good writing in other realms somehow just doesn’t work in the realm of sex. My favorite sex scenes are the blunt, depersonalized, pornographic ones (Bret Easton Ellis is the master here) that allow me to fill in the sensory blanks myself. I almost always prefer something like “He fucked her hard” to a gourmet, gynecological, Updike-ean presentation of the various sights and sounds involved.

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