Contemporary novelists feel a “commercial” obligation to write “detailed” passages about sex, the British writer Julian Barnes recently said on the BBC’s Radio 3. That, I thought, explains a lot — not the proliferation of sex scenes in contemporary literary fiction, but fiction’s pitiful commercial impact. If today’s novelists believe that the money is in writing explicit sex scenes (and the sales of “Fifty Shades of Grey” would indicate it is), then apparently they are running away from the money as fast as they can. Literary novelists write about having and raising children, about eating, about coming of age and making a living, but when it comes to one of life’s essential activities and pleasures, they mostly prefer to remain silent.
Why? Barnes, in recalling the great sense of liberation following the collapse of the 1960 obscenity case against the publishers of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” said that there was then a great sense of possibility. British fiction could finally emulate the “truth-telling” of French novels. But being free to do something and being able to do it are very different, and Barnes thinks the results were sometimes awkward and implausible. Plus, the effort went unappreciated. “Expect to be laughed at by subsequent generations,” Barnes told aspiring authors, before affirming that he personally forges ahead into this veritable minefield despite all the anticipated mockery.
But, hey, you needn’t wait around for future generations to grow up enough to look down at you! Descriptions of sex are the one literary motif burdened with its own formal ritual of ridicule, Britain’s annual Bad Sex Awards, run by the Literary Review. (English-language works by writers of all nationalities are eligible.) If you are a reasonably prominent novelist who dares to write about erotic activities in a way that seems interesting or innovative to you, chances are good that, come December, you’ll be held up as a laughingstock in a London club and made the object of many amused, pun-laden newspaper stories. Bad dialogue, bad landscape descriptions and — my own personal bête noire — bad food writing, while far more prevalent and noxious, somehow don’t rate as comparable transgressions.
Yes, the Bad Sex Awards are a lark and all in good fun, but the embarrassment attendant on writing about sex is, as Barnes notes, very real. (Perhaps that’s why we English speakers have never quite caught up with the French, who are so much harder to embarrass.) To make matters worse, readers often assume that anything you write about is something you’ve actually done; Barnes recalls that Kingsley Amis once decided not to write about a gay character for fear that “the chaps at the club might think I was queer.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that many novelists simply avoid the subject entirely. A couple of years ago, Salon tried to counter this general chilling effect by organizing our own Good Sex awards, recognizing beautiful, persuasive and — yes — arousing depictions of sex in literary fiction. This proved more labor-intensive than we’d imagined, not because it’s difficult to find good sex scenes in fiction but because it’s difficult to find any sex scenes in fiction. Ultimately, we hesitated to invest so many resources in continuing the project. (Granted, being sent home with a stack of recent novels to scan for racy bits might sound like a pretty sweet task for an intern, but it hardly constitutes marketable workplace experience.)
Since then I’ve kept an eye out for novelists who do try to write well about sex. Most often, as Barnes observes, you find depictions of bad sex used to convey problems with a character or relationship. J.K. Rowling’s first adult foray, “The Casual Vacancy,” for example, did this very well, if only glancingly. There were moments in Junot Díaz’s “This Is How You Lose Her,” but surprisingly few of them when you consider that it’s a story collection about romantic love. So far I’ve only spotted one excellent, extended sex scene, in “The Silent Land” by the under-appreciated Graham Joyce. The lovemaking between the two main characters, a husband and wife isolated under mysterious circumstances in a ski lodge, is all the more moving as their situation becomes clear.
But perhaps I’ve just been unlucky. How about it, Salon readers? Read any good sex scenes lately?
Julian Barnes Radio 3 essay is not online, but you can read stories about it in the Independent, the Daily Mail and the Australian
The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards
Salon’s Good Sex Awards