Happy New Year to anyone who’s able to open their eyes enough to look at a computer today. I was way over my limit last night but finally, at two p.m. on New Year’s Day, in Chicago’s 7 degrees, I’m ready to look at the world if not to smile at it.
Because it’s the new year, and we all want it to be a good one, I thought I’d start with sex. Writing about it, to be more precise. We’ve all heard Elmore Leonard’s dictum about leaving out the stuff the reader skips many many times–but I almost always skip sex scenes. Yes, he/she took off her/his clothes. They got naked, they got into bed/backseat of car/faux-skin rug in front of fire/billiard table, and heaved about like demented hippopotami for a bit and then-can we get back to the story?
I also skip sex scenes as a writer. Every year, when the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is announced, I thank my writing muse for steering me clear of any chance of being publicly humiliated at the In and Out Club.
This past December, Philip Roth was shortlisted for The Humbling, in which an aging actor “converts” a lesbian to heterosexuality: “This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.”
The ultimate winner was Jonathan Littell, for a passage in The Kindly Ones. “Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus…”
In writing about sex, one should ask the same question about anything one’s including. Is there a reason to have it there to begin with? Narrative flow? Plot? Character development? Fun? And if there is a reason, how do you do it well?
For my money, Joyce (or, according to some scholars, his wife, Norah) does it best in Ulysses, where Molly says, “He kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower…and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
On the other hand, you can’t beat Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, for brevity. “The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots.”
I hope 2010 is a year of health and peace for all who visit this site.