Only Marcus knows: Sex in fiction

July 26, 2019 at 3:58 am | Posted in Bad Sex in Fiction | 2 Comments
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‘The sex in your novel I can understand,’ said a friend as we stood in adjoining lanes in the shallow end of Civic Pool. ‘The sex in A.S. Byatt’s novel you’d need a PhD in English Literature to understand.’

‘I’ve got one of those,’ I said, pulling my goggles into place. ‘Can I borrow it?’

‘I’ll bring it tomorrow,’ he said, before swimming away.

And that is how I came to have A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower, all 618 pages of it, about to topple off the tower of books on my bedside table. But I too gave up on it, not because I couldn’t understand the (admittedly erudite) sex scenes but because I came to this sentence, quite early on:

Only Marcus knows – and Marcus only partly – what happened to Jacqueline in 1961 and 1962, when they both began their research careers at NYU, Jacqueline working with a Dane called Luk Lysgaard-Peacock on the population genetics of snails, and he himself, at that stage, working on the mathematics of a model of consciousness with the mathematician Jacob Scrope, under the direction of the microbiologist Abraham Calder-Fluss.

Eight-line sentences containing twelve prepositional phrases might be successful if you’re Faulkner or Nabokov but most writers can’t get away with this sort of thing. A reader knows if someone is in the former or latter category by feeling either an exhilarating, ‘Wow, imagine being able to do that!’ after reading the former, or, ‘This is unbelievably tedious!’ during the latter. Trust your instincts. Life is short. Put the latter book down.

Hurtling into Gothic farce

The next book on the bedside table pile was Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday (Allen & Unwin, 2018), which starts out well, with an original and amusing protagonist and some energetic sex scenes, but which hurtles into Gothic farce towards the end.

This will be acceptable for some readers but I’ve never liked farce of any flavour. It leaves me detached, looking at people rushing around a stage or page, trying desperately to be funny.

The others on the tower are non-fiction, with not a lot of laughs in them, but let’s reflect on the category of unintentional humour, obviously not what an author wants, but at least readers can get some laughs from it. Novels like this were catnip to Clive James when he was book reviewing.

Judith Krantz was the author of twenty ‘shopping and fucking’ novels in the 1980s and 1990s. In a review called ‘A Blizzard of Tiny Kisses’, he gives Krantz her due for the novel Princess Daisy: ‘To be a really lousy writer takes energy,’ he writes. He goes on to quote some comically awful sex scenes, describing the novel as ‘almost totally inept.’

Angela Carter said that reading one of Krantz’s novels was like ‘being sealed inside a luxury shopping mall whilst being softly pelted with scented sex technique manuals.’

Here’s a paragraph from Princess Daisy:

It seemed a long time before Shannon began to imprint a blizzard of tiny kisses at the point where Daisy’s jaw joined her throat, that particularly warm curve, spendthrift with beauty, that he had not allowed himself to realise had haunted him for weeks. Daisy felt fragile and warm to Shannon, as if he’d trapped a young unicorn, some strange, mythological creature. Her hair was the most intense source of light in the room, since it reflected the moonlight creeping through the window, and by its light he saw her eyes, open, rapt and glowing; twin dark stars.

Bad Sex in Fiction Award

My favourite English magazine, Literary Review, is known for its annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Every year since 1993, it has presented the award to an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel (hence, Krantz would never make the cut). The award is in the form of a semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s, which depicts a naked woman draped over an open book.

The 2015 winner was former Smiths singer Morrissey for the following paragraph in his book The List of the Lost.

At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.

Tom Connolly won it in 2016 for the following in his novel, Men Like Air:

The walkway to the terminal was all carpet, no oxygen. Dilly bundled Finn into the first restroom on offer, locked the cubicle door and pulled at his leather belt. ‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.

Novelist Rowan Somerville in the Guardian Australian online, 15 December 2015, wrote that the challenge of writing about sex is to evoke the physicality plus the sublimity without resorting to cliché and he quotes American writer Elizabeth Benedict: ‘A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but it is always an example of good writing.’ Somerville believes that ‘it doesn’t matter how weird things get as long as it remains original and feels authentic.’

He achieved some notoriety in 2010 when awarded the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for his novel The Shape of Her, saying some sobering things about the award. He pointed out that ‘it takes years to write a novel, and, if you are serious about what you do, quite a lot of sacrifice.’ Or, as a literary editor of The Canberra Times used to remind us book reviewers back in the 1990s, ‘It takes just as much effort to write a bad book as it does to write a good book.’

Some winners, such as Sebastian Faulks and more recently Ben Okri, declined to turn up to accept their Bad Sex awards but Rowan Somerville was ultimately a good sport about his victory. He decided to attend even though he knew it would involve hearing passages from his novel read out ‘with leering innuendo’. Somerville accepted the award with good grace, saying: ‘There’s nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the entire nation, I thank you.’





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  1. I laughed out loud when the toilet cubicle man looked at the passport photo

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Ha – yes, possibly the most unerotic sex scene imaginable!

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