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How to Write About Sex

The awkward art of the smitten word

Jim Stoten

Since my fiction is usually about people, and I consider sex one of the more important and emotionally fascinating activities people undertake, sometimes I must run the gauntlet of writing a sex scene. The results vary, though I try to make a habit of not publishing the many occasions when things don't work. "Don't worry," I console myself, stroking my arm. "It happens."

The truth is, I have never sat at my desk and thought, "Today, I shall pen a mighty portrait of coitus!" No, these imaginative encounters seem to creep up on me in the first draft, sort of like when two people fall in love, or lust. One minute you're chatting away about the legacy of Robert Bork and the next you're trying to meld your bodies into one ecstatic pulsating organism. When it's happening on the page, though, things get tricky. We might have the tendency to quickly cover up from the embarrassment of seeing our characters in the buff or else take on the role of salacious puppeteer. The prose can suffer from these reactions, as well as from overly clinical description, or, in some notorious cases, overcooked metaphor. Being caught with your aesthetic pants down can be a writer's worst fear.

Ever since the "earth moved" in Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, and probably long before, people have enjoyed a good snigger at bad sex scenes in books. We love to gloat over any writer's failure to properly render the emotions and mechanics of Eros. There are many ways to botch it, of course, and more and more prizes for doing so. There are online forums about how to better imagine what, with a certain numerical austerity, used to be called the beast with two backs. There are also unanimous opinions about what diction and manner to avoid. (Words like "shaft" or "gazongas" are obvious no-no's, but so are aching leaps toward lyricism, unless you manage the rare graceful landing.)

We delight in the comedy of bad sex writing, probably because it corresponds to the comedy of our bodies, which are, minus the most gorgeous 1 percent, not nearly as delectable and confident as we might fantasize. That's why this sentence, from an old pornographic novel called Her Willing Young Boys, is sublime: "Even so, Angelina continued to thrust herself upon him, reaching climax after climax, her come glistening in the rays of late afternoon sun that poured through the window." It is the humorless reach toward poetry (if only the possibly pseudonymous author, Betty John, had mentioned "coins" of sunlight, or better, "shafts") and the subsequent fall to the reefs of mediocrity that get us chuckling. And we can all find examples of "serious" writers doing not much better.

It's tough to pull off, especially now. Burst into the room like the new Henry Miller / Anaïs Nin / Jean Genet / Terry Southern / Norman Mailer, all keyed-up to bust some taboos, and you risk resembling some rube in a paisley gimp mask and a childo from Target. The problem with sexual taboos is this: The ones that deserved breaking are broken. The practice of obscenity trials, of literary experts swearing on bibles before delivering judgment on the artistic merit of a Lawrence or a Joyce or a Burroughs, seems unlikely to return.

Come to think of it, only religious fundamentalists bent on censorship continue to wage the good fight. At least they help maintain the thrill of taboo, the "No!" that tingles. It's the rest of us who've collapsed into numb gluttony, with pornography on every laptop offering a menu of flavors, the sheer number of which put the ancient, haughty claims of Baskin Robbins to shame. And what taboos are left? Hetero sex, homo sex, interracial sex, solo sex, dungeon sex, it's all copacetic, at least in most of the homes where people read quality fiction. What's left in the taboo basket besides the mean, dark stuff, congress with the unwilling and unwitting?

The conventional wisdom says that less is more, and I generally agree, although there is something about a masturbation scene that calls for more: more inner talk or rhetorical pyrotechnics, more of the mode that composition tight-asses call masturbatory. Though it no longer shocks like Rothian liverfests of yore, the image and thoughts of folks in the throes of solitary frigs and hugless tugs are still shot through with a shame and loneliness that can lead to strong, charged work. Also, writing masturbation scenes with male and female characters is how I get to know them.

Less is more can also be a cop-out, but it's understandable why many celebrated writers have the good sense to just avoid the whole dilemma. (Who wants to get one of those mean-spirited prizes?) Here, the verbal equivalent of the cinematic curtain blowing in the breeze is the word "after." Perhaps two characters will kiss, but even then there won't be any attempt to conjure lip press or Frenchy swirl, just maybe a childhood memory about feeling light and free and safe on a backyard swing. A space break will ensue, followed by a sentence such as, "After, they drank coffee on the terrace." Only a nitwit would ask, "After what?" I have been that nitwit.

Sometimes, though, you have to face the multi-spined beast head on. Be brave, and trust in your love of language and your love of sex. (Or lack of it.) Trust in the modern gods who guide your hand: Sad and Funny. Like it or not, these are the twin poles for most of our tiny thoughts and doings. Sad and Funny are both the world and how we withstand it.

When I am asked about writing sex, I suggest he or she look at some current writers doing fascinating things, such as George Saunders, in whose story "Escape from Spiderhead" prisoners serving as chemical guinea pigs are manipulated into falling in love and having wild, I-found-my-soulmate sex, followed by an intense cuddling period, and then are dialed down to no feelings whatsoever. What makes these sections work so well is how the prisoner's voice, enhanced with drugs that increase verbality, rises from stock language to impassioned virtuosity and back again, to hilarious effect. I also point to other examples, the goofy raunch of Nicholson Baker's House of Holes or the scary ambiguity of some Christine Schutt stories.

Mostly, though, I'd say the way to do it is not that different from the way to do it: Acknowledge the awkwardness with playfulness, a sense of humor, but don't dampen the fire with cheap laughs or try to deny the sadness built into any fleeting bliss. Get out of your own way and embrace the sweet, grand, ridiculous, forlorn wonder of it all. After, join us for coffee on the terrace.

Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March.