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Jonathan Franzen's “Bad” Sex Writing Isn't His Fault

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No contemporary novelist lends himself to easy mockery so readily as Jonathan Franzen, usually for his off-putting public persona as a scold with excessively aggressive views on Oprah, tweeting, and the proper care of feathered creatures. Yet even Franzen, for all the well-justified derision he receives, can be unfairly maligned. Writing in Jezebel, Madeleine Davies condemns Franzen for his “stilted, erotic fan fiction-esque descriptions of sex” and “sexual metaphors that should condemn him to life in Literary Sex Jail.”

To back up this indictment, Davies quotes some supposedly embarrassing passages from Franzen’s last novel, Freedom (2010), such as “Connie had a wry, compact intelligence, a firm little clitoris of discernment and sensitivity.” Another passage reads: “What had been his diffusely warm world of domestic refuge had collapsed, overnight, into the hot, hungry microcosm of Patty’s cunt. Which he still couldn’t believe he had such cruelly fleeting access to.” The problem with Davies’s approach is that most novelistic writing about sex will feel ridiculous when removed from its original context.

Sex is notoriously difficult to write about, and erotic prose is easily jeered at when excerpted. Sex is a subject we’re socially trained to be reticent about, one that is clouded over by euphemisms, slang, and other linguistic barriers. The inherited diction of sex ranges from cold scientific precision (“clitoris”) to vernacular rudeness (“Patty’s cunt”) to flowery excess (“fleeting access”). In good fiction, sex is most effective when integrated with the larger goal of the book: with plot, tone, and character development. When ripped away from the connective tissue that gives it meaning, sex writing is an easy target for derision because all emotional content is lost, leaving only words that make us titter. In the case of Franzen, the crucial context that disappears in these quotes is that he’s an ironic writer, who keeps a sly distance from his character. It’s a mistake to conflate Franzen’s attitude toward sex with that of his characters.

Not just Franzen, but virtually any writer who describes sex can seem ridiculous through quotations. Consider Anais Nin in Delta of Venus: “How the honey flowed from her. He dipped his finger in it lingeringly, then his sex, then he moved her so that she lay on him, her legs thrown over his legs, and as he took her, he could see himself entering into her and she could see him too.” Or Nabokov in Lolita: “I gave her to hold in my awkward fist the sceptre of my passion.” Sex writing, in Lolita, of course, is notoriously complicated. Nabokov wants us to realize what an evil oaf Humbert is, and he injects this meaning into the novel in a thousand subtle ways; stripped of that surrounding context, it just appears blunt.  

Davies’s ham-handed reading of Franzen’s sex scenes isn’t an individual dereliction. In England, there is a long-standing institution devoted to making this same error, year in and year out. Since 1993, the Literary Review has given out the Bad Sex Awards, which has singled out the work of novelists like John Updike, Philip Roth, and Tom Wolfe. Franzen himself was nominated in 2010 for some of the same passages Davies spotlighted.

The novelist Rowan Somerville, who was nominated in the same year as Franzen, described the Bad Sex Awards as adolescent “sniggering because someone said penis.” Somerville noted that the passage hooted at by the Bad Sex Awards (and also derided by Davies) reads very differently if when encountered in the pages of the novel.

In Freedom there is a brilliant but challenging moment where two young lovers, forced to live far apart, continue their passionate affair in phone conversations...The lovers ‘make their own worlds’ through words, and at one point the boy uses a coprophiliac image as an expression of his unconditional desire. The image aims to show the fearlessness of their communication and the intensity of his love, but all this subtlety is lost when the extract is read out and the audience dutifully roars with disgusted horror.

The late Auberon Waugh and Rhoda Koenig, the Literary Review editors who created the Bad Sex Awards, were quite aware that they had crafted a very blunt and limited instrument. Only a few years after the award was created, Waugh admitted “this joke seems rather stale to me now” while Koenig described it in 2010 as “a pretty old T-shirt.”

Even though the mirth-makers have themselves realized that the joke went flat many years ago, the Bad Sex Awards continue, possibly because it answers to a widespread need to fend off with laughter the embarrassment erotic writing causes us. One of the purposes of humor is to ease social tension. The persistence of the Bad Sex Awards is proof that the real problem isn’t the efforts, sometimes faltering and unsuccessful, of writers like Franzen to explore the most intimate moments of human existence. The real problem is that too many of us remain blushingly uncomfortable thinking about sex.