It’s easy to find awkward depictions of sex in literary fiction. The excerpts from this year’s nominees for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award represent a good starting point, as do previous years’ winners. But the bad sex-writing hardly ends there. Serious Novelists, being tellers of hard truths, can depict all sorts of horrors without flinching – and then get flustered at describing sex. All the ease leaves their writing, and out come the metaphors. And the euphemisms. And the metaphors serving as euphemisms.
My current favorite – and not in a good way – is from The Flame Alphabet, by Ben Marcus. Reading that book is a slog through an explicitly rendered hell – until it’s time for the narrator to copulate. Here’s one episode:
I experienced a surge of virility. My area was rigid, but it was also numb. Marta worked calmly at it, ferreting the difficulty, stared past my head and labored to ease the issue. … My vision browned and when the completion came down below …
My fellow writers: sex is like sharing a meal or strolling together or having a conversation. It rarely requires a special literary mode.
So, when I was young and idealistic, I decided that 1) my novel, Bonobo!, would report sex as the consequential act it is – that is, in detail – and 2) I’d write about it like the other actions in the novel.
Here’s an excerpt in which the narrator, Nat, transits from outside to inside a Bonoban group:
Holly took a deep breath, exhaled, and said, “You either need to leave and never, ever bring your lying ass back, or we have to fuck this out.”
What? I looked at her for a moment, trying to calculate a response.
“That’s how we do it here, Nat—like bonobos. Thus the name. When there’s hostility, we fuck it out. So either drop trou or ship out.”
Toledo kept looking out to sea. Was he going to join in? The thought terrified and intrigued me. I unbuttoned the top of my shorts and pulled down the zipper. She unfurled a towel that had been lying rolled up nearby and laid it across the sand in the nicely shaded rear of the lean-to. She took a condom from a small bag.
We fucked like beasts. Screwed, sucked, licked, heaved, grasped, clutched, thrust, wrestled, and enacted quite a few other verbs until, at her urging, I filled that condom. I pulled out and collapsed on top of her as our sweat bound us.
Toledo still sat there. After a few minutes of lying under me, our lungs pulsing in synchrony, Holly asked him to get us all something to drink, and he complied. She rolled out from under me and said, “Man, I feel so much better.” She sat up and started to put her bikini on again. “So what’s your plan, Nat?”
Metaphors abound: the sex itself, the condom, and the Bonobo movement all stand for other things. But there’s no need to whip out unwieldy metaphors to communicate the act itself, as though that would confer literary respectability on what would otherwise be smut.
Here’s another excerpt, depicting the development of an emotional bond at an orgy:
I told her the anthropologist’s name was Tracy and said that I’d love to talk with her about his research, or even mine, but (and by now we were stroking each other’s genitalia) perhaps we should join the others first. As we returned to the living room, a man and woman across the way smiled to Janet and beckoned her to join them. I saw that I was about to be left alone to scavenge some affection among strangers, all of whom already had at least one partner, when Janet told them, “Later,” and turned to focus entirely on me.
In that initial encounter she wanted to be on her back and me to be on my knees—Bonobo style—seemingly so that we could lock our eyes throughout. This technique reminded me of Doris’ desire to create an intersubjective bond with her partner at the point of orgasm. However, Janet had eyes only for me, even afterward. Following the first go-round we parted and screwed with others, but many times I scanned the room, only to find her regarding me from a distance. When she caught my eye, she would complement her moaning or panting with a chummy smile for me, which I found utterly seductive.
If they were flirting while hammering nails at a Habitat for Humanity project, the wording would be – and should be – similar.