So What About The Good Sex In Fiction Awards? Catherine Czerkawska

          Every year the Literary Review Bad Sex In Fiction Awards ‘draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel.’
          This year’s award went to Nancy Huston, an undeserved winner, I fear, although I note with a certain satisfaction (albeit of the purely cerebral kind) that Guardian readers voted resoundingly for the ‘big generative jockey’, while I myself also favoured the ‘elfin grot’ reference, but there you go. These things are very personal. Earlier this year, John Grisham endeared himself to me no end by describing how he had written an explicit sex scene and given it to his wife to read. She had collapsed into so much helpless laughter that he had decided it wasn’t his forte. Would that a few writers of literary fiction had so much insight, but perhaps their spouses are so overawed by their genius that they can’t bring themselves to point out the obvious: that when it comes to writing about sex, so many of the literary elite seem to resort to bolting crude, physical – and all too often hilarious - encounters onto their otherwise excellent prose.
          Many years ago, when the late Pat Kavanagh was my literary agent, she phoned me, right after I had submitted a manuscript to her.
It was, in fact, The Amber Heart, so if you want to know what she was on about, you can download it when you've finished reading this, but she called to say ‘one thing’s certain, Catherine. You can definitely write about sex!’ I also remember the young woman who line edited a previous novel, The Golden Apple, for Century, telling me that she had never before fallen in love with a character quite so much as she had fallen in love with Luis, the hero of that story. I thought at the time – as I’m sure did Pat – that it would be a point in my favour when it came to traditional publishing. Back then, though, I’m not sure that it counted, although more recently, it has become apparent that rather a lot of women of all ages appreciate novels with pretty ‘explicit sexual content’. I’m not going to quote the obvious example here, but it strikes me that we can't complain too vociferously if we chicken out, while somebody else elects to give readers what they want. Or some variation of it, anyway. 
          But hey, Christmas is coming, and I'm not aiming to be contentious here. I just think that part of the problem with so many of the nominees for the bad sex awards seems to be a reluctance to engage with those appetites in any but the crudest form. You’ve got to wonder, sometimes, if the more consciously literary the writer, the more problem they seem to have with the senses. You get the distinct impression of somebody taking a deep breath and thinking ‘Oh God, now I have to write the bloody sex scene!’ You have to relish writing these things or decide not to do them at all. I don’t mind a bit when a writer leaves a pair of protagonists at the bedroom door so long as he or she spares us the contrived metaphors and the explicit bragging. 
          When I started thinking about possible ‘good sex’ awards, it was quite difficult to find genuine celebrations of the physical. There’s James Joyce, of course. There’s the obvious D H Lawrence. But my personal response to his descriptions of female sexuality are right up there with Mrs Grisham’s. And nobody who has ever read Cold Comfort Farm can take Lady C seriously again. Visions of sukebind and Seth with his mollocking tend to come before your eyes at inappropriate moments.

Who wouldn't want to do a bit of mollocking with Seth Starkadder in this incarnation?
          Everyone will have his or her favourites, and I’d love it if you posted some of them below. Let’s hear what turns you on, rather than what turns you off in fiction.  Meanwhile, here are two of my personal favourites. Not the only ones, of course. And not because they’re explicit, which they certainly aren’t, but because they seem to me to involve writing which is deeply, rewardingly sexy, so whether they’re explicitly so or not doesn’t much matter.

First of all, Wuthering Heights. (So, I’m obsessed by this book, I admit it!) The really explicit thing about this novel is the sadism, which runs through it, red in tooth and claw. But the sensuality of the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy is never avoided. It is there, right from our first perception of the rapport between them, which always involves a physical proximity truly extraordinary in a novel of this time and place. The first half of the novel builds inexorably, full of frustrated sensuality and raw sexual yearning, to the scene when the couple finally come together in a way which is as close as Emily can get to physical consummation, something which even my fourteen year old self understood and appreciated. 

‘In her eagerness she rose and supported herself on the arm of the chair. At that earnest appeal he turned to her, looking absolutely desperate. His eyes, wide and wet, at last flashed fiercely on her; his breast heaved convulsively. An instant they held asunder, and then how they met I hardly saw, but Catherine made a spring, and he caught her, and they were locked in an embrace from which I thought my mistress would never be released alive: in fact, to my eyes, she seemed directly insensible. He flung himself into the nearest seat, and on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species: it appeared that he would not understand, though I spoke to him; so I stood off, and held my tongue, in great perplexity.’ 

          Another writer who does sensuality like no other is Stevenson. I dramatised Catriona for radio in five hour-long episodes. It’s not a well known novel. Most people read Kidnapped, but seldom move on to the sequel, which was written much later and is a more demanding, more complicated and much more sophisticated read. But there’s a longish episode towards the end of the story, when David Balfour has found himself alone in Holland with Catriona MacGregor Drummond. They must pretend to be brother and sister, for the sake of propriety, and they take rooms together in a house in Leyden. The succeeding chapters are one of the most suffocatingly vivid depictions of youthful sexual frustration I have ever read. Dramatising them was such an intense pleasure. The passages where the young couple realise that they fancy each other like mad, while convention dictates that they can’t do anything about it, are tantalisingly sexy. Here’s something to give you a flavour of the whole, especially that unavoidable, irresistible sense of being drawn towards the beloved.

          ‘That was the best walk yet of all of them; she clung near to me in the falling snow; it beat about and melted on us, and the drops stood upon her bright cheeks like tears and ran into her smiling mouth. Strength seemed to come upon me with the sight like a giant’s; I thought I could have caught her up and run with her into the uttermost places of the earth; and we spoke together all that time beyond belief for freedom and sweetness.
          It was the dark night when we came to the house door. She pressed my arm upon her bosom. ‘Thank you kindly for these same good hours,’ said she, on a deep note of her voice.
          The concern in which I fell instantly on this address, put me with the same swiftness on my guard; and we were no sooner in the chamber and the light made, than she beheld the old, dour, stubborn countenance ... Methought as I read I could hear my heart strike like an eight-day clock. Hard as I feigned to study there was still some of my eyesight that spilled beyond the book upon Catriona. She sat on the floor... and the chimney lighted her up and shone and blinked upon her and made her glow and darken through a wonder of fine hues. Now she would be gazing in the fire and then again at me; and at that I would be plunged in terror of myself...’
          I’m feeling my way towards some kind of conclusion here and I think it’s this. The clue is at the beginning, in those words ‘crude and perfunctory.’ The best writing about sexuality takes its time and is an integral part of the whole novel. It is generous, brave, and should be a pleasure for the writer as well as the reader. If you are prepared to dive into those deep waters, unselfconsciously, letting go, living with your characters and their feelings, the result will probably sweep the reader along too, even if he or she feels (as somebody once said of one of my books) that it is a ‘guilty pleasure.’ It needn’t be explicit, but it has to be honest. For Emily Bronte, the truth of the relationship between Heathcliff and Cathy was physical as much as spiritual. For her to avoid writing that central, intensely physical scene would have been a cop-out. Stevenson was tackling something generally avoided in the fiction of the time: the fact that young women experience extreme physical desire quite as much as young men. He’s a fine writer - one of the finest, in my opinion - and we feel the sexual tension vibrating between Catriona and Davie as strongly as they do themselves.
          I’m going to finish with an extract from one of my own books. Not because I’m comparing myself in any way to the greats above, but just because a literary agent, whom I greatly respected, told me it was one of my skills and she never said these things lightly. Ice Dancing, of everything I’ve written, is a novel about the lightning strike of irresistible physical attraction and everything that comes after. Joe is ten years younger than Helen, their backgrounds could not be more different, and yet – as sometimes happens in life –sexual attraction, inexplicable, irresistible, is what brings them together. In retrospect, I can see that I had to find ways of describing something absolutely central to the novel, something that didn’t feel bolted on or embarrassing or ‘perfunctory’. I'm not going to quote anything explicit here although I don't always - or even very often - leave my characters at the bedroom door. But on this occasion, Helen is at a village dance with her husband and a group of friends. Joe is there. He has danced with a few women but Helen, already deeply attracted to this exotic interloper and charismatic sportsman, assumes he won't ask her.

          'I was just thinking of seeing if Annie might want to get up and dance with me. Lots of the women were dancing with each other  because the men were so pathetic - when Tim asked her instead... so that left me sitting alone at the table, all by myself with an empty glass, and then I felt a little tap on my shoulder. I looked round and there he was. Joe Napier. Holding out his hand. Smiling at me.
          So I got up and danced with him, just as the music changed from fast to slow. Hungry Eyes. They were playing Hungry Eyes. There was something old-fashioned about the way he danced. I mean he held me in his arms for a start, although not too close. He was big and tall and solid. We talked a bit but not much. Talking meant bellowing in each other's ears and I was afraid of spitting at him. Eventually he started laughing and shook his head, so we just danced. We danced, and I swear to God I never wanted it to stop. I found myself wishing that the man up there with his fancy suit and his sleek hair would just sing for ever. And I hadn't felt like that for so long. For so very long. If ever.
          In the middle of dancing with him, I had two thoughts, one immediately after the other. One was - how warm he is - because he was. He was warm in every way, like a good fire, like the sun. And the other was - I hate my life. But that was a frightening thought, and I tried to shove it to the back of my mind and just concentrate on dancing instead. All the same I didn't really want to dance at all. I wanted to rest my head against his shoulder and stay there in a kind of blissful limbo. I remember thinking it was as well he couldn't read my mind, because he would have been out of there like a bat out of hell. It was that crazy. I hardly knew him, but I wanted to stop everything and just be in that one place, with this one man, holding me.'


          Over to you, dear reader. In the words of another sexy Joey ‘How are you doin’?’

          Find out more about Ice Dancing here


Lee said…
I'm firmly convinced that the best fictional sex is written in the reader's mind - a mere suggestion, in other words. To be emotionally authentic is very tricky when it comes to attraction and arousal. Please don't be offended, Catherine, but which of us thinks in similes under such circumstances?
Ah, but that's the writer's job, isn't it, Lee? To describe things that are tricky, with emotional authenticity. To 'make up' the truth, in other words. Just because something is tricky doesn't mean we shouldn't ever attempt to create it in words, otherwise nobody would ever write about anything other than the most basic facts. I'm very comfortable with each writer deciding how far he or she wants or needs to go with this. As I say in the piece. But if you're saying that we shouldn't even attempt to write about the interaction of mind and body in e fictional situation that is about an intense attraction between two people, of whatever sex, then I find myself disagreeing with you most profoundly. Problems DO arise when we think - God knows why - that we have to come up with crass similes! (Hence the annual bad sex awards which chiefly consist of bad similes and hideous cliches.) It's so much more than that - as usual, it involves telling the truth of the situation you're creating as a writer to the very best of your ability.
Bill Kirton said…
My own fixation is with Madame Bovary, where suppressed desire and Flaubert's often cynical attitude towards it create some terrific juxtapositions of deliberately comic effects. The scene at the agricultural prizegiving, with its brilliant contrapuntal interweaving of Rodolphe's best chat-up lines with the announcement of awards for pigs, top quality manure, etc. is hilarious. He's equally at home, though, with the reality of desire and its consummation. Here's my feeble translation of the moment Emma at last gives in to Rodolphe.

'The cloth of her dress caught against the velvet of his coat. She threw back her head, her white neck swelling with a sigh and, tearful, almost fainting, she gave a long shudder, hid her face, and gave herself up to him.
The shades of night were falling; the horizontal sun passing between the branches blazed in her eyes. Here and there around her, in the leaves or on the ground, trembled luminous patches, like the scattered feathers of hummingbirds. Silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to drift from the trees; she felt her heart beginning to beat again, and the blood coursing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then far away, beyond the wood, on the other hills, she heard a vague trailing cry, a voice which lingered, and in the silence she heard it mingle like music with the last tremors of her pulsing nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his lips, was mending one of the two broken bridles with his penknife.

Oh wow! Absolutely brilliant translation, and I can see exactly what you mean!
Jan Needle said…
Magnificent post, Catherine. As I sometimes write big and very violent thrillers, sex is an interesting problem. My two main female readers and advisers react differently to the sex in, say, Kicking Off. It's very full-on, and sometimes brutal and brutish, but at others about love and sensuality. One finds it, like she finds the extreme violence, too raw to read with pleasure, the other accepts and enjoys both as 'essential'.

Now I've written a second book in the series - The Bonus Boys - which I'm finalising for Kindle, and I'm unsure which way to jump. Reader A thinks both the sex and violence should be toned down drastically, Reader B thinks both are among the novel's strengths. To compound it, we all know that women are the biggest readers and buyers of novels. At the moment, I'm tending towards a gentler approach, and I'm honestly not sure why.

But Lee, I'm pretty sure you're wrong. Bad sex in a novel (and there's plenty of it, with that we all agree) can be wonderfully funny. Think Melvin Bragg among the 'literary' types. But when it's good it's also wonderful, and why should one be sniffy about a rip-roaring read with a few judicious one-hand moments? Fifty Shades of Smile on the bank manager's face, if nothing else...

Sex can indeed be written in the reader's mind, but isn't that a bit unfair? What about the readers who haven't got a dirty mind? They've been short-changed.
RDS said…
Very interesting stuff; very interested also to know how differently men and women approach this. It's no longer a secret that women's physical desires can be as powerful and direct as men's (I must admit I spent too much of my younger life being surprised by this...) but yet they are not the same. And on that excellent translation, extraordinary how one tiny word can make such a difference. Not "...she gave herself to him." but "...she gave herself up to him"
CallyPhillips said…
This is a really interesting post. I'd never thought of WH as 'sexual' before - 'passion' yes but I guess I need the graphic description of Lawrence before I see it as 'sex' in a novel. (That'll be my past writing 'erotic' movies for a living catching up with me - I was young, I needed the money!) Erotic and 'sex' and 'love' all have their places in fiction of course and I guess people see each in a range of fiction. I think the 'bad sex' in a novel tends to be attempts at 'erotica' which creep into something that should have 'love' or 'passion' or indeed 'sex'. Now there's a HUGE market for erotic fiction but I think it's trying to do something different (in the same way that a sex phone line is different from chatting to your mate on the phone!) and thus it's no surprise that with the anonymity of purchase offered by ereaders it became a BESTSELLER this year - then extended out of the closet into the supermarket shelves and everyone ran riot proving that THEY TOO could appreciate S&M erotica... well, now there's a new twist on this which had me laughing more than all the bad sex in fiction you can imagine. It's called Fifteen Grades of Hay and co-authored by Derek and Dolly the Weathersheep. It's hilarious. Find it on Amazon or Facebook. That's Derek the Weathersheep - Fifteen Grades of Hay folks - maybe you can click this link

No,it's not a patch on Lawrence, or Bronte or Czerkawska (or Flaubert) BUT it's better than 50 shades of something or other I'm sure!
CallyPhillips said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
madwippitt said…
Enjoyed this ... not least because of the combination of three favourites - Rufus Sewell, Cold Comfort Farm and Wuthering Heights all in one post!
uncommon said…

I read, Bel Canto on an aeroplane crossing the Atlantic to the USA. I'll never forget the tears flowing freely down my face at the passion and lust between Gen and Carmen in the china closet.

It wasn't explicit, and in itself, the passage is fairly bland. The lead up to it, however, left this reader slavering with anticipation.

It resolved that conflict, and moved on to another.

Will definitely investigate, Cally. I thought 50 Sheds of Grey which started out on Twitter was hilarious too. Such interesting points people are making, though. I wonder if people are nervous of tackling sex - or should that be sexual attraction in fiction because they think they will have to write erotica - and sometimes writers get it badly wrong because they don't see any difference? I have a number of friends who claim to have greatly enjoyed 50 Shades and who am I to judge somebody else's pleasure in something? (But they keep saying 'oh, but the STORY is good' as though they had to excuse themselves - more guilty pleasures.) Is there a male/female divide, I wonder? But as Bill's Flaubert translation above demonstrates, not so much. I just find it all so interesting! It causes such upheavals in our lives, for a long while it can be central to our lives, or at least for long spells in our lives - and yet sometimes fiction 'bolts it on' as an afterthought. Which seems odd. And a little sad.
Rufus Sewell, Cold Comfort Far and Wuthering Heights - we aim to please! It is Christmas, after all.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia Bennet said…
Top post Catherine! sensuality is very important in sex writing and this is why you are good at it. However the problem generally I think is that different people find different things sexy and the things they don't find sexy they often find off-putting or repulsive. This is why oblique scenes allowing the reader to insert (sorry!) their own images often work well. I often write erotic poems, mostly funny, and pretty outspoken. These go down (stop it!) very well at live performances. I've been taking this further and writing more about my own love life in recent work. But if you are in the world of a novel, it can jar you right out of it. I must admit I found Ann Rice's vampire novels erotic, and also her novel about castrati Cry to Heaven. Whereas her very explicit kinky bdsm erotic books under another name are so out there, they are just funny. I do like a bit of boy on boy which you get in mary renault who also writes very sensual, very erotic but not very explicit scenes. but most sex scenes in books are ludicrous or off putting, objectifying the female character for example which is very alientating for a female reader.
Hilary said…
What an excellent post! Thank you, I really enjoyed that. I've been pottering around all day wondering what I can put forward in response to your challenge. And, blow me down, I can hardly think of anything to suggest. Obviously, the sex scenes in many of the books I've read have either been on the wrong side of right for me, or haven't stuck in my mind.

Ah, the bolt-on sex scene - getting so annoying, especially since in my perception the appearance of 50 Shades has upped the ante. Too much technique/mechanics to not enough authentic emotion, is what causes it not to work for me. The other thing that annoys me in literary fiction (hence the public service that is the Bad Sex Award) is bad and silly metaphors driving out good sex writing, as authors seek ever more vainly to find convincing metaphors to describe the same thing in new ways. Not on my account, please. It gets in the way. If a writer has found a new language that is right for the particular world inhabited by the characters, then it won't be ludicrous, or even funny (unless it needs to be - and come to think, that's another sub-heading to consider - successful funny sex).

It doesn't matter how veiled or explicit, so long, as you so clearly point out, as the sex fits the emotional climate of the novel, and feels as though it is authentic for the relationship and the circumstances. Sometimes that can be harsh. I've recently come across a case in point in Edith Templeton's formerly banned novel Gordon. That is the story of a brutally equal sado-masochistic relationship, and it ain't pretty - but it's dead right. And, guess what, it has just been republished in the wake of 50 Shades. If you come across both titles together in a bookshop, I recommend Gordon.

Given that Wuthering Heights and Madam Bovary (another admirer of that translation here) have been taken, I'd like to put in a word for Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. There really is the most immense sexual tension between John Thornton and Margaret Hale, and Gaskell goes about as far as a mid-19th century minister's wife could go in describing it, if not slightly further. This passage describes Thornton's emotional state after he sees Margaret walking with her brother (who is incognito).

It was this that made the misery - that he passionately loved her, and thought her, even with all her faults, more lovely and more excellent than any other woman; yet he deemed her so attached to some other man, so led away by her love for him, as to violate her truthful nature. The very falsehood that stained her was a proof of how blindly she loved another - this dark, slight, elegant, handsome man - while he himself was rough, and stern, and strongly made. He lashed himself into an agony of fierce jealousy, He thought of that look, that attitude! - how he would have laid his life at her feet for such tender glances, such fond detention! He mocked himself for having valued the mechanical way in which she had protected him from the fury of the mob; now he had seen how soft and bewitching she looked when with a man she really loved. He remembered, point by point, the sharpness of her words - 'There was not a man in all the crowd for whom she would not have done as much; far more readily than for him.' He shared with the mob her desire of averting bloodshed from them; but this man, this hidden lover, shared with nobody; he had looks, words, hand-cleavings, lies, concealment, all to himself.

Phew - that word 'hand-cleavings' is the clincher for me. It's all about how he feels, and how stirred he is by these feelings - and in another part of the novel, Margaret is hiding her face in her pillow thinking similarly passionate thoughts.

I loved the passage from Ice Dancing that you chose - so revelatory of the magnetic attraction of Joe for Helen, again, all about how she feels and how she is stirred by it. After this, once we find out it's mutual, what happens is inevitable.
Lee said…
Catherine, I certainly don't think writers should avoid writing about intense attraction. But it's very difficult, and many if not most writers fail, indeed often ludicrously. Iconoclast that I am, I even find it hard not to laugh at the WH passage (yes, I'm aware of the context, POV, etc.).

Jan, bad sex can be funny in a novel (and sometimes just as funny in life). But the problem is that it's usually not meant to be funny.
madwippitt said…
Not Great Literature but surprised no-one has mentioned Jilly Cooper! One of the few to touch on the sordid -cleaning-up afterwards issue ... :-)
AliB said…
Hi Catherine
Such a timely and thought-provoking post. It's all about context, of course, and the emotion that the writer has conveyed leading up to the sex scene, and so it's easy to pull out a passage that sounds laughable when looked at in isloation. Hence occasionally the same excerpt is selected as example of both good and bad sex. (although I agree this year's is just bad in every way!)
I too have been complimented for writing 'good sex' so will have to go and think about what makes it happen on the page, although I'm not sure that I know, except that it all has to be 'in character' and that the writer has to enjoy it (or share whatever emotion is at issue) as much as the participants. I think anyone who is uncomfortable writing a sex scene should just not bother. Ali B
I've been out all day and just come back to some fascinating posts with which I mostly agree. Had forgotten about Mary Renault, but she was an old favourite of mine so thanks for reminding me. And how could I forget North and South? Such passion, and so beautifully put! And yes, Ali, I think you're right - read in isolation passages sometimes seem wrong or OTT whereas when you - as a reader - have been caught up in the emotion of a novel, you become caught up in that moment as well. Much like real life, I suppose. Another writer I should mention is Gillian Philip, whose YA 'Rebel Angels' series is sensuous and earthy and tactile and every other word you can think of to describe these kind of feelings in the best possible way! Isn't it good that there are such riches available to us as readers?
AliB said…
Actually, even the mop-up moment can work - just dug this out from Margaret Drabble - the Waterfall - it has alway stuck in my mind.
"And so they fell asleep, damp, soaked in a mutual flood of emotion, hardly covered by the stained and wrinkled sheet. One of the things she had always most feared in love had been the wetness: it had dismayed and haunted her, that fatal moisture, and she had surrounded herself with towels and tissues, arid frightened, fighting like a child for the cold flat dry confines of a narrow bed...and now she lay there, drowned in a willing sea."

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