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Write what you know, is the rule. And as Margaret Atwood says, “It’s the blood in the cookie that makes the gingerbread person come alive.”¬† In both of the novels I am writing, there are unavoidable sex scenes, places where a closed door or a line of asterisks simply won’t do the job.
Reading the new Martin Amis novel, The Pregnant Widow, reminded me that sex started back in 1963. Well, for Amis it was a bit later than that, and for me too.¬† A short story themed on early sexual experiences seemed like a useful limbering up exercise.
The first problem, my early experiences would be more a source of comedy than passion. That’s realism for you, I suppose…
My first passionate kiss collapsed in a heap of my giggles and his lost dignity, when Tim the Tiger produced a series of growls. Later I learned that he had been inspired by the Lindsay Anderson film, If – but he was no Malcolm McDowell.
The next attempt to get into my knickers was thwarted by a six foot poster of Tutankhamun. Nigel was tall, dark, and handsome – but like me had drunk rather too much scrumpy. I think that huge mask hovering over us both was a little too intimidating. It didn’t help that his girlfriend came in as he pulled the zipper down on my jeans either. And no, I didn’t know he had a girlfriend.
And the seduction technique of my third suitor left a great deal to recommend it. I’m sure there must be worse ways to charm someone into bed than giving them a sociological treatise on the attitudes of teenage girls to sex – but fortunately I have no personal experience of them.
Luckily I have since then had moments of passion and abandon, not all of them interrupted by bird watching nuns. And I do have an imagination, as well. Sometimes writers just make stuff up…
Actually, it doesn’t matter what you are writing about, some readers always assume that it must be about you. I’m sure there are one or two people who would like to dig up my patio – just to make sure there aren’t any bodies under there.
So when I needed¬† a critique of my story, I was a bit worried. “Don’t be silly,”¬† said my most broad minded friend, “Just send it over and I’ll tell you whether it works or not.”
A couple of hours later I emailed her again. “Have you read it yet,” I asked.
“Sorry,” she said, “Not yet. I’ll get back to you.”
A week later she confessed;¬† she was too embarrassed to talk to me about it.
I’m a member of an online writer’s forum, and I discussed this difficulty on there, and a man whose stories I’d read before empathised with me. He didn’t (thank heavens) ask to read my story, but he asked if I would read his. Innocent, naive, trusting – of course I said yes.
It was toe curlingly dreadful. It was embarrassingly bad, a sort of cross between the heaving bosoms of the bodice ripper, and the emotional depth of cheap porn. What was worse were the follow up emails, asking me how it worked for me. Yes, I’d snagged myself the critique group equivalent of a heavy breather – easily dealt with by consigning him to my spam folder, where he clearly belonged.
He’s not alone, of course. Writing well about sex is difficult even for the best writers. It isn’t just Alan Titchmarsh who has been nominated for the Bad Sex awards, even Philip Roth has earned his place there.
Take a look at these excerpts from last year’s nominations, here in the Guardian – if you can stand it. I was amused that Roth felt the need for the sentence “This was not soft porn” – as if by denying it, he could somehow bamboozle the reader into thinking it is something else.¬† Of course, what he was meaning to say, was that this wasn’t a gentle, airbrushed scene – but instead he draws our attention to how difficult it is to write about sex, real sex, without being in some way affected by the prevalence of porn in our culture.
That’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Our only experience of sex is personal, or from these other, unreliable sources.¬† Our culture now is permeated by images of sex that come from that world of pornography, to the extent that researchers into human sexual behaviour have noticed that sexual behaviours that were created for their visual impact, have become the norm. Do check out Cindy Gallup’s four minte presentation at TED, Make Love Not Porn
But, in any case,¬† second hand sources don’t work so well. To make it real, to make it come alive, there isn’t any alternative but to open a vein.
Or is there?
Back to Martin Amis’¬† novel, The Pregnant Widow.
Early in the novel he says, “Sexual intercourse, I should point out, has two unique characteristics. It is indescribable. And it peoples the world.”¬† A few pages in, the first sexual encounter of many, is described thus – ” The nightly interaction, the indescribable deed, now too place by candlelight.”
Nice trick, that one. Call something indescribable and get out of the task of describing it. I wish I’d thought of that. His protagonist, Keith, is a twenty year old young man who hardly thinks of anything other than sex. Occasionally thoughts of nuclear obliteration distract him, but he is a young man who carries a coded list everywhere with him, an aide memoire of all his experiences.¬† Keith Nearing is more sympathetic than the young male protagonist of Amis’ first novel, The Rachel Papers…but it is not a stretch to assume that he is basically the same character, and very close to an alter ego of the young Amis.
Of course, most of the book is about sex and relationships, and Amis uses lots of other voices to describe sex, many of them female – sometimes we see the funny side, sometimes the tragic. There is a lot of sex in the book, but for me at least, it wasn’t really erotic. I didn’t see anything that was likely to earn Amis a nomination for the Bad Sex Awards this year, but perhaps it just passed me by.¬† Well, there was bad sex, in vast quantities,¬† in that it wasn’t much of a turn on – there wasn’t a lot of joy and passion.
So I seem to have discovered four ways of writing about sex. There’s comic realism, depressing literary, embarrassingly pornographic, and frankly erotic.
The distinction between pornography and erotica sometimes seems to be as simple as this – pornography is anything we disapprove of, and erotica is its more acceptable cousin. Or pornography is for men – distinguished by a specialised vocabulary and bad spelling; and erotica for women – leavened with emotion and intimacy.
So where does that leave the heroine of my crime novel? I want her to have some joy and passion – she’s certainly going to have enough pain and heartache.
Perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned, but I don’t think the most erotic scenes, in films or in novels, are necessarily the most explicit.¬† In the words of the Beautiful South, perhaps what I’m really after is that Notorious ” sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss” – although perhaps I am thinking more of Cary Grant How does that work? It must be because we are drawn into the scene ourselves, that we contribute our own desires and longing.
I’ve been unlucky enough to have a sexual encounter that was less satisfying than a good sneezing fit, and lucky enough to have my whole world lit up by a simple kiss on the cheek.
So although I won’t be resorting to asterisks or closing the bedroom door (as if that’s the only place she’s likely to have any fun) – I will be remembering that the reader’s imagination is easily as powerful as the writer’s.
Fiction is a shared dream : fiction is not autobiography. Even honest memories are stories we tell ourselves, and over time alter and become fictional.¬† Writers make stuff up, and not out of whole cloth. It’s always a patchwork, made of memories, dreams and imagination. But even a patchwork requires the sacrifice of a few drops of blood – yours as well as mine.