Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hmm ...

... Why are male writers so bad at sex scenes? | Life and style | The Guardian. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

An interesting question. I think the problem comes from the fact that the sexual act itself has limited literary potential. What I mean is that if you take just about any bodily activity and settle down to describe it in terms of its detail and meaning, you're not going to get very far. Think of blowing your nose or going to the bathroom, or whatever. (What's going on in your mind and heart at such times may have the potential the physical operation itself lacks).
Henry Miller's sex scenes work for the same reason Chaucer works: They are ribald, filled with a sense of underlying absurdity.
In writing, sex gets in the way of the erotic. There is a long short story by A.E. Coppard called "Judith." There is a scene in it that takes the reader just to the threshold of a sexual encounter. But it stimulates the imagination in just the right way.
Miller's best sex scenes are intentionally comic. D. H. Lawrence's, however, tend to be unintentionally comic. See in particular The Plumed Serpent, as bad a book by a major author as exists. Love, lust, passion may drive us to have sex, just as a car can drive us to Niagara, but the car remains a car, a vehicle, quite separate and distinct from the landscape that thrills us, and what thrills us about sex is a good deal more than what Alex in A Clockwork Orange liked to call "the old in and out."


  1. Thank you, Frank. What sensible words (and after the most senseless day of the year).

  2. I guess it depends on whether the sex scenes in question are intended to be literary (read: fine art literary, which is what that usually means), erotica (which can be explicit yet have literary merit), or pornography. A lot of male writers are really good at writing bad porn. But I can also list some who are good at sex scenes, be they literary or erotic; Samuel R. Delany comes to mind, so does Paul Monette.

    That's because they include the emotional and spiritual and psychological components of the experience of making love. Including those aspects of the experience, especially the emotional and psychological, is what I think this question of bad writing is really about. As you say, Miller included those things.

    As the old saying goes, "It's all about the lighting." Porn just talks about the act. Erotica talks about the feelings around the act. Literary sex scenes talk about the context, including how silly it all can appear to be.

    One of the greatest writers on sensuality and sex I've ever encountered was Octavio Paz. Maybe the original question ought to be reframed: Why are Anglo-Saxon men so bad at writing about sex? Certainly many men of Latin cultural descent do it much better. So this question is at least partly culturally bound, it seems.

  3. Try Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet - specifically "La Route des Flandres", "Histoire": "Projet pour une revolution a New-York"

  4. Laughing uncontrollably at the last bit of the post :D:D

  5. Years ago I read a bit of Miller, Quiet Days at Clichy probably being the largest chunk. It struck me that somebody should have endowed a chair for him at a land-grant university, an A&M somewhere, for all his metaphors for female sexuality were agronomic, for male sexuality hydraulic.

  6. Didn't Katie Roiphe write this column two years ago? The argument then was pretty damn feeble too.

    Although your point is well taken, Frank, about sex being inherently absurd on the page.