A couple of months ago Britain's Literary Review gave out its annual prize, "The Bad Sex In Fiction Award." Every year I look forward to reading about the award, especially because it excites a flurry of articles that describe the prose from a number of the nominees. I think that I particularly enjoy reading proof that the universe contains others as twisted - and possibly even more twisted - than yours truly. I blogged about this year's award over at my spot, Quacking Alone, in a piece entitled: Bad Sex 2010: Dead Bugs, Pencils & Giant She Creatures.
Yes, this year's nominees included some danged interesting descriptions of sex and sexual pieces and parts. But that's not what I'm writing about here. What caught my attention for this piece is that most of the articles included advice on how not to have your writing nominated for the prize. Most of the how-not-to advice agreed that to stay off the list, an author should not use euphemisms or metaphors. Britain's Independent included a piece on the prize that quoted author Geoff Dyer as follows:
It seems to me if you do write it, it has to be absolutely explicit – no metaphors, no hyperbole. After writing Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I said to my editor, "I will bet you any sum of money I won't be listed for the Bad Sex awards". Descriptions of throbbing orbs lends themselves to the awards, not [a sentence like] "he stuck his tongue in her arse".The piece notes that the assistant editor of The Literary Review agrees with Dyer that "less ostentatious" descriptions of sex are better and "what's not good is the over-florid writing that imbues sex with transcendental meaning." The general agreement appears to be that descriptions of sex and anatomy should be precise and clinical. Author Colm Tobibin says "It's a question of writing. If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader's irony will come to the fore. It's almost how you would describe driving – very, very specific and exact."
So all of this got me to pondering whether it's better to describe body parts by their names - it's a penis, stupid - and the sex act with a play-by-play description like "He put his penis in her vagina." How do writers want to write sex and sexual descriptions; how do readers want to read them and is it the same? Do readers like their sex straight up or does a little sugar sweeten the flavor? In considering these questions, I realized that I've enjoyed the work of authors who take both approaches, but that only the "clinical" descriptions have ever made me uncomfortable or pulled me out of the book. Sometimes euphemisms have made me smile in what the author might consider an inappropriate place, but prompting a smile almost always makes me happier about the book and perhaps my funny bone is in a different place than the authors'. I think smiling is all good but discomfort or being jerked back into reality is never good.
I adore a good euphemism. I like to have fun with my sugar-coating. I've described a penis in a whole bunch of ways. In Brotherly Love I described it as "the beast in his trousers" in one place and "the former monster turned puppy dog" in another. In A Faerie Fated Forever I described it as "Maclee's gear," "trouser traitor," "violently aroused tarse," "a python about to strike" and a "gluttonous monster." In A Sixth Sense of Forever I called it "a tool," "Boz's big," and "a peppermint candy stick." I haven't been as successful with finding fun ways to describe a woman's vaginal area. In A Faerie Fated Forever I called it a "cleft" and "a silk-coated feminine mound" and discussed the heroine's "feminine fur." In Sixth Sense I called it the heroine's "feminine glory," her "moist cleft" and "her feminine lips." I'm sure there are a bunch of deeply sound psychological reasons why I haven't had more success with describing a woman's private part. I keep the explanation simple - I just have more fun with a man's "staff." (I wonder if that's different in lesbian fiction. I've never read any. Does anyone know?)
I also have a lot of fun with sex scenes. I won't go into detail, but I had a lot of fun with sex on the dance floor in A Faerie Fated Forever, and A Golden Forever. In A Sixth Sense of Forever I had fun with a bubble bath and S&M bondage type gear. In my tribute to "Grey's Anatomy" - Griffin's Law - supply closets and stairways became my elevators. In A Faerie Fated Forever there's a sex scene while the hero is wearing a dress. And in Brotherly Love I had the best time writing a sex scene between the hero and heroine who made love through a wall. Yes, wall sex. Go figure.
Maybe my over-the-top writing style just lends itself more to sugar coating than clinical description. I occasionally read authors who do sex and anatomy straight up, and I've enjoyed some of their work. In particular, I've adored a lot of Susan Johnson's stuff like Pure Sin, Sinful, Blaze and Forbidden. Susan calls it what it is and mostly I'm fine with that. But some words for the female private parts (and I'm not talking about Susan's use of them, but rather - authors generally) make me feel uncomfortable - or feisty might be a better term. I can read about a vagina all day long but don't call it a "cunt" and I mostly don't want to hear it called a "pussy" either. I used the latter term in Sixth Sense to describe a man sort of making fun of himself about being "pussy whipped" by a virgin. I can't say I've never used them to describe anatomy, but I don't recall doing that. (Feel free to correct me if you know that I'm wrong because you've read my work. I'm wrong so often that it's not even close to unusual.)
Why do the terms "cunt" and "pussy" bother me? Maybe it's that they are so often used as insults that are meant to hurt. They make my inner self ball up like a porcupine. While I'm balled up and prickly I'm not enjoying anything I'm reading and most of all, I want my books to be fun. Whether I'm reading them or writing them, I want books to be out and out entertaining. I'm a lawyer. I have to go porcupine at my day job - I don't want to do it in my "me" time.
I don't think it's that authors use euphemisms or metaphors to describe anatomy or sex that gets them nominated for the Bad Sex Award. At least, it wouldn't get them nominated for my Bad Sex Award. I adore hyperbole, flowery language and transcendental meaning. To me, whether the description is straight up or sugar coated, I think it's bad if the sex is described without emotion, without describing how the characters feel about their body parts or what they're doing with them. The words can be clinical if that's the author's voice, but the attitude can never be clinical. I think that's a big reason that Susan Johnson's straight-up writing style carries a story so well. She never forgets that forever-after sex in a romance novel is more emotional than physical.
As for the Bad Sex award, it might be almost an honor to win. If some of the so-called "experts" thought I was getting it that wrong, I'd take it as a sure sign that I was getting something right.
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN. Do you like your body parts and sex scenes straight up, sugar coated - or both? What authors have written sex scenes that you particularly enjoyed? And for the jackpot question - What description(s) would you nominate for the award and why?