by Laura Pritchett
The books on my bookshelves currently look like they’ve been riffled through by a teenager—dog-eared and underlined in the areas that . . . offer instruction, shall we say. But I am not in need of clarification or know-how. I am just an author doing her job—conducting a serious study of how brilliant minds have described the funky mess of body parts and tender hearts, the mess of sex in all its physical and emotional complications—especially the middle-aged kind, the tested-and-true kind.
For the last decade, I have sought to understand what specifically made one sex scene laughable and another beautiful. Who was writing about sex as it really is—not Hallmarky stuff or heaving breasts, but the sometimes-mundane, irritating, boring, frustrating, hurtful, or, yes, fabulous thing it can be? Who was writing about sex in long-term, middle-aged relationships, and how did that go? I sought out the bravest-of-the-brave scenes, the ones that made even a stalwart reader feel surprise. And I also wondered: why were so many good authors avoiding it altogether?
Jane Smiley, in an opinion about her sexually explicit novel Ten Days In The Hills, grumped about this as well. She noted that after the long early tradition of writing about sex (think Chaucer, Cervantes), there was a receding of sex from the contemporary literary novel. She wrote:
the joys as well as the dilemmas of sex, love, and their complications . . . lost their footing in literature, in the novel—and in large part fell away as novels became more respectable, especially to middle-class readers. Relationships in the novel became less sexy and conformed more to social conventions.
Smiley wanted to bring this sex back, not as pornography, but as art. In a review of that novel, John Updike praised her success, saying that her work “set a new mark for explicitness in a work of non-pornographic intent.” Jane Smiley, I believe, was pleased, and so was I.
Sure, other writers are “doing it” too—some taking sexuality as a central theme; others including it where it fits naturally. Nicholson Baker, Susan Minot, Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond, Tim Sandlin—I could go on, and I don’t mean to leave any out, but from these authors I learned how to handle body parts and liquids, expectations and complications. I came across fantastically written scenes of the most boring sex imaginable, and yes, fabulous scenes of fabulous sex. There are sex scenes in which no sex occurs, and there are entire novels based on one interlude in bed (my favorite being Rapture by Susan Minot, which is about two long-estranged lovers trying to see if they can resuscitate an old love, skeptical and world-worn though they may be). I came across descriptions of masturbation, of fantasy, of phone sex, of soap sex—and with each passage, I got a little braver in my attempt to write my own scenes of love and body parts.
Perhaps none influenced me more than the unforgettable scene in Endless Love by Scott Spencer, which I came across long ago, near the beginning of my sex-reading journey. There’s a sex scene that occurs (symbolically) during the female character’s menstruation, and there is a lot of blood. Lots and lots of blood. In the morning, the two characters find that the sheets are stiff with blood, the bodies are covered with it, even their lips. They look, as the narrator says, “like victims of a savage crime,” which in fact they have been—not in their lovemaking, but in the forces of life and love, which their lovemaking temporarily defies. Those few pages say more about the difficult and complex ways in which humans simultaneously harm and love each other than almost any other I’ve read.
Another book that influenced me greatly is After by Claire Tristram. The novel focuses on an affair that takes place in one 24-hour period, and is basically about prejudice and hatred and grief. The main character is a widow, her husband’s death caused by Muslim extremists. For complicated psychological reasons, she wants to take a Muslim lover—her first lover since her husband died. The book’s basic questions are enormous: how does grief influence desire, how does prejudice contaminate sex, what does one do with hatred? At her last grief counselor meeting—which readers can see should not be her last—she walks away with a new idea: “the idea of taking a Muslim lover continued to rub at her mind. To do something so unexpected, so clearly outside the role that she had been forced into by her circumstances! The thought became a habit, a harmless fantasy, yet one so deeply hidden, even from herself, that it would startle her anew when she caught herself looking at a dark-skinned man,” we read. All these questions are bravely engaged through a sex scene, in which the man’s primary wish is to remove his socks, knowing that he looks ridiculous with them on. Such details reveal how very fragile they are. “How completely naked you are,” he says to her on their first encounter in a bedroom, and when she encourages him to get likewise, we read, “so he undressed, awkwardly, not looking at her. He took care to take his socks off before his trousers, no greater embarrassment than to have a woman see him with his socks on and no trousers.”
In reading all these writers, I learned to give sex the respect it deserves. I suspect that many writers don’t want to venture into real sentiment when writing sex—lest they be accused of sentimentality, which are two very different things. In the 2009 article “The Naked and the Conflicted” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Katie Roiphe suggested that some contemporary writers seem to think that sex, physical love, sexual connection are . . . well, uncool. She argued that a surprising number of serious authors treat emotion with ambivalence, self-consciousness, discomfort, and trepidation, and asked: Are we no longer capable of attaching words like “exuberance,” “mystery,” “power,” “beauty,” “imaginative quest,” and “epic” to sexual experience and connection, in literature or in life? Is it passé? The question applies especially to middle-aged or older folks, who are supposedly too world-worn for silly notions of love and passion.
Roiphe’s answer—and mine—is no. It’s not passé. Sex does matter. It changes our characters. It changes us. In all stages of life.
The last decade for me has been full of writing sex scenes, the vast majority of which feature characters who are in mid or late life. Some scenes got cut, some stayed. Some got toned down, because that was what was appropriate. Some got amped up. But I’ve kept trying.
Author friends have confessed their reluctance to take characters into the bedroom. To them, I say: Get over it. It is the writer’s task—and privilege—to dig and dig deep into the human experience as honestly and fully as possible, and to then render the most secret recesses of characters’ inner selves. And what is the most guarded place inside us? There are a lot of answers to that question, but surely, one is our sexuality.
In Richard Powers’s award-winning novel, The Echo Maker, the elderly main character contemplates the state of his long marriage and his sex life: “At growing intervals that neither of them cared to calculate, he and his wife still played with each other. However fitful, the persistence of desire surprised them both. He had estimated the number of climaxes that he and his wife had shared since their first foray. . . . One every third day, on average, for a third of a century. Four thousand detonations, joining them at the hip. Curled up against his flank, giggling a little, his wife might say, ‘Thank you for the beautiful human sexuality, Man,’ before padding off to the bathroom to clean herself.”
And so we are joined at the hip, as humans, in both the loss, the lack, the cleaning up, the mess, and the beauty of human sexuality—at all ages. I, for one, am grateful to the great writers who have taken this subject on, who refuse to hide the subject under the sheets.
But, how to write it?
I don’t think I can write a better sex-scene manual than my friend Steve Almond, whose 12-step program in The Rumpus has been a huge hit and basically offers it all, but I have pared it down to my own essential tips:
- A sex scene should simply be deeply connected to the larger concerns of the work. It is there for a reason. It is there to symbolically show or reveal what is otherwise difficult to translate, to characterize, and to move plot forward.
- Which means the needs and histories of the characters should drive the sex scene.
- And therefore, it does not pass moral judgments (unless your character is making moral judgments, for reasons that illustrate the character).
- It’s okay if you get turned on. And it’s okay if you get turned off.
- Let it be the whole catastrophe of human experience. What makes sex so powerful is our very human need to connect with another human being. A sex act can be an expression of love, affection, fear, vulnerability, anger, power, rage, submission, or all these. Think about the whole scale when writing. It’s not going to be just one, I bet.
- Experiment and give yourself some assignments. I assigned myself various options in my newest novel, The Blue Hour, in order to push myself out of my known world. I asked myself to write a sex scene from two folks at the end of their lives. To write one from a middle-aged woman who has not, up to now, ever found love. To write about a middle-aged foursome sitting in a hot-tub. These are not mere exercises, but rather a way to delve into the most tender places of characters and to see what resides there.
Laura Pritchett’s novel, The Blue Hour, about love and relationship and sex, will be published in February from Counterpoint.
Cover image credit: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec [Public domain], “The Kiss,” via Wikimedia Commons