The thing about sex is, it’s everywhere and for someone of my generation, that’s quite a reversal. When I was growing up it was nowhere. I harbour no nostalgia for that, though, because when Beckett’s characters at stool are more publicly acceptable than the merest intimation of physical desire, you know something has gone awry. Nowadays you can’t buy a yoghurt without fighting through a fug of heavy breathing, sexual cannibal is the de rigueur look for every woman from nine to 90 and the uniform sex-monkeydom of popstars is enough to put anyone off YouTube for life. The accessibility of internet pornography means that knowledge of the mechanics of sex is possible from an increasingly early age but, as porn mostly features the hairless engaging in the joyless, it’s a poor initiator into the wonders and horrors of what the average adult’s sexual life will be.
I think literature can, and should, do better – which makes it quite lucky that sex is a subject I’m interested in writing about. This is something to do with its hiddenness when I was growing up but more connected to a fascination with the tension between the rational exterior most of us present during the day and the other instinct which turns us into everything else in the dark. So I wrote a novel about love, joy, sadness, survival and, yes, sex. There’s a lot of sex in my new book and it runs the gamut from a mortifying ‘first time’ to sex between two people who are deeply sexually and emotionally in love with each other – with various, occasionally hair-raising, escapades in between. In many ways it’s a book about the life of the body, what happens when the physical and internal lives become separated, how hard it is to re-attach them and the deep human fulfilment of managing to.
And what I discovered, over the course of the nine years it took me write The Lesser Bohemians, is that it’s hard to write about sex, really hard. Not only are there the terrible precedents of sex writings past –which usually equate the sexual act with either mighty cosmological events or find the whole business inescapably grotty and depressing – but writing intimately and graphically about the mechanics of it is something of a technical challenge too. The vocabulary which automatically springs to mind – the ubiquitous “thrusting” and “pumping” being particular offenders – is far more likely to leave the reader gagging on breakfast than buying into two people gagging for a shag.
What I understood early on in the process, however, was that the only way to avoid the pitfalls of cliche, titillation and pornographisation was to guard the humanity of the situation. The way to do this was by keeping the connection between the characters’ internal lives and their bodies’ activities as strong as possible and the “who” of who they were always at the forefront of my mind. Because the whole point of sex is that it’s done with someone else, willingly, and is, therefore, at the mercy of many uncontrollable unknowns.
So if it’s a quickie to relieve the boredom, a rubbish – or amazing – one-night stand, whether it’s between people who don’t particularly like each other or those who are madly in love, the sex will be different. Then who those people are, what they bring with them from their previous experiences, plus whatever their expectations might be, all have to be factored in. And that’s just their first night together. As they get to know one another the sex will inevitably change again.
For my characters sex is, initially, their primary mode of communication. Neither wants, or knows how, to speak about themselves, their histories or emotions, and so sex is their gateway to intimacy rather than its ultimate expression. Sex is how they get to know each other, learn to trust each other, come to care for each other and eventually form a bond which allows what needs telling to finally be spoken aloud. For them sex is a journey and a destination all in one.
So after many years of thinking, and writing, about sex what definitive answers do I have? Predictably none. What I would say is that sex does need writing about. Truthful fictional explorations of female sexuality, in particular, are virtually non-existent while exploitative, untrue and frankly dangerous ones abound.
Is the best we can hope for really to be trussed up in cable ties by a man with a sweaty scalp? Are we not yet tired of living up to the lies about ourselves? Do we not deserve better mirrors, ones that actually show us who we are? Because, in much the same way that no one mistakes bad sex for good sex, no one really mistakes bad writing for good writing about it either, which begs the question the Bad Sex Awards draw attention to but provide no solution for: why is there so much bad writing about sex? I venture that the problem lies within the heart of what being a writer is.
Writing, at its most animal, most fundamental is a mode of self-preservation and writing well about sex requires a degree of personal vulnerability that most writers are either unwilling or unable to endure. There’s no getting around it, though, writing honestly and explicitly about sex requires huge risk. Intellect, research and analysis, even an encyclopaedic knowledge of the English language might provide cover for bad writing about driving a car but they will not conceal any reticence –however natural and understandable – about allowing your writing, and therefore the best part of yourself, to be as open to humiliation as your characters are in that moment. When any writing is untrue the reader knows it and when it comes to writing about sex they know it far sooner again. This is all you know when, as a writer, you eye up that gauntlet and all you can know until it’s written and too late.