Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Good sex in fiction

with 4 comments

Today’s awarding of the Bad Sex in Fiction prize to novelist Rowan Somerville (whose book, The Shape of Her, is unfortunately unavailable in the U.S.) raises the obvious question of what good sex in fiction is, exactly, and how a writer should go about writing it.

When I think about sex in fiction, I’m reminded of what Julia Roberts says about her refusal to do nude scenes: “To act with my clothes on is a performance; to act with my clothes off is a documentary.” In the case of a novel, this means that sex often takes the reader’s attention away from the story and puts it squarely on the writer—on his word choice, on what he chooses to describe (or not), even on his own sexual proclivities. (I know I’m not the only reader who has wondered about, say, Nicholson Baker.) And that’s the last thing any writer should want.

In general, the rules for writing about sex are the same as writing about everything else: be concise, revise, don’t take the reader out of the story, and, unless you’re John Updike, tread very, very carefully. Which brings me to my own favorite sex scene in all of fiction, and one of my favorite scenes of any kind, from Updike’s Rabbit is Rich.

Near the end of the novel, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle-aged and married, on a trip to Jamaica with three other couples, ends up engaging in a bit of wife-swapping, although not with his first choice. He goes reluctantly to a hotel room with Thelma, his friend Ronnie’s wife, and as they’re on the verge of adultery we get this wonderful moment:

Thelma asks, “You mind using Ronnie’s toothbrush? I’ll be a while in here, you better take the bathroom first.”

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

And so on, for almost a page, as Rabbit looks at Thelma and Ronnie’s bathroom supplies and wonders what Consumer Reports had to say about toothpaste. Only then, does he step back into the bedroom, where Updike spends the next twelve pages describing a series of increasingly awkward sexual encounters.

Updike, of course, won the Bad Sex in Fiction prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The fact is, though, that he wrote really well about sex, as he wrote really well about everything. I’m not going to destroy this scene with too much analysis, except to say that Updike’s sense of how Rabbit’s adulterous eye would stray to shaving cream brands is a reminder of what made him the best American novelist of the last half century. It’s also a reminder, in case we needed it, that most sex in fiction is inherently ridiculous.

So just play it safe.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:46 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Nicholson Baker! Haha! Well, actually, the best sex in fiction I’ve read recently is from “The Price of Salt”.

    Hi, when!

    December 3, 2010 at 6:40 pm

  2. Not to be confused with “Salt: A World History.”


    December 3, 2010 at 6:47 pm

  3. Or the episode of Bonanza. That was a shock.

    Hi, when!

    December 4, 2010 at 2:39 am

  4. Speaking of confusion, or shock, I’m sure that my readers are really enjoying this comment thread, which consists of references to articles that appeared in an undergraduate literary magazine nearly a decade ago…


    December 4, 2010 at 12:12 pm

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