Sex on the page: Often cringe-worthy, occasionally uplifting

In “The Golden Notebook,” Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing described orgasms.
In “The Golden Notebook,” Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing described orgasms. Associated Press file

Each December, a high-brow London magazine stages something of a literary parlor game, reminiscent of the Razzies’ sendup of the terribly serious Academy Awards. It honors the worst – that is, the most cringe-worthy, overwrought or unintentionally funny – sex scenes in books. Nothing by hack, soft-core porn writers of EL James’ “Fifty Shades” ilk is eligible, mind you. We’re talking works by literary heavy hitters who, these bookish arbiters of taste tsk-tsk, really should know better.

Competition in 2015 figures to be heated. Overheated, actually, tumescent with carnal candidates. In just the past month, three well-reviewed works in separate genres – novel, memoir, critical essay – have made a strong case to be the first American-born winner of the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex” prize since David Guterson brought home the ignominious laurels in 2011.

Too bad that the judges focus on fiction, because Robin Rinaldi’s memoir of her yearlong experiment in polyamory, “The Wild Oats Project,” would be a front runner, as would J.C. Hallman’s “B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal,” in which he analyzes the eroticism in the novels of Nicholson Baker (of “Vox” fame) by detailing, with gynecological exactitude, his own erotic couplings with his – that is, Hallman’s – wife.

As it stands, though, America’s best hope for Bad Sex this year rests with Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, “Hausfrau,” which has been described as “Anna Karenina” meets “Madame Bovary” meets “Fear of Flying.” Essbaum has no problem dropping F-bombs and portrays foreplay as “explosive plyometrics,” concluding when the heroine, Anna, succumbs to desire, describing a male body part (hint: not an elbow) as “long as a dinner knife and as big around as the face of a man’s watch.”

What might send “Hausfrau” over the top in this literary race to the bottom can be found on Page 63. It’s a set piece in which Anna’s lover, a randy Scotsman named Archie, is on a tram and raunchily verbalizes his sexual calisthenics within earshot of two Swiss nuns, who might or might not understand English.

It’s a deep-blue soliloquy that would make Larry Flynt blush, coarse as it is titillating, at once lively and lascivious, certainly nothing that can be quoted here.

Then again, the year is still young and many worthy contenders are sure to emerge – critical darling Jonathan Franzen, who once wrote of sexual coupling between a man and his sofa, has a novel due in September – because, if there’s one thing novelists cannot get enough of, and often cannot get right, it is a sex scene. And this raises the larger question, larger even than a dinner knife, of how to depict sex in literature, whether to include all the messy mechanics, entangled emotions and bodies, via clinical, sex-ed frankness, or coyly through strained metaphors, or simply to forgo the whole thing and turn off the bedside light.

Writing a sex scene is an act of literary derring-do that fiction’s most celebrated practitioners have either pulled off stunningly or failed at miserably. For every sublime Vladimir Nabokov evocation, there are clunkers like this from the great John Updike, from “Brazil,” in 1994: “… he felt his cashew become a banana, and then a rippled yam.”

For every Molly Bloom exclamation from the quill of James Joyce, there are wincing descriptions like this from the great Philip Roth’s “The Humbling,” in 2009, describing a threesome: “It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote …”

It’s just not aging men who get caught in sex writing’s frothy undertow. You might blush at Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing’s masterpiece, “The Golden Notebook,” and its dissertation on what constitutes a “real” orgasm, and sample this simile-saturated passage from Erica Jong’s 1973 sensation, “Fear of Flying”: “Zippers fell away like rose pedals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” What was it this, a reader might wonder, a sex scene … or a description of Hurricane Sandy?

So, what to do? Keep the cursor throbbing and push on, or eschew sex scenes altogether?

Famed British novelist Martin Amis apparently has abandoned any attempt to write about sex earnestly or even realistically and instead has taken it on satirically.

“Good sex is impossible to write about,” Amis once told the Washington Post. “(D.H.) Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do – like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.”

Yet the late Updike, twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, once told NPR’s “Fresh Air” that writing about “sexual transactions” is realism at its core and a window into the human condition.

“For many people it’s the height of, what they see, of ecstasy and poetry is in their sexual encounters,” said Updike, who, for the record, had the Bad Sex “ Lifetime Achievement Award” bestowed upon him in 2008, a year before his death. “And furthermore … human personality does not end in the bedroom, but persists. Not all lovemaking is alike. Anyway, it seemed a writer should clearly be free to describe it.”

How to go about depicting sexual congress without eliciting revulsion, cheap titillation or embarrassed giggles in readers remains a subject of debate.

Writing in 2011 in the Financial Times, Jonathan Beckman, who as senior editor of the Literary Review is a judge of the Bad Sex awards, wrote something of an instructional manual for novelists hoping to avoid the dishonor.

Beckman’s main thrust: Use metaphors wisely, not wildly, lest they become an “instinctive crutch rather than an instructive analogy.” Excessive coyness, he said, is akin to the novelist “jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting, ‘They’re not so much going at it as acting like wakening beats or a sudden walking storm.’”

As an example, he gave Carlos Fuentes’ rain-forest metaphor: “... lost in a leafiness like that of a forest of fleshy ferns.”

He also cautions to avoid overstatement, saying that writers need not “destroy the universe” with depictions of every orgasm. He presents Manil Suri’s 2013 Bad Sex-winning passage, expurgated here for a family audience: “Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. … We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems.”

What, then, does Beckman consider good sex writing?

“(It) is clear, precise and unillusioned in both senses: It refuses to take part in a diversionary pantomime of imagery; and it knows that sex is rooted in the physical,” he wrote in the Financial Times. “It is generally unobtrusive and undemonstrative.”

Novelist Elizabeth Benedict tackled the problem in her 1996 book, “The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers.” She lists four organizing principles for a good sex scene:

1. “(It) is not always about good sex.”

2. “(It) should always connect to the larger concerns of the work.”

3. “The needs, impulses and histories of your characters should drive the sex scene.”

4. “The relationship your characters have to one another … should exert more influence on how you write about their sexual encounter than should any anatomical details.”

She cites Toni Morrison’s mix of “sexual bluntness and no-nonsence detail and lyrical metaphor” in “The Bluest Eye”: “My brain curls up like wilted leaves. The bed springs sounds like them crickets used to back home.”

She also shows Jeanette Winterson’s apt, yet spare and judicious, use of metaphor in “Written on the Body”: “She arches her body like a cat on a stretch.”

Katie Roiphe’s 2010 essay for The New York Times Book Review on the sexual writings of the “Great Male Novelists of the Last Century” draws a fine line between the food-metaphor excessive Updike of “Brazil” and the precise and poetic Updike of the Rabbit novels. Here’s Updike in top form in “Rabbit Run”: “ … a little gauge inside his ribs doubles and redoubles his need for pressure … there is no love in it, love that glances and glides along the skin, he is unconscious of their skins, it is her heart he wants to grind into his own, to comfort her completely.”

Roiphe credits Updike’s “unnerving gift: to be frank and aesthetizing all at once, to do poetry and whorehouse,” and gently scolds a newer generation of great American male writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, who avoids sex writing altogether; the late David Foster Wallace, who called Updike and Roth “narcissistic”; and Michael Chabon, who once wrote of the “artificial hopefulness of sex”) for being passive and sexually ambivalent, perhaps fearing the same scorn from writers following in their footsteps, not to mention the snarkiness from the Bad Sex judges.

No such fear for a writer such as the polyamorous (and former Sacramentan) Rinaldi, whose first lesbian experience is written both with precision – too fraught with anatomical detail to reprint here – and silly similes. To wit: “I felt like a first-timer given a bucking bronco to steer instead of a pony.”

Someone, please, alert the Bad Sex panel.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.


Novel: “Hausfrau,” by Jill Alexander Essbaum; $26; Random House, 324 pages

Memoir: “The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost,” by Robin Rinaldi; $26; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 287 pages

Critical Essay: “B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal,” by J.C. Hallman; $26; Simon and Schuster; 277 pages