I’ll start with a quotation from
William Gass’s On Being Blue: ‘Anyone who attempts to
render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writings
which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content.’ Remember
that; it’s an excellent one-line summation of this book.
Why, asks Elizabeth Benedict, is it so
difficult to write about sex? To which she might have added, and why is
so much of what’s written about sex so totally dreadful? Mainly, it’s
because people think they already know what’s involved. You put this
in there, describe the reaction, and hey, there you go! Was it
good for you too? Possibly, but that’s pornography, in which no
anatomical detail is spared, and the sex is always very, very good.
Out in the real world, fictional or
otherwise, sex is beset by contradictory attitudes and a host of
different values. Writers are people too; they’re not immune from
feeling anxiety and embarrassment about getting their characters into
bed, never mind about what those characters are going to do once the
writer gets them there. For some it’s a matter of language and
literary choice – so what exactly are you going to call it,
then? What words are you going to use to describe … the Act?
For others, there are deeper, more personal issues at stake. Sexual
behaviour is a complicated subject and so are our responses to it.
Having read more than my fair share of
extraordinarily mechanical sex scenes – biologically impeccable but
extremely unexciting – I was very curious to see what Elizabeth
Benedict was going to say. Would this be a step-by-step account of
writing the perfect erotic sex scene? Absolutely not. If you want a
manual on writing pornography, you must needs go elsewhere. This book
is altogether much more thoughtful, and to my mind all the more
fascinating for that.
Benedict began her research by
interviewing a number of writers whose work included, in her judgement,
interesting writing about sex. That’s not ‘good’ sex, but sex in
all its variety, good, bad and indifferent. Because writing a sex scene
is not about anatomy, but about the characters involved, about their
needs and desires, their inner lives, their outer lives, their ongoing
circumstances, and how their encounters reflect this. And once you
start to think about it in that way, a sex scene in a novel can never
simply be a physical act ever again. It carries an intense fictional
weight; a sexual encounter may be the key to the entire story. And this
is what the authors she interviewed said, the same thing in many
different ways. They’re all of them clear that they write about sex
the way they do for specific reasons which are utterly germane to the
novel, and not just for abstract titillation.
And this careful thought on their part
is reflected in Benedict’s discussion of the subject. Benedict is
not offering formulae or rules, though she does offer some general
principles about writing sex scenes, not the least of which is that you
need to care about the characters involved in order to care about
their sex lives as well. You need to know to write that scene from
within the characters’ skins as much as you would any other scene in
the novel, and that includes consideration of dialogue and surroundings.
This is an issue-led book, and without
doubt, the biggest issue is ‘safe sex’, especially in the post-AIDS
world. Benedict shows how this one fact shapes every sexual encounter,
how it affects conversation and action, and also draws a distinction
between heterosexual and homosexual sex scenes, examining the
differences in attitude within and without the specific communities.
Benedict also looks at other specific sexual encounters – the first
sexual encounter, the honeymoon, husband-wife relationships, the
adulterous affair, solo sex, and even sex on the phone – and considers
the intellectual and emotional factors in play, all the while drawing
heavily on examples from modern and classic novels to illustrate the
points she’s making.
This is not a how-to-write guide in
the classic sense, and in this particular situation, writing by
numbers is definitely not what it’s about, but it’s a book that will
make you think about what you’re doing when you write a sex
scene – and you’ll never read one in the same way again either.
Benedict writes absorbingly about a difficult topic and her book
should be required reading for anyone who professes an interest in