Friday, February 22, 2008

What We Write About When We Write About Sex

Since I’m sick of opining on insects, instead I offer a much more provocative subject. But first, a review and a shameless plug, not to mention some gratuitous name-dropping.

I've just finished An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England, a novel that I highly recommend. It’s about a fellow who accidentally burns down the Emily Dickinson house, goes to the slammer for 10 years, and his misadventures after prison. (Which does not include his burning down writers’ homes. Though others may be involved.)

I’ve been a fan of the author, Brock Clarke, for a few years now. He’s published three collections of short stories and a previous novel, all of them excellent. "Plowing the Secondaries“ is certainly one of the best unknown short stories ever written.

(That I happen to know Brock, that he served as my adviser at a conference, and has actually read my novel and offered invaluable advice, really has nothing to do with my admiration of his work. Really. I mean this.)

There is only a hint of eros in An Arsonist’s Guide, which is, despite the title, extremely funny. Most of the copulatin’ is off stage, which I appreciate, since it primarily involves old people who have drank copious amounts of Knickerbocker beer.

Which, commercial message aside, brings me to what I want to write about: sex. Or not about sex.

If there’s anything that can embarrass your typical spinner of tales, it’s a sex scene. I can think of several good ones that come to mind (“come to mind” -- get it? are you embarrassed yet?). Philip Roth is good at this, though most of the time his sex scenes are played for laughs. There’s Steve Almond, whose female ejaculation scene in a short story (and collection) called “My Life in Heavy Metal” is just one of several fresh takes on sex (yeah, I kinda know Steve, too, just a little. He’d recognize me and probably would say hi if I ran into him on the streets of Boston. But it wouldn’t go farther than that).

Buy it, read it, but don't burn it

I even asked Wife, a voracious reader if there ever was one, if she could think of any well-written, memorable sex scenes in literary fiction. She sat and thought about it a few minutes, but couldn't think of any.

As for my writing, I shy away from writing about sex in direct proportion to the amount of time in my life that I have thought about sex. Translated: I never write about sex, and about 99 percent of my waking time has been spent thinking about it (certainly not doing it, save for my brief career in porn, which ended prematurely [“prematurely” -- get it?]).

That’s because I’ve read so many awful sex scenes, in books, online, and especially in workshops. They fall into a few categories: there’s the Penthouse Forum fantasy scene; the Superintenseorgasm scene; the tender-lovey-dovey-sex-on-rose-petals scene; the clinical Sex Ed Insert-Penis-into-Vagina scene; and my favorite, the Unintentionally Hilarious Fuckmaster scene, in which the writer (usually a young male under 25) tells of his protagonist (who bears uncanny resemblance to the writer) bringing his swimsuit model conquest to new plateaus of ecstacy unmatched in the history of mankind. That the writer and protagonist resemble the president of the high school A/V club really doesn’t matter.


As for when I am compelled to write a scene resembling fornication or even making reference to it, I go for the crutch that always serves me when I am put into a position of extreme discomfort: I take the coward's way out and go for the jokes, and though Mr. Roth can play this expertly -- in one book, the protagonist masturbates on his mistress's grave -- with most writers, myself included, such attempts (at writing) turn out more leaden than a hippo dropped from a B-52 without a parachute (or more leaden than lame metaphors about hippos).

If you were to ask me about films, I could name a dozen or so movies without thinking that have sex scenes that inform the reader, illuminate the plot, and show shadings of character. But few for literature.

So I put it to you, dear reader -- are there any scenes of physical congress in fiction that aren’t merely titillating, but actually add something to the story, our understanding of the characters, or make us think?

Also, if you want to share any personal stories involving Uma Thurman or Charlize Theron -- better yet, Uma Thurman and Charlize Theron -- that’s cool, too. I’ll pay good money for it, in fact.