In her comment to yesterday’s post, Robyn quotes a friend’s thoughts on the matter of evaluating sex scenes:
two hallmarks of a Generic Sex Scene: (1) You can grab a few such scenes at random from different books, juggle the names and eye colors, and be hard-pressed to tell which scene goes with which story; and, even more damning, (2) you can remove the scene entirely, substitute the sentence, “Then they had sex,” and the larger narrative will not suffer.
Which I think is a good place to start with a list of general guidelines for writing sex scenes.
The excerpt I’ve got today is from A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the Booker Prize some years ago and is as high-brow as a novel can get. It’s a hugely complex story, but at its center is a romance set in the Victorian age. A correspondence between a well established poet (Randolf Henry Ash) and a lesser known woman poet (Christabel LaMotte) begins when they meet at a breakfast given by a mutual friend. Ash is married; Christabel lives with a woman artist in a relationship that may go beyond friendship, something that is never made clear. They are intellectual equals; they fall in love, and eventually they travel to Yorkshire together, secretly.
Possession: A Romance. Copyright A.S. Byatt.
She met him with passion, fierce as his own, and knowing too, for she exacted her pleasure from him, opened herself to it, clutched for it, with short animal cries. She stroked his hair and kissed his blind eyes, but made no more specific move to pleasure him, the male — nor did she come to that, all those nights. It was like holding Proteus, he thought at one point, as though she was liquid moving through his grasping fingers, as though she was waves of the sea rising all round him. How many, many men have had that thought, he told himself, in how many, many places, how many climates, how many rooms and cabins and caves, all supposing themselves swimmers in salt seas, with the waves rising, all supposing themselves — no, knowing themselves unique. Here, here, here, his head beat, his life had been leading him, it was all tending to this act in this place, to this woman, white in the dark, to this moving and slippery silence, to this breathing end. “Don’t fight me,” he said once, and “I must,” said she, intent, and he thought, “No more speech,” and held her down and caressed her till she cried out. Then he did speak again. “You see, I know you,” and she answered breathless, “Yes, I concede. You know.”
The excerpt yesterday from Welcome to Temptation was written from Sophie’s POV; this one is observed by Ash, who is a historian and poet. It sounds like him, the places his mind would travel, the associations he would make. His physical observations are given to us again with verbs: opened, clutched, stroked, kissed, pleasured; there are very few directly sexual turns of phrase. Mostly we get imagery and metaphor: fire and sea and rising waves. There are few adjectives, but the ones used are very evocative: moving and slippery silence.
There is a great deal of very exacting, very deep emotion in this short paragraph — which fits, because this is not a casual sexual encounter. This is a life changing experience for a man who had reconciled himself to a loving but platonic marriage and a life of celibacy, and who has now found — but will not be able to keep — a woman who is his intellectual and sexual equal.
The short bit of dialog here echoes their whole relationship: he leads past the point of her comfort, she resists and so they move beyond the language which drew them together in the first place. There is change for both characters as individuals, and the relationship has shifted, as it must in this circumstance.
I’ve got a passage from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart that I want to excerpt tomorrow. I find it interesting because its tone falls somewhere between the comic playfulness of Welcome to Temptation and the intellectual lyricism of Possession. After that I’ll take on Robyn Bender’s “The Well Known Act” — so brace yourself.