Where Things Go Wrong(er)

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

In a comment to yesterday’s post, RW wrote:

Elizabeth Benedict’s very interesting book “The Joy of Writing Sex” suggests that the default terms for genitals should probably be whatever your viewpoint character would think (unless there’s a very good reason why not).

And it occurred to me that this may be part of why phrases like “throbbing manhood” etc. can hurl the reader out of the story so violently.

This seems to me like an excellent basic guideline on how to choose among available lexical variants when writing about sex. I’m not familiar with Benedict’s book, but I’ll have to read it. Thanks for the suggestion.

It’s clear that sex scenes can crash for a wide variety of reasons. Yesterday I looked at one way you end up in a ditch by the side of the road, and here’s another.

Paulo Coelho is a respected Brazilian novelist. I’ll say first that Eleven Minutes is the only novel of his I have read, and second: this is not a review of that novel as a whole, but an examination of a particular scene. This scene doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons: I find the tone inauthentic (more on this below), the scene does nothing to move the characterization or narrative along, and there’s an awkwardness to the prose. This last point may have something to do with the translation, so I will put it aside.

On the matter of tone, voice and authenticity: I’ve said before and I’ll say again, to be very clear: I’m not arguing here, would never argue, that a male writer shouldn’t attempt a female POV. There are hundreds of examples where male writers have done this very well indeed. It is harder for a man to write a woman’s POV, and for a woman to write a man’s, sure. That degree of separation is an additonal challenge. If we’re talking about a sex scene, things are tougher still, but not impossible. I’m using this scene from Eleven Minutes to illustrate an author failing, in my estimation, to make the leap. This is written from the perspective of Maria, a Brazilian woman.
Maria is telling us about an intense sexual encounter. In the midst of multiple orgasms, Maria talks about seeing God, about an overwhelming sense of peace, about heaven and hell. In a purely detached way it has got to be clear that there’s nothing peaceful about multiple orgasms. Coherant thought is pretty much out the window in such a situation, much less a contemplation of the eternal divine, theology, cosmotology. So we have to doubt Maria’s veracity, her memory, and whether or not she falls within the continuum of the realistically human. Thus, we doubt the author.

What went wrong here, I think, is that Coelho was reaching beyond the physical (maybe because of the challenge presented — even women have trouble describing orgasm) to emotional thoughts and reactions, and didn’t quite succeed.

Of course, a woman writing about sex from a woman’s POV is just as likely to crash and burn, but for different reasons.

Tomorrow I’ve got a sex scene from the male’s POV written by a male which works, oddly, because it doesn’t.