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.

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6 Replies to “Where Things Go Wrong(er)”

  1. I know I’ve been quiet this week, but I have to admit I laughed out loud at this one. (At work, too… bad me.) It goes wrong on so many levels. First of all, and this may well be the translator’s fault, “entering a place” is a particularly bad choice of phrase for a scene of this nature, as it suggests a physical motion that has evidently taken place some time ago. As you point out, the idea of reaching peace between the fourth and fifth orgasms is ludicrous. Besides, would she still be keeping score at this point? She seems to have a lot on her mind.

    The disembodied hand is a little weird — I do hope her partner has more of a presence outside this excerpt. And I really wish that tigers had not been mentioned at all, because now I have a mental image of a bestial three-way that’s even more disturbing than the hand.

    This author definitely should have stuck with “and then they had sex.” In fact, I might have bought the whole thing if he’d kept things moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to notice the inconsistent details. “And we had sex, and for a moment I knew God,” while trite, probably wouldn’t have kept me from flipping the page. As written, it’s more detail than I’d ever want to know about someone’s religious experience, and it’s not believable as a sexual one.

  2. Re seeing God during orgasm: I have a friend (female) who says she has had some orgasms that were very much a religious experience, venturing into the “seeing God” plane.

    Re writing from opposite sex POV: As a woman sometimes writing sex scenes from a male character’s POV, I first ask male friends lots of probing, detailed research questions. Plying them with liquor to loosen inhibitions helps in getting honest, unedited answers. :)

    Jena (not Jenna)

  3. Jena — sorry about the misspelling. I’ve fixed it. Did this scene actually work for you? I’m curious.

    Stephanie, it is kinda funny, I agree. I was trying to be very serious and not make mock. It was hard.

  4. The Benedict book might be very relevant to this discussion – it’s the only book I’ve come across which focuses on writing sex scenes in the context of novel-writing in general, rather than work which is wholly intended as erotica/porn (a topic which is nicely covered by writers like Susie Bright). So, for example. Benedict discusses the fine art of good writing about bad sex .

    As far as “seeing God” goes, I don’t think it’s impossible at all to write convincing sex that has a strong religious/spiritual component – I’ve seen it done very well.

    But IMHO it’s up to the author to *show* that, to convince the reader that it’s so – not just baldly state that a character has suddenly become “a being infinitely superior to everything I knew”.

    It’s like the problem Sara noted of writers pinning the adjective “sensual” to everything, instead of actually making the scene sensual.

  5. There’s an article on Slate posted August 9th titled “Maxim 101: The lad magazine goes literary.” A critique of three publishing efforts by guys who are connected either by employment or ownership, to Maxim, the magazine.
    Here’s his description of one chapter in one of the books titled “At Last, Some F**king” – “Sorry to report, it’s full of sentences like “she was perfectly happy to take me directly inside her, and I was equally happy to comply.””

    A funny read in light of this discussion.

  6. Hi Sara,

    Did this scene work for me? If you mean “Did it make you guffaw with disbelief?” yup, it sure did. Elmore Leonard, in an article on writing, says if it sounds like writing, cut it. This scene is a perfect example. It just feels forced and pretentious.

    The Simmons and Sandford scenes were both wonderful, the ones that worked the best for me – very evocative, and done with economy. I’ve read some Sandford but wasn’t too excited; you’ve persuaded me to give him another try. And Simmons – can’t believe I’ve missed him. Will definitely be looking for this series. Thanks!

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