Readersforum's Blog

March 10, 2013

Good sex in literature: why is it so hard to find?

Julian Barnes claims that British novelists feel obligated to write love scenes and so make a hash of it, replacing euphemisms with cliches. So what is so tricky about literary sex?

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981).

Was it good for you? Sylvia Kristel and Nicholas Clay in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981).

By Stuart Jeffries

Who wrote this? “He lifted her on to his hips and staggered around with her mouth locked to his, and then they were humping fiercely through their clothes, between piles of other clothes, and then one of those pauses descended, an uneasy recollection of how universal the ascending steps to sex were; how impersonal, or pre-personal. He pulled away abruptly, toward the unmade single bed, and knocked over a pile of books and documents relating to overpopulation.”

Here’s a clue: they came second in’s 2011 Good Sex awards. Guessed yet? Here’s how the scene ended. “He began to cry into Lalitha’s hair, and she comforted him, brushed his tears away, and they made love again more tiredly and painfully, until he did finally come, without fanfare, in her hand.” The answer? Jonathan Franzen, in Freedom.

If Franzen does write well about sex, he does so in part because he allows in humour (that overpopulation gag; and the idea that a really good orgasm might be saluted by a horn section) without letting it overwhelm the scene or destroy its pathos. He also recognises the personality-transcending nature of sex – at least if, and I don’t want to be prescriptive, you’re doing it right. And it is this very universality or impersonality of sex that creates a problem for those novelists who write about it: in a steamy paragraph of universalisable fatuity, you risk destroying the characters you have spent the preceding pages creating.

Julian Barnes, writing in this week’s Radio Times, identifies a specifically British problem about sex in literature.

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