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Why this award-winning author writes about bad sex

We exist in an environment where everything we hear about sex — I’m thinking the general media, movies, books, newspapers, not to mention the tall tales of our friends — all concern epic, life-changing, multi-orgasmic lovemaking, where the woman is left weeping with fulfillment and the man lies exhausted like a spent panther. In short, perfect and rather thin, like the ideal of beauty we all know so well.

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We exist in an environment where everything we hear about sex — I’m thinking the general media, movies, books, newspapers, not to mention the tall tales of our friends — all concern epic, life-changing, multi-orgasmic lovemaking, where the woman is left weeping with fulfillment and the man lies exhausted like a spent panther. In short, perfect and rather thin, like the ideal of beauty we all know so well.

But let’s face it, it’s not like that. And frankly, until you find someone you trust, or you happen to be blessed with a playmate who floats your boat — well, there’s an awful lot of crap sex about, so I say, let’s a) admit it, and b) talk about it.

(Are you still with me — or worried that someone might be reading over your shoulder?)

My last novel, The Shape of Her, was about bad sex. Its protagonists were two damaged young people who didn’t even know they were damaged. The way they had sex, and thought about sex, and related to sex, was a device in the book that revealed truths about them that they themselves couldn’t see. Their sex was awkward, uncomfortable, unsuccessful and usually laden with fear. (And, my dear reader, I’d be surprised if at some point in your life that hadn’t been you. It certainly was me.) That’s bad sex. Olympic moves, marathon grinding, zero-visibility incense — there’s something for everyone, but let no one define someone else’s good sex. As long as there are happy memories and an ardent desire for more, that’s good sex in my wee book.

And while we’re on the subject of books, I’ll say this: It all depends where and how it appears — the point of erotica is to turn you on; the point of porn is to get you off. Simple. But to write about sex in a profound way — that’s a challenge, because the question becomes how to evoke the deliciousness, difficulty, physicality and yearning, the counterpoint between magnificent operatic grandiosity and bestial grunting without being corny or generic. There’s always a struggle for nouns, a swing between science and obscenity and even infantilism: Vagina, coochie? Penis, love truncheon?

I don’t avoid sex in novels if that’s where things get to. There is, for me, an intimacy in the relationship between reader and writer that makes sex appropriate. I try to articulate my own yearnings, hopes, fears and histories and imagine them in different situations and emotional states and then write that. Reality isn’t important, only authenticity.

As for writing sex badly — that’s another thing altogether. And there’s no excuse for that.

Somerville’s novel The Shape of Her won the 2010 British Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award; he thanked the Review on behalf of the entire British nation.