Russell Smith vs. Lynn Coady: Let's write about sex! No, let's not!
A lot of fiction is about romantic relationships. Romantic relationships, particularly in the contemporary world, tend to have sex in them. And sex is something we fret about, in our romantic relationships—we crave it, we plan it, we dread it, we do it for pleasure or for obligation, we worry about exposing our bodies to people and we worry about our performance. We worry if we will be sad after it; this fear can inform the act itself. All this is rather interesting, and rather important—I think even crucial—to the nature of those relationships. To elide what actually happens when two people attempt to grapple with each other physically is to skip a key part of our interactions. Avoiding it, for writer of fiction, would be like avoiding, for some arbitrary reason, all the dinner scenes or all the telephone conversations. Everyone has sex. Sex is when we make stunning discoveries about others. To sidestep it is to be irresponsible to your plot.
It's tough to describe sex acts accurately: one risks sounding clinical or comical, particularly in hard Germanic English. My solution to this problem is simply to try to be as precise and matter-of-fact as possible about what's happening, without being poetic. It's the poetic sex scenes that gets you into the embarrassing euphemistic Bad-Award-winning territory. Think of these as scenes of everyday activity.
I suspect some writers also fear describing these moments because they feel pressure to make them arousing. They know they will be giggled at, and possibly even judged personally, if their fictional sex is awkward or not sexy. My way around that is to refuse to think of the text's function that way. The goal of these passages is not to arouse; they are simply part of the story, as receiving a letter or taking a flight might be. They serve, as every other scene or action does, to illuminate character. They are part of the emotional narrative. That abandoning of all pornographic intent is a relief for a writer—it means I don't have to worry if my sex scenes are arousing or not. All I care about is whether the reader cares or not what is going on.
I hope she does. Because I can't imagine understanding fictional characters without understanding what they do in bed. In fact, I would say this about real people too.
Russell Smith's latest book is Girl Crazy. Smith was born in South Africa and raised in Halifax. His debut novel, How Insensitive, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Both his short story collection, Young Men, and his novel Muriella Pent were shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. He is also the author of Noise; The Princess and the Whiskheads (a fable); Diana: A Diary in the Second Person; and the style guide Men’s Style. Smith works regularly with the CBC and The Globe and Mail.
Russell Smith photo credit: Jowita Bydlowska
Mordecai Richler once made a gruff comparison of the act of writing to the act of sex. "I don't like talking about it, or hearing other people talking about it," were his approximate words, "I just like doing it."
Richler may not have spoken much about sex, but he did write about it, hilariously for the most part. At the same time, to read Richler on sex is to learn perhaps a bit more about the writer than you might conceivably wish to. A given writer's attitude toward sex is always its own snowflake, after all, a wholly unique crystallization of that individual's accumulated biases, neuroses and experiences both pleasant and cringe-inducing.
So, while Richler could be delightfully irreverent on the topic, the reader might stop to wonder, why only irreverent? Why was sex a joke with Richler? Why was he never, say, tender like Anaïs Nin, or sentimental like DH Lawrence, or downright dirty like Micheal Houllebeque? That's all I mean when I talk about learning—or at least thinking—more about a writer's proclivities than you might prefer. Ideally, a reader doesn't think about the writer at all when reading her work. Ideally, the writer is in control of every impression coming across on the page. My worry has always been that sex is too personal, too individualized a subject for a writer to ever be entirely in control of it.
The creative process taps into our deepest subconscious, and we are each of us sex-crazed—products of a shame-based Judeo-Christian culture that has irrevocably warped us all to varying degrees. So every writer and every reader is a product of their own particular messed-uppedness when it comes to sex.
The danger of this mutual yet made-to-order messed-uppedness is that one person's tasteful erotically charged scenario can end up another person's awkward, embarrassing instance of TMI. One writer's hot, audacious romp can end up a given reader's gratuitous sleaze-fest. Usually with fiction there is no pleasing all of the people all of the time. When writing sex scenes, there is often no pleasing anyone, except perhaps the writer herself. And there's a word for that—an act no writer wants her work compared with.
To see this principle in action, the nominees for The Guardian's Bad Sex Awards make fascinating reading. But more fascinating than the nominated passages themselves are what the reaction to them reveals about the tee-heeing Western mind. Although established by Auberon Waugh to discourage "crude, tasteless" passages in fiction, there's a glee behind the competition today that I suspect owes more to the influence of Benny Hill.
For that matter, look at what I'm doing—talking about other writers' approaches to sex in order to avoid discussing my own. Clearly my own particular messed-uppedness manifests in a total inability to talk straight when it comes to sex. When pushed, I'll usually fall back on lame double entendres and excruciating puns—the legacy of growing up with older brothers. Who grew up ducking the blows of outraged nuns.
So I avoid writing about sex out of a certainty that no matter how grown up and matter-of-fact I might try to be, there is a snickering yet nun-terrorized 12-year-old-boy inside me who would at some point be certain to grab the reins in his hairy palms.
Lynn Coady's most recent novel is The Antagonist, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Coady's first novel, Strange Heaven, was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Fiction when she was 28. This was followed by a best-selling short story collection, Play the Monster Blind, as well as the award-winning novels Saints of Big Harbour and Mean Boy. Lynn Coady grew up on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia and now lives in Edmonton, where she is senior editor and co-founder of the magazine Eighteen Bridges.
Lynn Coady photo credit: Jason Franson
Check out previous battles in this series.