Every year the Literary Review sponsors the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. This definitely dubious honor acknowledges the worst sex scenes published the previous year. The "winner's circle," consisting of such literary powerhouses as Normal Mailer and Tom Wolfe, suggests just how difficult the challenge of writing about sex is for even the most talented writers. As far as I know there's no corresponding Good Sex in Fiction Award and this absence clearly also speaks to a reality that readers and writers, like other great marriages, need to admit sometimes: our literary sex life sucks.
In the last year I read a compelling mystery that features a hot detective and his even hotter love interest but only alludes to their sex life by showing them retiring to the bedroom, leaving me alone in their living room ear pressed to the door. I read a gorgeous relationship memoir that shares every intimate detail and minutia of the couple's life--favorite foods, how they met, what they fought about--but glaringly absent was any mention of their sex life (unless you count their children as evidence). And I read a literary bestseller that intimates sex rather than describing it, with references like, "He wanted me to talk afterwards." and " 'This was wrong.' "
Television, film, even good ol' fashioned billboards still unabashedly feature sex. So why are authors shying away? Maybe as sex has become ubiquitous in our culture literature isn't as compelled to kiss and tell as in the days of daring classics like Delta in Venus or Fanny Hill. Or maybe knowing you could be nominated for a bad sex award is creating some performance anxiety.
There's an app that "cleans up" texts that you're reading by converting foul and sexual language to "appropriate" vocabulary. I have no interest in this whatsoever. But if anyone invents an app that actually adds some spice, peppering otherwise tepid but well written prose with some expletives or saucy sex scenes, sign me up.
To this end, Edan Lepucki, the bestselling author of the weird and wonderful debut novel California, is also a well respected writing teacher known for challenging her students to write about sex. Through her company, Writing Workshops Los Angeles, she even offers a "Writing Sex" seminar that consistently sells out. Lepucki understands that writing about sex can help portray characters, convey themes, and add to plots. Hopefully as more writers graduate from her class this will mean more sex for the rest of us, when it comes to our reading anyway.
I've attempted the challenge of writing a literary sex scene. And on the wave of Fifty Shades of Grey my husband and I even tried our hand at writing erotic fiction in the hopes of cashing in. First of all, it's harder than it looks (no pun intended). Secondly it's, well, easy to get distracted from the writing...
Ultimately I hold writers to a high standard. (I believe that they are the highest life form, just below dogs.) I have called them to action on many occasions: demanding more children's picture books with multicultural characters, more books by and about women, more books that are laugh out loud funny, and now, more sex. But really it's all the same cause. Writing should speak all of our truths: the good, the bad, and especially the dirty.