Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Writing About Sex in Fiction (or Not)

The pulp writer John D. MacDonald once declared that no fiction writer needs to graphically describe the sex act in a novel or short story. Everyone knows what the sex act is, after all—and what it’s like. (And if you don’t know, then maybe you need to read less, and get out more.) MacDonald assessed that to write in detail about sex is a bit like writing in detail about Christmas. “You’ll just bore everyone,” MacDonald declared.

I tend to agree. Most of the sex in my fiction is implied, and takes place “off camera”. I’ve strayed from this rule only on rare occasions—and I’ve always regretted it. Like MacDonald, I’ve never felt the need take readers through a blow-by-blow account of the details. 

Perhaps I’m relying on my sensibilities as a reader—and viewer—in this regard. I’m a huge fan of the FX spy series,The Americans. The Cold War drama is one of the best shows on TV, with complex characters and compelling storylines—not to mention a killer premise.

At the same time, it sometimes seems that the writers and producers of the show are deliberately trying to fit as many flashes of Keri Russell’s butt as possible into each episode. 

Don’t get me wrong: Keri Russell has an awesome derriere. But her skills as an actress are so prodigious that her butt seems little more than an afterthought in the big scheme of things. She totally nails the difficult role of Elizabeth Jennings, the middle-class Washington D.C. travel agent and suburban mother who is actually a Soviet sleeper agent. There are few Hollywood actors whom I would like to meet, but I would like to meet Keri Russell—and not because of her butt. I am genuinely blown away by her acting.

Likewise, The Americans has a tendency to drag out its sex scenes. Sex is often a key plot element on The Americans, so the occasional bedroom scene is by no means out-of-bounds. But when I can count the number of sexual positions performed in each episode, a plot device has become something else. A spy drama should not become a film version of The Joy of Sex. 

But what about novels that overdo it? One of the more egregious fictional examples of overindulgence to come to my attention of late is Ken Follett’s 1991 novel, Night Over Water

Night Over Water is a thriller set on the eve of World War II. The setup is a transatlantic flight filled with thieves, vagabonds, and spies. The book is a page-turner—until Ken Follett decides to take two to three pages to describe a sex scene. And he does this multiple times throughout the book.

Call me a prude, but I don’t need to know that a male character’s erect penis is “purple” and “swollen”. Nor do I need an in-depth description of erect nipples and female secretions at the moment of arousal. I’m not offended or shocked by such things, mind you; but what’s the point? 

I checked the Goodreads reviews of Night Over Water, and I saw that a number of reviewers criticized Follett for all the sex—not because it was crude or excessively libertine, but because it was sexist:

“indulgent sex scenes with every woman desperate for a man and every man reluctant, but passionate, toward a woman…it loses a star…over sexualization of its female characters. Ken Follett makes certain we know each woman's cup size and we can't escape that this is a man writing women.”

Ironically enough, Ken Follett, a British writer, is a champagne socialist who also fancies himself a feminist. Make of that what you will.

Follett is usually a solid thriller writer. Eye of the Needle is one of my all-time favorite thrillers (even though it does include a gratuitous reference to male-on-female oral sex). I think this reviewer sums it up best:

“Follett's plots are always fun but he is also known for his obligatory smut scenes with too much gratuitous (and often silly) detail.”

The takeaway? Unless the writer is creating explicitly erotic material (a task which has never been my interest or calling), his detailed descriptions of sex will probably subtract much more from his work than they could possibly add. 

It’s probably enough to begin a sex scene with a passionate kiss, and conclude with the couple getting dressed afterward. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks of what takes place in-between.