A Boston Sex Writer Speaks Out

According to a recent article by Jonathan Beckman, who currently judges the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, Auberon Waugh first founded the contest (in his own words), “… to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

As a Boston fiction writer who publishes erotica (along with literary fiction under a different name), I’m concerned that quoting Waugh’s emotionally loaded language when discussing sex writing might give a moralistic impression, regardless of how he rated the work itself. Let’s face it: “crude and tasteless” is the kind of phrase my old, British headmistress might use if she found us in the stables with the class stud. Why? Such words pass sly judgment on those who relish sex. After all, screwing is rarely “tasteful.” When it comes to arousal and climax, the body can’t lie.

A lot of what makes for effective sex writing depends on how well you satisfy your readers’ needs. “Why is your reader going to be buying your story?” I ask my Boston erotic writing students. “For sexual arousal and an upbeat ending? Or to lose themselves in a dark tale? For suspense, or moral enlightenment? Or to feel emotionally close to the characters?” If we genuinely aren’t snobs, it shouldn’t seem wrong to read “crude” words that describe “crude” sex, in order to make ourselves feel good.

In literary terms, I absolutely agree with Beckman in this article: I don’t rate any of the excerpts that he quotes and analyzes. In erotic terms, however, there’s a smattering of potential. For instance, here is the excerpt from Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side:

“We turned to each other and gently kissed, then fiercely, like wakening beasts, and before we knew where we were, like a sudden walking storm down the lake that we had witnessed in the deeper weather, we seemed to go into a stormy gear, we clutched at each other, we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last.”

Yes, it is filled with metaphor, which, as Beckman aptly says, pulls us away from the sex. But while I don’t go for the passage per se, I do see something that does work: If you read this piece aloud, without judging the word choice, those with an ear for meter will hear the rhythms of genuine desire. Fiction writers often find it hard to openly feel arousal on the page, as Barry does, and express it with rhythmic truth. Thus the phrase “We clutched at each other, we got rid of our damned clothes…” is feeling-rich, unadorned, and builds metrical momentum. If the line read, “We were clutching each other. Then we got rid of our clothes,” the lyrical heat wouldn’t be so strong. And meter is sexually important. After all, humans feel desire in rhythms and pressures, more in music than words.

Apparently, erotica isn’t considered for the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, but I do think many literary writers can learn a lot from erotic authors — and vice versa. One of my favorite erotic writers, Stephen Elliot, has appeared in esteemed literary journals, like McSweeneys, before publishing the same stories with Cleis Press, who are committed to explicit erotica.

After all, sex can be erotic and literary, all at the same time.