Friday, January 01, 2010

Sex and Love and Leaving

Happy New Year to anyone who's able to open their eyes enough to look at a computer today. I was way over my limit last night but finally, at two p.m. on New Year's Day, in Chicago's 7 degrees, I'm ready to look at the world if not to smile at it.

Because it's the new year, and we all want it to be a good one, I thought I'd start it with sex. Writing about it, to be more precise. We've all heard Elmore Leonard's dictum about leaving out the stuff the reader skips many many times--but I almost always skip sex scenes. Yes, he/she took off her/his clothes. They got naked, they got into bed/backseat of car/faux-skin rug in front of fire/billiard table, and heaved about like demented hippopotami for a bit and then-can we get back to the story?

I also skip sex scenes as a writer. Every year, when the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is announced, I thank my writing muse for steering me clear of any chance of being publicly humiliated at the In and Out Club.

This past December, Philip Roth was shortlisted for The Humbling, in which an aging actor "converts" a lesbian to homosexuality: "This was not soft porn. This was no longer two unclothed women caressing and kissing on a bed. There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze."

The ultimate winner was Jonathan Littell, for a passage in The Kindly Ones. "Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus..."


In writing about sex,one should ask the same question about anything one's including. Is there a reason to have it there to begin with? Narrative flow? Plot? Character development? Fun? And if there is a reason, how do you do it well?

For my money, Joyce (or, according to some scholars, his wife, Norah) does it best in Ulysses, where Molly says, "He kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower...and I drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

On the other hand, you can't beat Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, for brevity. "The Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top boots."

What's your take on good or bad sex writing, or how you do it or not do it yourselves?

Finally, this is my last post for the Outfit collective. My thanks to everyone who visits the site for your presence and your responses. I've learned a great deal from you, and from my fellow Outfitters, and I am grateful to Libby Hellmann for putting the Outfit together and letting me be part of it.

25 comments:

Dana King said...

What? You start a sex conversation and resign?

Tease.

Best wishes, Sara. You'll be missed here.

Libby Hellmann said...

Well, Sara, you sure leave us with a bang. Or whatever. You have earned "honorary member of the OUtfit" status.. any time you want to vent, explain, or celebrate, you are welcome to post.

Good New Years wishes to all who read us. And thank you for doing so. THere are so many demands on your time. We are grateful .

Kathz said...

I'm sorry you won't be continuing to blog here - as an English reader I've enjoyed your posts very much.

You may be interested in a post on writing about sex by the poet Sheenagh Pugh. It's the text of a paper given at a conference on slash fiction so readers who look at it should expect that context. You will find it at http://sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com/12676.html?thread=96132

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I agree. I think sex is so hard to write about because it's such a singular thing it defies metaphor. The second a writer says "Sex is like _____" the reader thinks "Well, no it isn't." So the only thing that's left is to describe it in literal, clinical terms, which is both completely gratuitous and (often) unintentionally hilarious.

Thanks so much for sharing the stories and the wisdom, Sara. We really are going to miss you around here,

Sara Paretsky said...

Dana, I guess that's typical--I duck the hard stuff! Sex is such a big part of life, leaving it out is kind of a cop-out. But people often don't write well about eating, either, and I write far too much about sleep and sleep deprivation.
Libby, I do feel sad about leaving, so I'll take you up on your guest blogger offer. Kathz, thanks for that link. I read Sheenagh Pugh's essay, very thoughtful and thought-provoking. And I do keep a blog on my website, http:www.saraparetsky.com if you ever feel like stopping by there--I even posted my very own vampire story there.
Kevin, we'll be in touch

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

V.I. said...

It was grat to read Your entries. Wish You the best and see You on your own site:)

Michael Dymmoch said...

Great post, Sara.

Thanks for joining us in the Outfit. Please come back any time.

rachael rey said...

Lovely read, to teasing though finish it

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