I was working in the shop earlier this year when a cheerful looking man with white hair man walked up to the counter waving my book at me. Even though this happens quite a lot - we have a sign with an arrow saying 'she wrote this' - it's always a bit of an odd moment and I'm never quite sure what to say. But this time he didn't want to ask me if it was actually any good, or whether I'd written all of it myself, or whether I might like to help him get his book published. This time, he looked at the book's cover, looked at me and asked me if there were any sex scenes in it. I had to think for a moment, but when I replied that yes, I supposed there were one or two moments of that sort, he put the book face down, giving it and me a pained look. He gestured to the rest of the shop with a sudden weariness. 'And all of these,' he asked 'would you say they've all got sex in them too?'
I said that yes, I imagined a lot of them did.
'Why do you think that is?' asked the man, who I suddenly realised might be a little bit mad. 'Do you think it's because writers feel the need to shock us?'
I was thinking about this exchange recently when I took part in a Cambridge WordFest panel event for Granta Magazine, the new issue of which is themed around sex. Sitting alongside me were poet and novelist Adam Foulds and artist Jo Boughton. We were there to talk about the interesting stuff that gets thrown up representing sex in art. Before the event we spoke about how odd it felt to be positioned as someone that others should listen to on this particular issue and we wondered why this might be. Why sitting on a panel about sex should be any different to any other event.
During the panel, Adam Foulds talked about his feeling that some writers, particularly male writers of a certain age, seem to get 'worked up' in some way by writing about sex, that their excitement gives the scenes where sex occurs a different feeling. Normally brilliant stylists start reaching for unusual and often silly constructions in an attempt to keep away from the clichés of erotic writing: they become 'sex scenes'
I know exactly what he meant - you only have to look at the nominees each year for the Bad Sex Award to see examples of this phenomenon.
But I think it's equally true for readers as for writers that where representations of sex are concerned, normal rules don't apply. One too many sex scenes in a novel and it runs the risk of being thrown out of the category of art and dumped into pornography.
We all talked about why this might be and whether this had an impact upon our work and the event was going fine, until it was time for the last question of the day, when a woman asked, not without an edge to her voice, What on earth we were doing there, talking about sex, and why on earth it was at all important anyway. Wasn't it just boring?
It's a pretty hard question to answer and I have to say I was stumped at the time. Because yes, writing about sex can sometimes be boring, or uplifting, or terrifying, or beautiful, or yes, man with white hair, shocking. Sometimes it can even be sexy. Because it's part of life, the same way death is, the same way food is, the same as birth, doing the dishes, and going to the toilet. (Interestingly my American publishers thought there were too many toilet scenes in my novel, but I explained this is because I am half-English and half-Australian, so an interest in going to the toilet is pretty much guaranteed.)
Why it is important to write well and honestly about all of these things for me, is that it's important not to look away when a character does something you wouldn't normally watch a real person doing. If you don't flinch, you know them a little bit more. When I approached the moments that a character has sex in my novel I wanted it to pass the same tests as any other moment. Did it bring new understanding or move things along, did it do something that no another moment had done, or could do.
When it's done well, seeing how a character behaves at a moment of absolute intimacy, can help us understand so much about them. I think this was done particularly well recently by Geoff Dyer in Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I love Tao Lin's short story 'Sex After Not Seeing Each Other For A Few Days.'
I'd love to know any scenes (page numbers optional) you think do this particularly well (or badly).