Never send a man to write what women have turned into a billion-dollar industry. I’m speaking, of course, about literary smut.
True, the romance novel scene isn’t just about characters knocking boots in purple prose, but across the genre, titillation is still the name of the game, and the writers know exactly how to push their readers’ buttons.
Where self-serious men of letters are concerned, however, writing a sexy sex scene is a challenge on par with flying a cardboard rocket to Uranus. Off the top of my head, only the playful Nicholson Baker has what it takes to spin quality erotica from the male imagination. His competitors — as proven by 2018’s all-dude shortlist for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award — churn out bedroom metaphors so vile that you should genuinely think twice before allowing them to infect your brain. What, exactly, is their problem? Why do they continue to disgust us and embarrass themselves?
First, let’s note that it’s fine to put sex in a novel without the intent to arouse. Maybe the coitus is meant to be creepy, disturbing or plain old awkward. Perhaps we are experiencing an explicit act through the consciousness of a narrator who is not, shall we say, the wokest of baes. Even then, you can’t claim all this bad sex writing is deliberate. Given the sensuality of the topic, you can feel when a guy thinks he is bringing the heat — usually at the precise moment he flies off the rails of his own horniness.
Here are some probable reasons for that.
1. Overemphasizing the Male Orgasm
In 2018, we know there is much, much more to human sexuality than some schlub shooting his spooge. But James Frey, best known for the scandal around his fake bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, and running a young adult fiction sweatshop, didn’t get the memo. Check out how his pretentious disregard for punctuation in this passage from the widely panned Katerina serves a breathless rush toward the only thing that matters: JIZZIN’ LIKE A GAWD.
Slam poetry has never been this white:
I’m hard and deep inside her fucking her on the bathroom sink her tight little black dress still on her thong on the floor my pants at my knees our eyes locked, our hearts and souls and bodies locked.
Cum inside me.
Cum inside me.
Cum inside me.
Blinding breathless shaking overwhelming exploding white God I cum inside her my cock throbbing we’re both moaning eyes hearts souls bodies one.
I close my eyes let out my breath.
When a guy writes “cum” that many times, you know the woman didn’t.
2. Botching a Woman’s Perspective
On the flip side, you have male authors with the semi-respectable but misguided idea of inhabiting female pleasure. Fiction has always relied on empathy; it often asks us to wear someone else’s shoes, and a real talent can bring a new perspective together. But we have plenty of women writing authentically from that angle, and guys tend to wind up mansplaining what they believe women like about penetrative heterosexual intercourse. Luke Tredget went a step further, mansplaining in a column that his novel Kismet simply had to be mansplain-y. The result? A bout of 69ing that transforms his heroine into an “empty vessel,” and soon after, a hilariously abstracted mist of undefined impressions:
She shuffles her head closer to his cock, close enough to smell her own residue, and then takes it in her mouth, with the vague idea of cleaning it. Geoff mirrors this gesture by burying his head between her legs, and gradually she can feel his cock pumping up with blood, one pulse at a time, until it is long and hard and filling her wide-open mouth. They stay in this position for a long time, Anna sucking and slurping with the same lazy persistence you’d use on a gobstopper or a stick of rock. Eventually she loses her sense of the context altogether – of what she is doing or who she is with or where they are – and becomes an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness. She looks at the window and wonders how the glass feels encased within its wooden frame, what the shaggy clouds feel like being blown across the sky, what the walls felt like being splattered and smeared with wet paint …
Sucking dick while trying to astral-project into a wall. Sure, why the hell not.
3. Anatomical Disaster
A good rule of thumb for describing the beast with two backs might be: Less is more. But no, literary men are basically biding their time till they hit the chapter where they can open a bottle of Jameson, crack those knuckles and really let their freak flag fly. Because sex can be a physically overwhelming thing, the temptation to overwrite in kind is too much. Combined with their habit of draping the female sex organs in elaborate euphemism — no doubt to disguise some critical knowledge gaps — this makes for some extremely ninth-grade-virgin fantasias of pornographic bliss. The pseudonymous authors of the comic adventure series Scoundrels earned their bad sex writing nomination by spoofing that clueless style with rather uncomfortable accuracy:
“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enameled pepper mill within her.
This is the kind of stuff that makes you want to take a vow of celibacy. Bravo, sirs.
4. Somewhat Rapey
Quite a few male protagonists, like their male creators, are deeply flawed. Often they do very bad things! And sometimes, they do those bad things to women, with their penises. Obviously, a writer needs to interrogate his reasons for choosing to depict a sexual assault: Does it treat the subject and the victim with appropriate sensitivity? Or is it a gratuitous and puerile digression, part of the story’s aimless bloat? Haruki Murakami, whose work is known to sprawl in every direction, put a dream sequence in Killing Commendatore that blends Frey’s semen-worship with the fetish image of a slumbering woman unable to consent. Hard to see how this wankery was essential to the plot:
My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky. There was nothing I could do to make it stop. If it continued, I worried, I would be completely emptied out. Yuzu slept deeply through it all without making a sound, her breathing even. Her sex, though, had contracted around mine, and would not let go. As if it had an unshakeable will of its own and was determined to wring every last drop from my body.
They say to avoid using dreams in fiction — and now you can certainly see why.
5. Casanova Complex
If a male author wants the sex in his book to be good, steamy and satisfying — and related from a man’s point of view — then that man has to be a capable lover. Every move should be precisely right. The dual effect, in practice, is a banishment of the quotidian stumbles and slippages that characterize real-world sex, coupled with a hard oversell on the impact of ordinary foreplay. A kiss on the neck is world-shattering; the cupping of breasts is quasi-religious.
Seasoned romance novelists may excel in this idealized realm, but when novices with a Y chromosome attempt it, they’re apt to objectify the woman as an easily solved puzzle box. In Connect, Julian Gough does us one better by segueing from an erect nipple to a meditation on mother’s milk:
He drops the bra to the floor, looks up, into her eyes, it’s too much. He kisses her chin, her mouth, and their tongues touch, oh, too much, he slips his lips free with a soft suck. Moves up to kiss her strong nose, on one side, then the other, it’s hard and soft at once. He moves back down, till he is level with her breasts.
‘They’re small,’ she says, surprisingly shy, apologetic.
‘They’re perfect,’ he says.
He kisses them. Teases a nipple with his lips. It’s so soft; and then, suddenly, hard.
He sucks on the hard nipple.
He has never done this before, and yet; no, wait, of course, it is totally familiar.
The first thing he ever did.
He feels the huge change in meaning, in status; it is as though he had grown up in a single suck. Everything transformed. And yet nothing has changed at all; he sucks at a nipple as he lies on a bed, and it’s eighteen years later, and he sucks at a nipple as he lies on a bed, and his childhood falls away from him like a burned-out booster stage from a rocket. Its fuel used up. He is now in orbit around a different planet.
Ah, yes. Because you can’t fuck a woman without her being your mom. This is canon.