Sex in Literature Awards: Leave Authors Alone

BlogHer Original Post

“Do you subscribe to Esquire?” my friend Hannah asks me. It’s a chilly February afternoon and we’ve met for lunch at the Hammer Museum’s café for the usual dishing session. Most women meeting to discuss their love lives would be thrilled to expense their lunches the way a sex columnist and the author of several ebooks detailing her sexploits do, and we usually are thrilled, even if we’re not half as good at keeping track of our receipts as we are at chronicling every detail of our encounters.

Except today. Today, Hannah looks livid.

“There is an article in Esquire about the lack of sex in literature,” she says. “It’s infuriating. It’s like the internet doesn’t exist for these people.”

As someone who commits her encounters to pixel as well as curates those of others for a living, the notion that literary sex is dead is absurd to me, but when I sit down with Benjamin Alsup’s piece “Sexless Novels” later that week, I don’t feel the same ire that Hannah related to me that afternoon.

Today, many writers have largely abandoned sex as an area of concern. There are exceptions. Predictably, the French are still capable of producing an enfant terrible, though in the case of Michel Houellebecq, he is no longer particularly enfant nor terrible. The best writing about sex I've read recently comes from England, where Geoff Dyer seems to have a right and healthy attitude about the way these things can work — a little cocaine, some free booze, a chance encounter over a few days in Venice — voilà ... healthy, happy orgasms for all!

And happy readers, too. Because if you're gonna commit all of yourself to reading a book, a writer has gotta give all in return. He's gotta use his hips. Maybe put a little back into it. Jonathan Safran Foer is a lovely cat and all, but Jesus, does that guy ever break a sweat? Brooklyn is lovely, too. But does anyone in his borough remember how to get down? Or anyone else?

The contemporary American lustscape is populated by the sexually unlucky, unhappy, and/or uninterested. In The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter's narrator thinks his wife is "cute" and he longs for a little "smack-smack." Gary Shteyngart writes hilariously about sex, but far more often, its absence. His characters keep close watch on their "fuckability" numbers via their smartphones but fall asleep while going down on one another. Meanwhile, Sam Lipsyte's best love scenes involve dudes left to their own devices.

Overlooking the blogosphere is alienating to the thousands of people who contribute their stories -- occasionally quite artfully -- to the world, but this oversight also serves to highlight something worth noting: That unlike the corner of the blogosphere (which by its very nature, is free of gatekeepers, celebrated critics and Esquire writers combing for the naughty bits) inhabited by sex and personal bloggers who share about their sex, the publishing world has made a habit of (however inadvertently) censuring some of the most powerful voices in contemporary literature with its relentless critiquing and, at times, outright mocking.

Hot SEX!The most obvious examples of this is The Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which since 1993, has been conferred on authors in an attempt to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

Last year, Rowan Somerville took the prize for The Shape of Her with exceptional grace, saying that there is nothing more English than bad sex, “so on behalf of the nation, I thank you.” The media rose to soften the blow, reminding the public of other literary greats who have suffered the fate of winning the prize, such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, but the weight of those critical eyes remains.

This year, Salon.com, perhaps in an effort to counteract the negativity, announced they would be judging books for an annual Good Sex Awards, to recognize the best sex writing in fiction, but when I went to read the judges’ discussion on what exactly makes good sex in literature, I was disappointed to read more of the same snobby criticism as that which we already have in the Bad Sex Award.

Simply, though they seek to award the writer who best puts a sex scene together, they do so by tearing all the nominees to pieces.

But there is some consolation to be had and that is this: No one, not even the judges, can agree on what makes a good sex scene. Laura Miller thinks sex in literature ought to describe “not just the fact of sex, but the way how it happens changes how characters understand who they are.” Louis Bayard looks for writing that “actually made me want to have sex.” Both he and Maud Newton dislike “pretty” and “cinematic” accounts. Newton admits, also, that the sex she best responds to in literature is that of the “fucked up” variety, any situation that “exposes the surprising longings its characters harbor in their heart of hearts” -- even when there is no actual sex act described at all.

For his part, Walter Kirn finds it “fundamentally difficult to read dispassionate descriptions of an act that is always (or almost always) experienced passionately in life (even if that passion involves revulsion)… Sex on the page, when its goal isn't simply arousal -- porn -- just always feels odd and clinical and wrong to me.” He goes on:

My favorite sex scenes are the blunt, depersonalized, pornographic ones … that allow me to fill in the sensory blanks myself. I almost always prefer something like "He fucked her hard" to a gourmet, gynecological, Updike-ean presentation of the various sights and sounds involved.

His picks for the Good Sex Awards were the two most comedic ones “that reproduce in their narrators' minds the same distance toward the encounters they're engaging in that I, the reader, feel toward the narratives of the encounters. In other words, sex scenes with lots of awkward self-consciousness in them at least address the awkwardness and self-consciousness they engender.”

The takeaway, then, is that the best sex in literature is that which is vital to the character arc, hot enough to turn people on, gritty and realistic, fucked up, detached, pornographic and devoid of much description, and comedic, all at once.

Yeah, no wonder people prefer to cut to the morning after. But Alsup is right: We do need more bodies in our literature. Perhaps it’s time for book authors to look at the blogosphere with more than passing condescension. Go take a stroll and see what’s out there. It may be amateur. It may desperately require editing. But it’s fearless.

They know that words are no good if you don’t have the balls to match.

Oh, and by the way, Alsup, if you are still looking for some sex in Brooklyn, go read my friend Jackie’s blog, will you?

AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.

Photo Credit: rebcal | Original for BlogHer

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