Wednesday 26 October 2011

Real Sex or Fictional Sex?

As I bid farewell to a friend the other day I cheerily said, 'I'm off to write a sex scene.'  Their response was, ' Will it be real sex or fictional sex?'  And I've been pondering the question ever since.  

My thoughts so far...

Real sex, if it's good, takes place in the present.  In other words, it's very hard to capture because while it's happening you're not referencing it to anything else past or future, or external to what is happening right here, right now.  So it's hard - if not impossible - to capture that and put it into words, whether you're trying to remember that wonderful night of passion while waiting at the bus stop, or recounting it to a friend, or putting it onto the page.  

The best you can hope for is for the reader to be so caught up in the experience they get a sense of what's going on.  But reading about sex is never going to be like having sex.  It can't be.  The most the author can hope for is to stimulate the same emotional and physical responses in the reader that they would experience if they were having sex.  

At which point the author has another problem.  What emotional or physical responses I personally experience may not be the same as those you experience.  What I like from sex may be quite different from what you like.  So if I write my real experiences of sex, you might be going mmmm or yuck or somewhere in the middle.  

So, I think you can't write real sex.  When I write about sex I'm deliberately vague as to what is actually going on.  No body parts!  No instructions!  What I'm hoping to write is something that makes the reader think back to good sex they've had, how it made them feel both emotionally and physically.  It's more like an impression, an outline for the reader to colour in by adding their own personal details. 

Now, some people might think that's a cop out, like photographing porn through a soft focus lens.  But I believe that, through having to do some of the work, the reader engages more readily and the fictional experience of sex can come closer to their own experience of real sex, without the distractions of the author's experience.  So I hope my fictional impression of sex recalls real sex in the reader's mind.  


Liz Fielding said...

I am so absolutely with you on this. Sex that you read about takes place in the six inches between your ears. You may elicit a physical response from your reader, but it's an emotional experience.

As a reader I quickly get turned off by seemingly endless, detailed bedroom scenes and start flicking the pages for the story.

Liz Harris said...

I absolutely agree with you, Sarah. Too many details kills any chance of creating - to take Liz F's words in the first comment - an 'emotional experience'.

Liz X

JO said...

The tutor on my MA said, 'good sex doesn't make good fiction - that's why writers only hint at it. But bad sex - when it all goes wrong - that's fine.' (Ian McEwan managed a whole book based in 'bad' sex!)

Jim Murdoch said...

When I think about sex scenes in novels I always think of Peter Benchley’s Jaws who was advised, by his agent if memory serves right, to add in a sex scene because sex sells and the first thing that Steven Spielberg threw out was the sex scene, not because he was a prude but because it wasn’t necessary. I’ve never written a sex scene, not the hot-and-sweaty kind. I’ve tried but it usually ends up pornographic (and bad porn at that) or comical, usually comical; there is just so much scope for humour in the bedroom. I do have a short story called ‘Sex’ in which, of course, there is no sex, just an author struggling with having to write a sex scene, basically to do what was asked of Benchley, to graft in an extra bit of action that really wasn’t germane to the plot. I remember that being fun to write.

Sarah Duncan said...

Liz F - I agree with you, the story is all important.

Liz H - that's what it's all about, isn't it - the emotional experience.

Jo - I love writing about bad sex, but that's because in bad sex you have the awareness, the distance that makes it possible to write about it.

Jim - I didn't know that about Jaws BUT having read it as a teenager, I know the sex scene is the only scene I can now remember. Maybe it was my age...