Sex, Swoony and Otherwise

by wjw on November 28, 2007

Now there’s a title that drew you in, I bet.

I want to talk about sex because I’ve just finished reading a book— a pretty good one— that had a number of fairly explicit sex scenes, all much less worth reading than the rest of the book. All the sex scenes “threw me out,” as we writers say, of the hypnotic trance into which readers ideally fall.

I do believe I laughed out loud at some of the choicer bits, but it was an embarrassed laugh. Not because I was reading about sex, but because the writing was just so awful, and I was embarrassed for the poor writer.

Sex is hard to write about: you’ve got this complex physical act going on, with various body parts both squishy and non-squishy; and you’ve got a whole lot of emotional texture; and there are hormones and the limbic system kicking in. There’s affection, and aggression, and acceptance, and delight. And— if you’re the author writing this— there are also the elements of plot and character revelation, which real people in real beds don’t worry about so much.

Sex scenes come in three broad categories, which I will call the Swoony, the Clinical, and the Baaaad. Which is not to say that the Swoony and Clinical scenes can’t be Baaaad in their very own way.

The Swoony scene is all about emotional textures. If physical details are included, they’re present in order to heighten the emotion.

The best Swoony writer I can think of is Nabokov. He’ll cut away from the sex for a paragraph on the blue butterflies swarming around a nearby bush, and then return with something like: “He had resolved to deal first of all with her legs which he felt he had not feted enough the previous night, to sheath them in kisses from the A or arched instep to the V of velvet, and this Van accomplished as soon as Ada and he got sufficiently deep in the larchwood which closed the park on the steep side of the rocky rise between Ardis and Ladore.”

From Ada. Which also has a really terrific fellatio scene, involving the recollection of “the first time she had bent over him and he had possessed her hair.”

I confess that, where sex is concerned, I am a Swoony writer. The emotional stuff is more important to me than whose organ gets impaled on whose. (I’ve written precisely one clinical sex scene in my life— and boy did I get mail!)

The perils of the Swoony approach to sex scenes is that you can forget what planet you’re on. “She knew at the touch of his lips that she was one with the sun and the moon and the stars, and that she wanted nothing more than to remain in his arms . . . Forever.”
(Thank you, Barbara Cartland Correspondence School.)

The Swoony writer can get so lost in romance that the scene loses touch with reality. Which is not a problem you’re going to encounter with the Clinical school.

The Clinical sex scene is just that: a cold and rather detached description of the physical act, as if you were a hemipterologist describing coitus among the beetles. John Updike and Paul Theroux are very good at this. I remember A.S. Byatt giving us some really grim deflowering scenes in one of her novels (the title escapes me).

The danger here is that your scene can read, well, as if you were a hemipterologist describing coitus among the beetles. The scene can end up so antiseptic and remote that it detaches itself from the rest of the book.

And as for the Baaaad . . . it’s a combination of the Swoony and the Clinical. Clinical description with an overlay of Swoon. You can tell right away by the choice of adjectives and nouns— if both are non-specific you’re in trouble. It’s like the real dreadful 1950s pulp porn, the kind that Silverberg used to write, when women had “dripping flanges.” If the writer starts going on about “elusive globes”— whatever those are— you know that what follows is going to be Baaaad. When every body part gets its own semi-Swoony, or “elusive,” adjective, it becomes Award-Winning Baaaad.
Back in the early days of personal computers, there was this program going around called “Pornography.” It generated sentences on the following model: “Adverbally, he verbed his adjective noun into her adjective noun.” The verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and nouns were chosen randomly from a list. It reproduced exactly the affect of a Baaaad sex scene.
What sex scenes work for you? Are you Swoony or Clinical? And if so, why?
qtera November 29, 2007 at 1:26 am

Well, Here is a topic I am not sure if I should comment on but here goes – “Swoony” for sure….admittedly I rarely read anything with prose any more erotic than you would find in a Jane Austin novel. Usually something on the lines of – “The girl being high spirited trembled at the thought of seeing her intended ride up on his powerful steed.” I do love Shakespearean bawdiness with cod pieces rising. I have read some early Space Opera short stories that were steeped in homoerotic metaphors. I remember reading Norman Mailer’s “Ancient Evenings” when it first came out and in every other scene the king proves his power over everybody by buggering them behind his chariot. Not erotic at all just…powerful. I guess that is why it was not called “Ancient Days” but I don’t think the sun would have slowed him down. Most of my reading is either – history, science, biographies (although the adventures of Jack Parsons are pretty interesting), young adult adventures, children’s books for the art, various Victorian authors like Oscar Wilde, horror on the lines of Poe, Lovecraft, and Stoker and SF like Clarke, Bradbury and Ellison. Nevertheless – “Swoony” has my vote. The clinical stuff is just that – clinical – and I find it pretty boring. I keep thinking…”Is there a story somewhere in here?” And lastly – Baaad. Well – this can be fun in it’s baaadness and is best if read out loud during the Green Slime awards at Bubonicon.

Laurie Mann November 29, 2007 at 1:31 am

I’d be curious what book triggered this discussion!

My background is mostly tech writing, and when I’ve tired to write sex scenes in fiction, they’ve been on the clinical side. I’d like to write something more swoony!

Steve November 29, 2007 at 7:39 am

For me, none of the above. If I’m reading for the story, sex just gets in the way.

Fortunately it no longer seems necessary, in the way it did 20 years ago, that you had to have at least one sex scene in a novel — the last one that sticks in my consciousness was in Greg Bear’s Slant, which I remember just paging past, thinking “never mind the f—ing, what about getting on with the f—ing plot”. Oh, and yes, I did page past that bit in Aristoi with the same sentiment in mind.

These days I don’t see the point in sex in novels, since if you’re after competently written textual smut, you can find enough of it on-line — and there you can get it filtered to match your own particular kinks, and filtering out the stuff that bores or turns you off.

David W Goldman November 29, 2007 at 9:55 am

During my early 20s I learned many interesting things that I wouldn’t have otherwise known by reading various clinical sex scenes in various novels by Samuel R. Delany.

More recently he provided me with the experience of reading my way through to the end of a chapter while repeatedly (and quite audibly) gagging. Not something I would have done for just any writer!

tcastleb November 29, 2007 at 5:23 pm

I think I’m a bit on the clinical side and need to get to the swoony. Though it’s hard if you’re short on real-life swoony moments and therefore have nothing to draw from. (Which is rather ironic, considering the stuff I’m getting paid to write now, but I know it’s missing something most other romance and e-books have.)

Tillman November 29, 2007 at 8:48 pm

Here’s a quote from my favorite bit of sfnal erotic humor, a microgenre in woefully short supply. The protag has been dosed with the world’s most potent aphrodosiac:

“…the two of us were millions of miles up in outer space, flying through the universe in a shower of meteorites all red and gold. I was riding her bareback… “Faster!” I shouted, jabbing long spurs into her flanks. “Go faster!” Faster and still faster she flew, spurting and spinning around the rim of the sky, her mane streaming with sun, and snow waving out of her tail. The sense of power I had was overwhelming. I was unassailable, supreme. I was the Lord of the Universe, scattering the planets and catching the stars in the palm of my hand…

Oh, ecstasy and ravishment! Oh, Jericho and Tyre and Sidon! The walls came tumbling down and the firmament disintegrated, and out of the smoke and fire of the of the explosion, the sitting-room in the Waldorf Towers came swimming slowly back into my consciousness like a rainy day…”

Tis is from, of course, Roald Dahl’s classic “Bitch”, most easily found in his wonderful collection “Switch Bitch.”

What a pity that Roald Dahl didn’t write more adult fiction. Anyway, if you haven’t read Switch Bitch, some wonderfully sly, bawdy and remarkably well-written entertainment awaits you. Bon appetit!

dubjay November 30, 2007 at 4:22 am

Sex is such a huge part of human existence— I mean, a lot of us spend a vast amount of time thinking about it and scheming to get more of it. And of course, it’s where we all come from.

Sex is so omnipresent in human life that it should be easy to write about. But it isn’t.

Why is that?

halojones-fan November 30, 2007 at 5:14 am

It isn’t easy to write about it, because it’s so fundamentally personal and intimate that you just can’t talk about it to someone else. It’s like they’re speaking a foreign language; just meaningless babble, alternatively hilarious and threatening. You can get the general idea by looking at the emotional broad strokes–as it were–but the specific nuances are lost.

As for “bad sex in SF”, I’ll nominate David Drake’s obsession with finger-banging. Unfortunately for his readers, he wasn’t so good at describing the act, and it wound up being about as sexy as reading about some guy picking his nose…

dubjay December 1, 2007 at 5:13 am

HJF, you’re right, of course.

But yet. Human beings have equally complex reactions to other phenomena, and we don’t have any similar problem with writing about parenthood, say, or food, or office politics.

And then of course the clinical approach gets rid of most of the freaky emotional baggage anyway.

Synova December 2, 2007 at 4:05 am

I’m really late to the party.

I think that I’m clinical when I write sex but that might be mostly because the rest of my prose isn’t particularly swoony either.

So it’s a fair amount of tab A into slot B, at least enough to know what is going on, but I don’t think I’d write it at all if something else wasn’t going on. A recent attempt of mine had all the sexy stuff in a VR routine because the act itself, while necessary, was overwhelmingly unromantic and he couldn’t have performed otherwise. Swoony would not have worked.

That’s not saying that what I actually did actually worked but I find myself writing sex that is supposed to be unattractive. Not rape, just not very lovely sex.

I have *plans* for lovely sex, I just never get that far in the story.

geoff December 2, 2007 at 4:18 am

I thought this blog post was interesting because I felt the same way about the sex scene you wrote in Angel Station (which, I’m sure, is the “clinical” scene that you’re alluding to). I’m sure if you ever decided to do a Lucas-like re-imagining of that book, that scene would be written differently.

The peril of being such a good writer that I’ve read everything you’ve written three times through, I suppose.

tcastleb December 2, 2007 at 6:27 am

“the freaky emotional baggage”

-whistles innocently and hides the infamous lizard story-

dubjay December 2, 2007 at 10:42 pm

I seem never to have written an unpleasant sex scene. Possibly because I’ve never had one in real life. As Woody Allen said in one of his movies, “Even the worst one was right on the money.”

The explicit scene that inspired people to send mail was in The Rift. Any explicitness in Angel Station wasn’t so much for its own sake as to answer the physics problem: “How =do= you have sex in zero gravity?” I don’t know any astronauts, so I couldn’t ask =them.=

(Assuming that we’re talking about the same sex scene. There are a lot of them in Angel Station: we’re not only talking about sailors on leave, but horny adolescent sailors on leave.)

Philip Palmer February 29, 2008 at 10:49 am

What a wonderful blog on sex…I laughed out loud.

I remembered reading ADA as a teenager and being blown away at the beauty and eroticism of the writing…though it does look a bit overwrought now.

I think sex in fiction should be sexy and shocking and should in some way advance the story or make us know the characters more deeply. (In DEBATABLE SPACE I have a graphic, explicit sex scene indicated by the one word, ‘Miaow.’)

A great example of sex in the cinema is LUST, CAUTION which has some of the most incredibly explict sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. But they are beautiful, beautifully framed, intense, well acted – and they TELL A STORY. A very dark story in fact.

I’d argue the sex in Peter Hamilton’s PANDORA’S STAR is genuinely sexy – you really feel you are that young boy, being seduced.

Wasn’t there an Asimov novel with alien sex scenes?

I love the Roald Dahl quote from tillman.

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