You can admire an awful lot in My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, a collection of short stories about love of all kinds, compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. There is lush and evocative prose in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”. There is meaningful and moving role play in “The Hitchhiker’s Game” by Milan Kundera. There’s perfectly distilled decay and restlessness in William Trevor’s “Lovers of their Time”.
You can also learn a great deal, both as a reader and a writer. In Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” we realize that subtleties are vital to deft and developed characterisation. Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the perfect showcase of profound and realistic dialogue. Various stories somehow convey the emotional frustration and torment of love that is never reciprocated.
Eugenides’ anthology is a thoughtfully composed book, bringing some of the best fiction about love, a word that can mean so many things, together in one place to try and paint one enlightening and complete picture. It takes you on a journey. It’s a journey that never tries to ram truths down your throat but nevertheless you discover them.
Along the way I thought I worked out the secret to writing good sex. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “good”. I don’t mean arousing or satisfying for the participating characters. I mean sex that is not simply erotic, sex that doesn’t detract from the purpose of a story but enhances it, sex that is believable. I mean sex that is well written but not overwritten. Sex should not stand out like a sore thumb in a narrative or be self conscious or awkward.
It’s a very difficult thing to get right. It’s all too easy to verge into soft porn or erotica. Perhaps even worse is resorting to cliché, being at once graphic and far too high minded about the physical act. There’s a fine line between a tasteful romantic coupling underneath the stars and the trashier sort of Mills and Boon escapism. That’s why there are awards for bad sex writing. At the time the writer may have felt as if they’d hit the nail on the head, as though they were composing a masterpiece; which makes the eventual failure even more humorous.
This leads me to one of the factors I thought I’d discovered. Writers who succeed in writing good stories about or featuring sex, anticipate the humour and embarrassment by including their own. In Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t”, the central couple never actually manage to consummate their young love. Dybek tells the story from the young man’s point of view, at times almost poetically. We feel his disappointment and stifled desire, even his hinted at longing for concrete emotional connection.
But the lists of places and situations in which they failed to do the deed are also inescapably funny from an outside perspective. They come closest during a well written fumble on a beach. This passage is tense, varied and vivid, as well as tragic and funny. The condom springs from his grasp into the sand. He has to dust the sand off of it, struggling not to kill the mood as lightning erupts in the sky overhead. For a second he thinks they are already doing it, prompting more meaningful language about “a gateway into the rest of my life” and “groping for an Eternity” which is immediately cut short. Police cars arrive, lights blaring. A body is washed up on the beach and she is haunted by it every time they try again.
Something else I thought I’d learned about well written sex is that being shameless and colloquial helps. In director and writer Miranda July’s short story, “Something That Needs Nothing”, the protagonist uses sex to empower herself. This is a tale with some serious things to say, many of them linked to sex. The narrator is in love with her best friend and they begin the story living together. But she is devastated when Pip leaves her to live and sleep with another girl. Pip had never wanted her like that. To get over it, and earn the money to pay the rent, the narrator begins work in a sex shop, being paid to perform through a screen for masturbating men. By the end of the story Pip wants her back, attracted by the narrator’s new found confidence, developed through a disgusting act. However when she eventually has to remove the wig she wears for her work, the spell is broken.
“Something That Needs Nothing” is an intelligent and engrossing story about identity. It shows how sex can be a sham as well as a weapon and a unifying force. It’s mostly written in a chatty style, which is crucial to not just realism and characterisation, but the impact of its points.
I’m not saying that sex can’t or shouldn’t be erotic on the page. “Something That Needs Nothing” and “We Didn’t” both have sensual moments. But I thought a certain frankness helped ensure the quality of a story featuring sex. Fluffy and over the top, dramatic description seemed to be a one way route to cliché. However, then I remembered the sex in “The Hitchhiking Game,” by Milan Kundera.
This story is about a couple on a road trip, who decide to role play that the woman is a whore for a night. The deep effects of this are unexpected and again big themes like identity and relationships are covered uniquely. The penultimate passage features this line: “On the bed there were soon to be two bodies in perfect harmony, two sensual bodies alien to each other.” Out of context this could be from a terrible Mills and Boon book. But the insight of the rest of Kundera’s story allows him to dabble in cliché.
So perhaps there are no rules set in stone after all. Great writers can approach sex however they like, providing they have something to say about it. After all, clichés are clichés for a reason; they always contain truths.