Monday, August 30, 2010

Are Writers Shying Away From Sex Scenes?

Don't concentrate simply on the mechanics or you'll have an awkward "tab A in slot B" scene that will make readers collapse with laughter. – C. Margery Kempe

I have recently discovered that the one award in writing I don’t mind not winning has been awarded once again. It’s Britain’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. I posted a blog on this last year, when the 2008 winner was Rachel Johnson for Shire Hell.

For those who don’t remember, the award (a plastic foot) was created in 1993 by literary critic, Rhoda Koenig and then editor of the Literary Review, Auberon Waugh, "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."

The winner for 2009 was The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. According to the Literary Review, “The judges used the occasion to praise an ambitious and impressive novel. They said: ‘It is in part a work of genius.’ However, a mythologically inspired passage and lines such as "I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg" clinched the award.” The author was not available for comment, but the article said, “We hope he takes it in good humour.

To read the entire winning exert, click here. You can also read clips by the runners up who included Paul Theroux, Nick Cave, Philip Roth, Amos Oz, Anthony Quinn, John Banville, Richard Milward, Sanjida O'Connell and Simon Van Booy.

According to a separate article I read on by Tim Adams, “Sex disappears from the British novel as authors run scared of ridicule,” this award may be scaring authors from writing steamy scenes. The article states that former poet laureate, Andrew Motion, after reading through 138 novels to come up with the shortlist for the Booker Prize concluded that, “… no one was writing much about sex anymore.” Motion said, “It's as if they were paranoid about being nominated for the Bad Sex Award…” He is also quoted as saying that "there were a lot of people writing about taking drugs, as if that was a substitute for sex."

It’s an interesting article about the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and “lust” highlights in literature. Adams says, “In 1961, the year after Lady Chatterley's Lover was allowed to be published in the UK, the book outsold the Bible, with two million copies bought (200,000 on the first day).” He goes on to list books on “Literary Lust: 10 Milestones,” such as Fanny Hill by John Cleland, Ulysses by James Joyce and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, which had a part in changing the history of acceptable sex in novels.

The articles left me wondering if authors are shying away from writing about sexual encounters because they’ve all been done before; they don’t have the shock value that they once did; they are too difficult to write; they’re worried about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award; society is reverting back to the puritanical values of our ancestors; drug scenes have become the new sex scene; or they aren’t backing away at all. What do you think?

If you have trouble writing sex scenes and want to be sure you don’t win the foot trophy, check out last year’s guest post by C. Margery Kempe for her tips on writing these difficult scenes.

Other helpful articles I found are:
20 Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes, by Karen Wiesner at
How to Write a Fictional Sex Scene, by Catherine Chant at
How to Write Sex Scenes: The 12-Step Program by Steve Almond on

Do you have trouble writing sex scenes? Have you read a scene you think might deserve the Bad Sex in Fiction Award? Do you think drug scenes are surpassing sex scenes in fiction?

Thanks for stopping by today. I hope to see you again next Monday.

Tags: C. Margery Kemp, bad sex in fiction award, writing sex scenes, Jonathan Littell , Lady Chatterley’s Lover , D. H. Lawrence, Fanny Hill, John Cleland,Ulysses ,James Joyce, Philip Roth,


L. Diane Wolfe said...

It's not that I have trouble - I just don't want to write them! That's just not my style.

The Old Silly said...

I have a few 'steamy' sex scenes in my new novel, "Beware the Devil's Hug", and a couple also in my last novel, "Owen Fiddler". I don't avoid writing them if it seems like something natural the characters involved would do, sex to me is just as natural as eating or taking a walk - part of life, and nothing 'dirty' about it, like so many puritanical people seem to feel. Long as it's not overdone and pornographic, use some taste, I feel.

Anyhowzit, that's my take ... sure hope I pulled it off well in Hugs and don't win that award! lol

Jenny said...

I agree with L. scenes aren't really my style, either.

As if salmonella wasn't reason enough to skip the soft-boiled egg. Ewwww....

Darcia Helle said...

I've never heard of that award! I think we need one here in the U.S. because I've read quite a few mystery/suspense novels lately that use multiple pages of explicit sex scenes. While it doesn't offend me, I find it unnecessary and, depending on the writing, silly.

A couple of my novels have steamy scenes because that's where the plot and characters went. But they're relatively short and not overly graphic. I don't want 4 pages of a graphic sex scenes in the middle of a suspense novel, whether I'm writing it or reading it. I also don't give step-by-step information when my characters are in the shower, tying their shoes, etc. I think we all know how it's done. The intimate details are what erotica is for.

Author Guy said...

I've never thought there was anything a sex scene could contribute to a story that a non-sex scene couldn't do better. I posted on this subject a while back at

Karen Walker said...

I'd be in trouble if I had to write a sex scene. Thankfully, I don't think I'll ever have to.

Hart Johnson said...

I've written a few and it is a hard line to walk. I am a person who always laughs when they are done badly. I point at the book and say, 'this author has clearly never HAD sex!' I guess I thought they couldn't be done well, and then a local writer friend whose genre is 'erotica' asked me to beta for her... the story (at first draft) had some problems. The SEX? OHMYGAWD! It was FABULOUS. Again and again (and always different)

My conclusion? We try to hit a middle ground when we need to either hold back or go for it. You can't 'kind of' have sex. So let it get a little steamy and then shut the door, or commit and let it be fabulous and dirty, the way great sex actually IS. (If it is tender sweet sex, shutting the door fits the mood better anyway).

My own sex scenes stay in one characters head... this or that sensation, this emotion. I avoid mechanics once there is skin to skin. And of my 7 books... only three have sex scenes and two of them are fairly ugly. Anyway, those are my observations...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If I ever tried to do a sex scene, I know it would be bad! So I'll spare everyone the misery.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Diane – I think keeping steamy scenes out of young adult novels is a good idea – they seem to write their own on their cell phones these days!)

Marvin – I’m looking forward to reading “Beware of the Devil’s Hug.” I have a feeling that you won’t have to worry about that tacky award.

Jenny – Your comment about eggs left me laughing. I heartedly agree with you.

Darcia – It’s true that some authors seem to add love scenes where they don’t belong or go on way too long. I just finished reading “The Cutting Edge,” and I think you handled the sex scenes between Skye and Scott perfectly – in fact, I think you handled all the scenes perfectly – it was a really good book.

Author Guy – Thanks for the link. I enjoyed the post. I think your term ‘oogey’ might be the perfect description of the egg comparison that helped clinch the award for Littell.

Karen – Watch out - I learned to never say never!

Hart - Good point. I like the idea of “shutting the door,” when things get too steamy, unless you’re specifically writing erotica. I also like the idea of keeping the scenes inside one of your character’s head. Thanks for sharing the tips.

Alex – You might surprise yourself and be better than you think if you try writing one!

arlee bird said...

I prefer the pan camera to open window with blowing curtains or waves rolling onto the beach as scene fades. Unless there is something crucial to the plot what is the point of the voyeurism.

Tossing It Out

Carol Kilgore said...

In my opinion, sex scenes with more emotion and less 'insert Tab A into Slot B' are much more effective.

Helen Ginger said...

Luckily, I've never had to write a sex scene. I think it takes a lot of finesse to make it moving without being one of those foot-in-the-mouth scenes.

Journaling Woman said...

Nope not me. I'd rather not be distracted by sex scenes in a novel. And I don't want to write them either.

Anonymous said...

I have a quick two page sex scene. But its a prelude to the bad girl attempting to kill Chase. Its not gratuitous sex just for the sake of having a sex scene in my book. There is a reason.

Stephen Tremp

Cat Connor said...

I've managed thus far to imply sex in my novels but not write it! Whew... :)

Patricia Stoltey said...

I tried writing a sex scene for a now abandoned romantic suspense manuscript, but it wasn't very good. I think I'll stick to murder. :)


Edlund said...

I always shy away from sex scenes in my novel because I'm deathly afraid of my family reading them!

Anonymous said...

I try to make sure my writing is suitable for my students, so no sex scenes, steamy or otherwise as of yet.
Do I think writers should avoid them? Not if they are important to the story the writer is trying to tell.

Glynis said...

I wrote a genteel sexual moment in my Victorian couple's life. It was needed for the storyline and not filler. It was not a bodice ripper moment. I tried but could not do it. I am so glad I didn't because when I read it back, I would have deserved the plastic foot. ☺

I don't mind reading them if they are not coarse and crude.

Jim Murdoch said...

There’s not a lot of sex in any of my books. It’s not that I never mention it I just have never found any need to describe it in graphic detail. If I did I’d poke fun at it. I honestly don’t think I have it in me to take sex seriously. This is the closest thing to a sex scene I’ve ever written:

It had been a considerable while since Jenny McCarthy had last experienced anything vaguely resembling carnal pleasure and even longer since she could say she had done more than tolerate it and so, as Murphy positioned himself above, she stayed perfectly still, mortified to say the least and didn’t breathe. Her husband remained close at hand but didn’t get involved as Murphy began his manstuprations. The exercise was short-lived and barely fruitful. His technique was nigh flawless and well practiced. The problem was that the opportunity had presented itself however the mood had not. Still seed could be wasted but not the moment. Fastening up his fly he sat astride Katy’s grave and rummaged though his pockets for his pipe.

The anecdote I always tell when it comes to sex refers to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. Benchley was advised by his agent that a book about a killer shark wouldn’t sell unless her has a bit of sex in it and so he inserted a chapter which was the first thing Spielberg ejected when he came to adapt it for the screen.

Grammy said...

Hi, Having never written a novel, I am not sure I could write a sex scene, it would probably be very mild. I have read a lot, and I think it would be an embarrassment to even try. I think that sex sometimes sells to those who are prurient in their tastes.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I think that with the emergence of erotic romance as a self-supporting genre, people are more aware now than ever of what makes a good sex scene work. The language, the images, the positions (I know writers who try stuff out to make sure it's possible.).

Thus, when you see clunkers like this year's soft-boiled egg winner, people -- even those who don't read erotic romance -- cringe.

If you can't write sex, don't. Forcing yourself only leads to bad things in the end.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Good suggestion, Lee

You’re right, Carol, It’s just writing that emotion that’s so tough.

Helen, that must be why the award looks like a foot.

Journaling Woman, do you find them distracting even when they seem to play a role in the plot?

Stephen, two pages doesn’t sound quick but it does sound interesting.

I think you have the right idea, Cat.

Patricia, who knows, one of these days you may decide to revive it and try again.

Edlund, I know exactly what you mean.

Good reason for you to avoid writing sex scenes, Cassandra.

Glynis, a genteel sexual moment seems in keeping with the Victorian theme.

Jim, that scene caught me by surprise by veering off in a direction I didn’t anticipate. Good job. Thanks for sharing.

Ruby, I think mild sex scenes can still be very effective.

Susan, I like your advice of “don’t force it.” Makes sense.

Sylvia Dickey Smith said...

Fascinating post!

I haven't written the details. i prefer indications of rather than the details of... So I suppose I won't win the award--which is fine for me!
Sylvia Dickey Smith

Robin Spano said...

Wow, this is an interesting discussion. I like what The Old Silly says - if it's the natural path the characters take for their emotional or plot arcs, it makes sense to go there, at least a bit past the bedroom door.

D.H. Laurence did it really well (for me) because the emotion was always so raw and so real - you wanted the characters to complete the act, to satisfy their raging hormones. It just felt right.

But I write mysteries, and I have to keep the plot moving quickly. Often sex is part of a scene - to establish a dynamic or a setting - and I'll throw in the odd graphic detail. But I won't take someone on a wild ride to climax; it just doesn't make sense in my stories.

In the wise words of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe(I just looked that up!), often "Less is more."

Patricia Stoltey said...

I definitely shy away from writing sex scenes. I don't mind reading them (rather enjoy it, in fact), but the writing scares me. And here's a funny related story.

After my first mystery was published, my mom told me she was glad I didn't put any sex in it because she'd be embarrassed to read it (if her daughter wrote it). My mother-in-law, however, said the only thing wrong with my book was that I hadn't put any sex in it. Both ladies were in the late 80s at the time.


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