"Bad sex" writing is funny because the anatomical vocabulary of conventional sex writing is hackneyed, says Edmund White.
I started ruminating about sex writing while thinking about the annual Bad Sex Awards, won this year by the novelist Nancy Huston for Infrared. Most sex writing is either soft-focus romance (like those fuzzy movies you can see in hotel rooms), utterly elided ("they read no more that night ...") or hardcore one-handed reading designed more as a substitute for sex than a realistic description of sex, which is usually comic, following Henri Bergson's definition of comedy as something that occurs when the body fails the spirit.
Of course, "bad sex" writing is funny because the anatomical vocabulary of conventional sex writing is hackneyed, impossible to visualise because it is full of ludicrously mixed metaphors, stale and given to bragging.
Years ago Renaud Camus wrote a book called Tricks, which astonished everyone because he was determined to record his fiascos as often as his triumphs. (Today some people don't even know what the word "tricks" means.)
Everyone seems agreed that writing about sex is perilous, partly because it threatens to swamp highly individualised characters in a generic, featureless activity (much like coffee-cup dialogue during which everyone sounds the same) and partly because it feels ... tacky.
Even careful writers begin to sound like porn soundtracks when they turn to sex writing.
As Susan Sontag once observed, pornography is practical. It was designed as a marital aid and its vocabulary should follow natural biological rhythms and stick with hot-button words to produce a predictable climax. It is not about sex but is sex.
Great sex writers such as Harold Brodkey, DH Lawrence, Robert Gluck and David Plante, on the other hand, have a quirky, phenomenological, realistic approach to sex. They are doing what the Russian formalists said was the secret of all good fiction – making the familiar strange, writing from the Martian's point of view.
Rethought and reimagined
I've written some of the strangest pages anyone's typed out about sex. In my first novel, Forgetting Elena, an amnesiac man is drawn into sex by the Elena of the title. Only he doesn't remember, of course, what sex is – and he veers from thinking it's a coded form of communication to imagining it's a way of inflicting pain mixed with pleasure on oneself and one's partner. I suppose I was basing it on my own first experiences of sex as a sub-teen.
In another obscure novel, Caracole, I have lots of heterosexual sex, which is written from the point of view of a virginal teenage boy. To be sure, most of my sex writing has involved two teen males or two (or more) adult men. I always bear in mind Brodkey's remark to me that if you write "she went down on him", it is a "lie", because no one can summarise an intense, prolonged and unrepeatable and original sex act with a snappy five-word formula like that.
He felt that every sex act had to be entirely rethought and reimagined from the beginning to the end, which of course made his sex writing very, very long.
I've always thought that the main problem with gay erotica is what I call "the cock-and-balls problem". It seems to me that gay sex writing is a major test for the typical reader, who is a middle-aged woman. Isn't it terribly alienating to have to read about those rigid shafts and hairy bums? I guess straight men would hate such lurid passages just as much if they read fiction. But older women, at least, often like sex to be linked to sentiment and never to be purely anatomical.
I imagine that's why so few gay novels have "broken through" to the general public; all their sexual hydraulics must seem either bleak or seedy – or "boring", as middle-class people say when they're shocked.
Edmund White's most recent novel is Jack Holmes and His Friend