Sex is an important subject and therefore a minefield for writers. Every cliché ever written makes its way into sex scenes, to the point where the written page may elicit boredom or laughter from readers, rather than the quickened emotion that the writer wants to convey.
I don’t mind writing about sex, but I admit that I hate writing sex scenes. When I do so, I almost tremble at the keyboard literotica, I perspire (not from arousal but nervousness and embarrassment), I grind my teeth. It’s so hard to do sex scenes well that the question inevitably must be: why do them at all?
The easy answer, the cynical commercial answer, would be that readers want it. It’s an answer that has a lot of truth to it. We all want to read sex scenes, and a book that has them is usually more saleable than one that doesn’t.
But there’s another answer too: if sexual desire is a driver of human behavior and fiction aims to capture the variety of that behavior, then the fulfillment of sexual desire must be part of fiction.
Of course there are many great novels that have no sex in them whatsoever. Moby Dick of course, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which I recently reread, come to mind. And there are many fine novels which talk frankly about sex but refrain from any but the most cursory description of sexual acts. Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, another of my favorites, is a good example.
Still, graphic descriptions of sex acts are fair game for novelists, and are often appropriate to story and character. And then the question becomes, how to write them?
Straight away a novelist like me wonders, despairingly, what can I do that hasn’t been done? By Flaubert in Madame Bovary, by D.H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers, by Updike in Rabbit Redux, by Scott Spencer in Endless Love? What more can there possibly be to add?
Of course this is a copout. The great masters of literature have described sunsets, storms, illnesses, pastoral landscapes, births and deaths, jealous rages, violence and killing, but we still have to write about them anew. Otherwise we have nothing to say.
And so I write sex scenes in some of my stories and yes, in my new novel. But when I rewrite, I cut. When I rewrite again, I cut more. The scenes are there, but briefer in every respect: fewer words, less detail, more prelude and aftermath, less real-time description.
And as I revise and cut, I keep remembering one of the most insightful remarks I’d ever heard about sexual desire. I heard it, of all places, on a kibbutz in the north of Israel, from a young Frenchman named Nicole, a fellow volunteer, who worked alongside me harvesting apples, pecans and tomatoes. On one of the evenings when we walked to town to drink beer, we were talking about attraction and relationships. What he said was, “For me, the best part of making love is the slow climb up the staircase.”