The other day I was reading a Jack Reacher novel when something unexpected happened: the sex scene didn’t end after a paragraph. The scene stretched more than a page. I willingly admit, this middle-aged man was not prepared for such an erotic turn of events. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. My wife was in the next room with our three-year-old granddaughter. I was ready to drink a cup of tea and cookies.
Now it’s not uncommon for Lee Child’s character Jack Richard to fall into bed with a woman – often a very competent ex-soldier, police officer or FBI agent, rarely ever with a girl in trouble. What was unusual was the length of the sex scene. A child is usually more efficient. After creating sexual tension he can describe a kiss, clothes that fell to the floor and cut to black. All in a few lines, paragraph max. Then back to the punches to the face.
So being robbed of a long sex scene was embarrassing. But it made me think. Where did all the sex scenes go? I read over 70 books a year, sometimes more, sometimes less, fiction and nonfiction, recent and dusty, but I couldn’t come up with a single modern novel with an obvious sex scene. Maybe that’s what I read. After all, of course, they are not uncommon in certain genres. If you picked up a love affair and there wasn’t at least one tumultuous sex scene, you would feel cheated. And sex in fantasy and fantasy novels holds hope for generations. Even in the most serious crime novels there will be sex scenes or two.
I’m sure you’re now thinking of dozens of examples and have a lot of books on the shelves that accidentally open on certain pages. I can also come up with examples, but these are the books of my parents – Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susan, Wilbur Smith. Sex scenes for those who want to cure themselves of the desire to ever have sex again.
“Writing sex scenes is definitely the hardest and funniest thing a writer can do. It is almost impossible to do it with any plausibility, ”Child said in an interview. Perhaps that is why writers avoid it.
I just went downstairs to flip through my copy of Sally Rooney Normal people. My memory of this novel, helped by a very successful television adaptation, was that it was imbued with sex. Flipping through the pages, I found that to be the case, but it was not. Sex is at the heart of the story, but as far as I could tell from my quick search, it is rarely described openly. Rooney’s description of Mariana and Connel’s first sex is a master class, but not in erotica.
I guess the problem is that. I’m talking about sex scenes that evoke a special reaction in the reader, while most articles about sex are included solely in order to develop and enrich our understanding of the characters. That Rooney is doing so well.
After my novel The girl on the page received repeated complaints from readers on Goodreads regarding sex scenes. I persuaded my publisher to allow me to edit the book before it was released in a cheaper B format. A novel about artistic integrity, about literature, if sex scenes distracted from these topics, they might as well go.
But just like in my memory Normal peoplethe closer the publisher and editor looked at me, the less sex there seemed to be. Each sexual scene is described in short, plausible, explicit passages, but the bulk of the figurative work is completed in the reader’s mind. Thus, the B format edition came out mostly unchanged.
Recently, best-selling crime novelist Candice Fox tweeted that she was sitting in a coffee shop writing a “big hard scene of dirty sex,” so I asked her how she wrote such a scene.
“I think your job as the author of writing the sex scene,” Fox replied, “is to set it up so that the reader wants the two characters to fuck. They must have chemistry. There must be tension. Then, when they get together, you need to make sure you don’t feed the reader a spoonful of your own sexual fantasy, because they’re just as likely to love it as they are sitting, saying, “God, I hate it when a man does that.” .
The danger of writing erotic sex scenes for the general reader is that all of our sex experiences are so different and personal. What one reader considers a true reflection of sex may seem absurd to the next. What one is hot, the other is not. Not everyone will like it.
It is unusual to see on the Internet reviews of readers with one star, based solely on the origin of the word “f —“. Yes, in 2022. So imagine what fire and brimstone are falling on those who dare to describe sex between adults by consent. And those reviews come regardless of whether you nailed the scene or not.
In my new novel, Lessons one of the characters is a prose writer. Faced with a reader who tells her that a woman would not do as her hero did, my novelist replies, “I don’t need to convince you that all women would do, just what my individual hero would do. And when you say Donna is real, I think I am.
Similarly, the writer, when considering the sex scene, must focus on the needs of the characters. The writer doesn’t need to convince the reader that they know what sex is, he just needs to convince us that they know what sex is for their characters.
But then the writer has to think about whether to include the scene at all. Sex in fiction is just as important as in life, but is it worth the meteor shower with one-star reviews? Since a writing career, like a local coffee shop, lives or dies on the basis of such thoughtful criticism, it probably doesn’t.
John Purcell is the author Lessons and The girl on the page.