Friday, 29 November 2013

How to write about, and portray sex in fiction.

"Like many younger readers who had not yet experienced sex, except with myself, I was deeply misled by 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', which seemed to insist that running naked through damp undergrowth, with wild flowers entwined in your pubic hair, was just about the closest thing to heaven."
In his Radio 3 Essay, 'Explaining the Explicit', Man Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes posed the question, "Is writing about sex, the same as writing about any other human activity - say gardening or cricket?" His exploration of the subject (including an amusing analysis of an Evelyn Waugh sex scene) was compelling, and went on to talk about self-consciousness and exposure; the fear that readers will assume the sexual encounters you're writing about actually happened to you, and how this impacts on the tone of the way you write about sex. "The naming of parts:  which parts do you name and what names do you give them? At the basic level... He put his what into her, or indeed his, what?"  He talks of John Updike comparing the male member, in one novel, to a yam, which made visualising the sexual scene difficult, the reader being distracted by mental images of a vegetable stall.

"The proper, grown up novel is the most intimate of art forms," concludes Barnes, "the one that puts the reader's mind and heart most closely in touch with the minds and hearts of the characters.  It is the place where the most truth about the intimacies of life can, and should, still be told." 

The full recording can be found here:    Explaining the Explicit

Last year, while completing a novel about a fairly dysfunctional (middle-class) family I found myself in the slightly uncomfortable position of having to write a sex scene.

Well, I say a sex scene, but love scene would describe it more accurately, because it's really rather tender and in many ways quite innocent, and though I found it necessary to describe the sleepy, sensual foreplay leading up to the sex act, I stopped short of portraying the intercourse itself, I'm not sure what Julian Barnes would say about that.

I had deliberated long and hard about whether to include the scene at all, but it was ultimately necessary, because the reader needed an awareness that this sixty-year-old protagonist, who is a remarkably likable character, isn't some sort of saint; he is real, vulnerable, sexual, like any other man.  And I think understanding his internal battle adds to our appreciation of his anguish, for the woman he has formed a deep bond with is his own niece.

Now hopefully, I dealt with that sensitively, and while the developing obsessional relationship between these two consenting adults is not entirely healthy, their involvement seeks to harm no-one else, and it's our own narrow-mindedness as the reader, perhaps, which might object to the thought of these two having sex.

More recently, I've been adapting 'Attachment' to a radio play script, and this has given me the added difficulty of portraying sex, through dialogue and sound affects alone.  Given these would-be lovers are barely conscious there isn't a lot of dialogue in the novel, the scene is set through the prose, and so I fear I shall be left relying on sounds, as in, sex sound (or at least foreplay sounds) to convey this love scene in a radio drama version.  This indeed has presented me with a new challenge, how do I achieve this in a tasteful way?.

BBC Radio listeners do not always appreciate such subject matter.  Recently the corporation received several complaints about love scenes portrayed on The Archers, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, and a Woman's Hour drama, with one listener stating:  “Please can all the grunts and grinds of people humping each other stop.  We don’t need that – we’d rather hear the pigs doing it.”

The British public have always been famously prudish about sex and nudity in its serious form, with a preference to reduce the subject to the somewhat immature schoolboy humour of the Carry On tradition.

Back in April 1970 acting stars Susan Penhaligon and Michael Mackenzie set pulses racing and tongues wagging, when they dared to portray an authentic scene from Romeo and Juliet naked in bed, at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing. In total, there were ninety seconds of nudity within the two and a half hour performance, but local residents threatened to cause havoc with tomatoes and water pistols if the scene went ahead, such was the perception of an attack on Christian moral values.

In that same year The Sun newspaper introduced Page 3! The explicit objectification of bare breasts in their daily tabloid was popular enough to save it from declining sales. Clearly there has always been a strange, insidious double standard deep within the nation's collective unconscious, and one that's not at all healthy.  A mother breastfeeding a child on a train will still attract looks of disgust and condemnation!

It behoves all of us who work within the arts to try and educate society, and encourage exploration in a positive, healthy way.  For now, I shall return to agonising over the beautiful, yet problematic erotic scene in my script.

Please feel free to leave your comments, and any sensible tips or advice.

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