The Difficulty of Writing About Sex

13/04/2012 17:43 | Updated 13 June 2012

W H Auden had this to say on the subject of praise - "Unimportant, but jolly to remember when falling asleep at night." Of the reviews of my novel Spring, the single comment that made me feel jolliest when falling asleep at night was: "It is the only novel I have read that brings to life the reality of a sexual affair", and it was so pleasing because "bringing to life the reality of a sexual affair" was exactly what I had set out to do. Unfortunately, to do that necessarily involved writing about sex, and to say that writing about sex is "difficult" is something of a critical, or at least journalistic, axiom. In this case, however, it was impossible to avoid. It's not that I wanted to write a novel about sex per se, but I did want to write a novel that was in some way about love, and you can't really do that now without writing about sex - and doing so with some degree of specificity, as opposed just pointing vaguely towards it and inviting the reader to fill in the blanks.

So what are the difficulties? Well, obviously the main one is how to avoid making a complete toe-curling fool of yourself. (And any sort of acquaintance with contemporary novels - including some otherwise very good ones - will make it clear that your publisher is not going to save you from yourself here.) First of all, there's the problem of tone. The easiest way to deal with this is through comedy. If done skilfully, this does not of course equate to not taking the subject seriously. It may indeed be the best way to take the subject seriously. Jokes are a refuge from real pain and humiliation - the funny ones are anyway - but it's a well-trodden path, and one it would be a pity to choose primarily out of a lack of nerve. Nor is it without pitfalls of its own. Sexual comedy will all too easily slip into flippancy, or cruelty, or - worst of all - a sort of horrific euphemism-ridden coyness. What's more, if you take a comic approach in order to negate the danger of being unintentionally funny by being intentionally funny, then it is important actually to be funny. To try to be funny and fail may be better than risible solemnity (what isn't?) but it hardly counts as success.

And what if you don't want to be funny about it at all? What other approaches might work? Well, risible solemnity should clearly be avoided. In fact it's probably best to avoid solemnity altogether - excruciating pretentiousness, on this subject, is never more than a unfortunate choice of word away. On the other hand, a straightforward, matter-of-fact descriptive tone is fairly safe. One excellent writer advised tackling descriptions of sex as if describing someone driving a car - that is, with a sort technical precision - and I think that's probably good advice as far as it goes. The trouble is that it will quite often fail to do justice to the experience being described.

Which brings us to another important issue - as happiness supposedly writes white, "good" sex is more or less impossible to describe adequately. Certainly, specific physiological description, the semi-technical someone-driving-a-car approach, won't work here. The passages in thrillers where the hero and the girl finally get it on are a case in point, and are always awful - a wretched check-list of acts and attributes, as banally plastic as professional pornography. Fortunately this isn't a major problem because, in books, the interest is always in things going wrong, and when things go wrong, they have to go wrong in a particular way, and to deal with that the precise, matter-of-fact approach works quite well, as far it goes. I say "as far as it goes" because obviously sex tends to be emotionally more complex than driving a car, and to convey that complexity - which, unless we really are making pornography, is what we're trying to do - something more is needed.

It's not really possible, I don't think, to prescribe, or even describe, what that something is. What I will say is that it will always involve an element of risk, of vulnerability - courage will always be involved. By playing it safe you may well be able to avoid making a fool of yourself, but you're unlikely to produce anything very interesting either.