Miranda July's short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You is a model of how to write sex in fiction. The sex occurs, as does everything else in her fictive universe, neutrally; that is to say, it occurs without any change of language or tone. It is described in exactly the same way - in her case, a rather detached way - as is every mundane activity. And Miranda July loves mundane activity. This approach, paradoxically, makes the sex seem even more naked, even more intimate. Sex in this world is mundane - as it is, one might venture, in ours.
Everyone has sex, just as everyone eats, yet we talk all the time about what we eat. To talk at work about last night's sex would be like talking about the morning's bowel movements. So of course it embarrasses novelists as well. And novelists, when they do give it a go, are quickly mocked for their attempts: every Internet troll makes the same joke along the lines of, "I couldn't help imagining [Author X]in every position he describes and whoa, how unwelcome an image!" It's a curious way to read a novel, perhaps a result of the personality-obsessed media coverage of fiction these days, but it has become a knee-jerk all the same.
I have always hoped and believed that pornography would eventually become more literary and literature more pornographic
And then of course the Brits give a lot of press to their annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards, a mean-spirited exercise in playground mockery and repression. It could only come from the Brits, such a powerful dismissal; indeed, the Bad Sex Awards were founded by Auberon Waugh, a political and social conservative, whose stated rationale was "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". In other words, it wasn't bad sex writing he was opposed to, it was any sex writing; sex scenes themselves were tasteless and redundant.
It's still interesting to see what consistently stimulates the derision of the Bad Sex judges. It's either sex that's scary - as in Jonathan Littell's gruesome Nazi fantasy, The Kindly Ones - or sex that's overblown, written in a poetic style that's pretentious. It's the language that's embarrassing as much as the actions described.
This is why, I think, sensitive people are wrong when they chant in unison, "The brain is the most erotic organ." That just sounds prissy to me; it means they are going to be a little revolted when I wave any other body part in their face. Of course sex is about body parts; it's when we are hesitant about naming them, when we resort to euphemism and metaphor, or when we spend too long on the emotional significance of physical union in order to justify its description - and I would say the same about explaining too much emotional significance in any fictive narration, sexual or not - that's when we end up with lines about touching the core of her being or exploding in light; that's what makes people snicker.
It's easy to find sex scenes funny: They are funny as soon as you isolate them from their context. And English is a difficult language to write sex in. It is hard and Germanic. It sounds either clinical or comical. Or, if you choose to use slang terms for body parts and activities instead of proper terms, it sounds rough and crude.
A few years ago, I set out to write a pornographic novel (I prefer that word to "erotica," which I find cowardly). I wanted to try it first as an exercise, to get over my hesitation in writing sex, and to explore ways of using language that weren't comical or clinical or crude. It was really tough. There are only so many body parts, so many acts, and so many words to describe them. I found myself being repetitive. My solution to the linguistic problem was just to try to be as specific and precise about physical acts as possible. I always want to document exactly which finger goes where.
I was hoping, too, in introducing more graphic sex into my fiction, to try to rub away, so to speak, a little more of that blurry line between the artistic and the pornographic. I have always hoped and believed that pornography would eventually become more literary and literature more pornographic. I think in my case the exercise has worked: in my new novel, Girl Crazy, I wrote a lot of sex scenes without really thinking of them as such. It's not a sex novel, not a genre novel; it's a serious novel. The sex scenes are just a part of the emotional narrative, just as the weather might be. They're not meant primarily to arouse, although I won't complain if they do. That's a relief for a writer - it means I don't have to worry if they have this physical effect or not. All I care about in this case is whether the reader cares or not what is going on.
I hope she does. Because I can't imagine understanding the characters without understanding what they do in bed. In fact, I would say this about real people too.
Russell Smith is a Toronto novelist who writes regularly for the Globe and Mail. His new novel, Girl Crazy, is in stores now.