Over at The Rumpus last week, Jami Attenberg and Kate Christensen had a gratifyingly indelicate conversation about sex and writing (with a very NSFW tab header, if there’s any danger of someone reading over your shoulder). It made me nod in agreement, it made me want a whiskey straight up and a cigarette, and it definitely made me want to check out Attenberg’s new novel, The Melting Season. But more than that, I found it refreshing to read a discussion of sex in fiction that gets right to the heart of the matter. She admits:
Most of the sex in my books is not particularly good sex. It’s funny sex, or it’s sad sex, or it’s angry sex. But it’s not sex coming out of love or a necessarily healthy-passionate place. It’ll hopefully teach you something about the character though.
And right there, that’s what bugged me about Katie Roiphe’s infamous springboard of an article on Sex and the Great Male Novelists in the New York Times a few weeks back. She had a lot to say about the written sex itself, which of course is fun and titillating to talk about, and the authors—the men—writing about all this sex and then not writing about it. But I think focusing on that by itself is just dogearing the pages that have dirty parts. It’s not really about writing.
Unless you’re doing erotica, a sex scene isn’t sitting there in the story to entertain. Like any other element in good storytelling, it’s there to move the plot or develop character, bloodless as that sounds. Sex scenes are a way in; they’re information on how a person operates in the world and how the world operates on him, often literally. The context of that world has at least as much to do with the sex being rendered as the author does. A John Updike blowjob carries a whole different set of baggage from the head a guy gets in a Steve Almond story; Alexander Portnoy is jerking off within an entirely different cultural construct from the kid in Raymond Carver’s “Nobody Said Anything” or Jonathan Franzen’s hapless Chip in The Corrections. It’s like the inverse of a cigar sometimes being just a cigar—sometimes sex is subliminal code for everything else. That’s what went so wrong with all that green dildo action in Philip Roth’s last novel: It was just sex for sex’s sake.
So it’s nice to move away from all the winky nudgy business and get back to the writing. A good sex scene is a pleasure, but it needs a job to do, and that’s not a function of a writer’s gender or generation but of intent and skill. I’m definitely looking forward to reading Jami Attenberg’s new book—and not just for the sex.
(Image courtesy of XKCD. Thanks, Daniel.)