Not Just Sex for Sex’s Sake

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.)

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4 Comments to Not Just Sex for Sex’s Sake

  1. Karen Wall's Gravatar Karen Wall
    January 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    This is another reason I’m looking forward to rereading Fear of Flying, I remember it being about a lot more than the infamous ‘zipless fuck.’

  2. January 30, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, not sure if you happened to see my own response to Roiphe’s piece, which was published at The Millions; but I’ve been encouraging a look at James Salter’s A SPORT AND A PASTIME, which I think is quite extraordinary in the canon of sex writing/erotic story-telling.

  3. Margarita's Gravatar Margarita
    January 30, 2010 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I couldn’t believe how a propos this was to the few recent reads on my list. There was much discussion on Goodreads about the sex scene in the book Brooklyn, that according to one reader, could turn a whole generation of teenagers away from ever trying sex at all (well, that’s a little overstating it). But then, isn’t that the whole point, since the both characters rush from the bed straight to confession?! And we are not speaking about teenagers, either. As far as the baggage that comes with the sex of literary characters there is almost nothing I’ve read lately that could match the love affair of the 36 year old Hannah Schmitz and her 15 year old reader-lover Michael Berg in Schlink’s The Reader. And yes, in both cases there is *a lot* more to these books but the importance of the sexual tension to these stories is huge.

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