The short list for the 2014 Bad Sex In Fiction Award has been announced, and luckily I am not on it. However I am bemused to find that an author I have lionised on this blog as a future contender for the Nobel Prize In Literature, Ben Okri, is! I am further bemused when I find that the passages quoted by the otherwise normally reliable Daily Telegraph do not appear to be particularly objectionable, so I assume that the Literary Review, who runs this reward, has issued this calumny against a Brother Author because they feeling abnormally prudish.
This has inspired me to write a special blog post, departing from the usual Occult theme, in which I discuss how to really write bad sex in fiction! So that my fellow authors can avoid doing so, obviously.
Alex’ Guide To Bad Sex In Fiction
Now the first and most important question is: Is sex necessary in this story?. This may quite justifiably be countered by: Is anything necessary in any given story? The answer to both is the same: if it is necessary for Character Development, and thus Plot development, Yes, if not, No.
This, incidentally, is why of all the sexual encounters that might possibly occur, the least appropriate in Fiction are those between a happily married husband and wife. It being assumed that happily married couples have sex on a regular basis, for them to do so in a Fictional novel is hardly going to provide any new instance of character development – thus it is completely gratuitous.
If, however, there is something unusual about the episode, then that it another matter entirely! (I mean “unusual” about the circumstances leading to the sexual encounter, not necessarily the sex itself – vide infra.) Unusual and remarkable circumstances create opportunities for character development. For example, if they are not in fact happily married, or one or both have an ulterior motive (e.g. murder, going on a long journey never to be seen again, etc), or one of them has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an identical imposter, etc.
The next important question is: how often should sex occur in a story? This rather depends on what level you are pitching the story. A useful rule of thumb would be as follows:
- If you are writing Literary Fiction, then – as many times as your manuscript has received rejection letters. *cough* ahem *cough* I mean, as many times as the plot structure dictates.
- If you are writing “Erotica,” which in modern terms is how smut-merchants sneak blatant pornography under Amazon.com’s radar – once every other page.
- If, however, you are writing what may quaintly be labelled “Contemporary Romance,” then this will be same as Erotica, except that the sex should be between two characters who love one another.
Thirdly, you need to consider: how much detail should you go into, with any given sex-scene? After careful consideration, I have come up with a fail-proof formula, to wit:
- E is the total amount of Explicitness;
- K is how Kinky the whole scene is;
- T is how much Trouble a reader would be in if they tried out whatever it was in real life; and
- s is how likely the author would be sued as a result thereof.
Note that in regard to establishing K, the kinkiness of the author’s own sex-life is not a reliable measure!
Instead, the author should think carefully about who his or her intended audience is, and then set the base-level of kinkiness for sex-scenes in the novel as one degree higher than the audience would normally encounter in their own lives. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who read fiction are seldom as perverted as the authors who write it. Instead, they come to fiction for an escapist thrill – i.e. what they would not normally experience, which they find vicariously in the exploits of the fictional characters in the novel. A higher standard is thus expected of writers than readers, as we are expected to carry out literary research!
However, by sticking to this formula one will ensure that vanilla fumblings in the missionary position will not normally detain the reader for more than a sentence or two: but instances of the more recondite positions of the Kama Sutra, or bizarre sexual acts such as those which pass for an ordinary night out at Kenneth Grant’s Typhonian OTO, merit more attention.
The variables T and s represent the fact that sometimes it is possible to go too far, although one has to keep this in perspective.