Our series on selecting material for great fiction takes a drunken look at writing about sex and booze.
Video transcript follows below:
It was Ernest Hemingway who famously said, ‘Write drunk, edit sober.’ Actually, as is the case with many great quotes, he never actually said that. But what does that matter? By the next morning, nobody could say for sure one way or the other.
But we’re not here to discuss the perils of writerly alcoholism – it’s probably already too late for you. And we’re certainly not here to discuss our sex lives because, since we’re writers, there’s not really very much to say. ‘Writers,’ Edward Hoagland observed, ‘customarily write in the morning and try to make news, make friends, or make love in the afternoon.’ ‘Try’ is the key word in that quote.
No, I want to address the behaviour of your characters, those miscreants. It’s often observed that no great story ever started with someone eating a salad; in contrast, if you’re from Scotland at least, most of your anecdotes probably start, ‘So, we’re in the boozer, right.’
And a problem I often see, particularly with young writers, is that they assume these escapades will hold their magic once transformed into prose fiction. They rarely do. The trouble is that what makes the drinker a source of excitement in real life – his loss of inhibitions, his carefree abandon – makes for a very boring protagonist in fiction. There’s no drama following a character who doesn’t have the sense to care. And so for every author who writes well about drugs or alcohol – a Hunter S Thompson or a Dennis Johnson, say – there are thousands of writers who forget that the experience of intoxication is usually more fun than reading about it.
This is definitely true of sex: as someone once said, describing intercourse act by act is like describing a meal bite by bite. Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write and even the best authors struggle – witness Zadie Smith’s ‘Howard pressed deeper three times, offering about half of his ample eight and a half inches.’ Additionally, as David Lodge put it, ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.’
If you write brilliantly sexy erotica, good for you – send me some – but few authors have that skill, and much of what passes for erotica is awful writing and unintentionally hilarious. Take Fifty Shades of Grey, for example:
I close my eyes, feeling the build up – that delicious, slow, step-climbing build. Pushing me higher, higher to the castle in the air. Oh yes … his stroke increases fractionally. I moan loudly. I am all sensation … all him, enjoying every thrust, every push that ﬁlls me. And he picks up the pace, thrusting faster … harder … and my whole body is moving to his rhythm, and I can feel my legs stiffening, and my insides quivering and quickening.
‘Come on, baby, give it up for me,’ he cajoles through gritted teeth.
Laugh all you want, thinks EL James; how many copies did you sell of your neglected metafictional post-postmodernist masterpiece The Deconstruction of Professor Thrub? She has a point.
But while there are many theories to explain why Fifty Shades sold so well, nobody, not even E.L. James’s mum, has claimed that the secret lies in the quality of the writing.
If you are going to write about sex, I recommend you write about bad sex, awkward sex, comical sex, nervous sex, or unhappy sex. All that business with tender caresses and loud moaning and simultaneous orgasms is brilliant in real life, or so I hear at least. And once again, that’s exactly the problem – there’s no drama to good sex, no conflict.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
(The thumbnail image used for this video was created by Lord Jim and is covered by a Creative Commons license. You can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lord-jim/)