A Bad Case of Writer’s Cock 

And Other Perils of the Literary Love Scene

 

One would never be so indecorous as to suggest that censorship might actually be a good thing. We live, after all, in a society where self-expression is sacrosanct, a thing afforded the sort of reverence once reserved for broadcast news personalities or a mother’s love. It remains true that certain things are better left unsaid, but there’s little profit these days in going around telling people to unsay them. A man’s wild yawp is a thing to be respected, and he may yawp it wherever he pleases.
It’s taken us a while to get here, with many a battle waged over the centuries as scribblers and those who put up with them slowly carved out their right to, say, criticize the czar or scandalize the bourgeoisie or, taking a more current example, make a killing by charming a talk show host with a fraudulent volume of weepy addict-porn. Sometimes, though, as the saying goes, when you win, you really lose. Which is to say that, with freedom comes responsibility, and for the modern writer there’s no more onerous responsibility than that of the literary love scene.

Back in suppression’s golden ages, no such thing was expected of an author. If his novel called for a touch of amour, he simply herded his charges into a drawing room, arranged for a kiss or a passionate clutch, faded the scene to black and then knocked off to the bar for the day. In the rare cases where something a bit more explicit was required, he might switch to a shot of horses rutting in a pasture or a locomotive steaming its way through a tunnel. Anything more graphic and he’d likely find himself brought before the magistrate on obscenity charges. There was little point in swinging by his characters’ bedchambers, there being nothing much for him to do there anyway.

Not so, however, today. Things being what they are, a person could probably publish the unexpurgated contents of the Penthouse Forum slush pile and draw only a vague murmur of disapproval in return. So far as sex goes, writers are pretty much free to have at it with whatever weapons they choose. And having been given this opportunity, it’s pretty much expected that they’ll be gracious enough to take advantage of it.

Which is, in a word, unfortunate. Because, while sex might work just fine on-screen or on the blogs of some pseudonymous Internet diarists, in the hands of highbrow literary talent it somehow seems frightfully often to go horribly, hilariously wrong.
At root, this is a matter of ego. The wise, which in this case means the humble, recognize what it is that they’re up against; they understand and approach with proper trembling the unique pressures of the modern age. Dickens never had to write a convincing blowjob scene. No one ever suggested that Chekhov compare a woman’s breast to a pomegranate. Jane Austen never felt any need to detail the genitalia of some middle-aged Garden State adulterer. Relatively speaking, this is all fairly new territory.

Which makes a bit of timidity, a smidge of caution, a very handy thing — discretion being the better part of valor and such. Sex, for all the psychological heft it carries around, is an inherently ridiculous act. Oh, you may think you look pretty hot having at it, but the truth is, you almost certainly don’t. You look, to be perfectly honest, kind of silly. Which, hey, is no big thing. After all, you’re busy here, and, provided you’re not one of those people who’ve outfitted their bedrooms with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, you probably can’t get all that good a view of yourself anyway. And, so long as the details remain a touch jumbled, a bit out of focus, the illusion of seriousness, the dignity of one’s emotion, can come out of the business reasonably unscathed.

It’s when you try sorting it all out on a page that strangers begin to snicker. The best way around this problem is simple avoidance. By all means, feel free to send your characters off on any number of gloriously steamy romps; just don’t write about them. The moment the clothing begins to fall, race off into ambiguity’s lukewarm embrace.
For instance:

“…we burst through the door, disrobed our way through the living room and collapsed into her queen-sized bed. And what happened there all felt very good…”

An exemplary bit from recently minted wunderkind  Benjamin Kunkel. The whole thing is handled in two quick sentences, with nary a bobbing member or engorged metaphor to be found.

Less successful to my mind, but also fairly popular, is an approach perhaps best described as a sort of sexual synecdoche — the character him - or herself serving as stand-in for more specific, but never quite mentioned, quantities.

“...Rosalind reaches down and takes firm hold of him,” writes Ian McEwan in Saturday. By which, of course, he means to say that Rosalind has some guy’s dick in her hand. It’s just that, well, it sounds a little bit better the first way — particularly if you’re Rosalind’s old boyfriend. He entered her. She reached for him. Sure, they sound more like they’re clutching at gearshifts or going through revolving doors than getting it on, but truly, this is a small price to pay for the vagueness the technique affords.

Because the alternative is, well, this:

“She responded with new vibrations along every inch of her skin, and on each one I found a distinctive heat, a unique taste, a different moan, and her entire body resonated inside with an arpeggio, and her nipples opened and flowered without being touched.”

Or, this:

“Boonyi pulled her phiran and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked except for the little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot.”

Or, perhaps even this:

“…the hot grip of her mouth, triggered his orgasm, which was not juice at all but a demon eel thrashing in his loins and swimming swiftly up his cock.”

Flowering nipples? (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores) Little pots of fire? (Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown) A demon eel thrashing in some guy’s loins? (Paul Theroux, Blinding Light) Crikey, boys.
Settle down. Let’s not give ourselves aneurysms here.

And then, of course, there is Updike, a man who sits in a class all his own. A few selections from his most recent outing, Villages:

“…her hand dropped and, for the first time ever, began fumbling at his belt buckle to release it, its imperious pressure.”

“…this sore-looking, blue-veined thing was himself. These hair-adorned nether parts.”

“…he knelt between her legs and combed her luxuriant pussy, now his, as if preparing a fleecy lamb for sacrifice.”

“…her cunt did not feel like Phyllis’s. Smoother, somehow simpler, its wetness less thick, less of a sauce, more of a glaze.”
Umm… what? Can you really write that? Apparently, you can. But, again, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Now approaching his mid-seventies, Updike seems still enamored of his penis to an extent one can only describe as heroic. He is a one-man riot of randy prose, still packing his novels with sex scenes overwrought enough to make even the most world-weary of porn starlets giggle. Virtuosity put to servicing absurdity — it’s not a pretty sight.

It’s more often than not what you get, though, when otherwise great authors turn on their bedroom eyes. Convinced that they’re good enough to write about anything, they actually try. Meanwhile, we’re left to lay beneath them, meekly submitting to their ministrations. A tweak, a twist, a bite, a kiss... on and on they go, delighting in what they no doubt see as their unparalleled toolbox of tricks. That isn’t pleasure we’re smiling with, though. It’s just the first, stifled sign of a massive laughing jag. Thanks, fellas. You were wonderful. Really.

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