The Bad Sex award

The Bad Sex award for 2015 was given out last December.  Guess I missed it.  Here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about it.  The British award is given out for badly written erotic passages in otherwise good novels.  The winner was the singer Morrissey for a ridiculous passage in his novel List of the Lost.  The article makes the point that fear of being nominated for the award may actually be having a beneficial effect on literature, at least in the UK:

Grandees of the English novel are now hardly ever shortlisted because even the likes of Ian McEwan and Howard Jacobson now eschew sexual description, quite possibly in part due to awareness that such scenes could be performed to a baying, champagne-guzzling audience at the In And Out club the following December; and newcomers emerge from their creative writing degrees equally convinced that they’re best avoided.

I find writing a sex scene to be difficult.  Here’s the problem: a sex scene in most novels tends to be important; something major is happening to central characters.  (If they’re not central, why are you showing them having sex?)  Important scenes require vivid writing; you can’t just say: “They went into the bedroom, took their clothes off, and made love.”  So you want to ramp up the prose.  But what can you say about sex that hasn’t already been said?  You start reaching for metaphors, and before you know it you’re heading towards a Bad Sex nomination.

The thing to do, I think, is to focus on the characters’ reactions to what is happening, their emotions, rather than physical description.  Because the characters are what matter, after all; not the sex.  So sex scenes become exercises in characterization, not description.

By the way, Lee Child wants no part of writing sex scenes in his Jack Reacher novels.  He usually summarizes them briefly after the fact.  It had been good, Reacher thought.  It had been very good.  This is actually a good approach for Child.  A very good approach.  I wish he’d use the same approach for exploding brains and the like.

Keep it short, except when it needs to be long

Here’s a New York Times op-ed that spends 800 words or so extolling the virtues of brevity when it comes to writing.  Except, of course, the author doesn’t really mean that.  It’s only towards the end that he quotes from Strunk and White, who say what he really means:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Got it.  Now, why did we need the other 700 words?

This comes to mind when reading this listicle from The American Scholar listing the “ten best sentences,” which presumably boils down to “ten sentences that the editors really like.”  Many of them are decidedly not short, like this one from Nicholas Nickleby:

There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.

But here is a brief beauty from Lolita:

There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.

And in the comments someone mentions one of my favorites — this classic from Ring Lardner:

“Shut up,” he explained.

Every word tells.