I’ve never written a novel, but I’ve always imagined putting sex into words to be one of the hardest feats a writer can face. Novelists can invest blood, sweat and tears into their books, but as their central characters start edging towards the bedroom their words can stumble awkwardly like a nervous sexual encounter you’d rather block from memory. But let’s be honest, how can a writer encapsulate the erotic arousal and the tender provocativeness of the longed-for moment?
It’s been an issue throughout history, even for the literary greats. D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover is probably a good place to start. After reading the novel there’s probably around 20 different names Lawrence gives to the female anatomy- I lost count when it came to the males- none of which evoke any sensuous feelings, simply sniggers and giggles. Whilst in any sex scene most of the males partake in nothing more than primordial thrusting, which hardly sounds passionate. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill isn’t much of an improvement, as the female protagonist describes the ‘maypole of so enormous standard’- cringe.
Two of the most celebrated sexual encounters in contemporary literature can be found in Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong. Even if you haven’t read McEwan’s novel, the film featuring Kiera Knightly and James McAvoy sees their racey encounter in the library, Keira pushed up against the bookcases in a moment of pure ecstasy. In a similar way, the film adaptation of Birdsong showcases the beautiful French actress Clémence Poésy and Eddie Redmayne in their secret moments of passion in the red room. But if you have a moment to spare to read the books themselves, I would seriously recommend it.
Both novels score highly on erotic-build up, capturing the physical and emotional intensity of their desires, with descriptions a million miles away from the crude and badly- written novel 50 Shades of Grey. McEwan and Faulk also add depth to these sex scenes, intertwining into the story the inevitable destruction of the couple’s love and passion. The famous scenes in the library and in the red room are not only erotic but moving.
However, the sex scenes in Birdsong seem to have deeply divided critics. Some have condemned the encounters as the ‘worst part of the book’, declaring that Faulk should have focused on the trenches and the warfare where his writing truly flourished. However, many of my friends have disagreed, one saying that the moments of desire were in fact the ‘best moments of the book’.
From reading reviews of both novels, it is clear that unless you are writing erotica for the masses as did E L James with her sexually fuelled, over-powering male Mr Christian Grey, then depicting romantic scenes is actually very difficult. It seems that writers can either be erotic, or convincing- rarely both. Faulk’s other novel Charlotte Grey won an award which I suspect won’t be featuring on his mantel piece- the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award (ouch).
The best a writer can do is to create a mood, a charged feeling and hope. After trawling through other writer’s sexual expositions, for me, McEwan and Faulk hit in the nail on the head and still remain in my eyes the best sex in literature.