“A Certain Pleasant Darkness”: What Makes a Good Fictional Sex Scene? | Books
One of my favorite literary sex scenes is fast and quiet. In Colm Tóibín’s The Pearl Fishers, a homosexual dining with a former lover and that lover’s wife – fanatically Catholic – thinks, with a flash of candor, about the rimming past. This doesn’t read as a calculated shock, just fun; the story continues and the image fades. No points made, no one humiliated, no corny I got you! occurs. There are only three people: a deceiver (husband), a pious (wife), and an emboldened but lonely one. The point is nuanced humanity. it’s hot.
It has been noted that recent writing on sex written primarily by young women tends towards the sordid, abject and confrontational. Part of that, I can tell you, is that the app-based erotic culture in the metropolises of late capitalism can really be sordid, abject and confrontational. If people’s lives become miserable factories of boredom and humiliation, they will tend to pick on each other. I know this because I am Irish. People think this country was bothered for most of the 20th century by the church, but it was also bothered by poverty and related shame. #NotallIrish of course; some people belonged to a more sex-positive cosmopolitan elite class, some were able to smuggle condoms. And yet the fact that it still seems impossible to talk about sex and Ireland without mentioning prison laundries speaks volumes.
When I was little this attitude was challenged and modernized so that sexuality in Ireland is now subject to liberal legal safeguards (divorce, equality in marriage, abortion) as well as the less uplifting aspects of the logic of consumption (the body as a brand, sex as performance, beauty as standardized). But in rushing to dwell on our moral banality now, we miss a few tricks. On the one hand, a culture of trauma doesn’t just step into the pastoral zone of zipless fucking; on the other hand, the idea of the body as an object, of the person as a product, seems rather Like the experience of Catholic shame, since in both cases the body is instrumentalized.
Because I’ve written awkward sex — because my sex scenes have been bizarre, involving anatomical descriptions and creamy neo-Palladian ceilings — I’m being asked if I fear the Bad Sex award. But when writers are nominated, it’s usually because the sex they wrote is phenomenologically unlikely, all the anxious throbbing and thinly veiled messiah complexes revealed by ridiculous descriptions of the penis. On the other hand, when done well, a sex scene will not just titillate but introduce a kind of vertigo into the reading experience – desire, real desire, is not brilliant or purchasable or even particularly verbal. Seeing it revealed, when no kind of performance is involved, is like touching a slight or visible wound; a revelation of sudden and momentary pain.
In all the best erotic writing I’ve read – not really many, but the most specific and sexiest examples have stuck with me – a certain pleasant darkness is revealed. Not the darkness of ordinary misogyny, but of silly pleasure or exquisite tenderness. To explain these two, I’d say Silly Pleasure is a Michel Houellebecq protagonist watching teenage nymphs splashing in a shower “like otters”; tenderness is two men in a Kate O’Brien novel that make the whole book banned in Ireland for being spotted in “Love’s Embrace”. In Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, lost virginity is painted in a scene of black pain followed by the sounds of the environment – seagulls and waves – and it’s particularly perfect.
As a teenager I read Letter from Arthur Rimbaud to Paul Verlaine after the latter had abandoned him: “I promise, he pleads, to be good”. Even though Verlaine then shot Rimbaud through the hand, got arrested and found God, it’s still one of the saddest and sexiest little cries of erotic love I’ve ever read , as is all of A Season in Hell. And in the same way that the outsider pragmatism of Lady’s song Yankin is far sexier than Cardi B’s WAP, Alan Hollinghurst’s literal and respectful tales of dating men are often better than the deadpan confessional approach to the fashion. He is life, I suppose, without hatred: to desire and to receive and to have abilities for another person is to be alive. Writing that makes me think I probably didn’t mess up my religious training after all, that I’m just a soft-hearted fool. The works I’ve listed here all have a certain quality of erotic generosity that I’ve borrowed in one way or another, or just think about on a fairly regular basis. I hope you enjoy.
10 of the best portrayals of sex in fiction
Hooded by Emma Donoghue
I read this in college, squished in my boyfriend’s single bed, where we used to read our homework so we could warm up. Ghost, remembered sex with flashing nipples in front of eyes. Red velvet cake. Death.
The Pearl Fishers of Colm Tóibín
In several of Tóibín’s works, a male character is seen undressing modestly on the side of the bed, as if shy, even after sex. It’s a small floating image for intimacy – the love object as unknowable – and it’s beautiful.
Cleanliness by Garth Greenwell
The planar style and lack of quotes means you never know what will happen next in the cold, blunt, and sexy world of this book.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Pubescent “girls” (well, a girl and a non-binary person) spontaneously kiss underwater, and someone’s breath is “sweet as medicine.”
Charlotte Roche Wetlands
Picturesque, really, to remember how controversial this book was. Among other things, he accurately records the utter pleasure of locking himself in a bathroom and lightly twisting Q-tips into the first part of his ear canal to achieve a hysterical orgasm.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh’s Dead Dog
A silent paragraph in this tale of middle-aged weariness, dying friends and absent lovers sees the protagonist lying naked on a couch waiting for his laundry to dry and thinking of a woman whose face becomes “in stages always more beautiful when they make love”.
The platonic blow of WH Auden
A piece of enjoyable titillation and a useful instruction manual in one. I never got over the summer air smelling “like a locker room”.
A Romantic Weekend by Mary Gaitskill
I read this on one of the least romantic weekends of my life, hiding from my tormentors in a giant bath. I’m not saying it was unpleasant.
Alan Hollinghurst’s Folding Star
This novel goes where Death in Venice could not.
Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
I was going to put something much more extreme here, but I still have to work in the civil service and look my parents in the eye. The book is more of a dream tale than a series of sex scenes. It’s tricky and uncomfortable.