‘A certain pleasant darkness’: what makes a good fictional sex scene? | Books

ORne of my favorite literary sex scenes is a swift and quiet one. In Colm Tóibín’s The Pearl Fishers, a gay man having dinner with a former lover and this lover’s – fanatically Catholic – wife thinks, with a flash of candidness, of anilingus past. It doesn’t read like a calculated shock, just pleasure; the story moves on and the image melts out. No point is made, nobody humiliated, no corny gotcha! occurs. There are only three people: one deceiving (husband), one pious (wife) and one emboldened but alone. The point is nuanced humanity. It’s hot.

It has been remarked upon that recent writing about sex by, in the main, young women tends towards the squalid, abject and confrontational. I can tell you that this is partly down to the fact that app-based erotic culture in the metropolises of late capitalism really can be squalid, abject and confrontational. If people’s lives become miserable mills of boredom and humiliation they will tend to take it out on one another. I know this because I am Irish. People think this country was deranged for most of the 20th century by the church, but it was also deranged by poverty and, relatedly, shame. #NotallIrish of course; some people belonged to a more sex-positive cosmopolitan elite class, some were able to smuggle in condoms. And yet, the fact that it still feels impossible to discuss sex and Ireland without mentioning penitentiary laundries says a lot.

Colm Tóibín, whose depictions of sex reveal ‘nuanced humanity’. Photograph: Tim Knox/The Guardian

When I was growing up, this attitude was shaken up and modernised, such that sexuality in Ireland is now subject to liberal legal safeguards (divorce, marriage equality, abortion) as well as the less edifying aspects of consumer logic (body as brand, sex as performance, beauty as standardized). But in rushing to insist on our moral banality now, we miss some tricks. For one thing, a culture of trauma doesn’t simply walk into the pastoral zone of the zipless fuck; for another, the idea of ​​body as object, of person as product, looks rather like the experience of Catholic shame, since in either case the body is instrumentalised.

Because I have written some awkward sex – because my sex scenes have been weird, involving anatomical descriptions and creamy neo-Palladian ceilings – I get asked if I fear the Bad Sex award. But when writers are nominated it is usually because the sex they’ve written is phenomenologically unlikely, all anxious palping and tooth-rattling or thinly veiled messiah complexes revealed through ludicrous descriptions of the penis. On the other hand, when done well, a sex scene won’t only titillate but introduce some kind of vertigo into the reading experience – desire, real desire, is not shiny or shoppable or even especially verbal. Seeing it revealed, when no kind of performance is involved, it is like touching a slight or glancing wound; a jolting, momentary revelation of pain.

In all the best erotic writing I’ve read – not a lot really, but the most accurate and enviably sexy examples have stayed with me – a certain pleasant darkness is revealed. Not the darkness of ordinary misogyny, but of idiotic pleasure or exquisite tenderness. To explain these two, I might say idiot pleasure is a Michel Houellebecq protagonist observing nymphlike teenagers splashing under a shower “like otters”; tenderness is two men in a Kate O’Brien novel causing the entire book to be banned in Ireland for being spotted in “the embrace of love”. In Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys, lost virginity is painted in a scene of blackout pain followed by the sounds of the environment – ​​gulls and waves – and this is peculiarly perfect.

As a teenager I read Arthur Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Verlaine after the latter abandoned him: “I promise,” he pleads, “to be good.” Even though Verlaine later shot Rimbaud through the hand, got arrested and found God, this is still one of the saddest, sexiest little cries of erotic love I’ve ever read, as is the whole of A Season in Hell. And in the same way that the underdog pragmatism of the song Yankin by Lady is way sexier than Cardi B’s WAP, Alan Hollinghurst’s reverently literal accounts of encounters between men are often better than the on-trend confessional deadpan approach. It is life, I suppose, without hatred: to desire and receive and have capacity for another person is to be alive. Writing that makes me think I probably haven’t wasted my religious formation after all, that I am but a soft-hearted fool. The works I’ve listed here all have some quality of erotic largesse I’ve borrowed from in some way, or just think about relatively regularly. I hope you enjoy.

10 of the best depictions of sex in fiction

Hood by Emma Donoghue
I read this in college, crushed into my boyfriend’s single bed, which was where we used to do our homework reading so we could keep warm. Phantom, remembered sex with nipples flashing before the eyes. Red Velvet Cake. Death.

The Pearl Fishers by Colm Tóibín
In several of Tóibín’s works a male figure is seen to undress modestly at the side of the bed, as if shy, even after sex. It’s a little floating image for privacy – the love object as unknowable – and it’s beautiful.

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell
Planar style and no quotation marks mean you never know what will happen next in the cold, frank, sexily unnerving world of this book.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Pubescent “girls” (well, one girl and one non-binary person) kiss spontaneously underwater, and somebody’s breath is “medicine sweet”.

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche
Quaint, really, to remember how controversial this book was. Among other things, it accurately records the total pleasure of locking oneself in a bathroom and lightly twisting Q-tips in the first part of one’s ear canal to achieve hysterical orgasm.

Dead Dog by Philip Ó Ceallaigh
One quiet paragraph in this story of middle-aged lassitude, dying friends, and absent lovers sees the protagonist lying naked on a sofa as he waits for his washing to dry and thinking of a woman whose face becomes “in stages ever more beautiful when they made love”.

The Platonic Blow by W. H. Auden
A piece of pleasant titillation and a helpful instruction manual in one. I’ve never got over 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.

The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst
This novel goes where Death in Venice could not.

Delta of Venus by Anais Nin
I was going to put something far more extreme here, but I still have to work in the public service and look my parents in the eyes. The book is more dream narrative than a series of sex scenes. It’s artful and uncomfortable.

When We Were Young by Niamh Campbell is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.