(I know, I’m probably the four hundredth person to use that as a title for a blog post. It’s early in the morning.)
One of the most encouraging responses I have had about Going Back related to the sex in it. To get a positive reaction to a scene I had agonised over was a relief, and perhaps will allow me to write sex scenes in future without looking over my shoulder, wondering if those prigs from the Bad Sex Awards are waiting to pounce.
For it must be Bad Sex Awards time again; I have seen several references to brie in my Twitter feed in the last 24 hours. Encouragingly, however, I have also read one response which suggests that there may, at last, be some kind of backlash starting. If there is to be a popular revolt against this oddly British prudishness, count me in. I have read extracts from this years nominees (warning; extracts do contain, you know, rude words and that) and I have drawn two conclusions: firstly, there are at least two books on that list which I had not previously heard of which I now will buy and read, because the prose is enticing and I want to know more; secondly, that I had no idea there was a novel by Woody Guthrie out there, and even if it is as rough and ready as that excerpt suggests, I’d like to read it.
Which, of course, slightly undermines my position, since the existence of the literary world’s most Victorian prize has actually publicised and sold books to me. Nevertheless, I shall remain steadfast in my opposition to it, because it is a Bad Thing.
Why? Well, for all the reasons Laurie Penny gives in that New Statesman article I linked to up there, but also, and fundamentally for me, it is because it judges bleeding chunks of text ripped from the still-warm bodies of their context by people with such a tin ear for language that I wonder if they had read the whole book in question at all. For example, in 2004, Tom Wolfe won for a passage from ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons’. The winning paragraphs are unerotic, deeply unsettling and can cause actual queasiness in the unwary. Which is exactly the effect Wolfe was aiming at – the sex he depicts is meant to engender revulsion in the reader, and it is related in the voice of Charlotte; in exactly the same voice she uses to narrate the rest of the book. If you’ve read the whole thing, you might not like it, but you can’t possibly call Charlotte’s gruesome deflowering ‘redundant’ or ‘egregious” or any of those other words the Literary Review likes to spray around.
Leave the descriptions and depictions of sex in context, and the winners of any Bad Sex award should only go to those writers who, perhaps made nervous by the mere existence of the award, leave their poor reader unsure if their characters have slept together or merely held hands on a clifftop while waves pounded the rocks below as the 8.15 from Penzance disappeared into a tunnel behind them.
Which is not to say that we should be witness to every twitch and thrust of every character in fiction. The guiding principle remains “What do I lose if I replace this intimate description of glistening limbs and heaving bosoms with the words ‘they had sex’?” If the answer is “not much”, then leave it out. There are three sex scenes in Going Back – one is essential to the plot; the reader needs to know not only that it happened, but exactly what happened and how; the second takes place more or less off-screen, we are only privy to the aftermath, and the third, lovingly described in detail I instantly regretted, now takes place after the novel is finished; it didn’t need to be there, so it now only exists in a file on my hard drive, and there it will stay, thank you very much. Had I left it in, I would probably have been eligible for a Bad Sex Award, and I’d have deserved it.
But passages like that don’t win Bad Sex Awards; passages which cause uptight judges to blush or involve soft French cheese win awards. Passages which make perfect sense in the context of the whole novel win awards. The best and only way to respond to this priggishness is to go out and buy many copies of the winning book. We shall not be shamed by those who’d rather we closed the bedroom door and stayed on the outside. And if you need to see my characters having sex, see it you shall.