“As a matter of fact,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I am a professional literary thief, hot after the best methods of every writer in my generation.”
And oh, how hot we writers are. We are professional literary thieves, even if we don’t know it; we absorb and take and study. We steal style (think stream-of-consciousness). We steal plot (think The Hours and Cunningham’s adaptation of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway). We steal the “vibe” of something—using epigraphs as a way to get the spirit and energy of another author’s work. And we steal nerve. We’ve probably all felt exhilarated after reading an author who makes us feel differently.
Gabriel García Marquez, after reading the first line of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, wrote: “When I read that line, I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing.”
It is this kind of stealing that I’m most interested in. Indeed, my thievery involves stealing one thing—the nerve to write about sex. Not romance, not porn, but sex, the real mess of it, the moments that don’t go well, the times that do, the embarrassing or vulnerable moments that happen when two people get together, naked.
For nearly two decades, I’ve been paying serious attention to sex scenes in literature: Who was writing sex scenes well? Who was doing it poorly? What made one sex scene moving and another laughable? Who was writing about sex in middle age, or in old age, or in very young age? Which author received the Bad Sex in Fiction award, famously sponsored by the London-based Literary Review? And who was writing about sex as it really is—not just wonderful orgasmic stuff but also the mundane, irritating, manipulative, hurtful, or, yes, the fabulous thing it can be?
If my study revealed one thing, it’s the lack thereof. Frankly, I’ve been surprised by the number of times good authors let the characters wander off into the bedroom, then take a chapter break, and have the story continue on the next day. Really? Nothing intimate or revealing happened there? Years went by in these characters’ lives with no mention of sex or yearning at all? In some cases, I guess I’d be willing to believe it, but in other cases, I thought the authors were caving in to the fact that, yes, it’s hard to write sex scenes. You risk being laughed at, you risk winning bad-sex-writing awards, you risk being accused of wandering from sentiment into sentimentality.
I get it. Sex scenes are hard to write. That’s why there are so many articles and classes offered on how to write them, many of these offering really good advice—the same advice I took from the greats. Watch out for names of body parts. Avoid food euphemisms. And above all else, don’t avoid the sex, but at the same time, never, ever make it gratuitous. Sex is in the story for a reason. It furthers the themes and plots and characterizations, just like it does in real life. And it should be real: an elbow whacking a nose, a cramp in the leg, an embarrassing lack of completion. Because that’s what happens, and it’s human, and it’s good. In a society that can be oddly prudish on one hand, and yet pornographic on the other, we have lost sight of the honest portrayal of sex—and the little details that make it so very vulnerable and intimate.
By stealing nerve from great authors, I stretched my own boundaries. I studied Chaucer and Shakespeare, and I learned from contemporary writers like Susan Minot, Sharon Olds, Charles Baxter, Nicholson Baker, John Updike, Erica Jong, Jane Smiley—all of whom, as Philip Roth noted in American Pastoral, seem to agree the body’s surface is “about as serious a thing as there is in life.”
I read these authors, took notes, and gave myself various assignments: Write a scene with unsuccessful sex. Write about sex in which someone has an STD. Write about affairs. Write about sex where the age difference is not socially acceptable.
Not all my writer friends are convinced; many simply don’t want to follow their characters into the bedroom. But I consider writing about sex a privilege—to not only try to tell a good story but to explore and illuminate emotional and psychological truths and get as open, real, and messy as possible.
I will continue to favor writers who are raw with their hearts and souls and bodies—who could never, ever, be accused of being prudish or muted or safe, and I’ll keep stealing from them. I’m proud of my thievery, because it helps me as a writer. I, too, am hot after the best methods of every writer of my generation, especially those who are willing to look under the sheets.
Laura Pritchett’s new novel, The Blue Hour, will be published in February by Counterpoint.