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Is There Any Great Sex in Literature?

Once again the Literary Review has announced the winner of its annual Bad Sex in Literature Awards, and once again I’m left strangely unsatisfied. What began as a novel exploration of a special kind of bad prose has become repetitive, tame, even exhausting. After a while all bad sex scenes sound alike: tone-deaf use of slang words for genitalia (or use of the word “genitalia”), misguided adjectives and adverbs (from this year’s winner: “Ed smelled vulnerably digestive”), etc., etc. Can’t something be done to spice things up?

What about a search for good sex in literature? Actually, that was the Review’s original idea back in the ‘90s, before they realized the opposite kind of award would garner more laughs and more publicity. Shrewd people that they are, they may also have realized that honoring good literary sex would have been ten times more controversial. We can all agree (I hope) that digestive-smelling vulnerability isn’t sexy, but who can agree on what is? With all the orientations and kinks and fetishes out there in this big wide world, you can’t please everybody.

Besides, there’s something about literary fiction as a genre that seems to run contrary to sexiness. It’s common to see good erotica of mediocre literary quality—the Internet is full of it, or so I’m told—and equally common to see good literary fiction of mediocre erotic quality, but rare to see writing that hits the sweet spot in both areas. Maybe the problem is that irony, a hallmark of most high-quality prose, tends to undermine activities involving naked groping. And not just irony: also rigorous mimesis and the “telling detail.” A fiction-writing friend of mine recently admitted that she couldn’t write a sex scene without mentioning the awkward fumbles.

And yet, and yet. If literary authors can evoke pity and terror and tears, why not the most fun kind of catharsis? The answer, of course, is that they can, given exceptional talent. I would argue that satisfying sex is less common in literature than in life, but as in life one could always just be looking for it between the wrong covers.

Which is why recommendations were invented. Readers, I put the question to you: what’s the most torrid literature you’ve ever read? No need to stick to fiction; poetry suggestions are welcome also, as are memoirs, plays, and New Yorker “Talk of the Town” pieces. I’ll ask only that you refrain from recommending your self-published erotic novel, or anything that doesn’t meet some minimal standard of literary quality. Also, I’m going to nix any mention of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, one of the most overrated “erotic” passages in literary history. There’s a case to be made for a few thousand words of it; too bad they’re lumped in with another 20,000. Wordiness is a mood-killer.

[Image via Shutterstock.]


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