Writing About Sex
During these past few months, I must have read a dozen blog posts and forum threads on the subject of writing about sex. It’s not surprising – if every successful novel has to have some sort of love story (and it does, according to the “experts”), then at some point in the narrative, most of us feel it’s necessary to at least allude to the physical representation of that love. (I am not speaking of the erotica genre, which makes no bones – no pun intended – about just what’s it’s all about, love or no.)
Most recently, the subject was raised in an email to a group of writers from my good friend – and superb writer – Phillipa Fioretti. Since she writes romantic comedy and is deep into her second novel of a three-book contract**, I’m guessing the question she asked was more rhetorical than practical. But she asked simply for examples of writers we thought were successful in dealing with the subject.
I pointed to John D. MacDonald, the author of the eighteen mystery novels featuring the character Travis McGee.
Well, Phillipa had never heard of him – nor had I until recently. But a friend had recommended I look him up and I was lucky to purchase – for fifty cents – a compendium of five such novels. Here I share one example of how ol’ Travis describes his thing – er, the act of lovemaking. It is from The Green Ripper (1974), what I happen to be reading at the moment. His love interest is a woman named Gretel, who he’d met in the previous novel, The Empty Copper Sea.
So the gusty winds of a Friday night in December came circling through the marina, grinding and tilting all the play boats and work boats around us, creaking the hulls against the fenders, clanking fittings against masts. While in the big bed in the master stateroom her narrowed eyes glinted in faint reflected light, my hands found the well-known slopes and lifts and hollows of her warmth and agility. We played the games of delay and anticipation, of teasing and waiting, until we went past the boundaries of willed restraint and came into a mounting rush that seemed to seek an even greater closeness than the paired loins could provide. And then subsided, with the outdoor wind making breathing sounds against the superstructure of the old barge-type houseboat, and the faint swing and dip of the hull seeming to echo, in a slower pace, the lovemaking just ended. With neither of us knowing or guessing that it was the very last night. With neither of us able to endure that knowledge had we been told.
The danger in pulling an excerpt like this out of the context of the novel is that you can’t measure its effectiveness without having become familiar with Travis, his lifestyle, his attitude, his view of the world. Still, what I find successful here is MacDonald’s drawing of a vivid picture of sex with in simple and poetic language, along with the metaphor of the nautical setting. The grinding and tilting, the fittings against masts. It is, I think, a fine example of how to approach sex in an honest fashion while evading the traps that lie in anatomical literalness.
**You can purchase Phillipa’s first novel, The Book of Love, with a mere click, although, Phillipa, you can tell your publisher that the price here in the states is rather ridiculous!
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