The question of excellent sex scenes came to mind when a friend forwarded an interview with writer Lidia Yuknavitch from the Lenny Letter’s August 12 issue. Yuknavitch has been lauded as one of the few authors today who writes about sex “well.” I’d read Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water back in 2014 because I was curious as to why she was getting such praise, and also because I apparently needed a reminder as to why I should never listen to such marketing hype. Predictably her portrayal of sex, which ping-ponged between the acceptably literary theme of incest trauma and Penthouse-style lesbian group encounters, was more or less par for the course. In my opinion, one can find better writing about sex by any author here at ERWA.
However, two years on I’d pretty much forgotten about that experience so I read the interview with a fresh mind and—what do you know, I really liked it! If her novel had been anything like the interview, I would have liked that, too. I especially liked this part concerning writing about sex:
Suleika Jaouad for Lenny: It seems almost impossible to write a sex scene without clichés. In what ways are you interested in changing the script about how we write about sex and sexuality?
Lidia Yuknavitch: I think the worst lie of all that we’ve inherited about our own bodies is that the stories of sexuality and sexual identity are already written. The reality is, we haven’t even finished figuring out who we are yet as a species — let alone what to do with our bodies. For me, sexuality is a whole terrain or territory that you explore your entire life, from birth to dirt. We’ve yet to even begin to liberate the full story lines of our bodies.
I don’t sit in my office and go, “I’m going to write a really cool sex scene.” I hope we leave behind forever the idea of the sex scene on page 49, which is a market invention. If you want to write an excellent sex scene, you have to liberate it from the idea of a sex scene. Like I was saying before about violence, you have to thread sexuality through every part of a character or a person’s life, rather than limiting it to a titillating few pages where something juicy happens. You have to understand that sexuality is omnipresent in your body — your entire life.
Truer words were never spoken. Makes you want to jump in bed and explore some territory with a partner of one sort or another–not excluding one’s own trusty hands– and get back to the keyboard to write down some new truths about the body-mind connection. That’s the fun part. But what does this fine sentiment mean for us erotica writers in terms of the day-to-day process of writing and publishing? Well, unfortunately, we not only have to take on the mysteries of sensuality and the challenges of wordcraft, we have to take on the contempt of the world.
In spite of the high accolades (unfortunately, I also forget where I read the praise that motivated me to read The Chronology of Water), Yuknavitch herself does not escape the contempt with which sex writing is still treated in our culture. I keep notes on books I’ve read (are you horrified?) and they’re skimpy for Water, but I did record word-for-word this passage from the introduction by Chelsea Cain (a writer of bestselling thrillers) about meeting Yuknavitch at the Portland writing, or “therapy,” group led by Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk:
“Chuck Palahniuk brought up the idea of inviting her. ‘She writes this literary prose,’ he told us. ‘But she’s this big-breasted blond from Texas, and she used to be a stripper and she’s done heroin.’ Needless to say, we were impressed.
I already wanted her to sit by me.
There was more. Chuck told us that some really famous edgy writer—I didn’t recognize her name, but I pretended that I did—had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she’d said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Yuknavitch. Maybe Chuck didn’t tell us that. But someone in the group did. I don’t remember. I think I was still thinking about the stripper thing. A real-life ex-stripper in our writing group! So glamorous.
Yes, we said, invite her. Please.
She showed up a few weeks later, wearing a long black coat. I couldn’t see her breasts. She was quiet. She didn’t make eye contact. She did not sound like she was from Texas.
Frankly, I was a little disappointed.
Where was the big hair, the Lucite platform heels? The track marks?
Had Chuck made the whole thing up? (He does that sometimes.)
How was he describing me to people?” (The Chronology of Water, p. xii-xiv)
As you see from this excerpt, people can’t stop talking about Yuknavitch’s breasts. In fact, the cover of Water is graced with a female swimmer’s naked nipple, which some bookstores covered with a Bandaid.
Good God, we really do need a new way to think and talk about sex, don’t we?
But I must conclude this peek into the culture of Chuck Palahniuk’s writing group with a final juicy bit, in case you were feeling jealous that you aren’t a member. Far from wowing that uber-cool coterie with a striptease, poor Yuknavitch apparently ended up running to the bathroom and cried when another member told her the father incest in her story was trite. Granted it has become so in literary fiction, but if one really was raped by dad, that remark would feel insensitive to say the least.
But this isn’t a post about the shallow values and cruelty of writing groups. It’s about “excellent” sex scenes.
I’m not going to tell you how to write them. I’m going to tell you why the question itself is a problem.
First let us notice how even a writer who has managed to write the only good sex scenes in the history of human storytelling is still safely ghettoized. Naturally someone who writes like this must be carnal, trashy, living on the margins of the law and have sleazy fashion taste. Writing about sex cannot merely be a cerebral act, an act of the imagination. Sex writers must have literally experienced the dirty deeds they write about and show the track marks on their bodies for all to see. We don’t ask murder mystery writers to pull a bloody corpse from the closet, but sex writers need to arouse us in the flesh. A shy woman in a concealing coat cannot write good sex. The potential field of venerable sex writers is thus narrowed considerably and keeps in check our own vulnerability to the disruptive power of sex.
More importantly note that neither Cain nor I can remember exactly who gave Yuknavitch such high praise. Instead some vague expert has made the pronouncement, someone who needn’t answer to anyone, an entity so vague that that the words seem to come from God herself. Remember, though, it only takes one critic with the word “trite” on his lips to strip her of her crown. And yet, so many have faith that the promise of the best sex (scene) ever will be fulfilled by someone, some day in next month’s issue or next year’s novel. In the meantime, there are many examples of intelligent, creative, well-crafted stories about sexuality out there and especially here at ERWA, but for the most part the literary establishment chooses to ignore our existence, just as it ignores the rich variety of sexual experience itself.
Yuknavitch herself acknowledges these problems in her interview. “Excellent” sex scenes are not free standing, carefully circumscribed entities on page 69. Excellent sex scenes don’t follow the script or if they do, they infuse it with something more. And for me “liberation” includes not just our own efforts in writing, but opening up the writing group to everyone. Sexual pleasure and expression are not just the province of a lucky gorgeous, young, well-endowed, celebrated few—or in other words, those who can play themselves on TV.
So let’s get away from this idea of scarcity and exclusion. We need countless new stories about our bodies and erotic minds told through countless sensibilities. And we need to listen to these stories respectfully, without jumping to judgment immediately or sniggering, because exploring new territory is a tentative, sensitive endeavor. What does this mean to a writer sitting before the blank screen? Well, we each have to come to terms with this in our own way, but I hope we can all acknowledge how courageous erotica writers are to give our talents to such important work. On that note, I’ll leave you with another excerpt from Yuknavitch’s interview that I found inspiring:
SJ: What are your best words of advice for fellow misfits and aspiring writers?
LY: I’m trying to help us remember that we invent our own beauty and our own paths and our own crooked, weird ways of doing things, but that they’re not nothing and they matter, too. We’re the half of culture that doesn’t take the paths that are sitting right in front of us. Our song may be a little off-key, but it’s a kind of beauty, too. I know I’m not the person who thought that up, and I’m not the person who invented that as a truth, but I can sure stand up and help remind us not to give up, that we have a song, too.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com