Bad Sex with Steve Almond

Steve Almond book

Sex, if you’ll forgive the pun, is a hard thing to write about. Even great authors have failed at it. How does one even begin to describe an act that’s so universal yet also so personal beyond the most basic (or base) level in a way that’s not only revealing but relevant and necessary? I’ve tried in my own writing several times and have come to the conclusion that the best way to write about sex has less to do with the act itself than what’s going on around it. But for those still inclined to try their hand, One Story author Steve Almond has a few helpful tips for you over at the Rumpus.

Interestingly, the article neglects to give us any evidence of a successful literary sex scene. There are of course the legendary heavyweights of old like D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and his gal pal Anais Nin. Almond himself is certainly good at capturing the male’s perspective on the act (see his web site for evidence of that). Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ still remains a cultural touchstone for curious young adults. And Erica Jong got a lot of mileage out of showing women could be just as sexually free as men. Then there are the writers like Nabakov and Nicholson Baker, who take our concepts of “normalized” sexual behavior and turn them against us, revealing uncomfortable psychological truths as we find ourselves identifying with their perverts and fiends. But are any of these writers and books actually sexy? I ask you, One Story readers and fans, what literary sex scenes have successfully turned you on? Share your thoughts in the comments section below and be sure to check out Steve’s book of hilarious essays (Not That You Asked), which features the article linked above.

6 thoughts on “Bad Sex with Steve Almond

  1. I got turned on by Tobias Wolff writing about pancake eating at the end of Hunters in the Snow. Wait, what?

  2. If memory serves most of Steve’s sex scenes focus heavily on mouths, establishing a consensus, perhaps, that mouth = sex. If so, eating is an inherently sexy act, assuming, as in all things erotic, you are doing it right. When writing about sex, please do not forget the noises.

  3. Litchik, thank you for your response. I think the connection between food and sex is a natural one since both are essentially sensual experiences. Your comment brings to mind Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’, where the hero’s appetite for food is a natural extension of his insatiable sexuality. I haven’t read the novel personally but I remember vividly the sight of Albert Finney lustily ripping apart a chicken leg in the 1960’s film version.
    It’s funny too to think what sorts of objects in literature, as opposed to acts in literature, have the power to turn us on. I remember finding the perforated sheet that appears in Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ quite sexy. I’ll also never be able to associate bowler hats with anything other than sex thanks to Kundera, even though the character who wears it associates it with death. But then, for Kundera, those two things go hand in hand…

  4. In all seriousness, I think that some of the best writing about sex deals with well written bad sex rather than badly written good sex. I know he’s a poet, but T.S. Eliot wrote some of the better passages about sex in the cannon, and it was terrible, the sex, not the writing.

    ‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
    ‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
    ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
    ‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
    I think we are in rats’ alley
    Where the dead men lost their bones.
    ‘What it that noise?’
    The wind under the door.
    ‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
    Nothing again nothing. (The Wasteland, 111-120)

    I mean how do you get any better than that? And, not to dote on the modernist, but Ulysses is dripping with sex, and yet the most important aspect of the book is the absence there of between Leopold and Molly. I think what I’m saying is that good writing about sex is all very well and good. But without some type of juxtaposition, it falls flat.

  5. There is a sex scene in Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty” that almost put me off reading (and sex) for the rest of my life. The word “crescendo” in the Updike example and the inflated academic prose in the latter example bring these scenes to screeching halts. The rules for writing about it seem to echo the rules of doing it. Probably best not to talk too much, or use too many inflated words, lest we deflate (ahem) the momentum. I don’t know too many people who can think polysyllabically during sex. I don’t know too many people who want to. I’ve never had a friend use the word “crescendo” when describing a good session, and have never heard of anyone requesting a lover to give her a “crescendo” of feeling. Big words don’t seem necessary when describing the most elemental of all human activities. Our wants and desires get very simple during sex; maybe the words should reflect that.

    Also, a little seems to go a long way. In “All the Pretty Horses,” after a sick amount of build up, the woman asks do you want me? and Cole answers yes, god yes. The rest is left unsaid. Maybe you have to know what to leave out. “The Wasteland” is a good example of that.

    My thinking on this subject always ends up in the same place, and this goes for writing about the act and the act itself: people who talk about it too much probably aren’t doing it right.

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