When writing a sex scene, I first try to discard any self-consciousness about what others might conclude. I work out where on the sliding scale between laughter and seriousness I want the activity to take place. What is the level of trustingness, and on whose side does power lie?
Each generation will mock the previous one because each generation tends to imagine that its attitude to sex strikes just about the right balance; that by comparison its predecessors were prim and embarrassed, its successors sex-obsessed and pornified.
And so writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones: that the writer might be giving him- or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sexual act, that it must already have happened to you in pretty much the manner described.
…a truly satisfying sex scene is as challenging to achieve in writing as it is in real life. Keeping it run-of-the-mill might get the job done but having it be a little, um, “too freaky” can be misconstrued as a necessity to quell what has become the boredom of the act itself.
Take Philip Roth’s Bad Sex in Fiction-nominated “green dildo” scene, for instance. Unlike porn/erotica writers, a novelist has the pressure of making this sex scene “mean something.”
On top (ha) of that, the novelist must consider keeping this scene in the same voice and on par with the rest of the novel despite it being about a topic that usually renders the human mind useless for however long it lasts.
Strangely enough, it’s the latter half of the challenge that usually lands these poor writers a nomination. The Literary Review cites Roth’s desire to give the sex scene any more insight than a sex scene can stand to give on its own the reason behind his nod for Bad Sex in Fiction. The award has been described as a way to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”
But then golly, you say – if you know how challenging it is to write a sex scene, then why would you challenge and risk discouraging the authors of these already-written sex scenes? After all, anyone who’s ever taken a glance at a romance novel can sympathize with the author’s struggle of finding as many synonyms as possible for an aroused penis (that’s how we get gems like, “throbbing member”).
A book’s first line has to be inviting enough to ease you into the second one, yet intriguing enough to make you want to read the whole thing. Stylist complied 100 of the most memorable opening lines in literature, and here I have borrowed some selected favorites:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson
“Someone was looking at me, a disturbing sensation if you’re dead.”
A Certain Slant of Light, Laura Whitcomb
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Emma, Jane Austen
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?”
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Caroll
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“If you’re going to read this, don’t bother.”
Choke, Chuck Palahniuk
“ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, ‘Be My Baby’ on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.”
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
The Crow Road, Iain Banks
“Amergo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengeance on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.”
The Godfather, Mario Puzo
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
“Today I’m five.”
Room, Emma Donoghue
“A screaming comes across the sky.”
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke.
“Conventions, like clichés, have a way of surviving their own usefulness.”
Desert of the Heart, Jane Rule
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
If you know and love the novel, something about the movie just doesn’t feel right. The problem, I think, is that it’s too romantic. The film, as [director Joe] Wright promised, is all about love, but Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina isn’t a love story. If anything, Anna Karenina is a warning against the myth and cult of love.
Tolstoy, when he wrote the novel, was thinking about love in a different way: as a kind of fate, or curse, or judgment, and as a vector by which the universe distributes happiness and unhappiness, unfairly and apparently at random.
In Anna Karenina, love can be a curse as well as a blessing. It’s an elemental force in human affairs, like genius, or anger, or strength, or wealth. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s awful, cruel, even dangerous. It’s wonderful that Levin and Kitty fall in love with one another—but Anna would have been better off if she had never fallen in love with Vronsky.
Much of the writing being produced right now on the Internet is excellent but ephemeral; there’s no assurance it will be available to anyone in 100 years, or even 10. Novels, on the other hand, are just about the most durable home for words we’ve yet discovered.
If you pack a novel full of politics and culture, it might not make a dent in 2012 … but by 2022, or 2112, the rest of the words written this year will have disappeared, scoured away by time and technology upgrades, and that novel will get another swing.
We use novels, not old newspapers, to get a sense of what life was like 100 years ago. I believe 100 years from now, future generations will still use novels the same way. They’ll use novels, not tweets or posts like this.
– Robin Sloan, the author and self-proclaimed “Media Inventor,” (I wish he would stop using that term to describe himself, makes him seem like the douchebag he probably isn’t) writes for the NY Times on why new media is actually reinforcing the ever-enduring power of the novel.
I’ve enjoyed designing web pages and building iPhone apps, but I’m not convinced that any of it will be accessible for very long. That’s just the nature of the internet right now — we’re still in shakedown mode, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Plain text, though, already made it through the shakedown. Invest in text — learn to design sentences and build stories — and it’s a sure bet, no matter what the future holds.
– A few months later Sloan was interviewed by The Millions and makes his case again, this time focusing more on the power of storytelling.