Awkward Sex Scenes in Books II
When it comes to awkward sex scenes in books, sometimes an author tries too hard. Instead of explaining what happens in a straightforward way, the author might attempt to get too fancy and use a crazy metaphor where simple language would be enough.
The following excerpt from A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin was a runner-up for The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award in 2016. Unfortunately, the Literary Review article gives only the excerpt and doesn’t try to explain what makes the scene bad (or awkward). If we aspiring authors are going to improve our own writing, we should examine the excerpts from a writer’s perspective, and see what we could have done differently.
Here is the awkward sex scene excerpt for this post:
The act itself was fervent. Like a brisk tennis game or a summer track meet, something performed in daylight between competitors. The cheap mattress bounced.
First of all, the author describes the act as “fervent.” The word “fervent” implies intense, but then the author compares the sexual activity to tennis and track. As intense as tennis and track can be, the competitors aren’t physical with each other.
There’s distance between athletes in tennis and track, and that image of distance contradicts the concept of intensity. A better sports comparison would be to that of MMA fighters. Now THAT’S intense. Plus, the image of grappling might be similar to what the sexual participants were going through.
Bad similes can ruin a sex scene, especially a long simile. When I wrote a sex scene in my own ebook, I avoided long similes and metaphors, and I stayed away from sports references.
But if an author is determined to compare sexual activity with a sporting activity, another choice would be professional women’s tennis. Those women grunt and groan so loudly that a guy can close his eyes and imagine it’s a certain kind of pornography.
I don’t know if guys do that anymore, though. 20 years ago, before the internet and free porn, guys with no money would have to close their eyes during televised women’s tennis matches. I never did that, but I heard that other guys did. I never heard about women watching women’s tennis for the same purpose, but I guess it’s possible.
The second problem with the excerpt was the bouncing cheap mattress. The most notable characteristic of a cheap mattress during sexual activity is that it’s really uncomfortable. Plus, a cheap mattress doesn’t bounce, no matter how much activity takes place on it. It just thuds. Two adults could jump up and down with impunity on a cheap mattress, and it would thud instead of bounce. I have a lot of experience with cheap mattresses (though the experience isn’t necessarily sexual in nature).
From my experience, it’s the expensive mattresses that bounce. Maybe the author was wrong about what kind of mattress was being used. Journalists get their facts wrong all the time, so maybe the author got his own facts wrong too.
A cheap mattress might not bounce, but it will squeak, and a squeaky mattress during sexual activity can be distracting. It also lets the neighbors know what’s going on (if you live in an apartment or dorm room). The author might have more credibility if he’d simply written “the cheap mattress squeaked.”
So the lesson from this awkward sex scene is clear: Keep your sports metaphors short, and test out mattresses before you write about them.
And for more about awkward sex scenes in books, read the blog post Awkward Sex Scenes in Books.