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Awkward Sex Scenes in Books III

February 12, 2017
Even the cover looks a little awkward.

Even the cover looks a little awkward.

A normal sex scene between two characters in fiction can go wrong for a lot of reasons, but a solo sex scene is automatically awkward.  Self-gratification is awkward.  There’s a stigma to it, even though it’s normal behavior for most guys.  Any guy who doesn’t engage in it will be miserable, but it’s also forbidden to talk about.  If a guy admits to this behavior, he gets mocked.

If a woman admits to it, it can be seen as empowering.  It’s one of the few double standards where women have the advantage.  A woman engaging in self-gratification can be portrayed artistically.  With a guy, it’s going to be gross, no matter what.

The following excerpt from Here I am by Jonathon Safran Foer didn’t make the final cut in 2015’s Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award, but it earned a mention, partially because of the subject matter.  It’s a sentence describing self-gratification.

 ‘He jerked off with the determination of someone within sight of Everest’s summit, having lost all his friends and Sherpas, having run out of supplemental oxygen, but preferring death to failure.’

In this case, I disagree with The Literary Review that this is a bad sex scene (except for two words that I’ll discuss later).  I believe this excerpt was meant to be humorous, intentionally exaggerating the intensity of a male’s efforts while gratifying himself, and the Literary Review might be missing the point.

Sometimes humor doesn’t come across in the written word.  If a writer expresses an idea in a tongue-in-cheek fashion and readers take it literally, the author can’t slap the reader across the head and yell “I WAS BEING FUNNY!”  The reader can just hit back and yell “I COULDN’T TELL!”  There are no facial expressions or vocal inflections to add to the audience’s interpretations of the words.  That’s what makes writing humor so difficult.

The author’s problem here was the long metaphor.  When a writer has to use to start a description or metaphor with the word “someone who…,” the expression is probably going to be awkward.  The words “someone who” automatically stops the flow of the sentence.

This problem is easily fixed.  Replace “someone who” with a noun, and the reader can continue with ease.  Maybe “someone who…” can be replaced with “…an explorer” or “…mountain climber.”  I’m sure an author like Foer (or an editor) could come up with a better replacement.

As long as the sentence is, the rest of the excerpt is spot-on.  It might seem over-the-top, but that’s Foer’s writing style.  And if an author is going to engage in hyperbole, then self-gratification is the perfect topic.

The Literary Review probably chose this excerpt because it made them laugh uncomfortably.  Self-gratification often makes people laugh uncomfortably.  It’s like farting or the title Moby Dick.  Even Mark Twain wrote a book On Masturbation. Yes, the original title of Twain’s speech was The Science of Onanism, but nobody today knows what that means.  Sometimes humor goes over the audience’s head.

Everybody laughs at the title On Masturbation, but nobody has read it.  At least, nobody has admitted to reading it.  More people have read Tom Sawyer Detective than On Masturbation (I’m actually making that up, so I could be wrong).

I’m tempted to buy a copy of On Masturbation and walk around with it just to see people’s reactions.  It’s something Mark Twain might have appreciated.  I could also walk around with a copy of Here I Am, but it’s not as obvious.  With humor, sometimes you have to be obvious.

  1. If I liked Twain’s style I would totally read On Masturbation. And since I am a woman that would turn into some feminist stance by the sheer act of my reading it. But alas, Twain bores me. And nothing is so boring as boring sex.

  2. I totally get what your trying to say here. And as an expert humorist, I’m someone who understands that a succinct metaphor that personalizes a relatable experience is the surest way to force the belly laughs out of everyone. And humility. Humility is my thing too.

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