Why can't men write about sex?


Joel Snape

Morrissey in Rome

Morrissey in Rome Photo: truetoyou.net

So, Morrissey is terrible at writing about sex. His debut novel, List of the Lost, which came out last week, was universally panned for its toe-curlingly awful sex scenes, deemed so bad he was immediately hailed as a potential winner of this year's Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

But the only surprising thing about this is that so many people seem surprised; that they really did expect the famously once-celibate author of the line "There are explosive kegs/between my legs" to be capable of penning a nuanced exploration of lovemaking.

Yes, there are points in Moz's prose where you wonder if he's ever had (or seen) sex - if anyone knows how breasts can barrel-roll, please explain - but he's certainly not the only male writer who has written a bad sex scene. In fact, 19 out of the 21 "winners" of the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award have been male. So why can't men get it right?

Morrissey's debut novel, List of the Lost

Morrissey's debut novel, List of the Lost

Part of the problem, for starters, is the male temptation to show off. Ben Okri, the 2014 winner with his novel The Age of Magic, smothers one female character's internal monologue with so many abstract nouns and metaphors that it's impossible to tell what's going on: at first she's adrift on warm currents, then "the universe is in her", and later on, a stray rocket goes off.


Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons manages to be creepy and pretentious at the same time by talking about a tongue "slither slither slithering" across its title character's "otorhinolaryngological caverns". And in Sebastian Faulks's Charlotte Gray, resistance fighter Julien doesn't even restrict himself to internal monologue: "This is so wonderful, I feel like I might disintegrate," he tells Charlotte, mid-coitus. "I might break into a million fragments." Try that one sometime, gents: it's a showstopper.

Of course, occasionally, you have to give a writer a bit of leeway because they are trying to pick metaphors that reflect their character's worldview: the title character of Aniruddha Bahal's 2003 winner, Bunker 13, is resolutely unsexy in his attempt to keep his lover at "a Volkswagen's steady trot", but at least this is consistent with the book's boring protagonist.

Sometimes, though, a writer can reveal his character's character and still leave us wondering why we hate them so much. Note to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin: I understand that Samwell Tarly is a shy virgin who's taken a vow of celibacy and probably finds his own body odd and disgusting. The catch is, I still don't want to read about it. Maybe next time, just cut to him and Gilly heading between the (flea-ridden) sheets and save the really descriptive bits for, I don't know, the dragons.

The trouble is, even when avoiding all of the above you are still often left tap-dancing through a squelchy, unsexy minefield. You can go straight-up anatomical, all biological textbook terms and descriptions of wrinkled skin, but it's not exactly sexy.

You can be filthy mouthed and catalogue each exhausting configuration your characters go through in graphic detail (see every Bret Easton Ellis book), but that ends up leaving you unsure if anyone's having a good time.

And you can be terrifyingly over-descriptive of the fluids exchanged (Clive Barker), play it for laughs (Ben Elton), or just traumatise a generation of children who are only reading your books for the sexy bits (James Herbert, I will never forgive you for page 11 of The Fog...), but none of those are legitimate ways to make your book sexier.

So what's the solution? Easy: if you want to write about sex in a sexy way, first try to write about it like a non-maniac. A lot of bad sex in books has the smack of overcompensation: descriptions of fireworks going off and supernovas exploding from men who sound like they secretly aren't sure they're doing it right (and haven't ever bothered to ask their partners). Confidence, much like in real sex, comes across on the page - and everyone can tell when you're faking it.

And that's why, much as I love the man who wrote Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now, my vote for sexiest musician-turned-author (and possibly sex writer generally) goes to the other king of miserabilists, Nick Cave. His book The Death Of Bunny Monroe is packed with sex scenes - some are clinical, some funny, some grim - but in every one of them you get the sense that this is a man who knows what he's doing. That, if he wanted to, he could make sure everyone involved had a good time.

But, then, Nick Cave seems like the sort who might ask a lover what they want. And it shows. Though I'm not sure even he could get a breast to do a barrel-roll.

The Telegraph