Tag Archives: Blog critics

What’s the secret to writing good sex?


Article first published as What’s the Secret to Writing Good Sex? on Blogcritics.

You can admire an awful lot in My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, a collection of short stories about love of all kinds compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. There is lush and evocative prose in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”. There is meaningful and moving role play in “The Hitchhiker’s Game” by Milan Kundera. There’s perfectly distilled decay and restlessness in William Trevor’s “Lovers of their Time”.

You can also learn a great deal, both as a reader and a writer. In Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” we realize that subtleties are vital to deft and developed characterisation. Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the perfect showcase of profound and realistic dialogue. Various stories somehow convey the emotional frustration and torment of love that is never reciprocated.

It’s a thoughtfully composed book, bringing some of the best fiction about love, a word that can mean so many things, together in one place to try and paint one enlightening and complete picture. It takes you on a journey. It’s a journey that never tries to ram truths down your throat but nevertheless you discover them.

Along the way I thought I worked out the secret to writing good sex. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “good”. I don’t mean arousing or satisfying for the participating characters. I mean sex that is not simply erotic, sex that doesn’t detract from the purpose of a story but enhances it, sex that is believable. I mean sex that is well written but not overwritten. Sex should not stand out like a sore thumb in a narrative or be self conscious or awkward.

It’s a very difficult thing to get right. It’s all too easy to verge into soft porn or erotica. Perhaps even worse is resorting to cliché, being at once graphic and far too high minded about the physical act. There’s a fine line between a tasteful romantic coupling underneath the stars and the trashier sort of Mills and Boon escapism. That’s why there are awards for bad sex writing. At the time the writer may have felt as if they’d hit the nail on the head, as though they were composing a masterpiece; which makes the eventual failure even more humorous.

This leads me to one of the factors I thought I’d discovered. Writers that succeed in writing good stories about or featuring sex, anticipate the humour and embarrassment by including their own. In Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t”, the central couple never actually manage to consummate their young love. Dybek tells the story from the young man’s point of view, at times almost poetically. We feel his disappointment and stifled desire, even his hinted at longing for concrete emotional connection.

But the lists of places and situations in which they failed to do the deed are also inescapably funny from an outside perspective. They come closest during a well written fumble on a beach. This passage is tense, varied and vivid, as well as tragic and funny. The condom springs from his grasp into the sand. He has to dust the sand off of it, struggling not to kill the mood as lightning erupts in the sky overhead. For a second he thinks they are already doing it, prompting more meaningful language about “a gateway into the rest of my life” and “groping for an Eternity” which is immediately cut short. Police cars arrive, lights blaring. A body is washed up on the beach and she is haunted by it every time they try again.

Something else I thought I’d learned about well written sex is that being shameless and colloquial helps. In director and writer Miranda July’s short story, “Something That Needs Nothing”, the protagonist uses sex to empower herself. This is a tale with some serious things to say, many of them linked to sex. The narrator is in love with her best friend and they begin the story living together. But she is devastated when Pip leaves her to live and sleep with another girl. Pip had never wanted her like that. To get over it, and earn the money to pay the rent, the narrator begins work in a sex shop, being paid to perform through a screen for masturbating men. By the end of the story Pip wants her back, attracted by the narrator’s new found confidence, developed through a disgusting act. However when she eventually has to remove the wig she wears for her work, the spell is broken.

“Something That Needs Nothing” is an intelligent and engrossing story about identity. It shows how sex can be a sham as well as a weapon and a unifying force. It’s mostly written in a chatty style, which is crucial to not just realism and characterisation, but the impact of its points.

I’m not saying that sex can’t or shouldn’t be erotic on the page. “Something That Needs Nothing” and “We Didn’t” both have sensual moments. But I thought a certain frankness helped ensure the quality of a story featuring sex. Fluffy and over the top, dramatic description seemed to be a one way route to cliché. However then I remembered the sex in “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera.

This story is about a couple on a road trip, who decide to role play that the woman is a whore for a night. The deep effects of this are unexpected and again big themes like identity and relationships are covered uniquely. The penultimate passage features this line: “On the bed there were soon to be two bodies in perfect harmony, two sensual bodies alien to each other.” Out of context this could be from a terrible Mills and Boon book. But the insight of the rest of Kundera’s story allows him to dabble in cliché.

So perhaps there are no rules set in stone after all. Great writers can approach sex however they like, providing they have something to say about it. After all, clichés are clichés for a reason; they always contain truths.

Idealism and Conspiracy in The Hour


Article first published as Idealism and Conspiracy in The Hour on Blogcritics.

The Hour has a little bit of everything. I am falling in love with its setting, its characters and its plot lines. On paper a stuffy newsroom and sepia period detail might not seem ideal for summer viewing. But there is something refreshingly
different and gripping about this very versatile new series.

The key ingredient to its seductive and exciting charm is hard to isolate. Certainly I was already predisposed to its particular portion of the past. I’ve read about the panicked political intrigue and rushed reactions of the Suez crisis. I am an aspiring writer and journalist, interested and inspired by current affairs, and therefore susceptible to characters who feel passionately about the issues of their time. Everything about the 50s as a decade seems at once British and strangely exotic, creating a fascinating cocktail of cultural change, from rationing to the Cold War, from crooners to rock ‘n roll. The costumes, the lipstick, the hair; were all part of an irresistible style.

And yet The Hour has prompted considerable criticism from some quarters, reigniting a debate about authenticity and historical accuracy. Producer Bel, played by Romola Garai, seems too weak for a successful woman in a man’s world at times during Episode 2. It’s also questionable whether the particular shade of her stunning hairdo was achievable at the time. Reporting veterans that lived TV news in the 50s have written in to national newspapers to bemoan the inaccurate methods on show. There wasn’t the sort of investigative journalism seen from Ben Whishaw’s character Freddie. Underlings were simply given assignments by editors and sent out with a camera crew.

But ultimately Whishaw is playing a character in a drama. Some of the intricacies may be wrong but The Hour works tremendously well as a story and has truly ambitious scope. On Twitter most of the praise singles out the perfect casting. Garai is as good as she usually is in costume drama, exchanging flirtatious banter with Dominic West’s Hector and friendly jibes with Whishaw’s Freddie. In Episode 1 Freddie dominated and got me hooked, whilst in Episode 2, as Hector struggled with presenting duties, he emerged as something more complicated than a connected charmer.

Aside from the overlapping relationships behind the scenes of The Hour itself, a cutting edge flagship TV news programme for the BBC, there is a conspiracy theory plot bubbling in the background. This occasionally gives the programme the flavour of a thriller to go with its period drama and romantic credentials. It centres on a couple of murders we witness in Episode 1, perpetrated by Burn Gorman’s mostly mute and hat wearing enigma. Gorman was in previous series of Torchwood, now enjoying an American financed revival. He ended up being an annoying presence in the sci-fi drama but works well here because his extraordinary eyes ooze sinister menace.

As part of the BBC’s financial restructuring, BBC 2 has become the home of original drama. We’ve already seen, as a result of this new strategy, complexly plotted series like The Shadow Line which focus strongly on conspiracy. The Shadow Line was set in the present day and the recent phone hacking scandal proves the potential for conspiracy in modern society. It isn’t necessary to delve into the past for compelling and devious plotting by powerful men in high places.

However genuine idealism is something distinctly lacking in today’s world of cynicism. In a world where we can access news and hordes of information with a few clicks, it can feel as if there is no longer any point to saying what you feel. There is no new ground to break and nothing left to discover. Strong ethical convictions are less common even in students, who should be protesting and staying up to discuss the philosophical ills of the world, rather than liking “funny” groups on Facebook. If the exposure of hacking at the News of the World reassured storytellers that shocking conspiracy could still be rife in vital
industries, it will also have confirmed the pessimism and ignorance many feel
about the workings of the world every day.

Ben Whishaw’s Freddie Lyon is the sort of idealist that doesn’t seem to exist anymore, at least openly. His fiercely held convictions, combined with his affectionate sparring with Bel, were a breath of fresh air in Episode 1 of The Hour. It’s his range of principles that allows the show to touch on themes as different as relationships, privilege, power and media content.

He has his flaws, as The Hour does. He is messy, like the plotting at times, and he is in love with a friend who will probably never see him that way. He is ignorant of his own hypocritical snobbery. He holds himself back by speaking too rashly. He is blunt, as the show can be when it telegraphs the trajectory of a scene with its moody period soundtrack. But he also cares about quality. And The Hour is quality television.