I have a CONFESSION. I like to read about sex.
No, Iím not talking about the pulpy romance novels at the CVS checkout counter or the raunchy pages of Penthouse Forum ó much less the pseudo-instructional (and often hilarious) sex-advice columns in GQ or Glamour (Dan Savage is the only sexpert to earn my thumbs up). Iím talking about the literate, sensual, non-gratuitous writing about sex that illuminates a characterís interior life. And Iím not afraid to admit that, on occasion, Iíve even been aroused by a really, really, really well-written sex scene in a novel or short story (I challenge you to read about Annie Proulxís gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain or Philip Rothís chronic masturbator Alexander Portnoy without getting just a bit revved up).
In her provocative journals, Anaïs Nin describes the work of writing erotica for a wealthy, anonymous patron for $1 a page. For Nin, writing in 1940, the work was fairly effortless. Soon, however, the author received word of her patronís unhappiness. Nin writes: " ĎLess poetry,í said the voice over the telephone. ĎBe specific.í " But did anyone ever experience pleasure from reading a clinical description? Didnít the old man know how words carry colors and sounds into the flesh?
According to Nin, what separated erotica from pornography was the fact that erotic literature imagined sex not only in the undressing, the panting and moaning, the pawing and clawing of bodies in motion, but through the lens of a characterís frailties, pride, and secret desires. About D.H. Lawrence, another master of 20th-century eroticism, she writes, " [He] began to give instinct a language, he tried to escape the clinical, the scientific, which only captures what the body feels. "
With all that in mind, here are a few suggestions for beach reads that will stimulate not only your body, but also your mind and soul.
A hint to those of you trying to write about sex: choose your words to describe the human body carefully. Your language can be either too clinical (penis, vagina, intercourse) or disastrously pornographic (Iím thinking of superlative-ridden, ridiculous pornography like " his throbbing, humongous man meat " ). James Baldwin, for example, was a master of understatement. In his breakthrough novel, Another Country (Vintage Books, 1993; originally published in 1962), Baldwin wrote love scenes filled with extraordinary subtlety and grace. " Like children, with that very same joy and trembling, " he writes, " they undressed and uncovered and gazed on each other; and she felt herself carried back to an unremembered, unimaginable time and state ... " Baldwin approaches sex between characters less as a physical act than as an embodiment of mutual love.
Other writers have echoed Baldwinís subtlety. In her recently published novella Rapture (Knopf, 2002), Susan Minot describes a 12-minute blowjob in restrained language like " her mouth pressed around him " or " keeping ahold of him with a hand, fingers encircling his base, rooting him down. " With her finely tuned diction, Minot captures the interior lives of her characters Kay and Benjamin ó a young, on-again, off-again couple living in New York City. At one point Kay thoughtfully muses: " People were surprisingly inarticulate on this subject they were supposedly so interested in. That was one of the alluring things about having sex with someone, you got to find out his attitudes. "
Where Minot excels at the short form, Jonathan Franzenís efforts blossom in the full-bodied novel. Despite last yearís Oprah brouhaha (or because of it?), I devoured Franzenís doorstop of a book, The Corrections (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), and became a staunch advocate (my friends either love it or hate it ó itís that kind of book). In terms of sex, Franzen creates two pathetic, undersexed, befuddled but surprisingly endearing characters in the disgraced academic Chip Lambert and his tight-lipped, bisexual sister Denise. Watch for the scenes with Chip and his young female student (who is eventually his undoing) and a red chaise longue. I guarantee Franzen will have you laughing out loud.
With the work of Jean Genet, it seems, what appears on the page is a word-for-word dictation of the imaginings of the writerís mind. The radical French writer was unconcerned whether his fictional characters were perceived as men or women, gay or transsexual, blasphemous or even believable ó in one sex scene, for instance, the narrator of Our Lady of the Flowers (Grove Press, 1988; originally published in 1944) is just a few feet from two lovers wildly sucking and fucking but " pretends not to see them. " Jean Paul Sartre, one of Genetís most ardent admirers, wrote about the almost mythical sexual energy of Jean Genet. In his introduction to Genetís masterpiece Our Lady of the Flowers, the great philosopher-novelist writes, " So Genet has become God in reverie. He creates the world and man in his image; he manipulates the elements, space, light-years; he has gone quite mad. "
One of the few writers to rival Genetís manic sexual energy was the iconic, drug-frenzied William Burroughs. In Naked Lunch (Grove Press, 2001; originally published in 1959), the provocative imagery ó from yage-using Indians and insect agents to plain Janes bending one another backward into mind-screaming sex ó is both obscene and enormously lyrical. Who else but Burroughs can write, " He leaps about the room. With a scream of longing that shatters the glass wall he leaps out into space. Masturbating end-over-end, three thousand feet down, his sperm floating beside him, he screams all the way against the shattering blue of sky, the rising sun burning over his body like gasoline, down past great oaks and persimmons, swamp cypress and mahogany, to shatter in liquid relief in a ruined square paved with limestone. " Itís the absurdist humor that brings Burroughsís carnal descriptions off the page.
In contrast to the wild fantasies of Genet and Burroughs, Irish writer Colm Toíbínís novels ó notably The Story of the Night (Henry Holt & Company, 1997) ó are spare meditations on the intersection of love and sex. The Story of the Night is the tale of Richard Garay, a gay man coming to terms with his sexuality in Argentina in 1982, during the Falklands War. Throughout the novel, the author walks a fine line between the violence and longing of his narratorís desires. Reflecting on a sex-filled one-night stand, for instance, Garay thinks, " I began to imagine what it would be like to wake beside someone you loved, or someone whose body you could not keep your hands off, to spend all morning in bed, and then wash and dress and have the day together, basking in the afterglow of what had happened in the night. " The spareness of Toíbínís prose, the descriptions of Garayís anonymous sex in bathhouses and hotels, the tension of the dark Buenos Aires streets mirror the constant yearning of Toíbínís reserved narrator. The Story of the Night is an elegant, elusive meditation on the nature of sex and love.
The city and the country
From writers as daring as Rick Moody (check out Moodyís tour de force of a short story " The Ring of Brightest Angels " ) to Burroughs, Ginsberg, and the Beats, risk-takers have often turned their gaze upon the neon-lit streets of New York City. Jonathan Ames is no exception. His novel I Pass Like Night (William Morrow, 1989) is the carefully modulated story of Alexander Vine, a twentysomething who works as a doorman at a four-star hotel by day and prowls the streets of the Lower East Side at night. This first novel possesses a self-assured voice that evokes the longing and often desperate ennui of young people adrift in the metropolis. Vine stumbles through Times Square peep shows, shadowy decaying parks, and drug-infested apartments in search of something unnamable. In this eerie book, the city itself becomes a character, an unforgiving place captured in the cries of another unflinching chronicler of urban life, pop mistress P.J. Harvey: " the whores hustle and the hustlers whore/This cityís ripped right to the core. "
Like Jonathan Ames, Mary Gaitskill uses the Lower East Sideís haunts and decaying streets as her fictional milieu. When her story collection Bad Behavior (Poseidon Press, 1988) was published, accolades flowed in from writers as accomplished as Alice Munro and Leonard Michaels. But itís the way Gaitskill writes about sex ó disarming, ironic, and with a fever-cold pitch ó that has set her Sade-ian novels and stories apart. Her story " A Romantic Weekend, " for example, tells of a three-day tryst between strangers who meet at a party: one is a sadomasochist, the other naive but willing to go along. Seen on a street corner where the two linger among florist and pizza shops, these are city people, hardened against love, braced with enough cynicism to deflect any intimate situation. Sex, for these characters, is a means of control. About a characterís ex-lover, Gaitskill writes, " Although it had gratified him enormously to leave her, he had missed hurting her for years, and had been half-consciously looking for another woman with a similarly fatal combination of pride, weakness and a foolish lust for something resembling passion. " Still, these brash tales succeed because of the authorís intelligence and enormous capacity for tenderness. In the end, Gaitskillís characters, like the rest of us, seek sexual encounters that fuse intimacy with love.
There are beginnings that wax either nostalgic or truthful: " They were the best of times, they were the worst of times, " or " All happy families are alike, but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. " And then there are those beginnings that do both, pinpointing regret in a way that you canít forget: " Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul ... "
Ranked fourth in Book magazineís recent survey of " The Best 100 Characters in Fiction, " Humbert Humbert ó the horny professor in Vladimir Nabokovís classic Lolita (Knopf, 1993; originally published in 1955) ó narrates the tale of a middle-aged manís inflamed passion for the eponymous nymphet. If youíve never read this controversial book (it was rejected by four American publishing houses), youíll be dazzled not only by Nabokovís acrobatic language, but also by the wicked humor evident in every paragraph, sentence, and carefully placed conjunction. As Martin Amis wrote in his introduction to the Everymanís Library edition, " Lolita is perhaps the funniest novel in the language because it allows laughter its full complexity and range. "
Amis goes on to compare Nabokov to James Joyce, another great sexual stylist, likening them to tennis players on the same clay court. " Joyce seemed to be cruising about on all surfaces at once, " Amis writes, " and maddeningly indulged his trick shots on high-pressure points ó his drop smash, his sidespun half-volley lob. Nabokov just went out there and did the business, all litheness, power and touch. "
The sexual content of Ulysses (Modern Library, 1992; originally published in 1922), Joyceís controversial masterpiece (and considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th century), stirred up as much controversy as Lolita, but decades before. And much like Nabokovís novel, Ulysses was rejected by several publishing houses before it finally found a home in 1922. Even after publication, officials in the US labeled the bookís frank depictions of sex as obscene, and copies of the novel were banned until 1933 (all the more reason to appreciate its publication today). In Leopold Bloom, Joyceís modern-day Odysseus, the author inhabited the consciousness of his character so fully as to embody the spectrum of emotions that contribute to oneís sexuality. From the prowess of the bachelor Blazes Boylan to the heartbreaking longing of our hero, Leopold Bloom, Ulysses captures the complexity, discontent, and affection associated with sex.
But what about the women writers? In the first half of the 20th century, arguably no female wrote more freely about sex than Anaïs Nin. In addition to her diaries, her fiction was hailed by the New York Times Book Review as " the first American stories by a woman to celebrate sexuality with complete and open abandonment. " A predecessor to female writers such as Minot and Gaitskill, Nin musters strength within her prose from the full, unflinching force of her gaze. In her story " Elena, " for example, from the collection Delta of Venus (Harcourt Brace, 1977), she writes: " He whispered now and then, telling her to raise her legs, as she had never done, until the knees touched her chin; he whispered to her to turn, and he spread her backside with his two hands. He rested inside of her, lay back and waited. " This was racy stuff when it was first published. No one wrote about sexuality as explicitly or as lovingly as Anaïs Nin.
Ricco Villanueva Siasoco teaches writing at Boston College and is working on a novel (though heís squeamish about the sex scenes). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.