Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Quotable: Bad Sex Writing, Bad Coffee Table Books, and a Really Bad Amis Bio

A roundup of some of the most provoking and interesting links related to books, writing, and publishing that I’ve encountered lately.

In the wake of the 2012 Bad Sex Award nominees, everyone is talking about which literary writers wrote the most cringe-worthy scenes, but an even more fascinating read is this article by Edmund White (no stranger to lusty literary legerdemain), which tries to get to the bottom of why writing about the deed is so damned difficult:

"Words come together as if to commit ritual mass suicide."
Everyone seems agreed that writing about sex is perilous, partly because it threatens to swamp highly individualised characters in a generic, featureless activity (much like coffee-cup dialogue, during which everyone sounds the same), and partly because it feels ... tacky. Even careful writers begin to sound like porn soundtracks when they turn to sex writing.

NPR talks to independent booksellers about which books sell best at gift-giving time, and why:

Anything that anyone has ever thought of as a coffee-table book pretty much only works as a coffee-table book," Bercu says. "I can't imagine anybody's gonna put ... any kind of e-readers on the coffee table and hope people look at it; it just doesn't look the same."

In a review for the New York Times, Dwight Garner has serious issues with the new Amis bio. His biggest beef? The biographer is in way over his head:

Reading Martin Amis: The Biography is like watching a moose try to describe a leopard, using only its front hooves.

Author Steve Stern has much nicer things to say to NPR about Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. He admits that his gushing might amount to “insane claims,” but it’s hard not to want to drop everything and buy a copy this instant:

Savagely beautiful, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You is like a great Southern gothic fun house illuminated by lightning. Exploring its mysteries makes you feel not only intensely alive but compelled to for God's sake do something about it.

For the writers reading this roundup, Owen Egerton has 30 pieces of advice for you. Several are tremendously inspiring, though which ones are most motivating will likely vary by writer. I dare any writer not to feel an ego boost from this observation, though:

A person can only read so many words in a lifetime. Your reader is choosing to read you instead of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Whitman. Humbly honor that and give them the best of your soul.

Share your observations on any of these quotes, and if you read any of the full articles (and please do!), let me know what you thought.


  1. There's a simple reason why most fictional treatments of sex seem wrong in some way: situations rarely change for characters during sex scenes, so most sex scenes exist purely to fill pages in a story. Which means the reader is no longer thinking about what the sex means to the characters and is instead thinking about how it meets the reader's expectations, experiences, or desires.

    1. I think you've hit on something as far as the scenes not changing the character. In cases where sex scenes exist without furthering the plot or the character, they're as out of place as a scene in which someone eats a meal with every aspect described in great detail. I'm remembering cases where I think sex works well in a book, and it's because it's important to the story -- which is so often NOT the case.

    2. Doing a post about sex scenes that worked for you could be fun. Okay, potentially embarrassing, but fun.

  2. I've got to remember that quote about describing a leopard. Excellent, although it kind of makes me want to rush out and read the book, just to see if he's right.

  3. Reading sex is a lot like HAVING sex. When done well, it is awesome (and inspiring). When done poorly, it's kind of like, "D'oh! I could've had a V-8."

    I would disagree with Will's point that sex scenes exist to fill pages, at least for me. I write a lot of them, and they ARE about character change - it either draws the characters together, or pushes them apart. I have a scene in my last MS where the female lead has a fling, and it's hot sex, BUT she can't get out of her head the guy she's (denying she's)in love with. This lets the reader SEE how hung up she is on this guy.


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