Show and Tell

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Author: Sarah Lyall
Date: Feb. 11, 2018
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,563 words

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One day while he was working on his book ''The Sympathizer,'' Viet Thanh Nguyen made squid for dinner. The recipe required him to grasp the raw squid and place his fingers deep inside its inner cavity. A little light bulb went off in his head. ''I thought, 'It reminds me of something,''' he said recently.

Not just a thing but also the classic moment in Philip Roth's ''Portnoy's Complaint'' when the protagonist masturbates into a piece of raw liver and puts it back in the refrigerator. Nguyen combined the two notions, the squid and the liver, and allowed his fictional narrator the pleasure of having his spontaneous way with his own family's dinner-to-be.

It's rare for real people to find sexual partners in the seafood aisle of the supermarket, but lovers of fiction stumble into this sort of thing all the time. We're happily reading at the breakfast table, or on the subway, or in line at the passport office, when all of a sudden the characters stop what they're doing, jump into bed (or wherever) and start having sex, or some approximation of it: sex with each other, sex with themselves, sex with whatever moist inanimate object comes easiest to hand.

Hurray! (Probably.) In theory this should be as thrilling for us as it is for the people doing the things they're doing. Who doesn't like learning the spicy particulars of a raunchy sex scene? Who would begrudge an imaginary person the chance to pursue the moist cephalopod of his dreams?

''If there were a union for fictionalized characters, they would insist on having sex in a book at least every Friday,'' said Allan Gurganus, famous among writing students for his enthusiastic ''let's get it on'' philosophy about sex in fiction. ''We love our main characters and they stick with us for 350 pages and the least we can do is give them one moment of sexual pleasure.''

It's been 90 years since Lady Chatterley adulterously wove flowers into her lover's pubic hair in D.H. Lawrence's book, to the scandalized delight of readers wily enough to score early samizdat copies. But now that anything goes, now that we've seen it all, now that we have PornHub to amuse us on demand, is there anything left to get excited about? Should novelists try to counteract the numbing aspects of porn, as Gurganus advised in an interview, by giving the characters the gift of more active sex lives?

''There's an inverse ratio between the abundance of pornography and the scarcity of sex in modern fiction,'' he said. ''We talk about where people live, what they earn, what they eat, what they drive, but we're leaving out the question of their sexual pleasure, and that's depriving them of something extremely important.''

Sex is notoriously tricky to describe. A writer's tumescent member is a reader's risible euphemism. ''No throbbing manhoods,'' declared Jennifer Weiner, who wants her fictional sex to be consistent with what her characters would normally do and say: ''You try to make the way people behave toward one another when they're in bed line up with the way they behave when they're out of bed.''

In a climactic sex scene in the novel ''Golden Hill,'' set in mid-18th-century Manhattan, Francis Spufford's narrator briefly steps outside the story to grumble to the reader. ''How hard it is to describe a desirable woman without running into geography! Or the barnyard. Or the resources of the fruit-bowl,'' he complains. ''I do not want to write this part of the story.''

Stephen King agrees. ''Every part of writing a novel is daunting, but very few novelists deal with sex very well,'' he wrote in an email. ''The act is usually far better than writing (or reading) about the act.''

Perhaps it was better in the old days, he added. ''When I was a kid, reading my first adult paperbacks, the guy would take off the gal's blouse ... they would kiss ... then there would be a double space, after which the story would resume the following morning.''

Not so much now. As luck would have it, lots of writers are up for writing about sex -- even, or maybe especially, when the sex isn't that good. (With her short story ''Cat Person,'' Kristen Roupenian has perhaps created a new vernacular for expressing the particular ways it can be not-good for women who think they want it, but who become repelled mid-encounter by the weird or sloppy or selfish or alarming behavior of the men they go home with.)

Indeed, a lot of literary fiction seems to feature glum lovers ''who have two reluctant orgasms'' before, basically, calling it a night, said Carmen Maria Machado, who relishes a saucy sex scene, especially from the point of view of women who like to have it with other women. ''Often I feel when I'm reading sex scenes by men, there's a sense of disdain for the female body, a sense of its alienness, its otherness,'' she said in an interview. ''But I like to write about sex,'' she continued, ''and I feel there's a real joy to clear, joyful sex.''

The novelist Tom Perrotta said via email that he favors characters who ''think and talk about sex all the time, but don't have a lot of it.'' (In his latest book, ''Mrs. Fletcher,'' his main character mostly sticks to porn.) Meanwhile, Anthony Marra's story collection ''The Tsar of Love and Techno'' includes a scene between a pair of desperately-in-love teenagers who have sex as if they were the first to discover it. Their age ''allows for a little descriptive leeway, because so much of adolescent life is overwrought to begin with,'' Marra said in an email.

Writing with pungent frankness about sex in ''Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,'' Geoff Dyer was inspired by the lyrical yet matter-of-fact gay eroticism in such Alan Hollinghurst novels as ''The Line of Beauty.'' ''I was struck that he was writing this classical prose and then without any change of register suddenly he was writing in this very explicit, up-to-date way,'' Dyer said. ''I wondered whether it was possible to do a heterosexual version of that.''

He also wanted to be sure everyone knew who was doing what when, how and to whom. ''Generally speaking, I get frustrated and irritated when I can't tell what's happening'' in a novel, Dyer said. ''I want to know who's speaking and where they're going and all that.'' So for his sex scenes, ''I wanted it to be, 'This goes there and he does this. ...' Just the sort of mechanics of it. It was technically interesting because even moving people around -- getting them in and out of rooms -- is difficult.''

What doesn't work? ''Ocean metaphors -- those are terrible,'' said Daniel Handler, whose latest book, ''All the Dirty Parts,'' fulfills the promise of its title.

This brings us to the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, which since 1993 has been given annually by Literary Review magazine in Britain to ''draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.''

Over the years, writers have been cited for their overly creative synonyms for male genitalia (''his bulging trousers,'' ''his old battering ram,'' ''the billiard rack,'' ''a plank,'' ''his peg,'' ''my pole,'' ''his big generative jockey,'' ''the Hound'') and female genitalia (''her sap,'' ''her viscera,'' ''her relief map of mysteries,'' ''her assemblage,'' ''her pelvic saddle,'' ''her most unmentionable body part'' and ''the no man's land between her 'front parlor' and 'back door''').

Placed in elaborate metaphorical forests, seascapes, gardens, transformative celestial planes and ecstatic alternative universes, the characters can be found in various convoluted configurations, biting, gasping, whacking, smacking, glugging, grabbing, grinding, gripping, grunting, scratching, swallowing, squeaking, sucking, stroking, lathering, panting, prodding, moaning, thrusting, tugging, rubbing and rattling. If they're lucky, they might achieve a ''Wagnerian crescendo,'' or at least a ''puny muscular spasm.''

As in real life, the male ego is disproportionately large. ''Male writers often have vaginas squeezing the sides of penises to show how into it the women are,'' said Frank Brinkley, assistant editor of the magazine, speaking of nominees for the prize. ''For men, it often needs to be bigger and larger and the best sex ever and better than the sex before, and it's clear that the man's penis is brilliant and the woman loves it and it's the best one she's ever seen.''

It's hard to pick the best (worst) Bad Sex winner. But many people familiar with the prize have a soft spot for the 2015 recipient, Morrissey, former lead singer of the Smiths, for a passage in his debut novel, ''List of the Lost.'' Not only does he use the phrase ''bulbous salutation,'' but also he describes how it -- the bulbous salutation, that is -- ''whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza's body except for the otherwise central zone.''

That made people think of the London Underground, which they found especially amusing.

As Jonathan Beckman, a Literary Review editor, wrote at the time: ''For future reference, the best way to reach the otherwise central zone is almost certainly by getting off the Victoria Line at Oxford Circus.''

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A527064304