Literary Sex

Linda Downing Miller shares thoughts from her MFA program reading.

One of the benefits of an MFA program for me has been the opportunity to read recommended works with an eye toward particular aspects of craft. How does an author manage time? Establish point of view? When the syllabus arrived for my next residency at Queens University, it felt like literary karma. I’d spurned Fifty Shades of Gray while others succumbed. Now, for a seminar on the “The Joy of Writing Sex,” I was required to explore a racy reading list with literary merit. Thank goodness I’d saved myself.

At Queens, I look forward to discussing how (and why) the authors on our “Sex” list wrote their characters through passionate moments. From just one book, Mary Gordon’s Spending, I already have a few thoughts on how to write sex well. 

Combat cliché or vulgarity with humor and self-awareness. When Gordon’s main character takes to the dance floor with her future lover, she notes: “What we were doing was so much about sex, so clearly a pantomime of sex, that I couldn’t begin to pretend it was anything different.” Later, she tells him, “Most pornographers lack a sense of both humor and variety.” When she uses the expression “bring me off,” she references its strangeness.

Involve the reader’s imagination. Hints of position or the focus of a lover’s attention can be more compelling than explicit details. Metaphors can be powerful: “the violinist fretted the string” (describing background music in the midst of sex). Not every encounter needs pages or paragraphs. Sometimes a single sentence implies enough.

Make the sex relevant to the plot, and the plot more than sex. Sex in Spending often reflects the characters’ changing financial relationship and fears; the novel explores these connections along with the nature of art and the creative process. As a reader, I wanted even more from the introspection-heavy plot. Overall, though, Spending was a pleasurable learning experience.

– Linda Downing Miller, Assistant Fiction Editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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  1. Cam says:

    I agree that dancing can equal sex. It’s a great visual without going overboard with description.

    When “The Horse Whisperer” came out in theaters, I went to see it with my mother…and was totally embarrassed to watch the slow dance scene with her right there next to me.

  2. Beth says:

    Great post, and I couldn’t agree with you more: hints of position or the focus of a lover’s attention can be wayyyyyy more compelling than explicit details.

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