To smut or not to smut?

I was really enjoying Ken Follett‘s Pillars of the Earth. Right up until the moment where the hairdresser started reading it over my shoulder.

Pillars of the Earth is an epic book covering many topics; about religion, philosophy, politics and architecture. It explores treachery, pride, revenge, love, and grief.  It includes mammoth descriptions of life in the middle ages, warts and all. And it includes a few – a very few in over a thousand pages – brief sex scenes that take up a couple of pages.

So, guess which ones I ended up reading at the hairdressers? The saucy bits. Much in the manner that random play on your MP3 player only selects Baby’s Got Back from three thousand other songs when Grandma is in the car with you (and worse yet, knows the words), Pillars of the Earth decided to wait until I was out and about and had someone close enough to read it over my shoulder before whipping out the four letter words and lurid descriptions. The hairdresser was amused at my embarrassed page flicking. “Enjoying your book?” Um. Not really. Well, not anymore.

I’m not a massive fan of love scenes in books generally. Sex sells, I am sure, but not to me. It’s something I tolerate in a book, if it’s necessary to the story. It’s not just that the sex scenes will wait until you are in the middle of a big group – reading on public transport, squashed book to nose on an airplane etc – to flash their bits. I’m not that fond of the language used, all that heaving and throbbing and attempts to describe women’s genitalia that end up sounding like someone took LSD and then got lost in a florists.

I’ve also never been convinced by a lot of stock phrases used, such as those that liken erotic touch to sticking your fingers in the plug socket, you know, “his touch coursed through her like an electric current.” I’ve been electric shocked on several occasions, and I can say that none of them were much fun or erotic in any way. Police are issued with ‘tasers for a reason and that reason isn’t to bring joy to miscreants everywhere. I mean, you don’t see people sitting on electric fences going; “Eeek! Mmm. Eeek! Mmm!” Well, I don’t. Maybe I just don’t know about those sorts of farms. Perhaps if I read more books about it I’d be more au fait with the sensual use of the electric cattle prod. But something about the average sex scene just causes me to put the book down before my mother looks over my shoulder when I am reading it and asks what a merkin is. (Don’t google that one at work. Or at all.)

I have some company in my prudish dislike of overblown sex-scenes. The Literary Review is up to the eighteenth annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, inaugurated in 1993 in order to draw attention to, and hopefully discourage, poorly written, redundant or crude passages of a sexual nature in fiction. Last year’s top place was taken by Rowan Somerville, whose novel The Shape of Her included phrases such as, “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”  Somerville insisted the scenes were perfect for the purpose, responding, “‘There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of the nation, I thank you.” (This is slightly more amusing when you realise Somerville is, in fact, Irish.)

So, what do you think? Do books need more sex? Less sex? Should the scenes fade to black or do you demand a full run-down of the action (oh my).

And does anyone know where I can find a new hairdresser?

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Sadhbh Warren

Sadhbh Warren is a freelance writer and proud booklover. Her name is pronounced Sive - like five – an Irish name, easier to say than spell! She lives in Sydney, writing travel and humour articles, and is always on the lookout for a great new book.

One thought on “To smut or not to smut?”

  1. I’ve heard it said time and again that it’s almost impossible to write a non-excruciating sex scene; one that isn’t laden with hamfistedly coy terminology for the plumbing of those involved.

    I would argue that it *is* simple enough to construct such a scene. You just tell it like it is, the same way you’d describe a dance that was also, clearly, a conversation between two people. And then you move on.

    I’ve never read Follett and it was only last night that I realised ‘Pillars’ had been made into what is, apparently, a pretty good mini-series starring more than a few big names. Given how well Game of Thrones came out I think I might give that a shot before I pick up the book.

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