Let's talk about you and me. Let's talk about all the bad sex writing there may be. It's that time of year again when the Bad Sex awards honour (sic) the worst writing about you-know-what of the preceding twelve months. Winner Nancy Huston seems to be critically well regarded in general, which illustrates a point often revealed by these awards - writing about sex can be disastrous even for otherwise excellent authors. Indeed, John Updike, Sebastian Faulks and Norman Mailer are all previous winners.
Why is writing about sex so hard? Sorry, I mean "difficult". The author Edmund White suggests this is in part "because it threatens to swamp highly individualised characters in a generic, featureless activity". Speak for yourself, mate. But he's right of course - how to find anything new to say about an act that takes place all the time (so I'm told) and has a whole industry devoted to its description and portrayal? There may be characters who are made fuller by the revelation of their sexual predilections and performance, but not many. And if you are merely adding titillation then you have strayed into the margins of pornography's territory (and probably have a best-seller on your hands).
My own view is that so much writing about sex in novels is bad because it is unnecessary, and unnecessary writing is almost always bad by definition. An author needs to ask themselves whether description of the sex act adds anything to the novel beyond that which a simple metaphorical drawing of curtains would. In most cases the answer is no.
My character Milligan has some success with the female of the species, but in only one instance do I go into any of the intimate details, and then via a deliberately tortured nautical metaphor that is at least intended to be humorous. Other than that I prefer to draw those curtains in the belief that thus the reader is better served, plus my mum might be reading.
Simon Alexander Collier is a former British diplomat and the author of "Milligan and the Samurai Rebels", a humorous, historical novel set in the Japan of the 1860s.