Scarlet Letters

How to write about sex: tips from the greats

I had a sad time on Monday night. It wasn’t a wailing, Cathy on the heath, Bridget running through the snow-style sad but, as my friend from Blackburn says, it was ‘a bit wallow’. After a brief interlude of churlish sofa sprawling, cheese consumption and overloud repeats of Divinyls’ I Touch Myself, I did what any reasonable girl would do: mixed a nice Irish herbal tea (and yes this is a thing), had a bath, and read some filth.

Lo, come morning, the mists had cleared and I felt heppy again. Carpe diem, and all that. Sink or swim. This, you may well point out, is a very roundabout, whanging-on way of beginning a piece that will have not very much to do with four hours of self-pity or extended bathtimes. But it’s important, because it proves the central premise of this magazine: that sex, especially when it’s funny, has the power to lift us, like a tossed pancake – physically, intellectually, emotionally. All the –allys.

The smut in question – and it wouldn’t do to jeer at this, because we all have our go-to material and here I am sharing mine with the world like a CHUMP – ­was James Joyce’s love-letters to the wonderfully-monickered Nora Barnacle.

You are mine, darling, mine! I love you. All I have written above is only a moment or two of brutal madness. The last drop of seed has hardly been squirted up your cunt before it is over and my true love for you, the love of my verses, the love of my eyes for your strange luring eyes, comes blowing over my soul like a wind of spices. My prick is still hot and stiff and quivering from the last brutal drive it has given you when a faint hymn is heard rising in tender pitiful worship of you from the dim cloisters of my heart. 
Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like (my little frigging mistress! My little fucking whore!) you are always my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower.

In my first weeks of university, we were told, ad nauseam, that to read Joyce was to read literature, the most important, most audacious of writers. FFS! I thought to myself when I first discovered these, they had it so right! But not, as I’m sure they meant, with regards to the letters. Anyone who’s ever managed to navigate their way through Ulysses or Portrait of the Artist will know what a massive ballsache Joyce can be – a virtual guarantee that you’ll be swinging from the rafters by noon.  And now this!

Have I shocked you by the dirty things I wrote to you? You think perhaps that my love is a filthy thing. It is, darling, at some moments. I dream of you in filthy poses sometimes. I imagine things so very dirty that I will not write them until I see how you write yourself. The smallest things give me a great cockstand – a whorish movement of your mouth, a little brown stain on the seat of your white drawers, a sudden dirty word spluttered out by your wet lips, a sudden immodest noise made by your behind and then a bad smell slowly curling up out of your backside. At such moments I feel mad to do it in some filthy way, to feel your hot lecherous lips sucking away at me, to fuck between your two rosy-tipped bubbies, to come on your face and squirt it over your hot cheeks and eyes, to stick it between the cheeks of your rump and bugger you

Well, quite. And Nora, although very little of her correspondence to Joyce remains, was one of those fantastic, razzy, real women. If, as hers is, my legacy to this world is a scribbled note instructing a man to “roger me arseways”, I will consider my life the greatest of successes.

And Joyce isn’t the only one. Virginia Woolf’s collected works – in their entirety –simply don’t cut the mustard when we compare them to the sheer lunar pull of her writings to Vita Sackville-West:

Look Here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.

Still more darkly erotic are the break-up letters: charged, charred notes of faded relationships, and the knowledge that the recipient kept them, tucked away, gathering dust. Anaïs Nin’s barbed dispensation of Lanny Baldwin is brilliantly cut-throat:

I knew you could never enter my world, which you wanted so much. Because my world is based on passion, and because you know that it is only with passion that one creates, and you know that my world which you now deride because you couldn’t enter it, made Henry [Miller] a great writer, because you know the other young men you are so jealous of enter a whole world by love and are writing books, producing movies, poems, paintings, composing music.

Some weeks ago now, ER went to the London Book Fair, on its own (I say ER: I mean me, but the initials make it sound lofty and communal). It basically walked around for forty minutes: bewitched bothered and bewildered, looking for something lewd and finding very little to that effect. Eventually, however, it stumbled across a talk with, amongst others, A.L.Kennedy and Adam Thirlwell (one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and whom ER had a massive crush on, until he started mentioning his wife). A.L.Kennedy was mouthing off quite spectacularly about the Bad Sex Awards. “It’s a flawed, stupid prize,” she said, and everyone clapped. It was a good moment.

As the excerpts above so aptly demonstrate, writing about sex is much the same as writing about anything else. To imbue ‘erotic fiction’ with a label of its own is worthless: it’s the same as describing a visit to the dentist’s, only with more bums and moaning. We can see, surely, from these deliciously candid letters how simple the act of writing about sex can be, if only we were prepared to simply tell it how it is. Sex has been so claimed by visual industries that we often forget how powerful the written word can be, and why the BSAs should be abolished. They’re only making writers wary of stepping onto territory where critics will essentially fuck them: gleefully, ripping it all to bits. There’s always that taboo, at book readings, about whether or not to read out the sex scenes, as though that somehow tarnishes the rest of the ‘grown-up’ narrative. Reading their own sex scene aloud is one of the most intimate things a writer can do.

It’s like that wonderful moment in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, when Hector, the wayward teacher, explains the universality that literature can bring. It’s about reading others’ experiences and understanding them through your own, and this applies to sex as much as anything else:

 The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

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