02/04/2011 10:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Writing About Sex

Writing about sex is one of the great challenges for a writer. Many don't try.

The actual activity of sex can occupy so many, one might say the most, aspects of a person's senses and being that is not surprising it's so hard to convey. It is one of those subjects, like music, existing beyond the realm of words. Wallace Shawn says, "Sex really is a nation of its own." Describing physicality is already a stretch, and one only meets further challenges to include the heart, soul and head which may very well be part of the experience. It goes far. Sometimes writing around the sex itself can capture the power of its essence. My writing teacher Elizabeth Hardwick once suggested that some humor needed to be included when writing about sex or else it would become only a litany of body parts, and wouldn't be true besides.

Writers therefore often choose to focus on one of its traits: the pornographer on the lustful, the romantic on the imaginative, the scientist on the clinical, the playwright on the psychological. Capturing the totality of its experience remains just out of reach.

In honor of Valentine's Day here is a list of some fine sex writers and their specialties, who, like great courtesans, are renowned for their talents in a particular area.

  • James Salter: erotic, complex sex
  • Vladimir Nabokov: the magic and desire of sex
  • Pauline Réage: S&M porn in the spirit of Scheherazade
  • Raymond Chandler: noir, tough essence of sex
  • Ernest Hemingway: sensual, personally stamped sex
  • Charles Bukowski: drunken, raunchy sex
  • Bob Dylan: raspy, poetic feeling of sex
  • John Fante: crusty, outsider-looking-in sex
  • Anne Carson: the ungraspability-of-desire sex
  • Philip Roth: male-blooded, objectifying sex
  • Anais Nin: fantasy porn written-for-sex
  • James Joyce: stream-of-consciousness sex
  • Mary Gaitskill: demeaning sex
  • D.H. Lawrence: fundamental and transcendent sex
  • Lorrie Moore: humorous baffling sex
  • John Updike: overwritten but sometimes hitting-the-nail-on-the-head sex
  • Amy Hempel: detailed, ironic sex
  • William Faulkner: sultry, indirect sex

Visit Susan Minot's author page at Open Road Media.