I'm currently in the middle of writing a sequence of novels that tracks the same group of characters through time, with the focus on their emotional lives. Inevitably, this involves sex. The first sex scene I wrote was the easiest, and also, in its way, a cheat. My character is a teacher with hopes of becoming a writer, who has just had his latest work rejected. To console himself he retreats to his bedroom for a phone sex session - the novel is set in 2000, before the high days of internet porn. I transcribed the recorded voice precisely, with all its filthy words, as the teacher pleasures himself. Jiggling on the bed, he alarms his next door neighbor, who supposes there's a burglar upstairs in her house. She rings his doorbell for help at exactly the wrong moment.
The scene is frank and it's funny: and that's why it's a cheat. We've grown accustomed to writing about sex ironically, as if it's not to be taken seriously by sophisticated readers. I regard this now as a dereliction of duty. How can I, as a novelist, not take sex seriously? Where but in the novel can the tenderness, wonder and disappointment of sex be communicated? Sex manuals and pornography give the technique without the feelings. The novel, uniquely, has the ability to deliver both the outside and the inside.
But it's not easy. How much detail is necessary? At what point does it become distasteful? What words am I to use? Most of the terms used in everyday speech for genitals, male or female, are associated with anger, mockery or contempt; which is itself revealing of our dysfunctional relation to sex. There are no widely-shared affectionate pet names for these much loved body parts. I don't mind using dirty words - one of the sex scenes in my latest novel, Motherland, is driven by the male character's shock and awe at hearing his girlfriend say "Fuck me" and realizing she means it literally. This in 1946, by the way, when the impact would have been far more electrifying than today. But what am I to do when that kind of effect is not appropriate?
One six-page scene in the same novel tracks my heroine's loss of virginity. She's passionately in love with her boyfriend and longs for sexual intimacy, but she has only the haziest idea of what it involves. She's frightened that she's "too small" for him, finds penetration painful, and gains no pleasure from the act. At the same time the experience is powerful and significant for her: she feels overwhelmed with the sensation of absolute closeness, with tenderness for his sudden helplessness when he orgasms, and with the realization that she has participated in an act that gives him something he very much wants. His own lack of awareness of how little he's given her does not of course bode well for the relationship - but that's for later in the novel. The point I wanted to make is that sex can be a physical failure and an emotional success. The scene is written from her point of view. What words can I use? In the end I decided that she thinks of her genitals as there, italicizing the word. This communicates her close attention to what's happening - 'His touch makes her body new for her, as if there has never been discovered before' - while conveying the character's shyness.
Still today, for all our modern freedoms, we're shy about sex. The icons of sex are everywhere we look, but the message they carry is that sex is for the young and the beautiful. The rest of us are consigned to a zone of failure. To counter this I shall continue to write about sex, building in to my novels a personal belief that's also a message of hope: the best sex comes with maturity, mutual trust, and added lubrication.
William Nicholson is the author of the new book Motherland.