I’ve been working my way through Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from The New York Times. I hit upon Barbara Kingsolver’s piece, “A Forbidden Territory Familiar to All” and found a kindred spirit:
For decent folk of any gender, the official and legal position of our culture is that sex takes place in private, and that’s surely part of the problem. Private things–newfound love, family disagreements and spiritual faith, to name a few–can quickly become banal or irritating when moved into the public arena. But new love, family squabbles and spirituality are rich ground for literature when they’re handled with care. Writers don’t avoid them on grounds of privacy, but rather take it as duty to draw insights from personal things and render them universal. Nothing could be more secret, after all, than the inside of another person’s mind, and that is just where a novel takes us, usually from page 1. No subject is too private for good fiction if it can be made beautiful and enlightening.
That may be the rub right there. Making it beautiful is no small trick. The language of coition has been stolen, or rather, I think, it has been divvied up like chips in a poker game among pornography, consumerism and the medical profession. None of these players are concerned with aesthetics, so the linguistic chips have become unpretty by association. Vagina is fatally paired with speculum. Any word you can name for the male sex organ or its, um, movement seems to be the property of Larry Flynt. Even a perfectly serviceable word like nut, when uttered by an adult, causes paroxysms in sixth-grade boys.
My word processing program’s thesaurus has washed its hands of the matter: it eschews any word remotely associated with making love. Coitus, for example, claims to be NOT FOUND, and the program coyly suggests as the nearest alternative coincide with? It also pleads ignorant on penis and suggests pen friend. A writer in work-avoidance mode could amuse herself all day.
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To write about sex at all, we must first face down the polite pretense that it doesn’t really matter to us and acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, nothing could matter more. In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast and find a way to tell of its terror and beauty. We must own up to its gravity. We also must accept an uncomfortable intimacy with our readers in the admission that, yes, we’ve both done this. We must warn our mothers before the book comes out. We must accept the economic reality that this one won’t make the core English Lit curriculum.
Still, in spite of everything, I’m determined to write about the biological exigencies of human life, and where can I start the journey except through this mined harbor? It’s a risk I’ll have to take.
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When do you close the door on a sex scene in your work, and what influences that decision?