By Mark Alpert
My first published piece of fiction was a short story that ran in Playboy. It appeared in the magazine’s February 1991 issue — according to the headline on the cover, this was THE SEXIEST LINGERIE ISSUE EVER — and its title was “My Life with Joanne Christiansen.” It’s really more like a play than a short story, because it’s entirely dialogue, a conversation between two young guys. One of them predicts the future of the other, telling him that he’ll meet and marry a sexy woman but the relationship will end in disaster. Playboy paid me three thousand dollars for the story, and I thought it was somewhat distinctive (there aren’t many short stories written in the future tense), but it lacked one of the elements you’d expect to see in a men’s magazine: It had no graphic sex scenes. Although the young guys talk about sex, it’s strictly for comic effect.
There are no sex scenes in my first three novels either. Because my books are nonstop-action thrillers, it’s difficult to insert a moment of quiet intimacy. My characters hardly have a minute to catch their breath, much less shed their clothes, and if by some miracle they happen to get an hour or two of free time they’re usually too frantic/desperate/terrified to get it on. My first novel included a scene in a strip club — an establishment near Fort Benning called The Night Maneuvers Lounge — but the chapter is more sordid than sexy.
But sex plays a bigger role in my latest novel, The Furies, which will go on sale this Tuesday. The sex scene in the second chapter is the novel’s formative incident, the event that triggers everything that will happen afterward. Actually, it’s a scene of unfinished sex, a case of coitus interruptus, the interruption in this case being a barrage of gunfire outside the lovers’ hotel room. The couple must then flee across the continent, running and hiding and shooting for hundreds of pages before they get another opportunity to shag.
So now that I’ve written a couple of sex scenes I can pretend to be an authority on them. The trick to writing them is the same trick that applies to all writing: you have to avoid clichés. With sex, though, the clichés are more difficult to avoid because there are so damn many of them. At one end of the spectrum you have the “Letters to Penthouse” clichés, the salacious phrases and metaphors that peppered those oh-so-realistic tales of dorm-room orgies and dalliances with deliverymen. (“I’m just an ordinary Joe, and I never thought such a crazy thing could ever happen to me, but last night when my shift was almost over…”) And at the other end you have the flowery romance-novel clichés, full of heavy breathing and sudden surges of warmth to the loins.
It’s incredibly rare to find a writer who can describe sex well. John Updike is one of the best in this regard. I’ll never forget the scene in Rabbit, Run where Harry Angstrom has sex with Ruth Leonard. I don’t remember the exact wording, but while Harry is marveling over the sensation of being inside Ruth’s vagina he pictures the inside of a ballet slipper. It’s the kind of observation that makes you think: Yes, that’s exactly right.
The sex scenes in The Furies are nowhere near as good as Updike’s, and I was nervous about how the first readers would react to them. To my astonishment and delight, one early reader said the sex scene near the end of the book was “surprisingly dirty.” When I heard this reaction I thought, That’s great! I was aiming for dirty! But then I went back to the book and reread the scene and concluded that this particular critic was dead wrong. Dirty? Are you kidding? If I’d written this scene as a Letter to Penthouse, the editors would’ve laughed in my face. It’s so tame it could probably run in Reader’s Digest. If anything, the scene veers a little too close to the romance-novel clichés. The lovers are outside, and the moonlight is shining on their bodies.
But I kept mulling over that reader’s comment. I take all criticisms very seriously. I may not agree with them, but I try to at least figure out where the readers are coming from. And I started to wonder whether the impression of “dirtiness” came from my choice of words for certain body parts. In particular, two words: ERECTION and CLITORIS.
It would be difficult to describe any sex act without mentioning at least one of these two parts. And in my opinion, ERECTION and CLITORIS are perfectly good words for them, certainly better than a lot of other terms and euphemisms I’ve heard. But perhaps I’m missing something. Does it upset people to see these words in print? Does it make them uncomfortable?
Because sex is such a big part of pop culture these days, it’s hard to believe that these words still have the power to shock. As an experiment, I’m going to repeat them a dozen times: ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS
Okay, that was fun. Not as much fun as sex, mind you, but still pretty good.