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Making Love19 September 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
I recently ran a workshop on making love. Before you get the wrong end of the stick, it was about how this act is portrayed in literature. I could have called it Sex in Literature, but that sounds rather coarse.
In the UK, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award was established in 1993. A similar prize made a fleeting appearance in the Netherlands: there was a Bad Sex Prize in 2007, followed by the Saint Amour Prize for Good Sex in the same year. It turned out that the difference between the winners of the two prizes was down to originality.
‘Writing a sex scene is one of the most difficult aspects of writing,’ I impressed on my students. ‘On the other hand, you can learn a lot from badly written sex scenes,’ and I gave a few examples.
One of the shortlisted writers for the Bad Sex Prize 2007 had described a woman making love to two men simultaneously. She wrote, ‘I’m the incarnation of a palindrome, lips on top and down below.’
As you know, a palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same in either direction.
So here is what we discussed that evening: metaphors that somewhat missed their target. We also covered coarse scenes inappropriate for the characters, or scenes that were so overwritten that they made you laugh. ‘In my nightly imaginations you were a tiger and I a gazelle,’ by Lulu Wang, was one of a dozen other examples.
It’s odd, but even very good authors are prone to writing awful sex scenes. In any of the other passages the author controls the mind of his characters. Sex scenes are dominated either by what’s happening or by flowery prose; there’s hardly anything in between.
Just a few words can cause affront, such as ‘love’s dagger’ or ‘fleshy cudgel’. I proceeded to give my students an example by the well-known Dutch author Anna Enquist. She once shattered her prose with just one word: in her otherwise wonderful novel Het Meesterstuk (The Masterpiece) she allowed someone to get a ‘stiff cunt’ from cycling.
If during my creative writing courses someone uses a discordant word, I now exclaim, ‘Just like Enquist’s stiff cunt!’
When you read sex scenes you often get the feeling that the writer is daring to show off. I’m under the impression that this happens more often to Dutch than English writers.
This compares interestingly to Dutch movies. There are nude scenes in virtually every Dutch movie; they call it ‘functional nudity’. Even in costume dramas clothes are shed immediately. All I remember from a TV series in 1984 about William of Orange is that all his wives were naked.
Actually, it’s even odder that there isn’t any sex in a TV series about the recent history of the Dutch royal family. It will take at least another century before we can watch Prince Bernhard’s bare buttocks from our living room.
I asked my students to choose a bad sex scene and rewrite it without any explicit words. It produced marvellous results: sex was just being hinted at. I’m not saying that explicit scenes are inherently bad, but they have to be essential.
I discussed this the other day with one of my masterclass students. He is a GP and told me that during his training they had covered which words to use and which to avoid when dealing with sexuality.
What you say when is also important. He remembered a gynaecologist carrying out an internal examination while all his assistants stood round. He asked the patient, ‘Have you had sex recently?’ This is a case of bad timing. Maybe we should send all our authors to a GP conference.
The main conclusion is that an author must decide what type of sex fits his characters, irrespective of his personal preferences. A writer can expose himself in many other ways, even in pure fiction.
I nearly called this column ‘Prince Bernhard’s Buttocks’, but my mother reads it as well.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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