Tis the season to titter prudishly, as with the repetitive tediousness of an absent minded cock slapping, the bad sex award shortlist has come round again. I usually ignore the BS award, as I would urge you to – nothing is more worthy of your inattention. This year, however, one of the books on the shortlist surprised me:
The Last Banquet – Jonathan Grimwood.
Why was I surprised? Because Jonathan Grimwood is the all-but-impenetrable secret identity of Jon Courtenay Grimwood – cyber-noir writer extraordinaire.
Full disclosure, I’m a big JCG fan, and some of the sex scenes in his earlier books are hotter than the volcanic core of a fresh-out-of-the-toaster poptart. He excels at writing about the pleasures (and pains) of the flesh, so when I saw his name on the list, I thought ‘JCG, what on earth went wrong?’
Well, reader, I read The Last Banquet, and guess what: nothing went wrong. The sex is fantastic.
The BS award website quotes the following short extract for our dairy delectation:
“Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it. She tasted almost as she had the day I took the drop of milk on my finger.”
I say that not because I’m overly turned on by the thought of sucking a nipple through a fragment of brie (though if you do happen to be a pappilactophile, more power to your cheese-covered arm), but because the sex scenes in TLB, and there are many, are some of the best in-character writing I’ve read this year.
A couple of days back I asked Twitter to recommend good sex writing. I got a wild variety of responses, including a lot of fanfic, and several shout-outs to Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. In addition, a good few people asked:
‘Isn’t what would count for you as good sex writing, too personal for us to judge?’
Well… yes and no.
If my unimpeachably scientific experiment with social media proves anything, it’s that what tickles the naughty centres in our brains is deeply personal* and subjective. Hardly an earth-shaking conclusion, I know. Except that if this is true for real people, it’s just as true for characters, which makes a sex scene one of the most telling things you can write to delineate and illuminate the people in your story.
That’s where TLB excels. Protagonist Jean-Marie D’Aumout’s bedroom antics are simultaneously analytical and joyous. He’s a scientist who loves to get his hands dirty. His natural taxonomic eye (and tongue) don’t distance him from the world, they bring him closer, and always, always everything comes back to his one true obsession: taste.
Grimwood gives you all that, from one two-line sex scene. Plus he works in the phrase ‘a secret known only to him, and to the chief condom-maker to the Ottoman Sultan.’ And if that’s not a phrase to conjure with, then you can just go ahead and paddle me, because I don’t know what to say to you.
And that’s why, for all that teh hawtness is subjective and personal (like all art), there is such a thing as good sex writing that we can recognize and recommend. The point of it though, isn’t necessarily to turn you on, but to tell the story, to let you get to know the characters in their most intimate space. That’s why reading a sex scene out of context will tell you pretty much nothing, and also why the Bad Sex award is full of B.S.
P.S To anyone about to tell me not to take the BSA so seriously, let me assure you that there is nothing on our lovely verdant planet I take less seriously than the Bad Sex Award. For all that, I think it’s become a form of mild censure via embarrassment that’s at best pointless and at worst slightly unhelpful. Exponentially more importantly though, I wanted to say ‘chief condom-maker to the Ottoman Sultan.’