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Joy to the world
Author Elizabeth Benedict serves up a second helping of The Joy of Writing Sex

THINK YOUíVE GOT what it takes to write a good sex scene?

You might be surprised to learn that your own sexual proficiency (or lack of it, poor dear) has little to do with how well you do when you sit down to a blank sheet of paper. Just ask author Elizabeth Benedict, whose book The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers (Story Press, 1996) was re-released this year ó in revised, updated, and paperback form ó by Owl Books. In the book, Benedict interviews 15 renowned writers and presents excerpts from 40 works of fiction, all in the name of offering instruction on navigating what is for many writers a discomfiting arena. Tackling a variety of sexual "genres" ó including first sex, married sex, recreational sex, illicit sex, and, yes, solo sex ó Benedictís book answers frank questions with the help of such writers as Russell Banks, Dorothy Allison, and John Updike.

For those whose interest in the subject isnít sated by the book, Benedict (whoís also the author of Almost and Slow Dancing, among others) will moderate an upcoming panel ó featuring writers Steve Almond, Michael Lowenthal, and Elizabeth Searle ó aptly titled "Sex on the Page." Come armed with appetites both literal and figurative; in addition to the no-holds-barred discussion on the joys and challenges of writing sex, the participating authors promise that wine and chocolate will be served.

Q: The book is called The Joy of Writing Sex. For you, what is the joy in writing sex?

A: The title was given to me. I was asked to write a book by a publisher who had the title, and she asked me to write a book about how to write about sex. The only thing she provided was the title and, you know, the book contract, and the publishing company. So itís not a title that I chose, although I have come to like the title a lot. But I didnít start thinking about the subject in terms of joy. I was asked to write the book; I hadnít been thinking about it, it wasnít something that preoccupied me. When this idea was presented to me, I became interested in it. But then I had to create a whole book; I had to have a table of contents, and I had to have 10 or 12 chapters, and I had to conceptualize the subject. And then I started really thinking about what writing about sex is and how to break it down, how to organize it. So it suddenly became something that wasnít very joyful; it became an interpretive task of figuring out how to break down this joy. I just started to read sex scenes in well-known books that Iíd already read, like Portnoyís Complaint or Fear of Flying, and I sort of picked them up randomly and said, "Okay, how do these sex scenes work?" And what I learned, from reading all the sex scenes, was that the most important element in a sex scene is the relationship that the characters have to each other. That became the principle that I used to organize the book.

Q: Not a lot of joy in putting this book together, then?

A: Iíd have to say of course I enjoyed it, and I wrote the book in 1995 and then I revised it in 2001, so I did have a good time. And of course I like writing about sex. And I think the publisher chose me to write the book initially because she liked the way I wrote about sex. So I donít want to make it sound like it was all a chore.

Q: But certainly writing this book was very different than writing a sex scene.

A: Oh yes, it was very different. And you know, when I was first writing the book and I would tell people that I was writing it, theyíd make jokes like, "Oh, well, youíre doing a lot of research, I suppose," and I was doing a lot of research, which was that I was sitting reading piles and piles of books, and I was also interviewing a lot of writers. So thereís a huge difference between having sex, writing a sex scene, and then writing a book about how to write a sex scene. I would say joy is not the first thing that I think about when I confront this, but, at the same time, I really have enjoyed writing the sex scenes Iíve written.

Sex is incredibly complicated. There isnít a more complicated transaction between people. And there are just enormous numbers of layers of experience ó physical experience, emotional experience, metaphysical experience, history, sociology, politics ó that can go into a sex scene, and that go into our experience of sex. So when you write about it, you donít have to bring all of those things into it, but you can bring all of those things into it, so it almost can expand as fully as you want it to. And the joy in writing about it, to me, is trying to mine everything that sex means to us. Sex is simple in a certain way, mechanically, but it changes for us all the time: the meaning of it changes, our desire for it changes, the objects of our desire change, our comfort or discomfort with it changes. So trying to capture all of those elements in writing is really interesting, and really a challenge.

Sex makes people vulnerable. And in that vulnerability, we change and we do things that surprise us. Sometimes we become cruel, sometimes we become infantile, sometimes we fall in love. And sex is very powerful. As writers, we have a lot to learn about how to exploit the power of sex in our writing. Thatís what the joy of writing sex is to me.

Q: In the introduction to the revised edition, you talk about the three things that have changed in the six years since the book first came out: cyberspace, Monica Lewinsky, and AIDS. Talk to me about how each of those things, in your opinion, affected the world and, in turn, how people write about sex.

A: I realized that even though it had only been five or six years since Iíd written the book, the landscape had changed in some ways that I had to take note of. In those years, weíd had two years of the presidentís sex life on TV, so the public dialogue about sex had really changed. I remember the articles about "How do we talk to our children about Monica Lewinsky?" and "How do we talk to our elderly parents?" and "How does Peter Jennings talk about oral sex on TV?" Suddenly we were grappling with talking in different ways. We were a little more relaxed than we had been a few years before. And also there was a kind of sexual innocence that had been blown apart by the Monica Lewinsky trial. So I felt I had to take note of that in terms of language. But then I also noticed that the way fiction writers were writing about sex reflected some of that lost innocence. And, in fact, several writers have actually written directly about the Monica Lewinsky stuff, and I tried to talk about that in the book. Philip Roth, in The Human Stain, wrote about Monica, and I think Francine Prose was parodying the scandal in her book Blue Angel. So itís really become part of our discourse. I mean, suddenly the name Monica means a lot.

The Internet had kind of erupted into all of our lives in this period. Sex and the Internet are almost interchangeable in some peopleís lives, and I think there had just been an article in the Times about cybersex addiction, and about hundreds of thousands of people being addicted to cybersex, and suddenly it became this kind of disease or psychological condition. And also, you know, the way people related to each other in e-mail had changed, people met on the Internet, they were Internet friends, then they became real-life friends. So a lot of our human connections changed because of the Internet, and I wanted to see how that had filtered down into fiction-writing. I was on the lookout for novels and short stories that reflected that. The irony is that cybersex is really masturbation with a computer. I sort of got to this point where I said, "Oh my God, Iím really actually going to have to write about the way people masturbate with computers." Thatís really what a lot of cybersex intimacy is. I had written a chapter on masturbation in the first book, and I expanded on that chapter when I incorporated the Internet stuff. That was important for me to address in the new book.

The first edition of the book had a chapter on AIDS, and it was on writing about sex in the age of AIDS, and I knew when I wrote the chapter that how we wrote about sex would evolve as AIDS and treatment for AIDS evolved. So I felt it was important to take a new look at how people were writing about sex in the age of AIDS, you know, five years later. What I found was that I think the level of shock and outright, all-consuming grief was muted five years later. The specter of AIDS was much more incorporated into peopleís writing, both gay and straight, than it had been five or six years before. I really felt I needed to look at the AIDS landscape in those intervening years and see whether anything had changed, and whether there was anything I could tell writers about what their choices were as they wrote about sex and AIDS and HIV and safe sex.

Q: How did you decide which writers to talk to in the book?

A: It was sort of how you choose to decorate your house: what comes with the house, who gives you something, what you think is really wonderful. I would say I mostly sought out people who I thought had written about sex in interesting ways. And I was very lucky that John Updike wrote me a letter when I wrote to him; I was very lucky that Alan Hollinghurst wrote to me. Everyone was pretty interested in participating.

Q: Of the questions you asked them, were there any that got answers that particularly surprised you?

A: I wrote to John Updike and I said something like, "What are your favorite sex scenes?" or some very benign question. And then he wrote back and said, "Writing my sex scenes physically excites me, as it should." And then I realized that that was an interesting question to ask writers: do your sex scenes excite you? So that became a question that I then posed to people.

Q: Do you think a man can write a good sex scene from the perspective of a woman, and vice-versa?

A: I like to think so. I think that writing fiction is about inhabiting somebody elseís consciousness, your characterís consciousness. And thatís what all fiction writing is about. And so whether youíre writing about somebodyís sex life or youíre writing about their marriage or their children, you begin by being in somebody elseís consciousness. I donít think itís that much different in writing about sex, although I think when we read a person of the opposite sex writing a sex scene, we read it differently. I think we read it with more skepticism. So I think that part of it is tricky. I think men and women can write about each otherís sexual lives. Thereís an example in the book Chang and Eng, who were the Siamese twins ó I interviewed [author] Darin Strauss, and he talks a lot about being able to imagine someone elseís sex life, and obviously Darin Strauss isnít a Siamese twin, so he tries to imagine what it was like for these men, who had a very complicated relationship with each otherís sex lives. I think every writer has to do that, to some extent; you have to imagine somebody elseís sex life.

Q: Although probably far fewer Siamese twins are going to challenge his interpretation than women will challenge a male writerís female sex scene.

A: I guess I have trouble with people challenging. I mean, I know it happens all the time, people challenge how someone writes about sex, but everybodyís experience of sex is incredibly different ó whether youíre a man or a woman. I could read a womanís account of sex and say, "Well, thatís not what it was like for me," or, "Thatís not what Iím interested in." It can seem as alienating to me as the sexual experience of a man. Iím not sure it breaks down exactly on gender lines. I think the reader just has to believe in the moment, and the reader has to believe that this is how it feels to the character. The reader doesnít have to say, "Well, that never happened to me; he canít be writing that way because that never happened to me." I mean, if the writing is good, and if the writer has really done his or her job, you believe in that sexual experience, from the point of view of that character.

Q: Talk to me about the difference between writing sex and writing sexy.

A: The question is somewhat about the difference between maybe pornography and erotica and the kind of writing I talk about in the book, and I think itís an important distinction to make. And there are no iron-clad rules about definition, so I want to say that at the outset.

Pornography, to me, is writing thatís about sex. The intention of pornography is to arouse the reader. And if it doesnít arouse the reader, itís not of much interest to the reader. Erotica is maybe literary pornography, or well-written pornography, or itís pornography written by literary writers. But I think the point of erotica, too, is to arouse the reader. And if it doesnít do that, it sort of loses its purpose.

I think the kind of sex writing that Iím interested in as a writer and a reader and also as the person who wrote The Joy of Writing Sex is writing about sex that is really integral to the story, thatís integral to the voice of the story, thatís not about good sex. Iím not interested in sex scenes whose purpose is to stimulate the reader. If that happens along the way, I donít have any objections to it, and there are certain cases where it should happen, because thatís part of the story. But there has to be something else going on in this piece of writing besides stimulating the reader. Thatís what Iím interested in.

I have to say, one of the things thatís interesting to me about The Joy of Writing Sex ó this is a bit of history ó when I was first writing the book in 1995, I wanted to take a sex scene from Judith Krantz or Jackie Collins and put it in the book and use it to illustrate what was wrong with that kind of sex writing. And the publisher forbade me. She said, "You cannot do this. I wonít let you do this." What she said was that she didnít think it was fair to compare Judith Krantz to John Updike, and say, "John Updike does it well and Judith Krantz does it poorly." So I deliberately didnít have anything in [the book] that was kind of pop pornography, which is what I think Judith Krantz writes. But when I look on the Internet, the book is used by a lot of people who write romances and write sort of porno or erotica. And certain comments that Iíve read on Amazon are from people who write romance and genre fiction, and they have said that the lessons in the book make sense to them as romance writers, even though my book is not about sort of the rules that people have when they write romances. My book is not about that, but even people who write that seem to find something useful in the book.

Q: And that feels okay to you.

A: Iím surprised, Iím delighted. I didnít set out to do that. Itís just interesting that the book has this life of its own in places out there in the world that I hadnít been trying to reach.

Q: In the book you talk about writing about all different kinds of sex: first sex, recreational sex, solo sex, adultery, etc. Do you have a favorite kind of sex to write about?

A: I donít want to say this is a favorite, but a kind of sex thatís interesting to me is married sex, for all kinds of reasons. I think writing about, oh, illicit sex or adultery is ó I donít want to say itís predictable, but thereís a sort of predictable energy to it, and it has a built-in drama. Writing about married sex is almost the opposite, because what youíre writing about is your charactersí marriage, and marriage is this incredibly layered, complex ... misery. No, itís years of intimacy and trouble and complex emotions and expectations and disappointments, and when you bring that into a sex scene, itís quite a challenge to do it in a way thatís believable and that really honors the complexity of the experience. So thatís interesting to me. Marriage is not an erotic arrangement, for the most part. It may start out as one, or peopleís connection to each other may start as one, but marriage often becomes a very un-erotic relationship.

Q: Are you married?

A: Iím not married. I have been married, so I say this with some authority. It becomes this relationship where youíre legally allowed to have sex, and youíre supposed to have sex, but the sex ó itís hard to make it sexy and erotic after 15 years of paying your bills together and wondering how to fix the roof. So itís interesting to me to try to make a sex scene that captures that. And I think that some writers do it very well. And it lends itself to humor ó just out of self-defense it lends itself to humor.

Q: Talk to me about Jonathan Franzenís essay in which he bashes you and the book.

A: Where do you want me to start?! The essay came out in the New Yorker in, I think, 1997. And it was just reprinted in this book of essays of his that just came out. Franzen is a difficult guy, for everybody. He is clearly tormented by sex. And thatís a lot of what the essay is about, his own personal torment. He says quite a lot about that directly and indirectly. And then he proceeds to read a whole bunch of books about sex; some of them are sex manuals, some of them are a little more thoughtful than that, some of them are kind of pop-sex, "have lots of sex and change your life" kind of books. And it all makes him very uncomfortable. He hates the idea that anyone is having fun, because as he says, heís pretty sure that heís not having as much fun as everyone else. And then he talks about The Joy of Writing Sex. So itís in the context of him talking about his own sexual misery and torment, and then trashing all of these kind of sex manuals. And he sort of proceeds to do the same thing to my book. Itís hard to respond to somebody whose critique is just a kind of diatribe of misreadings of my book.

Q: But hereís your chance.

A: Hereís my chance, yeah. I guess there are two things to say: one of them is that Franzen is really tormented by sex, so he sort of blamed all of these books for creating more torment for him. And thereís not much I can do about his sexual torment. Then the other thing is that he misread my book, he misinterpreted my book, and he made up motives for me that I donít have. He sort of read the book in his narrow, distorted way, and thatís how he prefers to read it.

Q: Do you have advice for people who want to become more comfortable reading about sex?

A: I could say the self-serving thing, read my book; it might make you more comfortable. I think if you read books with good sex scenes in them, as opposed to smarmy, poorly written sex scenes, it might help, because you can see how many possibilities there are, how interesting it can be to read about sex.

Q: Talk to me about the upcoming "Sex on the Page" event.

A: Iím going to be the moderator. Itís going to be Elizabeth Searle, Michael Lowenthal, and Steve Almond. And itís going to be a combination of each of us talking about the difficulties and the joys of writing about sex, and then weíre going to be reading from our work, some short scenes. Then weíre going to answer a series of questions that we pose to each other, and then weíll take questions from the audience. Some of the questions are, what makes a good sex scene? How do you overcome inhibitions when writing about sex? What do you call sexual organs when you write?

I think theyíre going to be serving chocolate and wine; I guess these are the foods of love. Itís not my menu.

Q: How does your ease or difficulty in talking about sex compare to your ease or difficulty in writing about it?

A: When I talk about sex, what Iím really talking about is writing about sex, so I donít feel like I talk about, you know, my sex life. Thatís not my subject. And I suppose if I did, I wouldnít be as comfortable as I am talking about writing about sex. Itís fun to talk about writing it. And I think itís interesting for me to talk about the complexities of sex, in an abstract way, because they have to do with how you translate that into fiction. You know, Iím not Catherine Millet, writing about my sexual exploits. Thatís not something that I would enjoy doing.

Writing about sex is as difficult as writing about anything else, if you want to write kind of honestly. Our discussions about writing about sex and how difficult it is distracts us from another subject, which is how to write about any subject thatís really revealing. Itís sometimes even easier to write about sex than it is to write about emotional vulnerability. I think we get distracted by [questions like] "How do I write about sex, and whatís my mother going to think?", when it would be just as interesting, in some ways, to talk about the other things that are hard to write about ó like emotional vulnerability, like loneliness, like family traumas, like war. There are a lot of things that really challenge us when we write. And sex is one of them.

"Sex on the Page," with Elizabeth Benedict, Steve Almond, Michael Lowenthal, and Elizabeth Searle, will take place at WordsWorth Books, 30 Brattle Street, in Cambridge, on Thursday, October 3, at 7 p.m. Call (617) 354-5201. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: September 26 - October 3, 2002
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