Novelist Ellen Sussman explains why she likes to write – and read – about sex:
When the first Amazon reader review for my new novel, French Lessons, showed up on the website, I was thrilled. Five stars! Enthusiastic praise! And then came the last couple of lines: I wish she didn’t write the sex scenes. Women don’t want to read about sex.
Really? I like to read about sex. And I like to write about it. Interesting things happen on the page when people make love. It’s not just about the sex, though a reader might get a charge out of that as well – it’s about what gets exposed during sex. A sex scene is an opportunity for the writer to reveal unexpected things about her characters: about the way they relate to each other, their vulnerabilities and desires, the way they fit together (or don’t) emotionally as well as physically.
But it’s not easy. Many writers skip the sex scenes because they’re damn hard to write. How do you make them fresh, and how do you make them matter?
The most important consideration for me as a writer (and as a reader) is that the sex scene exists for a reason. It’s not gratuitous – it isn’t meant just as a turn-on. (We can read other genres for that experience.) The sex scene in literary fiction has to take us someplace new. It has to surprise us or affect the story line or take us somewhere deeper. When I’m writing, I ask myself how I can use this sex scene – in the way I use any scene – to move my story forward.
The scene must engage the reader. A graphic description of sex usually doesn’t work – I try to find surprising details, quiet moments, the fresh image. You don’t want to lose your reader because you’ve explained too much or gone too far. Often, desire is sexier than the sex act itself. So the writer needs to look beyond the naked limbs and focus on what’s happening to the heart when all that heavy breathing takes place.
French Lessons is mostly about love and loss. It’s about complicated relationships and intimacy, and sex is a part of all of that. We wouldn’t learn very much if the lights go out just when we’re getting to the good part.
Ellen Sussman is the author of a new novel, French Lessons, published by Ballantine. Her first novel, On a Night Like This, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. It has been translated into six languages. She is also the editor of two anthologies, Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia Of Sex and Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller.