When the discussion revolves around the inability of Indian novelists to write convincingly and unconsciously about sex, there is a lot of tsk-tsking. Someone invariably points out that this is a descent for a people who gave the world the Kamasutra. But have you read the Kamasutra? It is not erotic or pornographic, but a set of clinical instructions of the kind one might see in an instruction manual that accompanies a juice maker (“Take A and push it into B, turn counterclockwise and turn on the device. “).
As far as the human body is concerned, there are only a limited number of ways to take A and move it to B; everything else is just dressing. And some of the world’s greatest writers have given us some of the most pathetic window treatments imaginable.
When sex is poorly written, one or both reactions are guaranteed. Laugh or pity. I have always found the passage of the “butt of the hips” in the work of DH Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover hilarious. Lawrence expects us to read this with an impassive face: “The support of her hips seemed ridiculous to him and the kind of anguish in her penis, come to his little crisis of evacuation seemed grotesque to him. Yes, it was love, that ridiculous butt bouncing & withering of the poor, wet, insignificant little penis. ‘ If he wrote this today, when there is a Bad Sex Award that celebrates “poorly written, redundant, or crude passages of a sexual nature,” he might have won a Lifetime Achievement Award. As it stands, Melvyn Bragg, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Sebastian Faulks have already won the Bad Sex Award while Marquez, Rushdie, Updike, Roth were on the shortlist. The award, set by the British Literary Review, is perhaps the least coveted in literature, but it must help sales in the same way that a truly terrible movie draws crowds – people are always curious at which point we can do these things.
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The award-winning Manil Suri is a math teacher born in Mumbai, Maryland, United States. A few years ago he was a delicious dinner companion who spoke of his two estates with rare intelligence. Perhaps it was mathematics that influenced the decisive passage in The town of Devi who won the award: “Supernovas are surely exploding right now, somewhere, in a galaxy. The hut disappears, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked up with mine, remains. We fly like superheroes in front of the suns and solar systems, we dive through banks of quarks and atomic nuclei. To celebrate our fourth revolutionary star, statisticians around the world are rejoicing. ‘
During the presentation of his award, the editor of Suri said: “Take The town of Devi at your place tonight and check out sex scenes that the Times Literary Supplement called “unfettered, original, beautiful, tragic and insanely experimental,” written by an author who the Wall Street Journal says “captures insecurity, the curiosity and even the comedy of those vulnerable moments ”.
While bad sex writing is easily recognized (and is more common), no one has satisfactorily defined what good sex writing is. In his book The joy of writing sex, novelist Elizabeth Benedict begins with four “organizing principles” that serve as her guide: It should always connect with the larger concerns of work. The characters’ needs, stories, and impulses should drive the scene. And the relationship the characters have with each other should have more influence on the writing than any anatomical detail.
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One would imagine that bad sexual writing is the prerogative of novelists, but a few years ago former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was nominated for a passage in his autobiography!
Here is his purple passage on the night spent with his wife Cherie following the news of the sudden death of Labor leader John Smith. ‘That night she cradled me in her arms and
soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. That night of May 12, 1994, I needed this love that Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instincts.
When Norman Mailer won posthumously (showing that as far as the prize goes you can hide but you can’t run) for his last novel, what swayed the judges was his description of the male organ as a “coil of excrement”. It must have been a difficult year, because Mailer had to beat Ali Smith: “We were blades, a knife that could cut through myth, two knives thrown by a magician… we were the tail of a fish, were the the smell of a cat, was the beak of a bird, was the feather that overpowered gravity … ‘
Sex as a shopping list!
The sex scenes in most Indian novels are either superficial (the author is not particularly enthusiastic, he or she has been coerced by the editor to include a scene or two and gives the impression that they are hoping that everything will work out quickly) or overwritten.
Here is an example of the latter, taken from Tarun Tejpal The alchemy of desire: “In those moments, we were the work of surrealist masters. Any part of the body can be joined to any part of the body. And the result would be a masterpiece. Toe and tongue. Nipple and penis. Finger and bud. Armpit and mouth. Nose and clitoris. Collarbone and gluteus maximus. Mons veneris and phallus indica. The last tango of the small lips. Around 1987. Vasant Kunj. By Salvador Dalí. Fraughtsmen: Fizznme. ‘
Embarrassment – the dominant emotion of the Indian writer – is often disguised by the use of clinical terms. The explicit, the exaggerated, the non-subtle are the natural tools of the bad sex writer. In order for writing about sex to be captivating, it has to suggest rather than draw, for the human imagination is powerful and feels cheated when brought back to earth.
So what did the man who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in Bad Sex Writing, John Updike, thought?
“Writing my sex scenes turns me on physically, as it should be,” he once said. Perhaps there is a lesson here for Indian writers. Knowing the Latin names of body parts is not enough. Like good sex, good sex writing should also involve passion.
Excerpt with permission from Why Don’t You Write Something I Could Read – Reading, Writing and Arrhythmia by Suresh Menon by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications.