Review of The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict
The Joy of Writing Sex came out 12 years ago and quickly established itself as a standard sex writer’s resource. The updated Kindle edition brings it up into the era of the Internet, both in the way you buy the book and in some of the new topics added.
Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not a book about writing pornography. Instead, it is intended for regular authors to help them write more successful sex scenes within their own novels and short stories. Her primary point is that just like the rest of the story, any good sex scene needs to be expressed through character, plot, and dialogue.
Bad sex scenes in otherwise well written novels are fairly common. In fact, since 1993, the Literary Review has had the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The winner of the 23rd annual award was Morrisey for his 2015 List of the Lost. Part of what led the writer to victory was this sex scene between the athlete Ezra and his girlfriend: “At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
One of the way she differentiates sex scenes from pornography is that in pornography, everything drives towards the orgasm. There are usually no surprises. Good sex scenes often have surprises. For those also interested in writing pornography, this is not such bad advice either.
Besides her own advice, she also includes advice from well known mainstream authors such as John Updike, Robertson Davies, Edmund White, Darren Strauss, Stephen McCauley and Dorothy Allison. There are also a good number of examples, from the author and others. Many of them are pretty steamy and do a good job in getting the points across.
Entire chapters are devoted to dealing with sex in the age of AIDS, losing one’s virginity, sex between husbands and wives, adulterous sex, recreational sex, illicit sex, and solo sex. In each chapter, she points out the potential dramatic elements of the situations and the circumstances specific to each. The last section offers several exercises to try to help you develop your sex scene writing skills.
It is a fairly thin volume, but it offers plenty to think about. It is very literary in its approach, and the goal is to learn not how to write hot sex scenes, but how to write sex scenes that fit within the context of the story you are telling and move the story forward. While very useful and encouraging to mainstream writers, the advice here is also valuable to would be pornographers. A good story is a good story, even if it revolves around sex entirely and is very arousing for the reader. Flat characters, limited plot, stilted dialogue, and no dramatic tension make for a dull story, even if the characters are getting it on like minxes.