The Greatest Sex Scene Ever Written: Failure And Success In The Age Of Unlimited Porno
In reality, that quote is literary only in that somebody went to the trouble of writing it down--it's actually an excerpt from the liner notes for "Two Midget Aliens" (really NSFW, that link), a 15-minute porno about, you know, two midget aliens having sex and stuff. It is, however, illustrative of an important literary point, which is that John Heilpern is dead wrong about sex. At least in a literary sense.
In the September issue of Vanity Fair, Heilpern -- who's also a drama critic for the New York Observer -- interviews esteemed postmodern novelist (and current Brooklyn-dweller) Martin Amis for his "Out to Lunch" column, in which he takes people out to lunch and has conversations with them; Heilpern's end of the conversation tends to be kind of charmingly random. In this particular one, he and Amis are talking about movies when Heilpern says, "And yet no novelist, including you, has ever written a successful sex scene."
Heilpern makes this assertion so matter-of-factly, it's tempting to take it at face value. After all, we all know what he's talking about. For the most part, sex scenes in literature are pretty terrible, and we just want them to be over with so we can get back to the parts about... whatever it is that's not the sex scene. Stephen King, for example, is well known for his egregious depictions of coitus. From his most recent novel:
"Ohmygodyes," she said and I laughed. She opened her eyes and looked up at me with curiosity and hopefulness. "Is it over, or is there more?"
"A little more," I said. "I don't know how much. I haven't been with a woman in a long time."
It turned out there was quite a bit more. ... At the end she began to gasp. "Oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear God, oh sugar!"
The tricky thing about sex--and the reason it's so hard to write about--is that sex is like an on-off switch: It's either arousing or it's disgusting. There's basically no middle ground. So when it's written in a way that's neither arousing nor disgusting (a la King above), it just rings false and silly.
Keeping that in mind, it's possible that "successful" could mean either arousing or disgusting. But where sex is concerned, it's hard to anticipate either reaction; what's arousing to one man is deeply shameful to the next, and possibly both for the same guy--one need only consider the vast array of porno available on this very internet (Two Alien Midgets, anyone?) for proof of just how bizarrely disparate are the things that turn us on and off. Doug Stanhope elucidates:
Porno aside, for an example of this phenomenon at work in literature, look no further than anything by Tom Robbins, who writes about vaginas with enough horny precision to give even the most porn-jaded 19-year old at least a half-chub--until you picture Tom Robbins himself furiously masturbating at the Remington SL3 and it becomes disgusting. Successful? Perhaps, if only for the fact of its duality.
Either way, there's some truth to Amis' response to Heilpern, which was to say, "Well, I think it's a watertight statement that you can't write about successful, fulfilling sex. But you can write about the fiasco."
Fair enough, Amis, but I want to say it goes deeper than that. The thing about successful, fulfilling sex, you see, is that it's only successful and fulfilling to the people having it. Watching successful, fulfilling sex, on the other hand, is disgusting at best, boring at worst--at least in literature, where no matter how deep we get into the head of a character, we're just cheap thought-voyeurs. And for the creeper-peeper, it doesn't get worse than boring.
But let's put all this quibbling aside and generously assume that what "successful" means is just plain "genius-level fucking brilliant," in the most objective sense possible. Even then, the truly baffling thing about Heilpern's assertion is that he and Amis are talking literally not five sentences earlier about the writer of some of the most evocative, compelling and all-around brilliant sex scenes of all time. That writer, of course, is Nabokov.
"Oh, it's nothing at all," she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.
The disturbing fact that this scene happens to take place between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old girl just makes the scene more... well, it's hard to say "exciting" without seeming pedophile-ish, but I dare you to read this scene in its context without quickening your breath. With the power of literature alone, Nabokov forces you to feel the excitement of the conquest of a pedophile. If that's not some kind of success, I don't know what is.
But whatever. We obviously can't all be Nabokov. What I'm saying is, maybe a literary sex scene is successful if someone likes it--just like in porno. Because as long as the vast legions of turgid, glistening members continue to pump their copious harlequin jism onto the palpitating laps of housewives in used book stores everywhere, there will always be a chance for a Lady Chatterley's Lover to capitalize on the promise of its dirty parts. Plus, 50 Shades of Grey just made ninety bajillion dollars while you were reading this.
How's that for successful?
Jef Otte is a writer and essayist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In his spare time, he contemplates writing sexy Twilight fan fiction to pay the bills.