Essays

A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer

By posted at 12:00 pm on March 27, 2013 32

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In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex — action, sound, smell, taste, the works — I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was “clitoris.” Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me? I laughed at my insecurity, although part of me loathed my hesitation. Of course it was okay. It’s just a body part, I told myself. I had the same reaction in the other sex scenes I wrote — most involved a man and a woman, one two women. Nipples. Cock. Dick. Balls. Even typing these words now gives me a shiver of fear, as if the literary gods will strike me dead, or brandish me with a scarlet S for writing not only bad sex, but any sex at all.

coverToday, sex is everywhere — on TV, our computers, even our phones. But in the last two years, since Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling paperback of all time, the jaws of literary writers have dropped, their shock over the book’s success, despite its unliterary style, echoing over the Twitter-waves. Part of me wants to say I was one of them — if only to be included in their elite ranks — but I wasn’t that surprised. I haven’t forgotten the lusty attraction of my grandmother’s paperback romances, which, as a pre-teen, I had secreted away to read at night by flashlight.

Long before I thought of myself as a writer, I was a reader. I grew up in a house of few books — my father’s set of encyclopedias in his native Italian and a handful of history books left over from my mother’s college education. My mother has a Masters in Education, but she hasn’t read a book in decades. My father was hungry for knowledge, but struggled to read our middle school science and social studies textbooks, the basic English too much of a challenge.

As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety — what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision — who to befriend, who to avoid — carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book. The day came when it seemed as if I’d read every book in our small school library, and the librarian was at a loss for suggestions that were age-appropriate. This was the mid-1980s, years before the YA market exploded. I needed the imagined life books gave me — without them it seemed as if real life lost its luster.

I stole one of my grandmother’s Danielle Steel novels. I don’t remember the title, only the pearlescent cover’s gold-embossed cursive that promised diamonds, high heels, and Farah Fawcett-hair — a glimpse into a dramatic adult world. What I do remember are the sex scenes. I replaced the book the next week and stole off with another, and so on, until I had read all in my grandmother’s collection. Those books taught me so much — that you could have sex standing up or even underwater in a pool! Along with the sex came emotion. These men and women were brazenly sentimental, confessing passion, hatred, and envy, and that melodrama kept me glued to the page.

Once I entered college, I left my towers of commercial fiction paperbacks behind in my parents’ basement. I declared a major in English and became a convert of the literary readership. I read what my professors assigned, mostly novels by white men written over a century ago, where sex and emotion were abstractly implied in only the most metaphysical sense. When it was my turn to choose my literary electives, I picked Hawthorne, Melville, and Dostoyevsky over the “scribbling women writers” of the 19th century, who, one of my professors explained with more than a hint of disdain, were the equivalent of our modern-day Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. I remember blushing. Could he tell that I had once feasted on those emotionally hyperbolic and overtly sexual scenes?

By the time I was accepted at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the furthest I’d ventured into American literature was the modernism of Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. For the first time, I read short fiction writers known for their “spare” prose style, like Raymond Carver, whose work my classmates praised as “quiet” and “restrained.” Now, emotion (and the rare sex scene) was conveyed delicately through mood and atmosphere. I felt a kind of reader’s depression. Where was the meaning? How far did I have to dig under the surface of the prose? It felt as if there was a hole in my reader’s heart. Not that I would have ever mentioned the “heart” in workshop, the most sentimental of symbols.

coverAfter a semester of workshops where we praised writers who wrote in “trim” prose, I was converted to an more refined literary camp, where subtlety trumped all, even emotion. The more subdued my own writing style became the more my classmates appreciated it in workshop. This was especially true of the male writers, who began to imply, through playful teasing, that I wrote “stories about women for women,” and that I was lucky, because, “maybe someday Oprah will pick you for her book club.” This was the same year Jonathan Franzen was touring the country and publicly mocking the Oprah Book Club sticker on book jacket of The Corrections.

coverI feared my male classmates were right. Was I destined to become a commercial writer who was, gasp, popular? With a misdirected motivation that thrives with youth, fueled by my fear of rejection, I committed myself to toning down the emotion in my writing. My model was Jayne Anne Phillips’s story collection, Black Tickets, published in 1979 soon after Phillips’s own turn as a young woman writer at Iowa. I was determined to make my stories just as tight, lean, and fucked-up. I wrote a few sex scenes — spare in style and violent in content — and the “risks” I took in writing about sex were applauded in class.

Looking back now, re-reading those scenes, I see they are just shadows of real characters feeling vague emotion. Instead a gulf separates the reader from the character’s experience. I confess that I felt very little when I wrote those scenes; I was merely copying the writers I thought I was supposed to admire. I was removed from the characters even when writing semi-autobiographically. They were damaged young girls I used to impress my teachers and classmates. I remember typing the final line of a story — one that would earn me a coveted fellowship — And she will point to her hand, freed from the bandage, and say, Oh this? It’s nothing.

I asked myself, shouldn’t she, the girl in my story, be feeling more? Shouldn’t I be feeling more?

I did, once during my time at Iowa, write a story that risked unrestrained sex and emotion — about a schoolgirl in love with a young priest. The priest reciprocated with flirtation. I was 22 years old. I knew little of the complexities of sex and relationships. I was merely practicing them on the page. The story was told very close to the young girl’s consciousness so that her thoughts and feelings acted as a kind of voice, and when she reacted in scene, the emotion was anything but subtle.

As my aging Irish-Catholic workshop instructor spent the majority of that class deploring the way I had “corrupted the language,” I couldn’t tell if he was more offended by my technique or the blasphemy of a girl in an erotic relationship with a man of the cloth. When my instructor asked the class if my story would have a snowball in hell’s chance of being published in The New Yorker (his gold standard), I knew it was the melodrama that offended him most. I abandoned that story, and it was years before I wrote another scene that was concretely sexual or emotional.

Was I alone in this fear of writing about sex and the emotion of intimacy? I asked my friends and students. Unsurprisingly, those who write fiction marketed as genre, whether historical, women’s fiction, romance, or thrillers, feel more comfortable writing sex. Those published in erotica anthologies revel in their confidently drawn sex scenes. Most of these writers are women and write for a mostly female audience.

When I asked literary writers about their experience writing sex, their responses ranged from, “I am terrified of sex scenes!” to “I fear the reader will think I’m a pervert, or terrifically immature, or both.” Why do so many literary writers fear writing about sex? Why do we add to the collective anxiety by celebrating The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex Award” — the annual public humiliation and literary stoning of one published writer?

In my experience as both a writer and a teacher, this fear of writing about sex is tied to the fear of sentimentality that takes root in a writer’s formative years. Writing instructors chastise writers in class — a setting that can feel quite public — when the writer risks sentiment, which a naïve writer might mistake for emotion. Writers accrue a kind of scar tissue, blocking their ability and their confidence to imply emotion, inevitably leading to a clouding of meaning in their work.

Most of the writers who felt comfortable writing about sex did not attend MFA programs, where “show don’t tell” is a mantra, another way of saying “do not venture into sentimentality.” This is an essential lesson for beginning writers, but I wonder if writing instructors, myself included, preach against sentimentality so often that it creates anxiety in our students. The writer must be the first reader to feel the emotional intention of the story. The heart of the story (there’s that heart again) won’t exist if the writer never takes that leap of faith.

coverAsk a roomful of literary critics about sex in fiction and they will champion James Salter — a captain of the “spare” style team. The New York Times called Salter’s novel, A Sport and a Pastime, “a tour de force in erotic realism.” The novel is set in 1950s France and the unnamed narrator is an exceptionally passive observer of an affair between Phillip, a bourgeois American, and Anne-Marie, a young French woman:

Her flesh appears, still smelling a little of soap. His hands float onto her. The sum of small acts begin to unite them, the pure calculus of love. He feels himself enter. Her last breath — it is almost a sigh — leaves her. Her white throat appears.

I imagine Salter intentionally stripping every hint of emotion from the prose, perhaps to avoid the pitfalls of sentimentality. London’s The Times praised the novel, “Just to read it makes you feel alive.” I felt the very opposite. I felt hollow. There was little that felt alive or realistically erotic about watching Philip and Anne-Marie as if from across a vast ocean. Is writing about sex with such distance less of a risk, when compared to a writer who places him or herself inside the character’s every kiss, stroke, and thrust, acting as the pioneer in whose footsteps the reader will follow?

Intention is one excuse literary readers, including myself, use to defend flaws in our own work and in that of our predecessors, but there is a big difference between what a writer intends the reader to think and feel, and the reader’s actual experience. Salter’s novel was revolutionary for its eroticism when published in 1967, but why are today’s literary writers looking to a novel so dated in its portrayal of sex? Is it because the ambiguous intimacy allows them to further avoid addressing the challenges of writing sex?

Sarah Waters, award-winning and best-selling novelist, is well known in her native England, but I have often wondered why she isn’t more popular among American literary readers. There are several possible factors: she is a woman who often writes historical fiction, she is a lesbian, and most of her characters are women. But there is nothing unliterary about Waters’s technique.

covercoverAdrian Van Young, author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, and one of the few male literary writers or readers I know who has read Waters, has this to say: “Waters seldom writes sex that isn’t intrinsically connected to emotion, and together they form an almost elemental force in her fiction.” It is this intrinsic connection between emotion and sex, whether tender, violent, or awkward, that gives Waters’s sex scenes a sense of being earned, necessary to the story.

Waters’s most recent novel, The Little Stranger, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is set in the 1940s in a dilapidated English mansion. The novel is told from the perspective of country doctor Faraday, who forms an unusual friendship with Caroline Ayres, the spinster daughter of the estate. Like Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, the storytelling relies on an unreliable narrator, yet in Waters’s The Little Stranger, the reader is a participant in the erotic mystery, not just a voyeur.

…my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of (her coat), and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath.

The writing is subtle in emotion and tone, but Waters builds an empathic bridge between her reader and both the characters through Dr. Faraday’s imagination, particularly in the way that he wonders what Caroline is feeling. In A Sport and a Pastime, Salter intentionally levels that bridge. Is it a coincidence that so many sex scenes written by women for women seem to focus on the characters’ feelings? I think not.

Ten years have passed since I left Iowa, and in that time I wrote a novel that didn’t sell, took a break from writing, and founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. It was the 2,000 Sackett writers who gave me the confidence to return to writing, ultimately resulting in a novel that I am proud of, that has its sexy moments, and is to be published by St. Martin’s Press in the spring of 2014.

I tell MFA-bound students that a graduate program is a great place to learn craft and to live and party among writers, but not always the easiest place to write. It took me years of post-MFA retrospection to sort through the assumptions I’d adopted on what makes writing good or bad. My voice has risen from the ashes and it is no restrained peep, but somewhere between a croon and a ballad. There are the withholders like Salter and Carver, and there are the revealers, my own literary camp. I’ve accepted this after years of resistance. Salter is like that aloof James Dean-esque boy, the one the girls go crazy for because he lives in his own world. He is enigmatic. I desired those boys in my youth, but I’m all grown up now and don’t have the patience for those unreadable types.

With great relief, I’ve discovered that I am pretty good at writing sex. My readers are all (but for my husband) literary women writers and they concur. Even my mother-in-law, reacting to a particularly steamy sex scene in my novel, said, “Well, how about that? That sex scene was something!”

As in most things literary, the solution to writing “good” sex, and protecting yourself (fingers crossed) from The Literary Review’s “award,” is to think of the reader. Just as there is an infinite variety of “good sex” — the factors dependent on those partaking — there are also an infinite variety of writers, each with his or her ideal reader. Me, I want my literary sex real — fluids and all.

Image Credit: Flickr/yaaaay





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32 Responses to “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer”

  1. Evelyn Walsh
    at 12:46 pm on March 27, 2013

    Can hardly think of anything more Catholic than Dubus’ story about a woman’s affair with a dying priest– trying to understand your professor’s reaction.

    I do teach students to make scenes and we talk about “show don’t tell.” But we also talk about Albert Guerard’s advice: “tell don’t show.” Always a time to break the rules, and beautifully.

  2. Molly T
    at 2:47 pm on March 27, 2013

    Thanks, Julia. I really liked this, even though I think we have vastly different tastes, but the ending is just right–there’s something out there for everyone.

    One thing I find interesting, though, is that to me, the two passages you include as opposing examples, are very nearly similar in content and emotion. Reading them literally, we have a man touching a woman, and a woman breathing (that’s sex for ya!). I failed to see the emotion you referred to in Waters’ piece, or Dr. Faraday’s imagination (though maybe that comes later). To me, the only difference between the two passages is that Waters’ prose sounds a bit more cliched–swelling breast, flinching, shivering are all fairly standard terms, especially for sex scenes, and therefore lose all meaning for me. Salter’s language is much more peculiar and arresting–his hands float onto her, the calculus of love–the prose is not only more memorable but more telling. Having not read either of these books, I feel like I know a lot more about Salter’s characters than Waters’ because his language tells me what is unique about their relationship by using his own unique language.

    Anyway, that’s my take, as a way to defend your final point that it truly is to each, her own. Thanks for the read!

  3. Julia Fierro
    at 4:07 pm on March 27, 2013

    Hi Molly, thank you so much for reading!
    Like Waters’ novel, Salter’s is told through a 1st person male narrator, though the “I” is absent often, as in the excerpt above. Because the narrator is purely a passive observer, the reader has little concrete sense of what the narrator is feeling. As a reader, I feel the loss of that “I” in this scene, and I craved the narrator’s interpretation of the sex scene he is watching, to imply what it means uniquely to *him*. All so I could figure out what the scene meant to me.
    When I teach writers, I teach POV as a way to filter information, action, detail, and, most importantly, emotion. The level of subtlety is ultimately up to the writer (and the reader they hope to have).
    Observation is the most simple pov technique, and the most one-dimensional. Even a child can say: He touches her. She smells like soap.
    To infuse the actions and observations with emotion – if this is the writer’s intention – the narrator’s unique quality of thought is needed, filtered through his interpretation of the sex he is watching, and his imagination (“It was as if he/she/they knew…”) of what the characters he is watching are feeling.
    Using the quality of the narrator’s imagination – especially what they are imagining other characters to be imagining – is a great technique for writers who want to retain a subtle tone but still concretely imply emotion.
    I think it is clear that this kind of internal access is not what James Salter intended, and we all have our own priorities in terms of what we want our reader to “get” – he was comfortable with the reader feeling a great divide between sex and emotion. Like you said, to each his own. As a writer, after many revisions, I have a concrete sense of what I want my reader to feel – a “pitch” of emotion that I am sure is louder than what Salter wants for his reader.
    As a writing teacher, I can put aside my “taste” and focus on what that particular story or excerpt wants and needs in order to accomplish the writer’s intention, but as a reader, I am more selfish. ;)

    I do think Waters’ success with writing about sex, and especially the kind of mysterious sensuality that drives The Little Stranger, is more of an accumulative technique that builds gradually throughout the book. It was a challenge to find one short excerpt that revealed that. I hope you’ll give one (or all) of Sarah Waters’ books a try. The Little Stranger and Affinity are my favorites.
    Thanks again!

  4. Julia Fierro
    at 4:09 pm on March 27, 2013

    Thank you for reading, Evelyn! Dubus is one of my favorite story writers and much of that has to do with his ability to write psychologically complex stories in a quiet tone *without* sacrificing emotion. His stories, imho, should be read by writers of all styles.

  5. Erica
    at 7:56 pm on March 27, 2013

    Julia, thanks for recommending more books to add to my neverending book queue.
    I struggle with my own writing when I am portraying sex scenes because I’m concerned about my reader thinking I’m a pervert. In reality, I’m trying to capture the horniness of three women attending art school. Sometimes, I just let go thinking about the reader entirely and end up with a six page sex scene. I feel like I need to include the details of foreplay.
    Anyway, you gave me a lot to apply to my own writing and reading. Cheers!

  6. ¿Qué tan fácil es escribir sobre sexo? | Pijamasurf
    at 4:34 am on March 28, 2013

    […] el sitio The Millions, la escritora Julia Fierro ha publicado una reflexión interesante al respecto, elaborando una especie de disección dialéctica entre el interés genuino por el sexo y el mero […]

  7. Johanna van Zanten
    at 12:48 pm on March 28, 2013

    hi Julia,
    Well written piece and yes, sex is still a tabo subject for most in North America and sensing that, writing about it makes the writer uncomfortable, although there is a hunger for more novels about sex—hence the success of 50 Shades. I don’t know about MFA programs and their effects on writers, but got an idea after you explained it. I left out the sex scenes in my first novel-in-stories when my editor commented negatively on them as being “too mechanical” referring to my use of the correct names for the parts etc. In my second novel I tried again and am satisfied with the results. I managed by assuming the identity of the protagonist and wrote exactly what she/he would have felt and thought. I think there is a fear in men to be sentimental or even sensitive or be seen as such so the male version is always much different from the female version.Johanna van Zanten

  8. schietree
    at 1:03 pm on March 28, 2013

    I was lucky enough to have taken a CW MA at the University of New South Wales in which students were encouraged to ask ‘is it porn or literature’ – comparing erotic texts and stamp-approved literary texts to show that they can intertwine. In another class we had to write a sex scene between famous people. My exercise went on to become a major part of my portfolio for the course and was really, shall we say, not at all restrained. True love, secrecy, and sex in the bushes on the White House lawn.

    It was so enlivening and I think helpful to have this background going into a CW PhD, which was more in the mould mentioned above.

  9. Afternoon Bites: Alt-Weeklies, Czech Modernism, Christopher Owens Interviewed, and More | Vol. 1 Brooklyn
    at 3:00 pm on March 28, 2013

    […] “As a child, books were a magical distraction from my anxiety — what, 20 years later would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. At school, every real-life, real-time decision — who to befriend, who to avoid — carried an infinite possibility of catastrophe, but I was safe when living inside a book.” Julia Fierro has a terrific essay up at The Millions. […]

  10. NME
    at 4:08 pm on March 28, 2013

    Julia,

    Congratulations on overcoming an experience with an awful teacher. I’m not sure how someone decides that public-shaming is a sound pedagogical technique.
    But it does provide a good negative role model. When I’ve had the pleasure of teaching writing, I do my best to avoid inflicting such on my students, even when there is criticism to give. .

  11. Julia Fierro
    at 4:38 pm on March 28, 2013

    Thank you for reading, Erica! There really is some great literary sex writing out there. Just a few writers that balance emotional reveal and authentically dramatized sex are: Ian McEwan in Atonement, Jennifer Gilmore, Meg Wolitzer (who has a new novel out soon – The Interestings) and Charles Baxter in A Feast of Love. Enjoy the reading, and good luck with your own writing.

  12. Julia Fierro
    at 4:43 pm on March 28, 2013

    Hi Johanna-
    Thank you so much for reading. I think your experience is a great model for writers, and proves that it really is trial and error, and perseverance, that will achieve success in writing, no matter what the content or style.
    “I managed by assuming the identity of the protagonist and wrote exactly what she/he would have felt and thought” – this is great, and I think it ties in to the point I tried to make in the essay about the importance of empathy in writing about sex and emotion.

  13. Julia Fierro
    at 6:10 pm on March 28, 2013

    schietree, that IS lucky! If only all creative writing workshops could incorporate a similar compare/contrast with work that is obviously exaggerated and that which is subtly drawn. I think the biggest issue re: the topic of writing about sex in writing classes/workshops is that it isn’t addressed. Thank you so much for reading.

  14. Jessica Vealitzek
    at 7:44 pm on March 28, 2013

    Julia – I know exactly how you (used to) feel, though possibly for different reasons. I had very supportive MFA professors who seemed to appreciate all types of writing, but I cringe when writing sex scenes. My editor just told me that one I wrote was “quite PG.” I’ve always attributed it to my very Midwestern upbringing–just keep your head down and don’t carry on so much.

  15. Kelly Hand
    at 10:19 pm on March 28, 2013

    I love the way you use this piece to explore your development as a reader and as a writer. I too ran out of age-appropriate books early on and turned to trashy romance novels (I particularly liked historical romances back when I was 12 or so). I also stumbled across some Penthouse Forum magazines and remember the outrageously explicit stories more than any images. And back in those pre-Fifty Shades of Grey days, there was The Story of O.

    What intrigues me about your comments on writing sex scenes is the whole process you went through of trying different styles in imitation of the prevailing MFA models. This really resonates with the wonderful novel I just finished today, Tobias Wolff’s Old School. It’s all about the sway of literature in a boys’ school and how writing becomes complicit in creating illusions about oneself.

    I think you’re in good shape if you’re willing to let your mother-in-law read a pre-publication draft of a sex scene!

  16. Pooja Pillai
    at 3:30 am on March 29, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your story, Julia (I came via She Writes, by the way). I’m currently facing a similar problem. I’ve written stories before which didn’t require sex, but the book that I’m working on now deals a lot with sex and sexual tension and is basically about two people who discover each other through sex. So obviously, there’s no way I can avoid the subject. But I read some advice online on how to write sex scenes and one really stuck with me – make sure that the scene reveals something about at least one of the people in it. That really helped me, because I was able to stop thinking about all the sex (penis and vagina were my stumbling-block words) and just work on character development.

  17. Women We Read This Week | Vela
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  18. Deborah Brakset
    at 4:08 pm on March 29, 2013

    I also come by way of She Writes. I am so glad you are addressing this subject. The intimacy between two people and the sexual passion they feel for each other are such powerful parts of what it means to be human, I’m surprised that there isn’t more of this in literary writing.

    I’m writing several sexual scenes in a novel-in-progress and find that they reveal the most about my characters and are my most powerful scenes. I rarely use clinical words like clitoris or penis (although I would if needed), because I do think these words can be off-putting for some readers, and I don’t want to take them out of the story. I want them to feel what the characters are feeling–the sensuality and emotion and passion rather than merely “seeing” what they are doing to each other physically.

    Two steamy and sexualy explicit literary works not yet mentioned, that influenced me and many others, are “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer.”

  19. Julia Fierro
    at 5:59 pm on March 29, 2013

    NME,
    Thank you so much for reading. It is always great to meet writing instructors who find ways to filter criticism in a supportive way. Not only because writers’ confidence will remain in tact, but also because a huge part of writing workshops is acquiring the skill to read with the hyper-focused perspective of a writer, and the instructor is the model. Your students sound lucky!

  20. Links: Heart of Glass, Serious Erotica, Sex & The Literary Writer | Carmen Maria Machado
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  21. Julia Fierro
    at 11:35 pm on March 30, 2013

    Hi Jessica-
    Thank you so much for reading. I’m *just* starting to get the hang of writing about sex, and I think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that I did not workshop those scenes. I think if I had, or if I had known when I was writing them that they would be critiqued (as I sat nearby pretending to be invisible), I would have had a much harder time.
    Of course, now that I’ve written this essay, and kind readers are telling me how excited they are to see the sex in my novel, I am revisiting the scenes in my novel and wondering if they are, in fact, sexy enough. ;)

  22. michael alenyikov
    at 3:02 am on March 31, 2013

    Julia, I’d be curious about what you think of the sex scenes in my book “Ivan and Misha”. I gave a lot of thought into how they were tied into both character and narrative. . . and then held my breath for reader reactions.

  23. Peggy Harris
    at 9:51 pm on March 31, 2013

    My favorite line from this piece: “Salter is like that aloof James Dean-esque boy, the one the girls go crazy for because he lives in his own world. He is enigmatic. I desired those boys in my youth, but I’m all grown up now and don’t have the patience for those unreadable types.” This speaks to all of us who admire and aspire to a more literary level of writing, but who don’t want to write unreadable, emotionally remote novels. I’ve just attended my third writing workshop, all three held at respectable schools with vibrant MFA programs, and although the heady world of the MFA program is full of important lessons, sometimes I want to scream, “The emperor has no clothes!! You’re all saying how great this is, and it doesn’t touch my soul at any level.” Like you, I have let this hold me back. Thank you, not only for breaking free from the wretched constraints of the literary gate-keepers, but for telling us how you did it. I think you may have started something here.

  24. Julia Fierro
    at 12:06 pm on April 1, 2013

    Michael-

    “Ivan and Misha” looks wonderful. Congrats on winning the Northern California Book Award for Fiction! I look forward to reading it. I am no expert on writing sex, however, I just started opening up myself in my own writing. But I will let you know. ; )
    Thank you so much for reading the essay.

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  26. michael alenyikov
    at 2:10 pm on April 1, 2013

    Julia, Writing sex is a fascinating issue. As a gay man and a writer who wants to create full, three dimensional characters who are not defined by their having same sex sex and yet . . . who “we” have sex with and who “we” love define us. So I’ve tried to have my cake and to eat it, so to speak, i.e., work in the love and sex but try really hard for it to emerge from the particular characters and be necessary to the narrative.

    There may be a point when I feel I’ve done that enough and can move on but if I have any agenda in my writing it’s to create gay characters with the complete freedom straight writers have when they create their characters.

    btw, Just learned recently that I’m the recipient of the Gina Berriault Award from San Francisco State U. Gina B. was a brilliant short story writer (I’m just starting to read her work) who was known as a writer’s writer, i.e., writers knew about her and relished her work but not very well known. She won the NBCC Award in 1997 for her last book, “Women In Their Beds” but died a year or two later. The award is given to Bay Area writers deserving of wider attention and was first started in 2009

    I was so gobsmacked when I heard the news. And something about an award in the name of a person who so recently walked the earth, who plied her craft in relatively obscurity is deeply moving, humbling.

  27. Kathleen
    at 9:49 pm on April 1, 2013

    Very nice essay. In my experience it’s really difficult to write a good sex scene without laughing. And not laughing nervously, but actually laughing. I’d also like to point readers to another interesting exploration of this theme from a few weeks ago in the Guardian:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/mar/06/good-sex-literature-julian-barnes

  28. Lacey W. Poe
    at 5:45 am on April 8, 2013

    Thank you, Julia, for an essay well worth reading.

    I have read two of Waters’ books and just now happen to be re-reading Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles, which oozes bodily fluids.

    Off the top of my head, as an approximation of sorts, I’d say a key difference is the broader emotional context. Waters does intimacy and trust and passion. Houellebecq’s two characters are seeking confirmation, validation, reasons to live, basically.

    So. Now I’m interested to read Salter to see what I can see there.

  29. Myrna Loy Ashby
    at 4:54 pm on April 15, 2013

    A huge thank you, Julia, for an essay that, in addition to your intelligent perspective on writing about emotion and sex, gifted me with the permission to write without an ever-present editor/censor perched on my shoulder. Your writing provided an answer to a question that has interrupted my writing and, sometimes, sleep: how to write what my characters feel and do without doubt as to their credibility and/or validity. I look forward to your spring 2014 debut!

  30. Julia Fierro
    at 12:48 pm on April 19, 2013

    Thank you, Michael Alenyikov! And congrats on the Gina Berriault Award – that is wonderful. I admire her work greatly and treasure my first edition copy of Women In Their Beds. I hope you celebrated.

  31. Teach Only If You Have To: An Interview with Julia Fierro | MFA Day Job
    at 10:12 am on May 13, 2013

    […] their work will rise to the surface after this period of post-MFA “shedding.” As I mentioned in my recent Millions’ essay, it took me years to loosen my style, to allow myself to not only find my voice, but also to accept […]

  32. Women We Read This Week | Vela
    at 3:49 am on May 28, 2014

    […] Fierro’s “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer” on The […]

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