How to write about sex


How to write about sex

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH was impressed by the way two authors handled love scenes and by Amor Towles's short stories. But he found a book about negative space hard to digest.


LET'S think about sex. Everybody does it — think about it, I mean — and I guess we agree that it's not a regular spectator sport. But some souls maintain Olympic sexual standards in their minds. Why? Two books cover the subject: Kimberly King Parsons's We Were the Universe and Yael van der Wouden's The Safekeep.

Over the past decade, most of the major points of growth in the book trade have revolved around a rediscovery of black culture and history. There was also a gender corrective and sex suddenly went back into hiding in the last paragraphs of chapters or in the domain of implied action, off camera.

But Parsons and Van der Wouden show up together, heralds of the new. Perhaps we are on the threshold of a change in people's reading habits. Sex is back and it's no longer mired in the wishful thinking of Fifty Shades of what-what. Plus, it's two female writers who are dragging the topic back into the mainstream of top sellers.

Drugs and breastfeeding

We Were the Universe has an American backdrop. Central to the story is Kit, mother of a child, married and mourning the death of her beloved sister. Kit is a real whirlwind, but she can't be promiscuous the way she used to be. Drugs and sleeping around don't work well with breastfeeding a four-year-old, to put it blatantly. But she can remember, and she can fantasise. She doesn't want to take LSD to get over her fear of taking LSD. Therefore, she is attuned to having a vibrant sex life in her mind.

For the reader, this is a great introduction to a new writer. Parsons has a voice and style of her own. She projects zest for life while obscuring Kit's process of mourning like a con artist. It's heavenly to experience the serotonin rush with Kit on a journey into the wilderness — because Parsons turns it into a wasteland of human emotions, all on their way to the funnel of redemption.

We Were the Universe by Kimberly King Parsons was published by Alfred A Knopf and costs R591 at Exclusive Books.

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Yael van der Wouden's The Safekeep is something completely different but the authorial achievement is greater. This is Van der Wouden's debut and was written in English, although she is Dutch. It's a mistake to think that this is a novel about sex — it is a love story totally detached from all romance novel conventions. One could equally easily describe The Safekeep as a novel about class differences, or a novel in which certain gender conventions have been overthrown. Or you could say it's a literary novel with intensely intertwined narrative alignment.

What makes it different is the way Van der Wouden handles sex. From my own experience, I know that sex is one of the most difficult things for any writer to describe. The imagination, alas, is something that has strange anchors. Van der Wouden's novel revolves around a lonely woman from an affluent class in the city of Zwolle, on the IJssel River, who lives in the house her brother inherited after their parents died. The woman, Isabel, at first reacts negatively to one of her brother's girlfriends, Eve, then unexpectedly develops feelings for her.

What makes Van der Wouden's use of sex so remarkable is that she does not focus on the gradual development of the relationship or the expectation that it will spill over into sex. For her, the emphasis is rather on the yearning towards intimacy, which creates an intensity on a whole other spectrum than the physical entanglement of body and legs in the sex act. It is this need for intimacy, and the deep fulfilment it brings, that gives the novel an incredible and intense physical touch.

And the moment this is achieved, Van der Wouden swings away, the physical element becomes an implied presence and background, we can no longer eavesdrop. The heavy emphasis on physical elements and touch also shifts as Van der Wouden involves Eve's history. The third and final segment of the novel leaves one baffled and puzzled.

The emotional gain for the reader is greater with The Safekeep than with We Were the Universe, but I highly recommend both for the way they speak the language of adults. And in this language the spirit has respect for the flesh.

The Safekeep by Yael van der Wouden was published by Penguin and costs R435 at Exclusive Books.


A mix in which Amor Towles wanders into the present as much as the past — six New York short stories and a Los Angeles novel/novella. The short stories (not all really short) might have grown into novels, but Towles gives what it takes to establish his status as one of our time's most important writers.

“The DiDomenico Fragment" and “The Ballad of Timothy Touchett" are exceptional but “Hasta Luego" stands out above the other New York stories. How does Towles get it right, I wondered with jealousy towards the end, how does he dig so deep into the human soul? Mercy has a price — self-insight.

The Los Angeles story, “Eve in Hollywood", could have been published separately. It is a worthy successor to A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway. Plus, it's a kind of sequel to Rules of Civility (Towles's 2011 novel), in which the beautiful Eve goes to Los Angeles with her ugly injury to find her feet. The narrative takes place from the perspectives of different people; Towles ventures into the territory of James Ellroy, making sure not to make all Ellroy's mistakes and reduce the tinsel era to sensation. Table for Two is something special. If you still doubt that Towles is one of the writers of our time, you can be sure he is someone you have to read.

Table for Two by Amor Towles was published by Penguin Putnam and costs R675 at Exclusive Books.

Full conversations

One piece of advice all budding authors get is never to try to report everything said by characters. Just quote what's relevant. Gillian Linden didn't heed this advice. For a reason. She tries to report on everything that happens to a teacher in one week (her child's sore mouth, the problems surrounding a male colleague who may have done something improper with a student). People have full conversations with boring twists and turns; however, much goes unsaid. Thoughts hang in the air. The teacher wrestles with life, but life goes on.

The power of this novel lies in the way Linden tells a lot more than she writes down — even as you know all spoken words are there. You have to have an intense need to read a literary work to appreciate Negative Space. I found it tiresome.

Negative Space by Gillian Linden was published by WW Norton & Co and costs R570 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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