January 10


David Foster Wallace, Sex Scenes, and the Wrong Kinds of Emotion

Foster Wallace

I took a remarkable fiction workshop in the autumn of last year. We didn’t just comment on each others’ work: we were also required to present an hour-long talk on a craft issue of our choice. This meant that we had to talk to each other; we had to explain ourselves. Through those craft talks, we learned how the rest of the class saw fiction, how they understood the realm in which they were attempting to work.

During our discussions, an issue that came up more than once was this: are there reader responses and emotions that a fiction writer–a serious, literary fiction writer–should not try to evoke? Are there experiences we should not try to give our readers?

This question first came up when we discussed a David Foster Wallace short-short story, “Incarnations of Burning Children.” It’s short; it’s brutal. Not only does it describe something truly awful and nightmarish, a tragic incident that even if you don’t have children, will still fill your mind with horrible imaginings–not only that, but the story itself seems written in a way to force such a reaction from you. The tone is breathy. The sentences endless. The characters are nameless aside from their parental labels, “The Daddy,” “The Mommy.” The horror of the situation builds until Wallace earnestly informs us, “If you’ve never wept and want to, have a child.”

We seem very far, in a piece like this, from a vision of art like “emotion recollected in tranquility,” or from a Henry James-style gradual construction of a final intellectual insight, or from a “negative capacity” in which all outlooks are equally weighed.

If so, does this mean there is something wrong with Wallace’s story? Should he not have written it that way?

The same question came up when the class discussed sex scenes. Should a sex scene, a literary, serious sex scene, arouse the reader? Is arousal another emotion that the serious writer should try to avoid, and use sex scenes, instead, to illustrate character, or to reveal power relationships, or to transform the expected and conventional into something unfamiliar, to cast sex in a wholly new and strange light?

Of course, reader of this blog post, I know what you’re thinking. Hearing that question inevitably makes me think: of course, a literary sex scene should do all those things. It can be both arousing and illuminating, at the same time.

But what if, at the very moment you were thinking that, the great god of writing, some Yaweh of the page, appeared and spoke to you from out of the whirlwind, saying, “No, you must choose.”

What if this infallable and all-seeing god of writing explained that the great share of what makes erotic fiction erotic is something structural to that fiction. The erotic is not a quality added to a scene, something you could add in when revising–at least, it’s not only that. It is not, in other words, just the adjectives.

Rather, it has something to do with plot, with repetition, with build up–designing a whole story to lead up to that one scene, showing a character resisting, attempting to escape, taking a step closer, letting go a little, but then, just by chance, not being allowed to fully succumb. There is something mechanical in arousal; something more to do with memory than discovery. There is a rhythm, a repetition, and if you want to bring that rhythm into your work, you need to make your storytelling more mechanical, more orchestrated, more densely repetitive. It’s not about the scene; it’s about changing the entire work.

If the writing Yahweh said this, would you then go back to your novel-in-progress, with its as yet disappointing sex scene, and start revising the whole book to make it feel more like a work of romance, more like one of those immense gothic tales from Anne Rice? Or would you instead refuse, and decide that your art is all about the elimination of mechanical, the cliched, the unconsidered–that there is no place in a serious novel for the sort of narrative machinery that a really “moving” sex scene needs?


David Foster Wallace, literary fiction, sex scenes in fiction

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  • Hmm – heightening anticipation doesn’t mean that writing has to be either mechanical or clichéd. The implication in your question is that foreplay is necessarily dull/meaningless – forgive the sexism, but that does seem like more of a male perspective!

    • Hi Yakinamac,

      Thanks for commenting! I think that I was maybe being a little obscure here. First off, I am not equating mechanical with dull. Nor am I equating foreplay with dull–the opposite, in fact.

      I was using the word “mechanical” in a plot sense, asserting that (or wondering whether) a plot leading up to a sex scene should probably be constructed a certain way. It’s all foreplay, in other words. Without that narrative foreplay, no number of saucy adjective and gerunds will make the actual scene sexy.

      I was thinking of certain Anne Rice novels, and how they are constructed. Will the protagonist sleep with the evil ghost? One spends 600 pages waiting to find out.

      • Well that’s okay then. I have to confess to never having read Anne Rice – perhaps I should (though waiting 600 pages for a supernatural sex scene isn’t really selling it..!).

        • She shouldn’t hire me as her publicist? Maybe I’m treating her work unfairly: I’m mostly thinking of “The Witching Hour” here. Interview with the Vampire is a very different genre…

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