There won’t be many people who’ve been haunted by Have I got News For You, but I’m one of them.
It was a few years ago, but my memory is of Ian Hislop reading the “sexy bit” from some politician’s novel (if that’s not too much of a misnomer). In his cheeky little style, he mocked their hand-stretching, pulsating, sweating (or more probably glowing) and all the other clichés that go into making a book a bit raunchy. Everyone laughed and cringed and enjoyed imagining the discomfort of whichever politician it was. I was almost over that when it was time for Paul Merton to make us all cringe at the thought of Tony Blair being urgent with Cherie.
The Telegraph’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards is a good way to keep authors on their toes; it’s all too easy to think that stuffing a load of heaving and grunting into a text will make it more exciting and saleable. And of course, sometimes it does – Fifty Shades managed to do it very well but every time my characters start heading towards that bit I start getting all hot under the collar - for all the wrong reasons.
First I imagine my mum proof-reading it over afternoon tea and being convinced that I’ve done all of those things. Then I imagine myself on Have I Got News for You (see, good imagination us writers have, eh?) and Ian reaches under his desk and hauls out one of my books and it falls open at a certain page and his wicked little grin explodes across his face. This is enough to make my pen grind to a halt.
However, of course people do have sex and in books they also need to have sex. It is up to the reader as to whether they choose a book which guarantees to have it at least every three pages or whether it is veiled and glossed over in a stream of euphemisms: “As the sun set, Lady Petunia took a deep breath and let the dog see the rabbit”.
I had gotten a little bit English about it and in the book I’m currently editing, I’d struggled with my two main characters doing anything other than smiling and nodding at each other. When the time finally came whereby they had to do at least Something, I realised I’d written it through the eyes of woodland animals – just wrong on so many counts.
However, I (think) I’ve been saved. I’m currently reading Faulk’s “Birdsong” and that does have quite a bit of grunting going on and I’ve realised that it’s not cringey, it’s just part of a story and if you want your work to be good, you have to have all parts of it meaningful and that includes the intimate bits.
Therefore, I will retrieve my manuscript, take out the squirrels saying, “Ooh, that looks like it might smart a bit”, the hedgehogs nodding at each other and raising their eyebrows, and the gang of slugs saying, “Pass him over when you’ve finished, love, we could use a bit of that.” And if Ian Hislop ever gets his cheeky little chops around any of mine, I will just sit back and enjoy the publicity.
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