by Lee Cross
(Credit – Sergio Leone / Ennio Morriconne)
If good is good and bad is bad, what do I mean by ‘ugly’? In a word – Necessary.
That’s the gist behind the end of this blog series, ugly sex scenes are the ones that are absolutely and unequivocally necessary to the structure of a book… no matter how much we wish they weren’t. Passages of sexual violence, rape, incest and any other perversion that can be dreamed of – if that’s what a story is centered around, or where the plot has taken you, then that’s what has to be written on the page.
You don’t have to like it but you do have to read it. That’s the measure of an ugly sex scene, you’d rather be anywhere else in the world than sitting there with your book but you’re equally as sure that sitting there and reading on is what has to be done first.
I’m not sure how you read; perhaps you’re a words and quotes kind of reader… I’m not. I’m visuals, the lines and language swim together for me into a sort of continuous visual stream of thoughts (…its’ probably why I have so little interest in owning a television…I’m prefer my own pictures…), so when I come across a really graphic scene…. well, in the past (…and future no doubt…) they’ve figuratively made me sick on occasion and have, quite literally, brought me to tears on others.
…a man cutting open the chests of dead women in the county morgue, so as to place a live bird where her heart should be, to make it beat as though she were alive during the act of necrophilia … the gang-rape of a woman in Auschwitz, who was then summarily executed for having the audacity to attempt to fight back… consensual incest between a teenager and his grandmother… a book about pornographic gratification, which spirals out of control to include the sexual assault of a child…
I think that’s enough. Each example above I can still see in my mind, even though I wish I couldn’t. Graphic, sickening and… well, lots of other words, but if I were to review the quality and nature of any of those novels the one word that would be a constant in describing any of those scenes is: necessary. They had to be written. They needed to be read.
Writer beware though, if you play with fire, be prepared to burn. When an author travels down this path and uses an ‘ugly’ sex scene, it has to be more than necessary… it has to be skillfully written, seamlessly so… it has to be uncompromising and shameless, no apology can be considered, let alone made… and it has to have that magic, that only the greatest writers have, which allows you to set aside your own morality and distaste temporarily, and to adopt the positions of the reality you’re reading.
When you read an ‘ugly’ sex scene that misses the mark, it’s not just ‘bad’… it’s worse. Just those few examples above, even though drawn from excellent and highly skilled pieces of writing, are at best offensive, looking at them now, taken from their proper context.
When an ‘ugly’ scene goes wrong, it’s abusive, it’s offensive, it’s disgusting… it’s the sort of thing that can ruin more than just a book, it can destroy a writers whole career.