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Kingsley Amis: My Sex Scenes Are Kinda Lame

Here’s another clip from a great interview The Paris Review conducted with Kingsley Amis.

Amis was asked about a professor who had called his work “pornographic.”

INTERVIEWER

But wasn’t that all wrong? Because in fact you’re not at all explicit about sex.

AMIS

I wouldn’t have thought so. I mean, I have to follow my own rule of always letting readers know what’s taking place. But with regard to sexual matters, not in detail. The reader should know whether it took place or not, whether it was a success or not, and what they felt about it. But anybody who can get sexual titillation out of my sex scenes must be very easily stimulated. I shy away from explicit sex mainly because it’s socially embarrassing. The comparison I usually draw is with being told these things by an acquaintance—and after all, the novelist is only an acquaintance, isn’t he, as far as the reader’s concerned?—and to be told in detail what he’s been up to for over half an hour—the equivalent of a chapter, say—would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it? I would find it embarrassing.

Great line here: “Anybody who can get sexual titillation out of my sex scenes must be very easily stimulated.”

Guys, if you’ve read Lucky Jim, then you know the thought of Kingsley Amis’s writing being called “pornographic” is hilarious. Did someone mistake him for Martin Amis (long before Martin was even born)?

On that point—what do you think about Amis’s view of sex scenes—comparing them to a friend telling you about their sex life? Kind of a weird comparison because I don’t really consider the narrator a “friend,” as he says.

But where’s the line on detail…or is there one?

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lucille #

    In the interview, Amis used the word acquaintance, not friend. I consider an acquaintance.to be someone I just barely know, in which case a full and lengthy description of a sexual encounter would be awkward, at the very least. Friend? Maybe, maybe not; as in a book, it all depends on context.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 18, 2014
    • Lucille, are you American or British? And again, the meaning of the word has changed over time.

      Like

      November 18, 2014
      • Lucille #

        American, as is the author of this blog, so I took his definition to match mine. And the meaning of what word? Friend? Or acquaintance? Both?

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        November 18, 2014
        • The Author of the blog is American. Amis was English and you were referring to Amis’s use of language… But actually I think he was making the distinction that you didn’t really know the author. He’s just this bloke you met who has presented you with a story to read. So you’re right to question it. (That said, in the 1950s I doubt the majority of men would have wanted their best friend describing their sexual exploits in great detail either.)

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          November 18, 2014
    • Fair point. That was a misread on my part. Acquaintance is not at the level of friend, and that was how I was originally interpreting what he said.

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      November 18, 2014
  2. It’s an interesting comparison. Not, I think, even vaguely correct and likely based as much on the period Amis was living in as was the comment about his book being pornographic. A professor around to make the comment in the late 1950s would have had his morals firmly routed in the ideals of Victorian England. And the publishers probably jumped on the quote with relish given that and lapped up the publicity. Keep in mind that this is coming up to the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, and the trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That said, the only thing very different between then and now is the laws have changed: the people still scream “pornography” if there’s mention of sex.

    Back with that comparison, a colleague of mine finds himself unable to read my books. He’s tried. He’s been through a couple of short stories. But when he reads them he hears my voice narrating them, and he reads in bed a lot, and the thought of having “me” read sex scenes to him in bed kind of puts him off. So Amis has something there. For some anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 18, 2014
    • That takes the whole “reading in bed” experience to a new level.

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      November 18, 2014
    • Interesting. I would probably have the same reaction to reading a friend’s writing about that.

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      November 18, 2014
  3. I think the writing of a sex scene is a whole art in itself. It is so hard to get it right. It’s not about who touched what or what they did with it when they touched it. It’s about the emotions the characters pour into the scene and what that scene reveals about the character.

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    November 18, 2014
  4. I can’t stand detailed sex scenes in books. I just can’t take it seriously in most cases, and in others, I just don’t want to hear about someone else’s sexual exploits. I actually wrote a whole post about it for Insatiable Booksluts. http://insatiablebooksluts.com/2014/04/11/yeah-im-not-gonna-read-that/

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    November 19, 2014
    • Yeah, I get uncomfortable if it’s too detailed too. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth was like that.

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      November 19, 2014
  5. The line on where to stop the detail is tricky. I have a few sex scenes in my latest novel. At first I wrote them fairly explicitly. Then I had some beta readers ask me to tone them down. “Let the reader fill in the blanks with their imagination” they told me. I wanted the scenes explicit so the reader would feel the degradation the protagonist felt. In the end, I edited out the explicit stuff, not wanting to offend my readers. I wasn’t, after all, writing soft-core porn!

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    November 19, 2014
  6. You ask where the line is regarding detail. The line is called Art. Art is sublime; titillation is not literature.

    Like

    December 14, 2014

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