The novelist Niamh Campbell on why describing intimacy is so difficult and how creative writing about sexuality is changing. Plus, she picks 10 of her favourite examples
One of my favourite literary sex scenes is a swift and quiet one. In Colm Tóibín’s The Pearl Fishers, a gay man having dinner with a former lover and this lover’s – fanatically Catholic – wife thinks, with a flash of candidness, of anilingus past. It doesn’t read like a calculated shock, just pleasure; the story moves on and the image melts out. No point is made, nobody humiliated, no corny gotcha! occurs. There are only three people: one deceiving (husband), one pious (wife) and one emboldened but alone. The point is nuanced humanity. It’s hot.
It has been remarked upon that recent writing about sex by, in the main, young women tends towards the squalid, abject and confrontational. I can tell you that this partly down to the fact that app-based erotic culture in the metropolises of late capitalism really can be squalid, abject and confrontational. If people’s lives become miserable mills of boredom and humiliation they will tend to take it out on one another. I know this because I am Irish. People think this country was deranged for most of the 20th century by the church, but it was also deranged by poverty and, relatedly, shame. #NotallIrish of course; some people belonged to a more sex-positive cosmopolitan elite class, some were able to smuggle in condoms. And yet, the fact that it still feels impossible to discuss sex and Ireland without mentioning penitentiary laundries says a lot.