Best literary sex scenes: writers' favourites

In the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, we asked authors to tell us who does sex best in fiction

Diana Athill

Alan Hollinghurst does sex rather well, but most of the writers who do it best don't "do" it at all, but simply allow it to happen in a way that can easily be supplied by any reader who happens to have done it.

John Banville

I find The Story of O deeply erotic precisely because the woman at the centre of it holds all the power, even though she seems the one most cruelly treated. Also the book is beautifully and tenderly written, in its odd way. Someone with a decent prose style should do a proper translation of it.

Mary Beard

It's got to be Alan Hollinghurst, for me. I vividly remember sitting in my 10-year-old daughter's cello lesson, with a rather fierce music teacher, reading The Folding Star ... she scratched the bow, and I went a bit pink. It was not so much at the sex itself, but at the sheer incongruity of the reading matter. And at the frisson that I might get found out.

Jilly Cooper

I like my erotic literature to be beautifully written as well as funny and can't do better than Chaucer. How about this from Troilus and Criseyde: "Her slender arms, her soft and supple back, / Her tapered sides – all fleshy smooth and white – / He stroked, and asked for favours at her neck, / Her snowish throat, her breasts so round and light; / Thus in this heaven he took his delight, / And smothered her with kisses upon kisses / Till gradually he came to learn where bliss is."

Margaret Drabble

The most erotic book I ever read was an anonymous novel called L'Histoire d'O, which I think was by a woman called Pauline Réage. It was a sado-masochistic romp and I was given a copy in France in the 1960s when it was probably illegal in England. It surpassed Georgette Heyer, who seemed very exciting when I was at school. I was rather alarmed by how exciting it was and I remember giving my copy to an Arts Council officer somewhere in the north of England when I was on tour there; I didn't think it a good book to have around the house with small children. I also found DH Lawrence thrilling, in a healthier and more respectable kind of way. The Rainbow has some wonderfully powerful love scenes.

Geoff Dyer

My favourite scene is the seduction in dialogue in The Names by Don DeLillo – but then my favourite everything is in that book. Is the scene erotic? Yes, in a meta-sort of way, but mainly it's incredibly intoxicating. It begins with the narrator, James, and some friends at a club in Athens, watching a belly dancer named Janet Ruffing. After the performance she changes into a cardigan and comes to sit with the group. James proceeds to ease his way into her consciousness so that "a curious intimacy" is formed. After some polite exchanges he asks her to "say belly. I want to watch your lips." Then it's, "Say breasts. Say tongue." The conversation spirals on for pages, Janet insisting "I don't do this" while getting drawn deeper into the giddy linguistic spiral. "Say heat," says James. "Say wet between my legs. Say legs. Seriously, I want you to. Stockings. Whisper it. The word is meant to be whispered."

Howard Jacobson

Softcore porn is the literary equivalent of those feathery wimp-whips and talcum'd cufflinks you see in the windows of sex toy shops. If you're going to torture your lover, at least break the skin, I say. You would expect me, therefore, to chose the scene I find most erotic from the pages of De Sade or Bataille. But as far as writing goes, the best sex is the most implicit. So I nominate the scene in Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth wordlessly, and with none of their past grievous history resolved, assists a fatigued Anne Elliot into a carriage. There is no overt sexuality, no titillatory play with power and dependence - he helps her in and that's that. "Yes - he had done it. She was in the carriage and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it." Anne might tell herself that the kindness proceeds from what remains of "former sentiment", but Wentworth's hands have been on her body, and we never doubt that it's her body that receives the shock of the contact as much as her mind.

John Mullan

When it was published in 1968, John Updike's novel Couples was a succès de scandale because of its minutely attentive descriptions of sex. Much of this is adulterous sex, enjoyed by the pleasure-seeking 30something couples of the New England town of Tarbox. Half a century later the descriptive precision is not shocking but absorbing. In the first of the novel's many adulterous couplings, Piet Hanema and Georgene Thorne make love on her sunporch. Updike typically gives us every beautifully rendered detail: the fall of morning light, the "musty cidery smell" of pine needles, the texture of the blanket they lie on. Updike makes you see everything his characters see. His novel is descriptively promiscuous: we move between different viewpoints, male and female, sharing their pleasures and perceptions. There is an extraordinary kind of tenderness in this physical detail that is an effect of style and patience. The tenderness heightens our appalled sense of how these people lie to each other and deceive themselves.

Edmund White

I think the sexiest passages are those about Luc in Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star. The 33-year-old Edward Manners leaves England for Belgium and a job as the tutor to the 17-year-old Luc. After mooning over the boy for months, astonishingly he falls into Edward's arms. As he sleeps after sex Edward studies his handsome face: "While he slept I kept watch over him - a smooth shoulder, the little pool of his clavicle, his neck, his extraordinary face, his hair muddled and pushed back." This is the romantic postlude. The sex act itself is much more strenuous: "I was up on the chair, fucking him like a squaddy doing push-ups, ten, twenty, fifty ... His chest, his face, were smeared with sweat but it was mine: the water poured off me like a boxer, my soaked hair fell forward and stung my eyes." This sex-writing is convincing because it mixes the sublime with the carnal, the grossly physical with the spiritual – and all of it experienced as a shock, the longed-for consummation that one can't believe is really happening.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Books of the year

Jonathan Franzen's family epic, a new collection from Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin's love letters, a memoir centred on tiny Japanese sculptures ... which books most excited our writers this year?

27, Nov, 2010 @12:10 AM

Article image
The best holiday reads

Anna Karenina on the beach, The Corrections in Patagonia, Death in Venice in . . . where else? Writers recall their most memorable holiday reads

17, Jun, 2011 @10:55 PM

Article image
The Guardian Review literary quiz

Test your literary knowledge with a fiendish set of questions from our panel of writers including Iain Banks, Jilly Cooper, David Hare, Nick Hornby, Lorrie Moore and Will Self, with a chance to win some of this year's best books.

16, Dec, 2010 @12:56 PM

Article image
Best holiday reads 2014 - top authors recommend their favourites

Summer picks from Nick Hornby, Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman and others …

12, Jul, 2014 @7:30 AM

Article image
Guardian Review literary quiz answers

How did you do? Put your pens down: Here are the answers to our fiendish literary quiz

18, Dec, 2010 @12:06 AM

Article image
Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook, 50 years on

Lessing's radical exploration of communism, female liberation, motherhood and mental breakdown was hailed as the 'feminist bible' and reviled as 'castrating'. Four generations of writers – Diana Athill, Margaret Drabble, Rachel Cusk and Natalie Hanman – reflect on what it means to them

06, Apr, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
What it is like to win the Booker prize, by Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Peter Carey and more
As the Man Booker prize turns 50 and readers vote for their favourite ever recipient, novelists reveal the highs (and lows) of winning ‘the Oscar’ of the literary world

Hilary Mantel, Julian Barnes Margaret Atwood, Howard Jacobson, Anne Enright, Peter Carey, Marlon James Pat Barker, John Banville, Penelope Lively, Ben Okri and DBC Pierre

30, Jun, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Why women love Fifty Shades of Grey
It's the fastest-selling novel for adults of all time – and it's very adult in content. Why have millions of women been seduced by Fifty Shades of Grey, asks Zoe Williams

Zoe Williams

06, Jul, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
The Review Christmas quiz
From snail-smuggling to hair-cuts, our fiendish quiz tests your literary knowledge … plus who said what in 2011

23, Dec, 2011 @10:55 PM

Article image
The big novels of 2012

From Hilary Mantel to Martin Amis, Ian McEwan to Zadie Smith, plus the first adult novel from JK Rowling – the biggest stars are out in 2012. Here's a guide to an extraordinary year in fiction

13, Jul, 2012 @3:00 PM