Recently I finally got round to reading Ken Follett’s historical epic The Pillars of the Earth. A sprawling tale covering the medieval anarchy period between 1123 to 1174, it concerns the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, and the various intrigues, challenges, and wars that ensue, involving several characters and families.
A number of plot threads are juggled to great effect, including that of the monks of Kingsbridge monastery, under the leadership of Prior Philip. A feud between two families of nobles provides another plot thread, concerning the Earl of Shiring and another noble family, the Hamleighs. In fact, William Hamleigh is one of the most odious and entitled villains I have ever read; a character I truly loved to hate. His efforts to sabotage the building of the cathedral for his own ends, bringing him into conflict with Prior Philip – a character I identified with for multiple reasons – provides much of the narrative’s dramatic meat.
Elsewhere there are subplots involving stonemason characters, their struggles to obtain work, internal lodge politics, and family feuds. We also get glimpses into the politics of the royal court – a devious, scheming arena in which Prior Philip is very much out of his depth. Another big joy of the book involves the sheer level of research into the minutiae of what is involved in building the cathedral – the architecture, building techniques, and so forth. There are also knights, sieges, battles, and some notable historic incidents thrown in for good measure (the murder of Thomas Becket, for instance). There’s even a hint of the supernatural – a witch’s curse in the prologue casts a shadow over the entire narrative.
However, whilst The Pillars of the Earth is a novel I’d recommend to anyone, it is flawed by that hilarious literary stumbling block: bad sex. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Passages detailing bodily functions in ways that are laughable rather than dramatic (or even arousing for that matter). One particular female character called Aliena – an otherwise well-written, multi-layered individual – is subjected to endless ludicrous breast descriptions. It happened so often it became like a running gag, to the point that whenever she walked onto the page, I would remark to my wife “another breast update”. These sections also reminded me of a recent satirical article about male authors describing female characters. One line said “She boobed boobily down the stairs”. The Pillars of the Earth has a lot of “boobed boobily” moments.
Don’t get me wrong – I still think it’s a terrific novel and a monumental achievement for Ken Follett. Also, he’s not alone as a great author with a great novel containing bad sex. Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong – one of my all-time favourite novels – is also hampered by bad sex in places. I could cite many other examples. In fact, there’s even an annual Bad Sex Award for bad sex in literature, with otherwise prestigious names often earning this unwanted accolade.
All of which begs the question, how exactly can an author write a “good” sex scene? I’ve avoided them for years, largely because I’m worried I’d end up writing “boobed boobily” moments. However, when writing two recent (as yet unpublished) novels, I knew in both cases the narrative required some contextually justified sexual content, and that each story would suffer if I couldn’t convey the passionate emotions of the characters in those scenes. How best to proceed? The task was daunting, until I got advice from an author group I belong too, some of whom write romance and erotica. The main lesson I learned – bearing in mind my novels are not erotica and therefore absolutely not about trying to arouse the reader per se – was to, if you’ll forgive me, “sell the sizzle, not the sausage”. I had to sell the desire of the characters, the build-up, the anticipation, the emotional release… and not dwell on bodily parts. I wanted to avoid “boobed boobily” moments.
Readers are yet to see the results, and of course only they will be the final judge of whether or not I succeeded. In the meantime, breast updates aside, I’d very much recommend Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth.