Saturday, August 7, 2010

The sex thing

One of my favourite novels irrespective of genre is The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay. The book, a romance, was first published in 1909 and it is still in print. My copy is old, the pages yellowed and brittle, and it was a fixture on our bookshelf all my life. For thirty-something years I never gave it a glance, mistaking it for a religious tome. It's big, thick and worm-eaten and best suited (I used to think) to serve as a makeshift doorstop.

I was cleaning bookshelves one morning when something prompted me to open the old book. I began reading, and was immediately captivated. The language is simple and elegant, the story of the love between the plain, sensible Miss Champion and the handsome, artistic Garth Dalmain deeply moving. To me, the novel is transcendent. And there isn't a single sex scene in the entire story.

This novel was written at a time when love was idealized, women were (allegedly) virgins when they married, and the writers of love stories did not dare venture beyond the threshold of the bedroom. What the couple did behind closed doors - and this was post-marriage, of course - was private. Whenever I re-read The Rosary I can't help feeling a trifle nostalgic for those times. Although I enjoyed writing the love scenes for my first romance novel, by the time I got to the second one I found myself groaning whenever I came to 'those' scenes. How graphic should I get? Shouldn't less be more? At what point does romance become erotica, and erotica become pornography? And do these distinctions even matter?

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a sexy contemporary romance as well as the next gal; hell, I even write 'em. But I'm ambivalent about the raunchy sex that has become a requisite today. Writing it and making it fresh is a challenge, but that's not all. I feel more and more a responsibility to convey positive, safe messages with regard to sexual behaviour in light of the current pandemic of STIs. We must change our sexual behaviour, and so must our characters. We have to reexamine the old values of abstinence, monogamy and fidelity of necessity - and so must our characters. It has become a matter of survival. So sensitive are some publishers to this issue that they now require condoms to be a part of sex scenes between unmarried couples (yes, I've read the submission guidelines) although we know that condoms are unreliable and they're not the solution to STIs.

Do you think that writers have a social responsibility with regard to the sexual behaviour of their characters? Or should our books remain a fantasy arena, the readers' respite from the wearying realities of life, a place where no holds are barred, anything is possible, and nothing irremediably bad ever happens to our hero and heroine?


Debs said...

I think it's down to whatever the writer is comfortable with when writing these scenes.

I don't think that I could ever write anything too graphic, but then again the genre I write in doesn't call for me to do so.

Kaz Augustin said...

The truth of the matter is, we're much more comfortable discussing decapitation than the Kama Sutra with our friends! Liane, you know I love you dearly, but I think the problem is much much deeper.

Why am I okay discussing carotid artery slashes with my kids but not oral sex? I can talk to them (and I do) about the length of time to act when one is being strangled but am hamstrung when discussing how to give my lover pleasure??? If that's not screwed up, I don't know what is.

On a related matter, as a sometime writer of erotic romance, the sex scenes are further "windows to the soul" of the protagonists. (In more mainstream genre fiction, the villain always forces anal sex on his underlings, for example! Mwahahaha. But also, ::eyeroll::) You've opened a real can of worms with this one. Perspectives towards sex and it's denigration vis-a-vis violence. What bearing sexual hygiene has on the sex act. The explicitness of the sex act in modern romance. I don't know where to begin. Do you want to talk about this some more? Bring one to the fore and let's have a dialogue. (See how I managed to avoid the USian propensity to turn a noun into a verb? ... Thank you.) Perhaps in a future blog post? What do you say? Maybe we can get the other Novelnauts chiming in? This is a fascinating and multi-faceted topic.

Kaz Augustin said...

Sorry, I can't believe I wrote "it's"!!! Profuse apologies.

G said...

I think its a little bit of both. While fiction will always remain a great escape from reality, I think that the amount of sex in a given book depends on 1) the writer's personal preference, 2) the comfort level that the writer is willing to explore.

Personally, I have no problem in writing sex into my stories. For the time being, I'm still trying to find that right balance between just enough to make it interesting/common place and making it graphic to the point of turning people off (learn that the hard way).

Tom said...

I feel that the level of detail in sex, and violence, for that matter, should, first and foremost, serve the story, and secondly, the genre. A book or story that is classified as "Erotic" will obviously have more graphic sex than something classified as simply "Romance." Just as a detective novel might not portray the violence in as graphic a manner as a "Men's Adventure" book.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've barely had any sex in most of my novels, although I've written quite a lot of vampire ficition with explicit and semi-explicit sex. It's definitely a tough thing to do well, and when it's done poorly it can knock you out of the story quickly. Me at least. As for the responsibility, I don't think too much about it. I think my first responsibility is to the story and characters themselves.

Lynn Emery said...

For me if the character is a sensual, uninhibited type then writing a sex scene fits. If it fits the tone of the book, I'll write it that way. I struggled with this in my first book, but wrote the sex scenes because it fit the characters. Even though I'm a southern baptist church-goer, I couldn't pretend that two healthy young twenty-somethings wouldn't have sex. Just would have been laughable IMO. So I wrote them. Still hear about it at church LOL

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane you have touched on one of the struggles I have with my writing, especially as a Christian. Many contemporary romance readers look forward to a little steam. Some editors would insist that love scenes be a little more passionate (does passionate = graphic?). Yet I struggle with the level of detail as well as the number of love scenes.

In one of my novels I dealt with it by marrying the people even before they fell in love. But how many marriages of convenience can one write about?

I think the main thing is to let it be an extension of the characters and expression of emotions. If one builds the emotional connection and let love scenes be a fulfillment of that love it makes the book so much better, providing that it is romance.

Maria Zannini said...

A writer's social responsibility?

I hope not. That sounds a little too Big Brother for me.

I think a writer should be a good story teller first. Whether the scene requires decapitation or oral sex isn't the issue. The point is to tell an engaging story.

Do I want my characters to practice safe sex? It depends on the story, on the characters and on the world building. It might come up between the characters, but I certainly don't want to put it there deliberately just to teach a life lesson.

One person's truth is another person's fallacy.

Chris Stovell said...

I'm quite relaxed about writing sex scenes although I don't do throbby bits or anything gross. And when condoms disappeared during the edit I asked to have them put back in... I know I'm not the NHS, but it was important to me.

(So sorry I haven't done the award thing yet - I'm up to my eyeballs!)

Liane Spicer said...

Debs, I agree that the writer's comfort zone must be the deciding factor. Once the book has been sold, however, editorial direction might require some pushing of those personal boundaries.

Kaz, when my son was little I was far more concerned about the violence in movies and television shows he might be exposed to than their sexual content, but that disclaimer aside, we really do have deep hangups about sexuality despite all the rhetoric to the contrary.

This is indeed a multifaceted topic that I can't even attempt to explore properly in one blog post, so I focused on some of my own reservations: writing graphic sex scenes becomes a chore after you've written the first 10 or so; the level of gratuitous anatomical detail and focus on mechanics in a lot of what is supposed to be romance is beginning to dull for me; some editors' attempts to be PC (take out the condoms, put them back in) are a bit confusing.

Definitely lots of scope for exploration in future posts.

Liane Spicer said...

Oh, Kaz, I myself have pressed 'publish' just as I spotted a glaring typo...

Liane Spicer said...

G, I prefer the 'fiction as great escape' model myself. Good luck in finding that balance of which you speak. What I'm discovering is that what I'm okay with changes with time and experience and from book to book.

Tom, I agree that the needs of the story take precedence, followed by the requirements of the genre. The boundaries between romance, erotic romance and erotica seem to be blurring, though.

Charles, not only is is tough to do well, it's tough to keep doing it well over and over again. I've heard of writers who put [insert sex scene here] at strategic points in their manuscripts and return when their story is finished because of this very difficulty.

Lynn, lol! Being taken to task for the behaviour of our characters is one of the perils of being a writer. I refuse to let my mother read my stories for this very reason. :D

Stefanie Worth said...

Liane -- People seem surprised when I tell them I don't read erotica. There are those who think Zane pens romance. lol I'm one of those authors who highlights the spot where a sex scene belongs and comes back to it later. I can generally rough out any dialog or plot movement that needs to take place in the scene, but the actual mechanics wait. I find myself laboring over them and the more I write, the more I'd prefer they happen "off the page" so to speak.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, exactly! I look at Jerome Dickey, for instance, and admire how competently he handles sex scene after sex scene in book after book. He paints the characters so vividly and their interactions are so compelling that the sex never seems gratuitous but propels the plot and the characterization.

Maria, yes, story first. All else should serve that. It was a lot easier before I was published, though; there used to be nothing in my head but the story and the needs of the story. Now I'm finding it difficult to keep all the other voices out - including that of my own inner critic. As for the didacticism that's required by some lines, well, one can always submit elsewhere. Don't know how many of us would let a condom or two get between us and a book sale, though. :/

Chris, throbby bits? LOL! That nails it all right. Don't worry about the award thing; it's optional, and you certainly have a lot on your hands with Turning the Tide newly launched.

Stefanie, every book I've read that was labeled 'erotica' fell somewhere between disappointing and disturbing, so I've been wondering whether erotica is just not for me. I'd still like to find some that I can actually enjoy! I think I prefer softer edges, a bit of mystery, a bit of magic. As for writing those graphic scenes, I too am finding myself less and less eager and 'off the page' is becoming very, very attractive.