Finding the Words

a blog devoted to the art, craft, and frustration of writing

Sex and the genre April 9, 2007

Filed under: writing — itsy @ 5:05 pm

My fantasy-writing buddy emailed me recently with the thought, “I can write about beheadings, why can’t I write about giving head?”

In her usual unabashed manner, she’d underscored an on-going disagreement we’ve had about the other’s writing: she delves into the act of sex while I take the gentleman’s way out, if you will, offering readers a suggestive mood and enough to read between the lines. The latter is the more traditional approach and all editors I’ve read give the same caveat: when it comes to sex, less is more. It’s taboo, inappropriate, cheap. They say that of violence too, of course, but when you write fantasy, there’s a little more leeway, because most will engage in some sort of violent behavior at some point in the story. Frankly, I love writing battle scenes. Perhaps a bit too much, because one rule I try hard to observe is the No Gratuitous Rule. No gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. All action should have some greater point, be it characterization or plot, and no action should be without the spirit of the characters involved.

But that was my buddy’s point: why is violence deemed more acceptable in fantasy than sex? Usually sex in the genre is stupid, precisely because, I think, people are told to avoid it, but feel maybe they should put some in. So the characters have what I consider obligatory sex, and then they sort of go on their merry way, as if the implication of the act should carry by itself without further mention. In her Kushiel series, fantasy writer Jacqueline Carey takes the issue head on: her character is a prostitute, but of the most glamorous, noble kind, who uses sex to gain political influence. It almost goes too far, assuming, of course, that all humans become dumb mindless beasts to their desire.

All of this was rumbling around in my mind when I picked up book from Cody’s sale table called Classic Nasty: More Nasty Bits: A Rollicking Guide to Hot Sex in Great Books, from the Iliad to the Corrections. It should have been $4.98; the clerk rung it up as $14.00, so I went back and pointed out the error.

As the clerk apologized and proceeded to fix the error, she said, “Oh, it’s rather brave of you to come back with a book like this.”

Brave? And then it hit me, that I had violated my Cardinal Rule of Writing, the one that I absolutely refuse to break: Ultimately, you must master your writing, not your characters, though it’s good to let them frolic on their own for a while, not laziness, not your ego. I was avoiding writing about sex because I was afraid of it being trite, risque, indulgent, inappropriate, tawdry, you name it, i was afraid of it.

Which brings me to an excellent article I read by Janis Cooke Newman in the SF Chron on her historical fiction novel Mary, titled Other than that, how was the sex, Mrs. Lincoln? In researching her novel Newman had to grapple with that most basic human activity. She writes:

The more I researched Abe’s scandalous spouse, the more I couldn’t ignore the fact that the woman was wildly passionate, overwhelmingly sensual, and possessed a complete lack of impulse control — and not just when it came to shopping. Her language might recall Jane Austen, but her libido conjured up Erica Jong.

Almost all of us have done or will do It, many of us do It regularly. But more importantly, while doing It, whether with a one night stand, a new flame, or a long-burning love, we think, we grow, we feel. Sure, you can make It happen between the lines, and deal with the character growth elsewhere, but would that be true to your characters? Which is why I applaud and admire Newman for following her heart, realizing she could only be true to her craft if she delved shamelessly into a topic that makes many others shift uneasily in their seats.

Love is the vehicle of change for my characters (beneath my bitter, bitter layers there’s a romantic that refuses to be smothered). For the last few months I’d been dancing around the truth of it, though my characters were telling me what they wanted. Still, I ignored them because I was afraid. But when I let go of the fear, and decided to address It, I managed to eek out a scene that brought the whole book together, just the right blot of color on a monochrome. This is the experience I posted about yesterday. I could have written in the character development elsewhere, but I don’t think it would have felt as natural or as powerful as it is this way. Sex became a lens to focus everything that the characters were going through in the most intimate, visceral sense, not just with their growing relationship, but in realizing the truths that had been pounding at them throughout the book.

I don’t know if I’ll keep this scene. I don’t know if, when I submit it to agents, I will be able to keep this scene. But I do feel good for having written it. I think it’s tasteful, conveys the important aspects of It without resorting to involved, almost clinical physical description of the act, another common trap. But most of all, I’m happy because I didn’t let my fear trump my writing.

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2 Responses to “Sex and the genre”

  1. jadepark Says:

    seriously–i would MUCH rather read about sex than beheadings! so go for it. 🙂

  2. Lisa Says:

    This is my first visit to your blog and as a fellow aspiring writer I’m enjoying my stay.

    Obligatory sex in a novel is gratuitous no matter the genre. I read and write both science fiction and romance, so I grappled too with the detail issue. The central focus of the romance genre is just what you point out at the end of this post: “Sex became a lens to focus everything that the characters were going through in the most intimate, visceral sense, not just with their growing relationship, but in realizing the truths that had been pounding at them throughout the book.”

    In a genre other than romance, I think you still have to justify going beyond the bedroom door and if character growth is pushed forward so much from a single scene than you should definitely keep it. I think an editor will also see that and won’t bat an eye at it.


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