Let’s talk about sex.
Firstly, there’s an honest review of Nights of Villjamur over at Grasping for the Wind. Some flaws were picked up – and I’m totally fine with that, especially since it was all reasoned. Each to their own, and I certainly don’t expect everyone to like a book wholeheartedly – but I want to flag a paragraph, solely for the interest of debate.
It is fairly easy to get hooked on the story of Nights of Villjamur even before you truly understand what it is. In the first fifty or so pages, there are two skirmishes between armies, a murder, a suicide, and three fairly graphic sex scenes of both the heterosexual and homosexual variety. Though the sex is something I felt the narrative could have done without, or at least left less well-described, it certainly helps keep the reader reading, if only for its appeal to our voyeuristic natures.
Not related to this review at all, but worthy of mentioning: I wrote a few sex scenes in the book, but deliberately made the homosexual scene the mildest – because I was interested in seeing if there were any reader prejudices. I’ve seen on one or two dark corners online where people muttered, “Did we really have to see the gay scene?” To which I would say, if I cared to converse with them, “Yes you did. You didn’t complain about the straight sex, which was far more graphic. Deal with it.”
Sex is something that crops up a bit in criticism of books (some of it for the comedy value, admittedly). I find it an interesting point that we (and by the collective we, I mean a sweeping and inaccurate generalisation of The Reader) must make a point of warning people about sex, or at least flagging it. Yet the violence is something that generates a almost universal “meh”, or at the very least, it has an acceptable “gritty” tag slapped on it. Bloodied, rancid, gory violence is cool – but when that mood music goes on, when you see it going in, that’s a No No, and we must alert our elders. (I’m not singling out this review – I think its criticisms are as valid as any praise the book gets – but I’m speaking generally.)
Won’t somebody please think of the children? It’s probably far more essential to protect our kids from obvious, shallow targets like sex, rather than culturally regressive and damaging gender issues, which are much more difficult to spot. You hear this same concern brought up on YA panels now and then, and it’s apparent that there are a lot of younger readers who also read fantasy and science fiction, so perhaps that is why we (adult readers and reviewers) feel we must make a point of declaring it at the door.
As Nights of Villjamur is about to debut in the States, I’ve been gently warned that the US market might react differently to the sex within the book. After that review was Tweeted, some mentioned that “American reviewers often mention sex and swearing in reviews, whereas UK reviewers pay less attention to them”.
Americans, who know your own market way better than I do: is that true? Does your market need warnings? Is it more conservative? You published Philip Jose Farmer. You published John Norman’s Gor books. I have faith in you people.
I guess satisfaction on this subject will be down to taste and personal ethics. We are all individuals, with our own preferences in literature, and this discussion is never something we can resolve. But it’s the perception that we feel we need to highlight sex and make a point of it, not violence and killing (and the more culturally damaging issues such as gender in Twilight as linked above) that I’m interested in.
Anyway. I’ll leave you with this, a much better version than the original:[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=teWzsxITB1s]
You were right, it was safe. I don’t have to rip my eyeballs out. (whew, cos that’s messy and painful)
You’re right abut something else as well- sex does seem to be the only thing that is flagged!
It concerned me when I saw the rating on the iTunes version of my first novel.
– It doesn’t contain sex, but it most definitely does contain the gory and horrific aftermath of violence. Yet iTunes rated it 4+. Which means it contains NO objectionable material. There is no way in hell I’d let anyone under 16 read the book (and that includes my own kids). Yet it’s okay for kids under 9?
Violence, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, swearing and then some! Not cool for kids, but because there is no sex, it gets a 4+ and somehow that makes it okay for little Johnny at Primary School? It’s nuts.
Sex is a funny thing, especially in books.
There are instances where the depiction of the carnal act is cringe-worthy. This is not so much out of prudishness but an aversion to poor description of the act itself which plagues many a novelist. However, I think sex is as at home in literature as anywhere else. This includes the speculative genre.
Americans are squeamish about sex – along with many other remnants of body-shame stemming from their puritanical past (and present). You wouldn’t always think so, looking at the nation’s entertainment and cultural output; but it’s always there, just waiting for a wardrobe malfunction or a too graphic depiction of something on the naughty list to cause the collective disapprobation to rear its pursed-lipped head. For many of course, this is a matter of faith, but then I’d say stick to safer, less speculative ground if your sensibilities are thus.
But if we take away such reactions based on guilt and outdated superstition, what is the role of sex in the novel? Perhaps that is one for the scholars out there (step up Paul C. Smith) or fans of literary erotica. It certainly is a topic ripe for exploration. My own take is that it should serve one of two roles (or both) in a novel: realistic background activity and/or development of the plot/characters.
In the first case, why should sex be excluded in a novel where attention is paid to how people drink, eat, smoke, walk, or buy their groceries? It certainly is happening all the time in the real world, so I feel its exclusion can undermine the veneer of reality that a writer struggles to build. But then most novels have a noteworthy lack of characters pissing and defecating, though less so I’d say than the depiction of sex. Why? Perhaps because of the prudish, body-shame noted above but arguably also because not every second of the characters lives need be described. Not only would the story likely suffer, but details for their own sake are not always beneficial, and this would turn even simple tales into encyclopedias – or Ulysses.
So, if sex isn’t best used to paint a complete world, then what is it good for? Certainly sexuality is one of the most powerful motivating forces behind our species’ lives and not just in its function as a selective evolutionary force and its role in the brute mechanics of reproduction. It affects us in so many ways, for most of our adolescent through adult lives, that to ignore it seems more than mere oversight. The elephant in the room with a hard-on. Sex, its regulation and connection with poorly monogamous relationships and all the problems this causes in our species (as opposed among Bonobos for example) shape our world and our characters. Why shouldn’t it do so in the fictional worlds we create?
So, I think sex and its depiction on the printed page is about far more than simply pandering to people’s latent voyeurism: it can serve as a bridge between the novel of fiction and the real world and at the same time can shape plot, character, and conflict. It is harder I think, to do sex correctly than violence, and as it’s been pointed out, society is much more forgiving of excesses of the latter than the former. But I don’t think we should leave sex out simply because we’re worried it might alienate readers, not that is, if we can use it to craft an even better novel than we might have without it. Good readers, I hope, will regardless of their own preferences, recognize when it is useful to the story and when it is not if the writer is doing their job correctly.
That said, you’d be hard pressed to find much of the lurid act going on or being described in any of Thomas Hardy’s many marvelous books, and I’m not certain that the stories therein are any the less for this omission. Spirit of the age and limitations of the time? Or was he on to something? I’m not sure.
The problem I have is that what I might find appropriate and realistic when it comes to wild sex, others might in turn find excessive or pornographic – or worse, simply ridiculous when written out. I hope I don’t write “bad sex” scenes though bad sex does make up a surprising amount of the act in real life, so why shouldn’t that of the literary form be equally banal, humourous, awkward, and frankly embarrassing at times? That is however, perhaps too much authenticity for most people’s comfort.
As for me, I say bring on the sex however you write it – as long as it matters to you and your characters and helps to progress the story.
Describe the sexual act to children and is it any wonder that you get either giggles or out-right refusal to believe what adults get up to?
Put “that” “there” (insert your choice of that and there, mix, and repeat) and what? You’d be joking, if it wasn’t true.
So perhaps my fear of writing laughable sex scenes, isn’t something to worry about. It might even win me one of these: http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsex.html
Still, does anyone have any recommendations for authors who write sex very well? I’d like to read up a bit on the business before writing anymore of mine. Strictly for research purposes, of course…
Personally, and I think this may have something to do with Australian culture in general, sex is nothing something I am uncomfortable discussing.
That said, I honestly felt that both Viljamur and Ruin could have done without the sex scenes. Not cos they were bad or offensive or anything like that, but for the same reason I don’t dig sex scenes in movies – if I wanted porn, I’d have bought some porn.
Granted, the scenes were hardly porn. But that’s how I felt. If am not in the mood for a little mood lighting, then it just annoys me when it’s thrust in my face.
Thrust. Get it. Lol.
@E. M. Edwards – I know a site that caters to free “erotic lit”. Most of it is pretty poor, but some are fairly good.
Xxxciel for example is quite good. Google him/her? See if you can find one of his/her stories. No idea if it’s a dude or not, lol.
I don’t actually remember the sex scenes in Nights Of Villjamur so they certainly weren’t graphic enough to register. It does seem strange to latch to this one area of a novel. Does anyone ever complain that, for example, the fight scenes should be less well-described?
Still, does anyone have any recommendations for authors who write sex very well?
My stock answer to this is always James Salter.
I agree with the reviewer in that the sex scenes really didn’t feel necessary. The internet provides the world with more than enough porn without needing to see it graphically described in our fantasy/scifi novels.
In addition, not everyone who was made uncomfortable by the homosexual scene is automatically prejudiced and beneath contempt. I see no reason to leap to that conclusion with the speed you display above. Why can’t my discomfort be equally respected? I don’t believe I’m saying that I have any kind of problem with gay guys and gals but that a graphically described sex scene between two men doesn’t resonate with me. Fair enough?
Like I said above, I could also have live without the sex scenes. Any of them.
That aside, the book was awesome. As my review on BSC will make clear.
…Let me clarify one point. I don’t think there’s no place for sex in novels. Graphically described sex on the other hand always strikes me as purely gratuitous and little to do with the story.
Phillip: Very quickly…
As I mentioned above, I believed those scenes to have a function – and more than just one (i.e. how can you write about a sex worker or a whorish lad without the sex stuff). And if you want to write a book that vaguely resembles contemporary life, if you describe everyday goings on (eating, toilet – yes, someone does actually go to the toilet in the book!) then I believe you can’t avoid sex, either. It’s not for everyone, sure. How come the violence didn’t affect you though, out of interest?
Feeling uncomfortable about both straight and gay sex being described, as you did, then that’s absolutely cool. Of course the real point about prejudice with Brynd is – can people still support him as a character after readers have seen that act? There was no mention of it before you see that scene – so that’s where my test for the readers came from. And of course I can respect that people might not like to see such things – but where will fairness come (culturally) unless people become more familiar with it? And I do think it’s case of familiarity, ultimately. I’m not saying I’m some great pioneer, just that every little helps.
Oh and the gratuity – I guess that’s a personal thing, possibly. As Martin points out – it barely registered for him. Each to their own, n’all that… 🙂 Anyway, delighted you enjoyed it.
I read Clive Barker as a teenager, no sex scene will weird me out after that, even THAT one in City of Ruin.
I’m with Martin. I can’t recall the sex scenes in NoV, never mind think of them as “graphic.”
As for the whole notion of gratuitous sex in general, to me this is just like complaining about gratuitous chairs in a kitchen scene. “Why, this scene could take place perfectly well with people *standing* round the table! And there’s only two people in it anyway, so do we *really* need to see all *four* chairs around the table?!” Sex is as much a part of the furniture of life as kitchen chairs, so to me it’s not the presence that has to be justified but the absence, not least since sex is *intimate character interaction*. Sex is communication, communion, and whether it’s good sex or bad sex, loving or sordid or perfunctory or whatever, it establishes a crucial aspect of the relationship between the characters having it.
Like, I totally didn’t get the bizarre reviews of Winterbottom’s Nine Songs which got all fussed over an entirely tangential art/porn debate, when the film was fundamentally out to chart the characters’ relationship in realistic terms rather than in the verbal babble and blether that kinda exists more in Dawson’s Creek than in reality, I’d say.
Phillip: I don’t think Mark is coming down on anyone with a big cosh of condemnation; certainly “beneath contempt” is overstating it. But, doing my best to avoid any accusatory tone, I’d say that when you talk about discomfort you’re saying the gay sex *does* resonate with you — invoking a negative response. I mean, straight sex *really* doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not erotic, but neither is it discomforting. It’s just… there. And if some other gay person *was* squeamish about it, that would be their problem, far as I’m concerned. To which my response would be, “deal with it.”
I’m not being judgemental here, I hope. For you that negative response might be mild — it’s just the mention of “discomfort” that suggests a bit more than indifference — and a sort of *ick* reaction to man/man coupling doesn’t necessarily translate to homophobia in real inter-personal terms anyways. It’s not something to damn a person for. But the reaction of disgust is so often used to validate mores, I think Mark’s spot-on to take a general attitude of “deal with it.” Because otherwise, respecting that discomfort functionally ends up as buckling to the pressure it creates to erase homosexuality from the narrative, or at least bind it with strictures not applied to heterosexuality.
I’d have to say it’s mostly just a taste thing. I tend to like it when reviewers mention, hey there’s lots of sex. I’m personally not a huge fan.
What I don’t get is why sex is always compared to the acceptance of violence. They are two different things and I really think it’s just a logical fallacy to put them together.
The comparison between violence and sex in novels, isn’t necessarily a logical fallacy when we’re talking about two subjects which are often used to “rate” products, from movies to in this instance, books.
Violent scenes involving gang rape – but between heterosexual participants (if that’s the right word) seem to produce less general disquiet in many readers than consensual homosexual liaisons to take but one example.
Massive amounts of skull-splitting, graphic violence, torture, sadism (of a non-sexual nature), and genocide, are frequently present in genre fiction – and get very little press for being controversial subjects or needing “mature readers.” Sex however, even of the hetero let alone the homosexual sort, seems to make a lot of people feel very differently.
Most people would agree that these are adult themed subjects. We’re just exploring why there is this great gulf between the two for some readers – but not others.
So yes, they are different but tangentially related topics linked through our expectations of what is appropriate in an adult novel.
I for one find that graphic violence is more unsettling and potentially damaging to people than sex and its depiction in literature just as important to think about in advance. I always try to plot out the violence and brutality of a scene and consciously use it to explore certain themes or ideas in the story. I also think that it is strange, that a few scenes involving hanky-panky can put people off when massive examples of blood-letting often do not.
In the real world, watching someone being decapitated, tortured, or cut to pieces with a sharp length of steel, would likely for most readers be more disturbing than watching a couple joyfully copulating – so again, the head scratching when it comes to the public’s response to the same depictions on the printed page.
And finally, thank you everyone for your suggestions.
Wow, Hal and Mark. A reasoned response to my thoughts and on the internet too! Thanks for clarifying, I’ve found that if one is not comfortable with the man on man action the label of paranoid homophobe usually isn’t far away.
Mark, I wholeheartedly agree with you that Brynd’s homosexuality is crucial to his character and for me he was most certainly a sympathetic character both before and after the ‘scene’.
Like I said in my clarification, of course sex is going to play a part in any novel about sentient characters but I notice that when the character goes to the toilet you don’t describe the feelings of urine/faeces coming in graphic detail for which I was grateful 🙂
As for the violence question, a real poser that one. Why am I not disturbed by violence but have a reaction to gay sex? I think it’s because as a heterosexual human being though I don’t act upon it, violence, directed at those perceived as deserving it does resonate with my own experience but gay sex simply doesn’t. It isn’t something that appeals to me.
Brynd being gay in a world where it’s forbidden and particularly in light of his career as a soldier, a macho pursuit, is a stroke of genius on your part. I think it makes him a fascinating character whose struggles commanded my attention. All I’m saying is that I was uncomfortable with the man on man action because it’s beyond my experience or interest in what is, unavoidably, a deeply personal area of existence.
Bryce – E.M. Edwards sums up a lot of what I was going to say. But also to add, in this case, I lumped it with gender issues, too, in a nebulous “things that people might take issue with in a novel” label. Violence, sex, inappropriate representation of gender – there are many things that people can flag up, but don’t for the most part. It’s usually just the sex.
Phillip – yes, it’s a dicey issue isn’t it? And Hal really does say everything I’ve been trying to say (and more) in a much more erudite manner. I completely understand when you say that it’s beyond your experience or interest. I think for many folk, however, it’s a case of familiarity in fictional form – they don’t like what they don’t understand or aren’t used to. So bit by bit, culturally, things can change on that front, every time a minority character is explored in such a way. And if that helps us all be a little more equal, then I’ll consider it job done – because a lot of people read books, and I do think that creative people have some kind of responsibility to at least not enforce the status quo.
I don’t think that Americans are squeamish about sex as a general rule. Romance is the top 1 genre read in America with millions and millions of copies sold and the majority of them have loads of very graphic (and well written) sex scenes.
When I read reviews online that do mention the sex scenes as inapropriate or too graphic and what not they usually come from the Fantasy corner and from male readers. I honestly don’t know what it means but this is how I perceive the flow of discussion to come from.
As for myself: if you are writing about the contemporary world, if you are talking about relationships, it has got to include sex – graphic or fade to black, straight or queer, I don’t care, it has to be there otherwise to me, it is not realistic enough (unless the characters have a reason NOT to have sex).
I read loads of YA as well, Fantasy and Contemporary and whenever I read a book which does not mention sex or thoughts of sex, I feel it is not realistic enough, especially when talking about teenagers.
IMO of course.
Also, “deal with it” = awesome.
Some excellent points were raised here and I’m certain that I will repeat the general vibe. As a rule the heterosexual world hasn’t warmed up to the homosexual world. [This is me trying to go in a different direction without hopefully offending a lot of people.] Not to say that there is not tolerance, because homosexuals are in a process of integration and acceptance.
BUT the gist of the whole point is that the general public needs adjusting as far as alternative sexuality goes [as long as it is tasteful and serves a function, though that should go for every sex scene].
As far as sex in novels [in general] goes, I do not see what the fuss is all about. Sex is wired in the human body. It’s natural and an every day event. Now, violence on the other hand needs control and moderation, because it’s not encouraged in society and therefore [in YA] should be restricted, because it sets a wrong view as to how the world works.
I really didn’t think the sex scenes in Nights or City were that graphic. Then again I’ve read everything by Richard Morgan and if Mark tread lightly with the gay sex then Richard stomped through the gay sex scenes in “The steel remains”. I think Richard was in a tricky situation of damned if you do, damned if you don’t as his straight sex scenes have always been very graphic so questions would have been asked if he didn’t approach the gay sex scenes with the same level of detail. I do think that those scenes are the ones people mean though when they say it is too graphic.
I would say about anywhere from 15-30 percent of the country is conservative enough that even the mention of gay sex would drive them up the wall, and maybe a definite 30 percent would have issues with descriptive sex. I don’t think most of us actually care unless it is *very* descriptive, and that has more to do with personal taste. For example: I don’t read erotica because I’m not much for reading what is, to me, basically just porn with a plot.
That said, I’m weird. I’ve read gay sex and hetero sex and it doesn’t bother me either way unless it is described too much (and, yes, that is true for *any* kind of sex, gay or straight). I’d chock that up to my own discomfort with sex, though.
But the U.S. isn’t generally that conservative, just pockets of people. We’re crazy varied.
I find the conflation of sex with porn in several of the comments (by mostly male commenters) interesting — especially the equation of lovemaking with other natural functions. This illuminates the fact that for some people sex is apparently the equivalent of going to the toilet. Hence the “eeugh” reaction whenever sex is explicitly portrayed, no matter how deftly or discreetly.
I’m still laughing at the comments!!! Why do so many men have issues with sex scenes in novels? Note that the few female commenters here have little problem in reading sex scenes, but the men come across as extremely prudish 🙂
It might be because women tend to read a lot more sex scenes (and enjoy them too!)… look at the sales of paranormal romance, a sub-genre dismissed by many male readers.
Personally I found the sex scenes in City of Ruin enhanced the development of the characters and did not come across as being gratuitous in any way. Go for it Mark… sex is a normal human function and shapes how we interact with the world. It should not be excluded from fiction for fear of upsetting some delicate male sensitivities!
Great post! I came here from a review of City of Ruin on booksmugglers. It was the first time hearing about you and your writing. I am an American living in self-imposed exile due to the fact that I cannot get married in my own country, so I have a rather cynical view of the American mentality.(Living in Japan, which is not much better, but just where I ended up and where I met my partner)
I feel that Americans generally are much more conservative when it comes to sexuality. After reading the review on booksmugglers and your view on writing sex, especially including gay sex, and the urban-ness of the storyline, I’m going to put your books on my wishlist. Can only hope there’s a Kindle version.
I’m one of those “slowly working on a novel” types. Mine is also set in an imagined city (The City is very important in my writing and reading), where sexual orientation is basically not an issue. It is just the way it is. The two main characters are gay (ex lovers), which is completely normal in this megalopolis.
I am not a fan of sex scenes, but it is not because of any puritanical nuttery. It is just because they usually interrupt the flow of the story for me and are usually just boring. I guess the weirder and more alternative the better, just the way I like my novels in general.
murf, you know, there may be something about the paranormal romance genre and familiarity… I’ve not thought about it in that way. Thanks for your kind words, too!
Brian – thanks for stopping by, and for your comments. There’s certainly a Kindle version of the first book, and will be one of the other, too. Good luck with your own writing – I think it’s important that more writers help balance out equality issues in literature. (Every little helps move the subject forward.)
Very much in agreement with this post, and dittoing Ana on the fact that the negative reaction to sex most often seems to come from a subset of the fantasy audience that’s mostly male. I think this is because that subset of the audience has gotten used to equating sex with porn, so they automatically assume that whenever sex appears it’s gratuitous, there solely to titillate. Further, they don’t seem all that bothered by sex that’s centered on “the male gaze” and which treats women like objects — like porn — but when the sex veers outside of the pornish stuff they’re used to (e.g., if it features gay men or is centered on the female gaze), they’re much more disturbed by it. And as you note in your OP, they’ll howl over that kind of sex even after having skimmed over more graphic pornish scenes. Which suggests to me that it’s not the presence of sex that bothers them; it’s the presence of sex that’s not intended to turn them on.
…But since the stuff in your book sounds like it’ll float my boat just fine, and since this post makes it clear you’ve put serious thought into the issue, and since the Book Smugglers’ review of City of Ruin makes it sound right up my alley… I’m ordering your books right now. 🙂
(I have only one quibble with this post, which is — you think that guy’s better than Marvin Gaye? Really? Dude, no. Though it’s not a bad cover.)
Thanks for stopping by, N.K.!
That’s a great point – I wonder if that in itself extends from the way films are viewed and classified? The visual media hammering home that sex is simply visual and gratuitous?
A fan of the classics, I see… but Ben Harper rocks! I was hoping someone would at least argue that point. 🙂
You mean in pornographic films? Or film in general?
I’m not sure that visual media is where the idea that sex is visual and gratuitous comes from. I think both derive from the Puritanical belief that sex has to have a purpose, and that it’s shameful and therefore to be kept out of the public eye in every way. By this philosophy, which is at the root of nearly all American views on sex, all sex in literature is gratuitous if it doesn’t serve some purpose in the plot (e.g., getting some woman pregnant with The MacGuffin Child, letting the hero experience Manpain [tm] because his girlfriend/sister/mother has been raped or more rarely because he has been raped). There’s an odd result from all this, though, which is that nearly all sex that appears in SFF tends to be inherently pathological, because of this weird emphasis on it being purposeful. Basically if the sex isn’t wrong somehow, that subset of readers I mentioned in my last comment just won’t accept it.