Sex

I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

Reader Responses to Sex Scenes

This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Susan left a comment on the so-called wall in the sidebar. I really like that wall, because people who otherwise don’t comment seem comfortable leaving notes there. Susan is one such person. She left a comment this evening that I feel I have to respond to, at least briefly, so I’m pulling it up here:

I just finished reading “Into the Wilderness” and was spellbound. Very adventurous as well as historically interesting. I have one comment, however, that I must pass along. Is it necessary to have such graphic sex scenes dotted throughout the book? I found them very distasteful and unnecessary. I found myself skipping pages to get past those parts and disappointed that such a great work must lower itself to vulgarity. Having said that, I did order the next four books from Barnes and Noble and looking forward to continuing the saga.

So, first things first: it is always a wonderful thing to hear that a new reader has found enough to like about one book to read the rest. To Susan and all of you who don’t leave notes, my sincere thanks. Publishing is getting tougher all the time, but the readers make it worth the uphill climb.

Susan raised some concerns on the topic of sex scenes. This is one of those issues that seem to come around in a cyclical fashion. The question gets raised, discussed, and fades away for six months or a year.

To be clear: I am not offended by Susan’s take on this question. That she liked the story enough to continue despite her discomfort with sex scenes is a compliment. But she does ask a question: are sex scenes really necessary? I can only answer that from my own perspective as a reader and writer, so here goes:

When I started out telling Elizabeth’s story, I had an idea of what I wanted to explore. What it was like for her to move from such an ordered and restrictive society as Oakmere to the upper New York state wilderness; how her understanding of herself and human nature would evolve. She thought of herself as a finished piece of work, settled into a very specific identity: a woman whose whole world revolved around philosophical issues having to do with education, specifically the education of young women.

Elizabeth’s story opens up soon after she arrives in Paradise, and it was important to me to consider all aspects of it. That included her discovery of herself as a sexual being.

So I wrote those scenes in the certainty that — if I did my work well — they would contribute to the readers’ understanding of the characters, and move the plot forward at the same time. I personally believe that it’s possible to write sex scenes are not vulgar — at least, as I define that term. Whether or not I achieve that goal — that’s something every reader will decide for him or herself.

fools and angels treading: sensitive subjects in fiction

This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Monica is very willing to share her opinion on topics other people would rather avoid. I personally appreciate the fact that she takes the trouble to remind me to take off the blinders. In a recent post she says:

Any other controversial issues are eagerly discussed in the romance community: Sexism, gays, plagiarism, kinky erotica, publisher bugaboos, conservative issues, but as a whole they really hate blacks and refuse to discuss black racial issues without hysteria and rancor.

I am going to disagree with one aspect of this. I believe that ‘they hate blacks’ is too simplistic an explanation for what’s behind the silence. It has to do with guilt and fear and laziness and a whole range of other complex emotions and reactions. Are there people who simply hate blacks? Sure. But I don’t think you can say that about most people. Does this excuse anything? No.

Examples of what Monica is talking about abound. The whole Cassie Edwards scandal was about plagiarism, but it was also about Edwards’ racism — or it should have been. I read quite a lot of the discussion on the scandal across dozens of websites, and I can’t recall anybody who came out and raised a related issue. I believe the passion that went into exposing Edwards’ plagiarism had to have something to do with the fact that her novels are unapologetically racist. Every stereotype about Native Americans is elaborated on, every wrong towards them trivialized; Native American men, as they appear in Edwards’ novels, are playthings for white women. Edwards has stated in writing that she is part Native American, and that her Native American grandmother, if she were alive, would love her novels. So we can add self-deception and blind bigotry to the list of her problems.

Why did Edwards’ work never spark a discussion about racism? Why did it take discovery of her plagiarism to open up a discussion of her work at all? And of course, Edwards isn’t alone. There are other romance writers who have gone down this same path, maybe not as often and as thoroughly, but they have exploited Native American stereotypes in pursuit of a story. For example (and I can hear the screams now) Linda Howard‘s very popular MacKenzie series is built on similar shaky and offensive ground.

Racism against blacks is there in abundance, as well. Some of the worst of it (the Mandingo themed novels) have passed out of public favor, but Gone with the Wind (the ultimate example) is as popular as it ever was. Other kinds of racism, more recent and subtle (and for that reason, more damaging) are easy enough to find. Take for example LaVyrle Spencer‘s Family Blessings. The hero is a big, blond, good looking, thoughtful, caring cop; he speaks ‘good English’ and he’s determined to help an ‘disadvantaged’ twelve year old black kid. And how will this be accomplished?

“Yo.”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“What you talkin’ like a black boy for?”
“I be black.”
“You might be, but no sense talking like a dumb one if you ever want to get anywhere in this world…”
…”I could turn you in for dat, you know. Teachers in school can’t even make us change how we talk. It’s the rules. We got our culture to preserve.”
“I’m not your teacher, and if you ask me, you’re preserving the wrong side of your culture…listen to you, talking like a dummy! I told you, if you want to get out someday and make something of yourself and have a truck like this and a job where you can wear decent clothes and people will respect you, you start by talking like a smart person, which you are. I could hack that oreo talk if it was real, but the first time I picked you up for doing the five-finger discount over at the SA station, you talked like every other kid in your neighborhood…”
“I’m twelve years old. You not supposed to talk to me like dat.”
“Tell you what—I’ll make you a deal. I’ll talk to you nicer if you’ll talk to me nicer. And the first thing you do is stop using that F word. And the second thing you do is start pronouncing words the way your first-grade teacher taught you to. The word is that, not dat.”

(Spencer 1995:102-103)..

I would guess this excerpt made many people (white and black) hoot in agreement, because in general people have come to believe these arguments which are based in racism, self delusion, and ignorance about the way human language functions. The cop character has nothing more to backup his pronouncements about language than his own observations, biases, and the trappings of his own success. This is what you can have, he says, if you start sounding like me. If you do not, you do so out of mule-headedness and stupidity, and there is no hope for you. Be white, or be lost. There’s no logic in this claim, and a great deal of evidence to counter it: Can black people who sound white when they talk count on a rosy future, safe from all racism and discrimination? Equal opportunity at every turn? Is this cop really claiming that if the boy he is talking to would only start sounding white, there will be no more race-related obstacles in his path to a bright future?

Because you know, I’d call that bait and switch.

There are 38 reviews of this novel on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.5 stars. PW couldn’t find anything wrong with it:

Ordinary people coming to grips with real problems are handled with a sure, restrained touch that makes this latest novel from the bestselling author of Bygones a moving tale. […] While residing safely within the parameters of romance fiction, this novel has an appealing candor that transcends the genre.

It’s true that the hero’s relationship with this twelve year old black kid is not the main focus of the novel, but this scene is meant to make us see how caring, smart, and insightful he is, and how willing to take on difficult subjects in order to reach out to someone who needs his help. In fact, it demonstrates something very different: the author’s own attitudes, which I would call narrow, uninformed, and yes: racist.

As I was thinking about writing this post, I asked myself why I have never raised these subjects in my occasional review. The answer is simple: I don’t review books I find offensive. So now I have to figure out for myself if that’s laziness, or fear of repercussions, or if there’s something else going on that I’m not comfortable admitting. I don’t have an answer, but I’ll see if I can figure it out.

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G or PG or Nothing: Unhappy Readers

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This email came in today:

I started out really enjoying the book Lake in the Clouds, but quickly lost that enjoyment when you described the sex scene. How I wish that all books had a rating like the movies so one’s money would not be wasted. If you have any family rated (G or PG) books please let me know.

A-Would-Be Reader

It’s unfortunate that she started with Lake in the Clouds, as the scenes that (I’m guessing) bother her are (in one case at least) more about violence than sex. I really do try to avoid gratuitous sex scenes. If there’s nothing to be gained in character development or plot, I’ll skip over the details.

So I’m sorry to lose a potential reader, but I don’t really see a way around this conflict. I write the story — which isn’t always pretty — to the best of my ability. Some will like my stuff, and others won’t. Such is the nature of the beast. In the ten or so years since the first novel in the series came out, I’ve had a handful of emails from people who tell me why they can’t or won’t read my work.

There’s was the guy who was outraged that a dog was shot (the many human deaths didn’t seem to bother him); there have been other people who objected to violence or sex. A few people decided they didn’t like me personally and so they don’t want to read my novels. All fair enough. I make similar decisions every day.

On the other hand it wouldn’t occur to me to write to an author and tell her (or him) what steps would be necessary for me to become a faithful reader. I might write and express an opinion, but I can’t imagine telling somebody how to tell a story.

Thoughts?

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