Good Bad Sex

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes
[asa left]0880016280[/asa] I really admire Scott Spencer’s work. Waking the Dead is probably my favorite of his novels, but I’ve found things to like about all of them. Endless Love is, over all, a delicately told, very dark story, one that I have re-read more than once. This particular scene I’m going to talk about bothers me — which may mean it is entirely successful.

Endless Love is about David Axelrod, a teenager desperately in love with Jade Butterfield but also with Jade’s family. His own intellectual and detached parents can’t compete with the Butterfields, who are unconventional and demonstrative. David and Jade’s relationship bothers her father (who is in some ways as volatile a character as David himself) not so much because it is sexual, but because of the degree of obsession David shows for them all. He orders Jade to stop seeing David, who then makes a desperate play to win the family’s love back, and missteps badly — more than once — with disasterous results. Near the end of the novel he does reconnect with Jade, who allows herself to be drawn back into the relationship. This excerpt is part of the longer scene in which Jade capitulates. Part of the delay is that she is having her period, but she is drawn enough to him, and he is eager enough, that they proceed anyway. The novel is written in David’s first person POV.

Endless Love. Copyright Scott Spencer.

We kissed and stroked each other for a while. Jade straddled me and I thrust up to enter her, but missed. She took hold of me and guided me in. She fell a little dry and her discharge was thick, viscous — the result of her period, the blood mixed with her normal secretions. She winced as I entered her —it’s awful, really, how stirring men find those small signs of pain. She lifted herself up a little and I popped loose of her. She came back down until the knobby bones of our hips touched and the bow-shaped curve of my cock pressed into the cushy heart of her genitals, sinking until it hit a ridge of cartilage. I pressed her at the small of her back; her hips were locked around mine now and I felt her pubic hair brush against me, as soft as breath on my belly. I pulled her down, made her bend from the waist, and crushed our chests together.

I whispered her name and when she didn’t respond I felt a moment’s panic.

I held her face and kissed her mouth. Her tongue felt huge, soft, and unbearably alive in my mouth. I breathed her breath. It was the night’s first real kiss. Precise, enormous.

The first thing to note here is the almost detached way in which David describes the mechanics of what they are doing. He has been obsessing about this moment for years, and now that he is in the middle of it, he seems almost cold in his observations. The first real insight into his state of mind is the sentence it’s awful, really, how stirring men find those small signs of pain. He is telling himself — and us, the readers — that this is about love and making a connection to Jade, but not very far beneath the surface he is tremendously angry. He draws attention to his own anger and trivializes it immediately, returning to relating the fine details of what is going on.

Why these particular graphic, less than erotic, almost distasteful details? Why language calculated if not to shock, then at least to push the reader away?

The sex is a way for us to see some frightening things about David, who is, after all, an unreliable narrator. There is very little of tenderness or affection here; this act is about blood, about crushing and crashing together, about barely constrained violence. Until he remembers to talk to Jade. Until he calls her name, and another part of his mind is engaged. It isn’t until this point, until he kisses her, that the scene shifts. He holds her face, he takes note of the fact that she is alive, and breathing. The adjectives here (Precise, enormous ) change the tone and the direction of what is happening between them — for him, at least. We can’t know what Jade is feeling.

It’s been observed before that sex and battle scenes are great places to see what a character is made of, and this scene is both. It is shocking, disturbing, distasteful because the things that drive David, things he has been withholding from himself and from us, are disturbing. This passage is as successful as a dark sex scene can be.

Whew. I’m ready for something a little lighter and I bet you are too. Tomorrow.

More Good Bad Sex

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes
[asa left]0312983824[/asa] I’m not sure if men will find this scene funny, but I’m pretty sure most women will. It’s one of those laugh-or-cry situations, and laughter is usually the better option.

This is the story of Tilda, a good woman, an artist from a family of artists and art dealers with a long history of questionable practices. A very long history. Tilda is a seething mass of worries, angers, guilts, and corresponding asthmatic symptoms. In spite of her many worries, her difficult relationship to her (now dead) father, her concern for her mother, she has managed to hang on to the things that make her likable and interesting. She doesn’t get close to people outside the family because she is loyal and honest, two things that don’t really go together well in her situation. Which means she is also lonely, though she doesn’t see it that way.

Enter Davy Dempsey, who is also from a family known for its less than amiable relationship with the law. He’s attracted to Tilda, she’s attracted to him, but her fear has definitely got the upper hand. When they embark on this first sexual encounter, she’s so worried about her asthma, a missing painting, and the possibility that they may lose the family business that there’s really no way for her to relax, and thus things are doomed from the start.

A few notes: the references to her inner Louise have to do with her attempt to model herself on her sister, who is able to have a fulfilling sex life because she compartmentalizes successfully. When she’s out on the town, she’s Louise. Tilda would like to have access to an inner Louise. Steve is her dog.

Faking It. Copyright Jennifer Crusie.

She began to move with him, trying to pick up his rhythm, which was hard because she kept slipping down the couch. Oh, hell, she thought, and moved her hand to brace herself on the back of the couch and caught him across the nose.
Don’t have a nosebleed, she thought, please don’t have a nosebleed, but he just said, “Ouch,” and kept going.

Single-minded, she thought. Okay, there is no Louise, Louise is like the Easter Bunny, so just breathe heavy and get this over with and never go near this man again.

She took deep breaths, not even trying to match his because they were never going to be in sync, and once she stopped trying and started breathing, things got better. He picked up speed, and Tilda tried to imagine the tightening of her muscles and did a damn good job with those moans as the minutes passed and her pulse picked up. Then he shifted against her and hit something good, and she sucked in her breath and thought, Wait a minute, this could–but even as she had the thought, he shuddered in her arms and that was it. Just hell, she thought, and finished off with an oh-my-god-that-was-good moan-sigh combo.

So much for channeling her inner Louise. He was semi-mindless on top of her now, so she held him, patting him on the back while he caught his breath and Pippy Shannon sang “I Pretend” on the jukebox. Our song, Tilda thought.

Steve dozed on the rug beside the couch, oblivious to both of them. He had the right idea. She should have taken a nap instead.

Then Davy pushed himself up on one arm and looked in her eyes, nose to nose. “So what was that?” he said, still breathing hard, looking mad. “A fake or a forgery?”

Jenny’s trademark witty banter is here, though it’s limited to interior monologue. Which is one sign that things aren’t going well — if you remember the scene from Welcome to Temptation, when things are good, her characters are quite chatty. In her panic and distress, Tilda is intellectual. She’s trying to figure out how to handle the situation; she’s worried about Davy’s reaction, about what she should be doing, about how to make everything okay. It doesn’t occur to say to him, hold up, bub, this about as exciting as a televised golf game. She’s the fixer in the family, and she’s trying to figure out how to do that here, as well; the only option that occurs to her is — well, faking it.

Most women and I assume, most men can think of times when things have gone Very Wrong much like this. The scene in Welcome to Temptation starts like this — the encounter isn’t working for Sophie, but Phin takes things in hand and turns them around. Here Davy seems not to notice that Tilda is mentally absent and physically unresponsive. She’s pretty sure she’s fooling him, at any rate, and thus it comes as a surprise to her when he makes it clear that he was indeed paying attention, and he doesn’t like what happened. The line “A fake or a forgery?” summarizes the theme of the whole novel, which is lovingly complex and carefully constructed and really worth reading.

It’s very hard to write bad sex well. Scott Spencer did it by subtle revelation of David Axelrod’s inner demons in his first person observations of less than erotic details. Jenny does it with humor and also with sympathy. Tilda is funny, but she’s also tragic in ways that take time to make themselves clear.

I’m coming to the end of my examination of sex scenes. I may drag out one or two more, and then wind things up. In a week’s time I’m off to Europe until the end of the month, but I’ll see what interesting bits might be hanging around between now and then.

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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