fanfic, copyright, plagarism, cha cha cha

All the hoopla about Opal Mehta has resulted in some really good discussions about the nature of storytelling. Over at Making Light, Teresa Nielson Hayden’s comment (transmuted into a post) on fanfic gets to the heart of the matter:**

[…] In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it.

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year went to March, a novel by Geraldine Brooks, published by Viking. It’s a re-imagining of the life of the father of the four March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Can you see a particle of difference between that and a work of declared fanfiction? I can’t. I can only see two differences: first, Louisa May Alcott is out of copyright; and second, Louisa May Alcott, Geraldine Brooks, and Viking are dreadfully respectable.

I’m just a tad cynical about authors who rage against fanfic. Their own work may be original to them, but even if their writing is so outre that it’s barely readable, they’ll still be using tropes and techniques and conventions they picked up from other writers. We have a system that counts some borrowings as legitimate, others as illegitimate. They stick with the legit sort, but they’re still writing out of and into the shared web of literature. They’re not so different as all that.

Fanfic means someone cares about what you wrote.

Personally, I’m convinced that the legends of the Holy Grail are fanfic about the Eucharist.

This really is a basic impulse.

Which brings me back to the discussion in the comments to my post Genre – Literature. I made some similar points regarding storytelling as a basic human impulse to de Rien, and now I’m thinking of A.S. Byatt’s essays on this subject. I can’t put my hands on the particular one that comes to mind, but I believe it’s in Imagining Characters, which is an attempt to capture in print a discussion about literature between Byatt and Ignes Sodre, who is a psychoanalyst.

de Rien asked me if I was saying that storytelling as a cultural good was primarily a vehicle for educating children and less relevant for adults. That’s a huge and really interesting question. My short answer: no, not just for children. A longer answer (or at least part of one) I’ll try to put together today.

Thanks to murgatroyd for the headsup.

Less; More

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I have been wanting to look at a sex scene from a hardboiled thriller/detective type novel. I vascillated for a long time between a very short scene from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey and one from Dan Simmons’ Hardcase and finally decided to look at them both.

Both of these novels are excellent examples of their genre. Sandford’s Lucas Davenport is a tough, no-nonsense homicide detective; Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was a tough private investigator until he killed the guy who raped and murdered the woman he loved — in a very well written, very shocking scene, I might add, the very first scene of this series of books about Kurtz.

Davenport has his very dark side, but Kurtz doesn’t have anything but dark, no matter how you look at him. Davenport loves women, likes to talk to them, his closest friend is a nun. Kurtz is so hard bitten and terse that it’s hard to imagine him smiling. We know he likes jazz; we know he’s concerned (from afar) about his daughter; that’s the end of it. These scenes are so different in tone you know, even if you read nothing else, that they are not from the POV of the same character.

Rules of Prey. Copyright John Sandford.

“You should have been a shrink, ” he said, shaking his head ruefully. He cut the water off and pushed open the shower door. “Hand me that big towel. I’ll dry your legs for you.”
A half-hour later, Jennifer said hoarsely, “Sometimes it gets very close to pain.”

“That’s the trick,” Lucas said. “Not going over the line.”

“You come so close,” she said. “You must have gone over it a lot before you figured out where to stop.”

Hardcase. Copyright Dan Simmons.

They moved together hard. Kurtz made his right hand a saddle and lifted her higher against the tiles while she wrapped her legs around his hips and leaned back, her hands cusped behind his neck, her arm and thigh muscles straining.

When she came it was with a low moan and a fluttering of eyelids, but also with a spasm that he could feel through the head of his cock, his thighs, and the splayed fingers of his supporting hand.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispered in a moment, still being held against the tile in the warm spray. Kurtz wondered just how capacious this loft’s hot water tank was. After another moment, she kissed him, began moving again, and said, “I didn’t feel you come. Don’t you want to come?”

“Later,” said Kurtz and lifted her slightly.

I should note that these are both the first novel in a series written by a male author. This is the first time you see Lucas in a sexual situation, and the same is true for Joe Kurtz. The Rules of Prey scene is so short and so lacking detail it’s hard to see why it might be erotic. There are two things: he orders her to submit to being cared for (the dichotomy here is intrinsically interesting) in a fairly matter-of-fact, gruff way; and then it is a half hour later when she is coherent enough to raise the subject of his methods, in a hoarse voice. A hoarse voice is a very distinctive thing, and should by rights be a cliche, but it still works, if used sparingly, to get across something about the scene.

Mostly this short scene is erotic because it makes the reader wonder what in the heck was going on, and draws on the reader’s own imagination. “And then they had sex,” does the same thing, but not like this. In this case, you have just enough information to make you understand a few things about Lucas Davenport. Interesting things.

The Hardcase scene is extremely explicit, and from a man’s POV, which is interesting in its own right. I would say, though, that it’s so mechanical, and Joe Kurtz’s POV is so detached, that there’s nothing erotic about it. The author lets us into Joe’s head, where we find him wondering about hot water heaters — and this is the first time he’s had a sexual encounter after eleven and a half years in prison. Would “and then they had sex” be a suitable substitute for this scene? Nope. Especially not if you read the whole scene from the beginning, which starts with Joe’s contemplation on how doing without sex in prison drives some men crazy, and how he read the Stoics to deal with it. This scene gives you a lot of information about Joe. It’s not very pleasant, it’s slightly disturbing, but most of all it’s very intriguing, for me at least. I kept wondering if he was ever going to put down the defenses and let himself feel anything. That’s why I kept reading the series, to answer that question. You’ll have to read it too if you’re interested.

So now I’m done; this is the last time I’ll post scenes for analysis, at least for the time being. I’m going to try to gather my thoughts on what I’ve learned by the process and I’ll post them tomorrow.

Falling in Love

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I love Jane Austen, and I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

If I could jump in a time machine I’d go back to see her at age twenty or so and bring her a lifetime supply of cortisone supplements — still the only treatment for Addison’s disease, which is what killed her. Imagine another five or ten books by her. Wouldn’t that be worth a spin in a time machine?

At any rate. Other people love Jane as much as I do, and some of them are very … exacting. Austen Purists do not like anyone to fuss with the Work. Purists are opposed, unilaterally, to the small industry that has sprung up around Jane’s stories, particularly to the dozens of sequels that have been published. Currently the list of such works over at the Republic of Pemberley numbers 68, and it is not complete. Personally I try to judge every after-the-fact sequel on its own merits, but thus far I haven’t run into one that really worked for me.

All this by way of introducing Linda Berdoll’s
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife — which works in a very limited way.

One thing I would love to ask Jane (when we’re sitting in her garden and after I’ve explained to her the [asa left]1402202733[/asa] function of cortisone and why her inability to produce it is going to be fatal) is this: when we get to the most crucial scene in Pride and Prejudice, the one we’ve been working toward for so long, why does she step away? Darcy and Elizabeth are finally declaring mutual love and a future together, but we are no longer in scene. Very frustrating, really. I would guess she’d tell me that it was far too personal a conversation to put down on paper. I expect that’s exactly what the purists say, too: if Jane didn’t want it told, we should be satisfied to leave it at that. But of course, nobody is ever satisfied. Fictional characters live on and independently of their creators. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are a case in point; maybe the ultimate case in point. Linda Berdoll was not the first to sit down and write the story of what happens after they get married, and I doubt she’ll be the last. What sets her apart, though, is her willingness to explore the sexual relationship between them.

There is a lot of sex in this novel, probably too much. Some of it works very well; other bits don’t. Part of the problem is that Berdoll decided to try to emulate Jane’s late 18th century style and tone, which she pulls off only inconsistently. What she does do well is to give us scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth that go beyond sex, the very kinds of scenes that reveal so much about the inner person and the relationship. The passage I’m quoting here is after-the-fact. They have been married a very short time; Elizabeth, of course, has come to the marriage bed with very little concrete idea of what’s going to happen, but great willingness and an open mind (she is, thus far, still in character as Jane created her) — but she is also confused and at odds and worried that she’s not performing to expectations, because she doesn’t know how to interpret some of Darcy’s reactions and comments. That’s where this begins, with her misunderstanding of something he’s said having to do with her loss of virginity.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Copyright Linda Berdoll.

Before she had found reason or even anger at fate, which would have been a truer reaction for her nature, she bitterly (and with a great deal of self-pity) announced her obvious shortcoming.

“I am stunted,” she proclaimed.

Still in heaving contrition atop her, he raised himself upon both elbows and inquired, “You are what?”

“I cannot accomodate you. I am obviously stunted.”

Still raised upon his elbows, breathing heavily, but blinking at her remark in non-comprehension, he could only repreat, “You are ‘stunted’?”


Impatient that he did not follow her reasoning, she explained to her exceedingly satisfied husband thusly, “My body obviously cannot meet your needs. I thought it was only at first, but you see now, it is not. I am stunted and cannot perform satisfactorily as your wife.”

“Lizzy, that is absurd!”

“‘Tis not absurd! You yourself said, ‘This will not do.’ Indeed, last night you said again and again that I was too small.”

“I said you were small, meaning….” he searched for an explanation.

“Paltry,” she answered for him.

“No. I meant, small — diminutive — petite. Lush and tight.”

At that unprecedented explictness, he well-nigh blushed.

Then, hastily, he continued. “It was a compliment, Lizzy, not a complaint. As far as my saying ‘it will not do,’ I only meant it would not do for me to continue to hurt you. That is my failing, not yours. I must rein myself in, for you are not too small. I am…” He flailed about for a delicate way to put it. “…rather large.”


This was an interesting turn of events. The entire conundrum was the fault of his body, not hers.

She bid, “Do you mean too large?”

“I mean to say, you are small, but not too small.”

“You mean to say, you are not large, but too large?”

“I am not all that large…” he made a frustrated little half-snort, obviousy unhappy at the direction the conversation was taking, but that did not deter her curiosity.

“How large are you?”

“As you see.”

“Well, you must understand, sir, my frame of reference is somewhat limited. Would you not grant I have no true way to compare it?”

He almost smiled then reclaimed it, not wanting to encourage further discussion of the meritoriousness of his member. But he was tardy by half, leaving Elizabeth feeling saucy enough to inflict a tease.

“Are you large enough to incite gossip? Are you large enough to be put upon display in Piccadilly?”

By then thoroughly defensive, he said, “I said I was large, not a freak of nature.”

“I am just trying to get some idea of what sort of largeness we are dealing with here…”

“I should have said I was not small.”

“There is a very wide gap in definition betwixt ‘too large’ and ‘not small’.”

“It will have to simply remain so, for I refuse to discuss it further.”

He shook his head slightly, then said, “I truly believed I would be whispering endearments in your ear at this moment, not discussing logistiques.”

“But the dilemma has not been solved…”

“I promise you, Lizzy, it shall be solved,” he said. “With very diligent practice.”

I find this touching and funny, the idea of the very correct Mr. Darcy unable to extract himself from such a conversation. This playfulness is something we don’t see at all in Pride and Prejudice, but something we suspect is there beneath the surface — something we hope for. We want this Mr. Darcy for Elizabeth. A sexually aware, adventurous, considerate Darcy who is able to talk to Lizzy about their relationship, who stretches outside of his areas of comfort because he likes and loves her.

There are many little bits like this in the novel, where we see what falling in love has done — and continues to do — for Darcy. They both evolve, but he especially changes and grows, and it’s a delight. Those bits alone made the novel worthwhile for me; I could overlook or forgive almost every other kind of infelicity, given this window into the way the newly married are continuing to fall headlong in love.

Tomorrow I’ll try to draw out some guidelines that have been rising to the surface while I looked at these various sex scenes, or, maybe, I’ll do one more. If I can find the book.

Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This excerpt from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart is anything but a typical or generic sex scene.

The two main characters in this historical romance are Stuart Aysgarth, a viscount, and a woman called Emma Hotchiss. Emma has a very shady past but at this point in her life she is an utterly respectable and unremarkable woman who owns a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Stuart gives her cause to seek him out when he causes harm to her livestock, but after getting no satisfaction she takes matters into her own hands. Thus, he catches her in the act of robbing him (I’m simplifying this, please note). So he ties her to a chair to keep her from running off, but more importantly because this is an opportunity he had been hoping for. With her questionable connections and background, she can help him with a problem — or if she prefers, he can call the sheriff.

There is a long, interesting, complex discussion between these two while she’s tied to the chair, business negotiations and personal observations, all fraught with a great deal of sexual tension arising from strong mutual attraction. Emma is experienced and not easily frightened, but she is at a bit of a loss on how to handle Stuart, who tells her she must give up two minutes of her time to experience the personal trespass he has suffered over a longer period.

This initial confrontation, discussion and negotiation takes many pages, and eventually they get to kissing (another couple pages). Remember that Emma is still tied to the chair where this excerpt begins.

Untie My Heart. Copyright Judith Ivory.

Somewhere along the way his hand returned to her knee, light, dry, warm possessive. Just his hand on her knee. For balance. Still, for a second, she knew a tiny panic. He stroked it away. His thumb rubbed the inside of her knee, two soft, short strokes along the bend, the first reassuring, the second bringing such a shocking physical rush of blood to the core of Emma, she nearly lost her breath. Her legs … dear heaven, her legs. She felt all at once exposed … aware how close he was to… well, he could have put his hands, that thumb, those fingers anywhere.

Almost gentlemanly, sweetly, as if he read her mind, he broke away long enough to lean over sideways. With one hand, he yanked at the ties at her legs, ripping them in part, setting her right knee free first –oh, lovely!–coming back to kiss her again briefly–then stopping long enough to lean in the other direction. She lifted her free foot out, straightening her knee to stretch, as he undid her other one. Not that he was letting her free or up exactly, because as soon as her legs were freed, he came back to that astonishing kiss, having her rather trapped against the chair.

Then, the next thing she knew, his hands hooked under her knees, and he lifted her legs up as he moved forward and straddled the chair himself, sitting, while in the same movement lifting, running his hands under her legs down her calves to her ankles. He sat, taking her legs up over his. He still had to bend forward slightly, he was so much taller, but he was less awkward, more comfortable, she thought, sitting on the chair-until he moved forward and brought their bodies close, up against each other. She would have slapped him perhaps. Maybe. Difficult to say, since her hands were still held behind her. In any event, it was a shock at first to feel him — his male body up against her spraddled female one.

He bent forward, kissing her harder. One moment, his hands were at the sides of her, gripping the chair posts over her head. He curved his hips hard against her, and she knew the heady thickness of him. All so oddly familiar, yet not. The next moment, one of his hands was between them, at her waist, then the back of his hand glided down her belly, almost protective. Then he took his hand away–and nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever was between them. Unless one counted something else she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection.

He either knew or was inventing on the spot how to have sexual congress on a chair … they were about to…she was letting him … no, she jerked on her hands, they weren’t free in back….she was his prisoner…wasn’t she? Was she letting him? She wet her lips to say stop. The word didn’t come out. Did she want him to? Now was certainly the moment to say so. Decisions seemed to hang, demanding her attention, yet her brain couldn’t seem to keep up with her body.

She felt herself swollen, lit, as the head of his penis dropped against her. It slid down the length of her in an instant acknowledgement of how ready she was. The warm movement of his hand was there, adjusting himself into position – here was certainly the moment to protest. Did she want to?

Then it was too late to protest anything. With a swift, sure movement of hips, he thrust himself deeply, thickly inside her. Her body all but pulled him into her, swallowing him up. His arms were at either side of her again, enfolding her against the chair, against him, his chest, the spicy-warm smell of him…his strong, muscular shoulders hunched toward her, one hovering at her face till the starchiness of his shirt rose into her nostrils like steam, till she tasted it in her mouth. . . his hips under her, his presence inside her, hot and substantial, driving … intrusive, amazing . . . he lifted into her with a kind of rhythmic spasm that was so satisfying she bit down on his shirt, clenching her teeth. Seconds. It lasted seconds — perhaps three deep, solid stokes of Stuart’s body into hers. While her own contracted around his the moment of entry and simply kept contracting… tighter and tighter and tighter. . . until an explosion… or implosion, things collapsing and shoving and moving inside as she couldn’t remember in years, maybe ever, . . with both herself and Stuart making such noises, mutters, animal sounds, groans.

She came to her senses again like this, her heart pounding with him right there in her face, his body up against her, still inside her.

Two minutes. Had it taken two minutes? Feasible. It was entirely feasible.

When I read this over again I am entirely taken in by Emma’s voice, her very distinctive voice as we follow her thoughts through this scene. She’s such a down-to-earth, practical woman, unprepared but not particularly upset by Stuart’s direct approach. More upsetting to her is her own inability to produce the reactions she knows she supposed to have. She’s supposed to not want this; she should be protesting. But her body has the upper hand, and her body wants Stuart, and she goes along for the ride, amazed, dumbfounded, but absolutely able to acknowledge the pleasure it brings her. This has nothing to do with love; she never even thinks about that.

The approach here is very explicit: we see what Emma sees, and feel what she feels. Every one of Stuart’s actions is recounted, but in rather sober, vaguely surprised language. She registers things: the shock of his body against hers, the familiarity of a male body still after a long dry spell, and a very calm assessment of his body in a state of sexual arousal. What kind of woman, in this situation, thinks a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection. Notice the juxtaposition of the sensible observation (capable) with the appreciative one (perfectly beautiful).

She debates with herself what she wants, and her role in this whole business. I’ve read this many times to see if I could talk myself into believing that she is being abused or raped, but I can’t see it. She knows perfectly well how to stop him, considers doing that, and doesn’t. She never makes a direct and conscious decision to go ahead and have sex with the man; it’s more of a decision she makes by letting opportunities slip by. Once the act has actually begun, she’s caught up in the physical sensations, and they are provided for us in detail: the things she smells, tastes, feels, sees.

Her final thoughts — Two minutes? Entirely feasible are completely in character, and perfectly caught.

I’ve wondered too what to make of the lack of dialog between them in these two minutes — they certainly chatter away in the first twelve or so pages of the scene, and now complete verbal silence. This experience is for Emma a fairly solitary one; if she looks into Stuart’s eyes we don’t know about it; it’s all about what’s going on inside her own head and her own body.
Has Emma changed in the course of this encounter, has the narrative shifted? That’s something you’d have to decide for yourself by reading the whole novel, but I think that this is in fact a turning point for her, and for Stuart.

I think I like this and find it to be successful because it is unique and unusual and evocative. I’m curious what y’all think.