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.
Someone please tell me what is God’s directive moral command that tells her what she may or may not read? I have many Christian friends who enjoy the Wilderness series.
I have two scenes between Nathanial and Elizabeth copied in my journal. I didn’t copy them because they were sex scenes, I copied them because they are beautiful expressions of love that I want to remember and hope to find in my life one day. You write life Rosina, in all its ugliness and its glory. That’s what makes your books so special. Sex is a part of life, as is love. I say amen to well written sex scenes.
It is sad that one’s way of thinking is channeled by a type of dogma.
I’m hearing too many around me claiming of not doing a certain thing/a bad because they are catholic.
To not do a bad thing it is not only catholic’s religion “advice”
Example is the continuous battle regarding abortion.
So many girls become pregnant and they’re counseled to have an abortion among other options, options usually fit for those financially stable.
God forbid to take council of this advice, the first argument is “I’m a catholic”
Really, I’m thinking. And when you had sex, at an inappropriate age I might add, then you weren’t catholic?
Is there a line of delimitation is space or time when it is or not convenient to be a catholic (or any form of expressing Christianity)?
To hide and justify your thoughts and actions behind religion, this is not far of being an extremist.
To close your eyes to life’s normal existence means you deprive your children of the tools necessary to live and survive.
Any form of art presenting these natural facts of life is another tool for us to learn and learn how to further teach.
Every day life is, well life.
When I find a book such “in the wilderness” with characters with a much better character than mine so, I can learn. And it makes me happy to know that in spite of hard moments they can still have sex, this means I can get over any stupid annoyance and have sex as well. And not just for procreation.
To feel safe in your spouse arms and know that you are one in any moment, it is a certainty that needs reassurance. In a most pleasant way.
And I thank you, Sara for opening my mind and eyes.
What a lovely way to think of the subject, being safe in the arms of someone you love. Thank you.
Your characters cry, laugh, bleed, vomit, die, eat and drink – in other words live as the rest of us live-and certainly sex is an integral part of that life for many. The scenes between Isaac and Ambrose are important plot elements as well as shedding a light on their characters, as do the scenes between Elizabeth and Nathaniel and Hannah and Strikes the Sky. If you were to skip aspects of human nature that may not appeal to you then I don’t think you’d be doing your job as a writer.
Hi petzi —
In my response to Cynthia I didn’t address homosexuality because I wanted to focus on sexuality as an essential aspect of human experience. But I’m really glad that you raised the subject, especially in the way you compared Isaac and Ambrose to other couples. Their relationship would have been very shallow if I had avoided that aspect of it for fear of offending, and they would have been far less interesting and complex characters. In the same way I doubt Hannah and Ben’s story would have resonated had I failed to explore that aspect of their relationship.
On a personal level, I am offended by the implication that there is anything wrong about same-sex relationships, and I should have said that, as well.
I’ve read this whole thing over and over again and I’m sorry, but Cynthia’s email makes no sense to me when it comes down to your stories and how you write them.
In my circle of family and friends I’m known as the “prude” due to my thoughts and feelings when it comes to sex. I normally shy away (out of embarrassment) from shows, movies and books that have “smutty” sex scenes in them. They make me feel uncomfortable so I avoid them. Saying that I will be the first to say your books are anything but “smutty” and they don’t make me feel uncomfortable in any way!
I think your books are beautiful, down to earth, well written stories that show the reader every necessary aspect in the lives of all your characters. And sex/making love no matter who it involves is a necessary part of each character’s growth in those stories. To leave beautifully written sex/love scenes out of the books would be like only telling part of the story…….and who wants to read a book that’s only partially written? Not me that’s for sure!!
So keep writing your wonderful stories and don’t worry about what a few negative noodles have to say!!
Here’s the phrase I need explained, “shocking elaborate sexual revelation.” What IS it? I read that and wondered if she was referrering to various characters discovering their enjoyment of sex? (Which I think I can understand.) Then her concerns continue on to the homosexual scene. So I had to think about what scene the was concerned about. It wasn’t very explicit, it set a tone, established a relationship and it became a tool for Jemima to use. So maybe she didn’t expect to find a gay “love story” and the fact that she did was “shocking” and “elaborate” and a revelation to her. Personally, I’ve read much more explicit gay sex scenes. (Learned a thing or two as well.) BUT I didn’t think this one was very explicit. A little rough maybe, but again we see it through Jemima’s eyes and it’s colored by her interpretation–telling us as much about her as about the two gentlemen involved. On the other hand, if all your sex scenes are “elaborate etc.” then I feel sorry for Cynthia because maybe she doesn’t know what she’s missing out on and is still awaiting her own sexual revelation.
I was always under the impression that the sex scenes I write are understated, so I’m glad to hear from you (and others) that you feel the same way. Cynthia is probably not alone in her reaction, but she’s the first to write to me about it. Which took some courage. We have a fundamental difference in our world views, and that twain will never meet.
Dear Rosina, I think the exploration of the sexual activity the different characters engage in adds an extra and necessary dimension to the writing. The scenes enable the reader to appreciate the emotional intensity between the characters and view them like real people. Exploring the initial attraction and interaction between characters such as when Elizabeth and Nathaniel first meet is important to understand the characters. With a long series the reader is fortunate to be able to understand the developing relationships and how the characters cope in terms of adversity. Such as Elizabeth and Nathaniel in Book 2 and Hannah and Ben in Book 5. Other characters are reunited like Luke and Jennet and understanding their sexual life, with love and support is vital. In reference to the scene between Isaac and Ambrose, Jemima needed to realise the nature of the relationship between the two men. I think all the sex scenes in the series are tastefully written and convey the emotional intensity between the characters. None of the scenes are gratuitous sex scenes and the writing sensitively incorporates the behaviour of the characters in their daily lives.
Hi Jenny — That’s just about what I hoped to achieve. Thank you for your support and kind words.
First I will tell you I am a huge fan and have read (I think) everything you have written under both names. Several years ago I wrote to tell you my mother requested your Wilderness Series as a gift so she can reread them again and again. I have recommended them to everyone.
The sex scene aversion has less to do with religion than personal taste. I am a Christian, but my aversion to explicit sexual detail comes more from a feeling of invading privacy than religious beliefs. You might find that odd, as this is fiction. I feel the same watching a movie that is too sexually explicit.
Sometimes it is necessary to the story, like the rape scene in Outlander, but I have to say, the otherwise often graphic sex in the book put me off reading the rest of the series or watching season 2.
To me, less is better, where the imagination is evoked. I am married for 45 years, still crazy about my husband and all that entails, and I’m not so interested in the mechanics of others sexual encounters. Hence, I found the many pages in (I think it’s The Endless Forest… I read it 5 years ago) between Luke is it? (I forget his name but he had one good arm) and his wife to be tedious and unnecessary to the story.
I so much more enjoyed the ROMANCE, the foreplay and romantic bantering between Elizabeth and Nathaniel and the others as their relationships developed in the stories. That tells me so much more about the characters and their personalities, qualities and integrity than how good they are in bed. I don’t need a sex manual.
But you are a FANTASTIC writer, and hey, you can only please some of the people some of the time, right?
The fact I am on your website says I am a fan. I appreciate you answered Cynthia’s question, because it’s one I wanted to ask myself but didn’t want to offend. Thank you for your candor!
Susan, thank you so much for contributing to the conversation, and for your kind words of support. You are absolutely right, you can’t please all the people all the time. I’m thankful for thoughtful readers.