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Archive for the ‘Sex in Fiction’ Category

Save us from bad erotica wine godsThe world is facing many serious problems today. But one of the most serious is poorly written erotica.

How have our sensual imaginations come to be dominated by writers of awkward syntax with no feel for adjectives, a habit of inserting commas where they do not belong, and a hilarious understanding of human psychology?

Not to fear! Our saviors are at hand. Open any wine connoisseur catalog and you’ll find writers of extraordinary talent and distinction who can easily be drafted into our fight against bad erotica.

Please join me in a campaign to recruit these writers, so we can all enjoy work like this:

Black plum and refreshing, tangy red cherry with hints of dark chocolate.

Nice to meet you. Do you come here often? Did you know you have pretty lips?
 

Light gold with green glints.

I could lose myself forever in your greenly glinting golden eyes.
 

Red cherries and raspberries layered over silky, rounded tannins.

Tell me more about those silky, rounded tannins.
 

Creamy peach, sweet citrus and melon.

What’s that scent you are wearing? It’s intoxicating.
 

Mouthfilling texture and a deep finish.

Wooah, slow down. We just met. And the night is still young.
 

Juicy, smooth, and pleasing. Dark fruit and hints of nutmeg spice, delicate toffee and a refreshing finish.

You know, you’re the girl my mother has been asking me to bring home for years.
 

Explosive guava and vibrant gooseberry. Hints of flinty stone on the finish.

Oooh, good-looking bad boys who play by their own rules are flinty. I’ve got vibrant gooseberries and I can be flinty. Whaddaya think?
 

Soft mouthfeel. Fresh-sliced red apple, juicy pineapple and mango with a long, buttery finish.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Barkeep? Check please!

 

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There was no sex in Western literature until 1857.

This is an exaggeration and a simplification of course. (You are reading this on the internet after all.) But not by as much as you might think. Sex does play a role in literature before 1857, but it is very seldom a straight-forward one. Between…

Beowulf (ca 800 to 1,100 CE) and Leaves of Grass (1856)

… there is very little direct examination of sexual desire. Sex is there, of course, but it is always contained within a related topic. Passion is one such topic, giving desire nobility and a certain amount of respectability with its parallels to spiritual ecstasy and religious transcendence.

Madame Bovary - History of Sex in Western LiteratureTo conceive a great passion was certainly admirable. To give in to it was less so – although somewhat understandable – unless you happened to passionately repent afterwards, in which case you were back in the clear, and also had something new to do with all that animal energy.

Love was another one of these topics, a step down from passion in terms of intensity, but a step up in terms of stability, and was perfectly respectable.

This is not to say that passion and love are not valuable human experiences, or that they can’t exist along with desire, or all the literature dealing with either is false.

But the language of passion and love are also a means of not talking about sexual desire, or a means of excusing it, or most importantly a means of dismissing physical desire’s power, whether it’s tales of courtly love, or the story of Emma and Mr. Knightley, or Walt Whitman who with his great moving exuberance unites the body and soul together.

When sex does appear in Western literature before 1857, it is played for comedy through lower-class characters, such as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones or, much more explicitly, Cleland’s Fanny Hill.

There are more troublesome outliers to muddy the picture. (Did I mentioned you were reading this on the internet? Okay good.)

The Decameron comes to mind and the work of the Marquis de Sade. But let’s agree for the sake of my personal convenience that these are exceptions that prove the rule

Madame Bovary (1857)

Flaubert’s novel caused a scandal and it’s not hard to see why. In Madame Bovary, he both plainly describes sexual desire and attacks the language in which it had previously been discussed.

Flaubert’s language seems quite tame by today’s standards, but he left no doubt about what he meant. For example, during a meeting with a lover, Flaubert writes that “[Emma] tiptoed over on bare feet to check once again that the door was locked, and in one motion she shed all her clothes; — pale and silent and serious, she fell upon him, shivering.”

Flaubert is just as direct when comes to the romantic language of “passion”. Emma’s first lover, Rodolphe, deliberately and cynically uses that language, and plays the role of the passionate lover, to seduce Emma, and Emma willingly embraces the role, out of a desire for something other than the stifling, self-satisfied, and clueless adoration of her husband Charles.

She again embraces the role with her second lover, Leon, and embraces it more desperately the more she senses the intensity of their relationship fading, and the more she feels the consequences of her deceptions bearing down on her.

Flaubert may have been the first voice to speak plainly about sex and to decouple the physical act from the language of passion and love, but he was followed by a long silence. It seems that Western literature needed the massive social disruption caused by the First World War to make books like …

Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)

… possible. Joyce’s Ulysses is quite explicit about sex, but it wasn’t the perfect book to break the taboo, largely because it was so difficult for many readers to understand.

Lady Chatterley - History Sex Western LiteratureLady Chatterley’s Lover did a better job with its plain speaking, and caused a scandal. But instead of silence, these books were soon followed by others, such as Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934). Lady Chatterley and Tropic of Cancer were involved in obscenity trials as late as 1960, but these failed, and the subject of sex became ubiquitous in books by the end of the decade.

I don’t see this change as an unqualified success. A great deal of sex in books these days ranges from the merely gratuitous to the frankly pornographic, and is rendered with such an appalling, puzzling, frequently hilarious lack of skill that it can chase you right back to Jane Austen.

On the other hand, the fact of sexual desire, and the fact that desire demands satisfaction, are different matters. These need to be addressed in literature because, like in life, they don’t go away just because they’re ignored. And when desire and love are denied, between consenting adults not restrained by other promises, this denial blights the soul. We can put up with the occasional internet sensation trilogy to gain that.

Massey Content Related to A Brief History of Sex in Western Literature

My 100 word parody of 50 Shades of Grey

My 7 rules for writing sex scenes

My 100 word review of Madame Bovary

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Holy cow, he’s rich and handsome. Holy crap, he makes me horny. Holy Moses, he’s got a sex dungeon. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, I have to sign this contract? Holy crap, he’s mysterious and tortured. Ouch! he’s spanking me. Oh, I like it. Holy cow, he loves me for me? Hey! he tied me up. Huh, I like it. Holy crap, I’m meeting his mother. Holy f*ck, he can f*ck. Holy sh*t, shocking personal revelations! Glider. IHOP. Flogger. Handcuffs. Holy crap, he plays the piano too. Such a nice boy. Holy cow, the love of a brave woman should fix any broken man. Ah … aah … aaahh … aaaahhh! … aaaaahhhh!!AAAAAAHHHHH!! 

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Recently, I suggested that fiction writers avoid love scenes in their books. (The post is called The Trouble with Sex in Novels.) The reason I offered this advice is because I believe sex scenes are difficult to write well, but easy to write poorly, if you want them to be sexy.

One thing that makes sex scenes hard to write in English is most of our sex words are either clinical or vulgar. For example, in the realm of anatomy, we have these clinical words:

• Genitals

• Penis

• Testicles

• Labia

• Clitoris

• Vagina

The vulgar words for anatomy are … well, just you never mind if you can’t come up with some yourself. There are plenty. For male anatomy, the vulgar terms tend toward the exaggerated or the humorous; for women’s bodies, unfortunately, the derogatory predominates.

Whether the term is clinical or vulgar, most sex words in English expresses the language’s discomfort with sexuality by placing it an emotional distance, either by intellectualizing sex through the use of scientific terms, or by making fun of sex through humorous nick-names, or by insulting it with offensive phrases.

None of these qualities make it easier to write sex sexy, although they are a treasure-trove bonanza if you are into emotional complexity, tension, and ambivalence (otherwise called “messing with your readers”).

As Anglo-Saxons know, the French handle these matters much better, and it is a French word – “le sexe” rendered into English as simply “sex” – that I find handy when I can’t write my way around the problem entirely.

In French, “le sexe” is a word for the genitals of both men and women, for sexuality, for the physical, psychological, and social characteristics of gender, but not for the act of sex itself, at least according to my Petit Robert (that’s a dictionary not a nickname for well just you never mind), which I have to admit was published in 1970.

So, perhaps my definition is quaintly out of date, but I still like it. It’s straightforward, applies equally to men and women, and encompasses qualities of personality and culture as well as sexuality. Which is, in other words, the way I like to think about the matter.

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Don't write sex scenes like O didActually, the best rule for writing sex scenes is this one. Don’t.

This is good advice and I sincerely believe writers should take it. Not because sex is a bad thing. But because the written word is singularly well adapted to making the act of love ridiculous.

This advice applies to descriptions of sex acts only. The thoughts and emotional states of characters during sex – arousal or attraction or doubt or embarrassment or worry or gratitude or relief or vanity or self-satisfaction, what have you – all these are fine, in fact they can be pretty darn interesting if they illuminate character or situation. It’s the who did what to who stuff that gets you in trouble.

Still think sex scenes can be sexy? I would at least encourage writers you know to follow these 7 rules for writing sex scenes in novels.

1. Don’t include lots of costumes, props, toys, food used for non-nutritive purposes, interior decoration, or participants

If you can’t make the basics – two people, naked, bed, a little Barry White – compelling, then all this other stuff isn’t going to save you and just highlights your desperation.

2. Don’t include dialogue or phonetic transcriptions of love noises in sex scenes

This one is obvious and is an absolute prohibition, unless you’re playing the scene for comedy, in which case, pile on. Authors should avoid “Oh. Oh! Oooohh!”s for the same reason they avoid “Ha, ha, ha!”s. The effect of these words on the reader is the exact opposite of their meaning.

3. Don’t create orgies in mansions where everyone is wearing masks

What the heck is up with this? Maybe it is Arthur Schnitzler’s fault, or Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s, or Anne Declos’, but whoever is responsible, it is far past time for the whole business to STOP.

4. Don’t drag the sex scene out

Quickies are definitely best. A few well chosen words beat long paragraphs every time. If you write too much, you’ll fall into cliché or you’ll start using complicated metaphors that will earn you a nomination for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Don't write sex scenes like this one either5. Don’t give cute names to body parts

In the French lesbian erotic classic, Therese and Isabelle, the two young girls call each other’s clitorises “pearls”. This is pretty good once, but they keep doing it, and soon the repetition is so cloying it makes you want to shoot yourself (if the overly earnest tone of the novel doesn’t push you over the edge first).

6. Don’t write sex scenes if you’re an old man

This rule is important. Older male writers seem to write horny books, and the older they get, the hornier the books get. You suspect old men write these books to compensate for impotence. A little restraint will make readers believe the writer is still in his vigorous prime. I’m not going to name a lot of names here, but Philip Roth should think about it.

7. Don’t make it the greatest sex ever

Why is it that everyone in books always has mind-blowing sex? People do have transcendental sex on occasion, sure, but in between they have lots of okay sex. Or sex that isn’t working too well because they’re distracted by the strange noise the dishwasher is making. Or sex that plain just doesn’t work at all. (I understand this happens based on television commercials.) Want to make a real impression on your readers? Write about mediocre sex.

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