Monday, July 5, 2010

Is it all about sex?

Hmm. Now that's got your attention let me talk about line editing, which is less interesting than sex even though it also has two participants (mostly, anyway) and the insertion and removal of things, with conclusions that are not always mutually pleasing. Your words, dear writer, are NOT actually holy writ sent by divine providence and unalterable and inflexible. In fact, no matter how beautifully they read, it IS possible that, if they were lost, you could write them again, and possibly better (I did not believe this. I found it out, however by losing a file. Being forced to rewrite what I considered some of the most brilliant prose I'd ever put together. Not selling it... and some years later, clearing out the manuscript cupboard and finding the original _and_ the second version on paper. Firstly, I failed to work out which was which, and eventually decided that better one must be the original... (and both of them stank mildly) and then realising that um, (as was almost inevitable) I'd got it wrong and it was the second that I preferred. Trust me on this, every writer that ever breathed has written a difficult piece that he or she marvelled at, and thought a direct and personal intervention of the muse speaking through their fingers. I went and had a chat with the Muse of Prose, where she was having a smoko behind the Parthenon. She's a little past her sell-by date now and becoming rather confused. She's spent the last 20 centuries inspiring ladies of the night in an entirely different direction, and letting writers muddle through on their own. Sorry and all that, but you really all do all right without her.

So: it's not Holy Writ (which judging by the versions of the Bible may be more flexible than you think too) and yes, Editors (particularly callow young ones wishing to stamp their authority on you - I had one of those a few years back) can be ignorant and mess up. But trust me on this too, they're not even in my league when it comes to failing to spot typos and grammos in my own work. My own attitude is ‘line edits do not need my approval before you do them. - send me the final product. I'll line-edit your edited version. (And there is a 99% I won't even notice the corrections).

Now onto the subject of sex. Ah yes, it does have a fascination for most humans, even for those of us for whom it is a spectator sport (which is why I used it in my intro-hook. Show-don't-tell, in action). Apparently, heterosexual males (which I believe is my subclass in categorisation of human or similar simian) think about this subject more than most other sub-classes, so that in a way says if anyone is going to be obsessed with it, I should have an idea what I am talking about. And this is my opinion, and you're entirely free to disagree with it. (In fact I'd love to hear your opinion on it).

It's LESS important than it appears. Sex, sex, sex, sex. It's great for getting our attention, can be good in a book, and sometimes the point of the book... but far from always. We're writing about relationships (and sexual relationships are merely a small subset of that). Interactions between people - which fascinates us because we're a social species, and being ostracised was as much of a death sentence as not breeding. And though I don't know how to break this to some authors... relationships, love even, are not primarily because of sexual attraction. Well, not all the time. It is a part of it, sometimes, but if that's all that it is, have you considered the blow-up version? Much less likely to give you a STD or argue with you.

What brings this to mind was checking on Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER in Wikipedia last night for the Flinders Family Freer blog - I wanted to know how many doors (I remember 12?) Now this a great favorite of mine, a feelgood book I have re-read repeatedly. But the Alexei Panashin quote:
"The romantic situation in this story is a very interesting, very odd one: it is nothing less than a mutual sexual interest between an engineer of thirty and a girl of twelve ('adorable' is Heinlein's word for her), that culminates in marriage after some hop-scotching around in time to adjust their ages a bit."

Gah. And again, with feeling GAH! "Mutual sexual interest" my blue butt. There is about as much "Mutual sexual interest" between Goth and Captain Pausert in Schmitz Witches of Karres. Both sets of characters have planned to marry. This is not Nabokov. This was a perfectly respectable ambition, rather like wanting to be nurse or an entomologist, or a fireman for that matter, when these books were written. Perhaps wanting to have a lifetime relationship with someone who you like, admire or even love is not fashionable any more. But there is more to love than sex. I love my sons. I loved my mum. I cannot think of anything sexually appealing about them however - and that I believe is the norm, not the other way around.

So is Dave being un-PC yet again and is all explained about the non-best-seller status now? ;-)

22 comments:

matapam said...

I think readers want fantasy wish fulfillment sex, not the real thing.

And some of our fantasies can be very dark, hence the popularity of vampires. You can't get much more Bad Boy than a serial murderer. And then again we go all gooey "Oh, they're just perfect for each other, let's have a big wedding!" Or we can be appalled by how unsuited two people are and wait for the train wreck.

Oh, wait, here I am talking about relationships. Taming the Bad Boy. Finding True Love. Finding False Love. Friendships that blossom into love. Falling in Love with the Enemy.

I suspect we could devise a "Six Basic Plots" for romantic styles. Run the main characters through all of them before they find each other...

However, getting back to sex in books, I think it's one of those readers' rewards things. It's got to get passionate enough to get the readers' a bit turned on, else they'll feel cheated. The question is, how steamy can you get, and still get the door closed before it get too embarrassing. Or too silly, what with trying to keep the passion level high while describing the state and position of all the plumbing.

C Kelsey said...

Going over the catalogue of books that I've read it seems to me that most of the books that really have sex in them were written by women. No, I have nothing smart with which to comment on that.

It's perhaps part of the "who is your audience" question. I'm still working on finding a way to make "everyone" a satisfactory answer to that.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I wish more authors thought about and actually realized the truth of what you said. It is hard to find a book now where sex isn't the major factor for love. I blame a lot of this on the increase in popularity of the paranormal romance genre. What started out with a little sex --hot, yes, but not the entire purpose of the book -- has now become and excuse in far too many instances for writing one sex scene after another with maybe a little plot in-between.

What's worse, the sex is bad sex. Poorly written and laughably impossible. What is unforgivable, imo, is that much of it originates with nothing shy of rape which is oh-so-quickly forgotten as lust turns to love. WTF?

Now, that doesn't mean there aren't good sex scenes out there. There are. Those are integral to the plot and usually have the door closing or the lights going out in much the same way Hitchcock used in his movies when he'd have the camera pan off of the victim about to die, leaving the real horror to the viewers' imagination.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but I like relationships that grow. Sure, I love reading a well-written sex scene. But I want it to be an integral part of the plot and to lead to something, even if it is heartache or worse. But to simply read scenes where Tab A is inserted into Slot B, repeat...well, that does nothing for me.

So, if you are being un-pc, move over and let me join you. We can sit in your tree and toss coconuts at the others ;-)

Stephen Simmons said...

Even if the book is "about" sex, it isn't really *about* sex. Not if it's worth reading. Because no matter how much sex that newlywed couple is having during the first couple months of their marriage, I guarantee that their relationship is really built on all the things that happen when they're out of bed.

Or, to put it another way: Did we, as readers, feel any less anguish when Eddings killed Durnik the Smith than we did when Weber murdered Lady Harrington's boyfriend, just because Durnik had always kept his pants on?

PC has nothing to do with it. Too many modern authors and editors have taken the boundaries that Salinger and his contemporaries pushed back not as a challenge to excel in new ways and blaze brilliant paths across virgin territory, but rather as a license to substitute titillation for real characterization. Because what Eddings built between Polgara and Durnik was more meaningful - specifically because of the chastity and purity of motives involved - than anything I've seen in the recent spate of undead-porn.

As for the Panshin perversion of The Door Into Summer, Dave, what do you expect? It's Panshin.

Synova said...

I certainly like some sexual tension in a book but I also like it to lead to the "happily ever after" thing, which I think is more important than the attraction.

I feel like there is a lot of departure from that as writers try to be more modern and more realistic. Love often doesn't last forever. But the problem is... people don't necessarily want to read "realistic". IMO. Or why read fiction?

What I like to see is trust and loyalty and I like to see those things prove to be justified. Not that there can never be betrayal, but I want the lover who doesn't fall into a jealous fit, where the villain can attempt to plant doubts and it just doesn't work. I want the comrades who will drop what they're doing to help someone who might be in a tight spot. I want clan or family or ship to move heaven or earth to save one of their own.

I was thinking of Bujold's _Barrayar_ as an example of familial loyalty because the passage where Aral and his father are on the verge of disowning each other and immediately set that aside, without question and without the need for resolution between them, when the coup begins. I loved that. The same book has an example of the romantic/love constancy that I was talking about as well when whatshisface is trying to plant doubts in Cordelia's mind about Aral and she's just "yeah, whatever."

There is a reason that people who like Louis L'Amour enthuse about the Sackett books.

There is a reason that I particularly like the end of Heyer's _The Foundling_ when Harriet(?) helps the girl instead of falling into a jealous rage.

True enough, I'd have liked even more to participate in just a little bit of physical attraction between the couple, but not at the expense of trust and companionship.

Brendan said...

Definately - love, definately not - sex. Too often it seems that having characters get down and dirty is the only way an author can show the depth of feeling two people have for each other, and to my mind is lazy writing(I ranted on sex in my blog a while back On Sex.

I later quoted some Sherrie S Tepper to a friend when having a discussion on a simillar subject:

"We were not even tempted to make love. Something sadder and higher had us by the throats, and we slept in one another's arms, needing nothing more than that." -Dervish Daughter

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Dave, I do enjoy your posts.
If you want to see how too much sex can ruin a book take a look at what happened to the Anita Blake series.

The first five books or so were about a smart talking female. The was sexual tension. I'm all for that. Then it became ... no I'm not going to go there.

You only have to look at the success of Twilight to see that teenage girls (and many grown women apparently) love the idea of Love (in capitals) and sexual attraction that isn't fulfilled. (Everything else aside, this is what Myers is delivering).

Synova said...

I'd also read commentary about Twilight that suggested that the fact that Edward said "no" was extremely important. Bad boy, yes, but also safe in a way that let Bella want him. (I haven't read any of them, but it made sense to me.)

Stephen Simmons said...

Rowena - precisely. That's what my daughter loved about "Twilight", before it became "trendy". (Now she disavows ever having liked it, to avoid being associated with "those girls" who have come to typify the fan-base.)

McCaffrey's Pern books have plenty of sex -- some of it pretty kinky, btw -- but she keeps it all off-stage. Parading the mechanics of what's happening back inside the weyrs during dragon flights would actually detract from the books, in my estimation. (ymmv)

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I certainly don't object to sex in books, either as reward or as tension, not even as a spot of titillation, or even as initial motivation, but my point is that you cannot always conflate sex and love, and while sex is often a starting point, it's usually, as you say, about the relationship between the characters, not six impossible positions before breakfast.

Dave Freer said...

C Kelsey - maybe it's a comment on male inadequacy rather female obsession ;-)?

Dave Freer said...

Amanda the un-PC aspect is to assume that love and sex are not interchangable (for everything but mothers loving babies, it seems). If sex isn't the prime motvation a lot of the basic tenets of current PC thinking are unsustainable.

matapam said...

I think half the train wrecks people make of their marriages comes from mistaking lust for love, and not even thinking about long term compatibility.

It really doesn't work for me in books either. I want a good relationship between lovers. And other characters. I think Synova has it right about loyalty in family and companions being a very big point for readers.

OK, I want the passion too. I want the door to close behind the loving couple, and need to take a deep breath and fan myself with the book, before starting the next chapter. But that doesn't take the actual sex act. Well written, the ramp up is plenty hot.

Now having said that, I'm going to have to go back and look at all the things I've tried exploring in my writing, and see where I break my own rules.

C Kelsey said...

My current work is a UF. I am focused on the fact that most urban fantasy works around character relationship. I'm also a guy writing a female character in first person... This causes issues. I refuse to let it devolve into sex. She really likes the main guy. There's a delicate balance that I must trod. Respect of all is my motivation. I *think* I've done okay in that regard. She, however, does grump at me... I'm having fun, but when the female character keeps trying for the sex seen... issues for the male author. :-S

Dave Freer said...

Stephen yes, precisely, sex as an end point (or even as the relationship toto) is a lazy cop-out for a lot of writers.

Kate said...

Oy, As the resident owner of the feelthy mind, I feel like I'm er... letting the team down to say that it isn't always about sex.

But it isn't - and no, it's not PC to say so. PC sayeth if you like someone you must want to have sex with them. Of course, PC also seems to think that kids magically become sex-obsessed maniacs as soon as they turn 15 or thereabouts where it's actually a rather graduated process that everyone goes through at their own pace.

Oh, and some people have next to no desire or need for it, while others could have sex non-stop if it was physically possible.

I read for the stories. The people, the relationships, what happens next. I usually skip sex scenes - and I'll always skip the ones that are "insert obligatory sex scene here".

Good sex in books is also about furthering something in the story, be it the relationship, the power balance between the people having it and so forth.

Otherwise it's just "insert appendage A into slot B and wiggle until something happens".

Dave Freer said...

Synova, my point is also that while sexual tension may be a great hook, it's rather like jam... nice on bread, nice as an occasional spoonful, but not much good as a main meal over and over :-). And yes, trust, loyalty nobility of spirit - it's nice to have these affirmed in a book - because we want to believe in it (or at least my kind of readers do)It's why I feel that my books are not going to be very popular with thieves. Uncomfortable reading :-)

C Kelsey said...

Do my characters have and enjoy sex? Yes. But their relationship is a hell of alot more complicated than that. I don't begrudge it... Hell, it's necessary and admirable. But if the personality is not involved, it isn't worth the words.

TMSG said...

Sometimes the sex isn't about the sex, and it's not about pushing along a plot or a relationship. Sometimes it's telling something about one of the involved, or the relationship, or society, or situation, and doing so in a demonstrative rather than declarative fashion. Sometimes it seems like reaching for cheap points. But, looking back I've noticed that my understanding and immersion is often enhanced by unneeded side scenes.

Synova said...

The Pern books are wonderfully PG... until you re-read them as an adult and suddenly go full stop staring at the page because all of a sudden you know what is going on.

Brendan said...

I first read the Pern books at around fifteen or sixteen and knew exactly what was going on. The reason why I stopped reading McCaffery in the end though was because her books started to become bad Mills and Boon in space. Lots of great strong female characters who still couldn't be complete until they had a 'man' and in most cases had put him in a position of authority over them.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, I can't tell you how many people have said exactly that about Ineeda Break :-).