As many of you know – because I’ve told you – I don’t have anything against sex. (Well, not at the moment. It would make writing awkward, and besides it would shock the cats.) I have been happily married for twenty six years and I have two sons, neither of which, despite their belief, is a virgin birth.
I am, however, getting sick and tired of sex in books. Oh, not sex as sex. I mean, most of you know I’m not a prude. I can read sex without much worries (except sometimes I wonder if people bend that way – in other planets, I know they don’t on Earth.) I’ll even admit there was a time when I was about 13 or 14 when I would read an entire book for the three paragraphs of sex. I suppose that was part of the age. You see, I’d never had sex, I assumed it would be an eon, give or take, before I had sex, and I wanted to know everything about it.
So, why am I getting sick of it? Because most of it doesn’t mean anything. Worse, it’s dreary to read.
It’s like there is some directive from above on “there must be sex here.” In fact, I know there is a directive out in Romance about x sex scenes at x places in the book. The number of xxx in which book depends on the line, but it’s carefully dictated. I can also say that in one of my series, I was told I MUST have sex scenes, even though I felt that sex didn’t belong in it.
So some sex in books is the result of pressure from what used to be the only means of getting books on the shelves. And on the part of the publishers, themselves, I think it was an effort to cater to what they perceived to be a universal taste.
Is it a universal taste? I don’t know. I can only tell you what I know and what I think.
I think a lot of the sex in books is boring. It makes no sense, it accomplishes nothing. If it doesn’t outright violate the character – really? A regency girl giving it up after one kiss? – it is at best oh um. They kiss they throb they flutter, they grind, they penetrate, there’s things that get hard and things that get moist, there’s how he’s never had it that good and she’s never felt this way before and zzzzzzzzzzz. What? Sorry. It’s just I’ve read so many of these.
Possibly there is some demographic out there whom this satisfies, who feels thrilled at the mere mention of sex. They’re probably thirteen. Or perhaps fourteen. But there are indications that it’s not the ticket to money and success (except insofar as marketing distorts things) that publishers believe it is. There is a certain hysteria of falling numbers and increasing sex under the belief that doing more of what’s failed is a sane business approach. (Do they teach this in the ivy leagues, or something?)
In my opinion, what sells is not explicit sex, but sexual tension (Something I doubt most publishers – jaded by books crossing their desk every day – might not be able to tell with two hands and a seeing eye dog) does sell. Sexual tension – as opposed to sex – makes the reader continue reading, makes us interested, makes us crave the moment when the two would-be-lovers, yearning for each other bur holding back, finally kiss or even touch.
For instance, Georgette Heyer’s Venetia or Silvester have enough sexual tension in it that at the end of the second, the phrase “Sparrow, Sparrow,” has more excitement in it than any of the multi-page anatomically correct sex scenes I ever read. And, FYI, Heyer is still selling very well indeed.
Not that sex is forbidden in this – I’ve read a few urban fantasies in which the sex builds the sexual tension, due to something the character can’t (or shouldn’t) overcome. Or must overcome. The point being the sex becomes part of the plot and entwines the plot and heightens everything else.
On the other hand, in a lot of urban fantasies and in 3/4 of the romances, you could take the sex scene out completely and no one would notice. Well, maybe the publishers looking for the x that marks the spot. And in many books it gets either clinical and dry, or silly and dreary. If you must describe a part of the female anatomy in such exaggeration that it sounds like a cabbage unfolding and unfolding and unfolding yet again, you’ve probably gone too far. Suggestion and indication – note not prudishness and playing keep away – are more… interesting than tons of ink spilled in the service of anatomic descriptions.
The best way to write sex is the best way to write anything else in a plot: irresistible force meets immovable object (again, and again, and again, harder, faster… er… get your mind out of the gutter. And then come back and toss a life preserver to my mind, would you?) Have your character want, crave, need and yet not be able to get for good and sufficient reason (and there must be a real reason, just as the need must be palpable not just “I want it bad.”) And then have all this serve the greater plot. And then, maybe, just maybe you’ll have something worth reading. (And if you’re writing erotica as such, I highly recommend How To Write Erotica by Valerie Kelly. Actually I highly recommend this book for the writing technique of “immediate writing.” She gives very useful hints on what to give in detail and what to shade in. Caution, it has graphic passages. Not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.) On the other hand, if you don’t want to write explicit sex, be brave and original and keep the graphic sex out.
I believe in the indie market place we’ll see more sex and more sexless books too. I can also easily predict that if the sex counts the book will do well, if the sex doesn’t count…. Yawn, who needs it?