Next time I ran into A, I mentioned my less-than-happy experience, and ended up a day or two later with a copy of the latest Iowa Summer Writing Festival catalog slipped inside my mailbox, one originally addressed to AM. Not really the place to find a class for a genre romance writer, I guessed, though I thumbed through the pages, just in case. Yes, on the whole the classes seemed far more geared to the M.F.A. crowd than toward genre writers, although some special topic classes gestured toward the not-quite-literary: writing for young adults, writing about food, writing critical reviews. A two-week novel writing class, a class in which students would workshop each other's already written first drafts, caught my eye, but when I read the lines "Our emphasis will be on the literary novel" and "we will look to other literary novels as models for our own," I knew once again I was barking up the wrong tree.
I'm not someone who believes that there's a clear line in the sand between the literary and the popular, though, and wondered if the articles in P&W might be worth perusing, even for a writer focusing on writing genre romance. I was encouraged when, flipping through the Table of Contents, I came across an article with the title "Writing the Sex Scene." I've been struggling with just such a scene in my WIP, and flipped to the article in question, eager to learn what advice the author, poet and novelist Beth Ann Fennelly, had to offer.
Turns out, not very much. As the writers at Salon magazine discovered when they attempted to start a "Good Sex Award" for fiction, literary fiction writers don't often write about sex. Laura Miller, a judge in the 2011 contest, noted that unearthing potential nominees for the award "proved more labor intensive than we'd imagined, not because it's difficult to find good sex scenes in fiction but because its difficult to find any sex scenes in fiction" (P&W 24). Even when literary writers do write such scenes, they're in danger of being laughed at for it; the British journal Literary Review had been handing out the "Bad Sex in Fiction Award" since 1993*. Devised to single out "the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it," the award seems to delight in skewering authors who, when writing about things other than sex, craft sentences many a literary afficionado has found worthy of the highest praise. Past winners of the award have included many celebrated literary authors, suggesting to Fennelly that "it begins to seem as if there are two options for a novelist—write badly about passionate sex, or write well by skipping over the sex" (24).
Or, perhaps, literary folks might want to take a look at how romance writers do it? Unlike their more literary counterparts, romance writers on the whole are not shy about including descriptions of sex in their novels. "Nothing throbbing, nothing turgid" serves as the tagline of Fennelly's article, hinting at the long history of high culture's denigration of genre romance for its embarrassingly "purple prose." While the genre still includes its fair share of overwrought or ungainly language in both sex and non-sex scenes, today's genre romance authors, in contrast to their literary colleagues, can and do write with insight, clarity, and humor about this most human of physical acts. And sometimes even in prose of remarkable beauty.
|Three of the nominees for 2013's "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award|
Although bad writing, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. While some of the excerpts from the nominees for the 2013 Bad Sex in Fiction award** were pretty painful to read, others struck me as merely straightforwardly descriptive, rather than badly written. Could the Bad Sex award be as much about discouraging any literary writing about sex as it is about discouraging the "badly written," or the "redundant"? At least in effect, if not in intention?
And just what's at stake when our purportedly "best" writers are uninterested in, afraid to, or simply refuse to, take on the challenge of writing about sex?
"The most difficult scene to write in a story or novel is the one in which your characters get it on. At least, that's way my fiction-writing friends have always said," Fennelly notes in the opening of her article (23). Would Fennelly's friends feel the same way, I wonder, if a few romance writers were part of their crowd?
If you were a judge in a "Best Sex in Romance" contest, to what author, and/or to what book, would you give the award? And why?
Thanks, A & AM. You may not have helped my fiction-writing, but you've given me great food for blogging thought!
* I was hoping to include a picture of the actual award, described in this BBC article as "a semi-abstract statue representing sex in the 1950s, by interior designer and socialite Nicky Haslam," but a Google image search came up with nothing. Even more strange, the web site of the Literary Review includes no mention of the award.
** Interestingly, two of the nominees for the Bad Sex 2013 award were also finalists on the Bi Writers Association "Bisexual Book Awards" list. Significant, do you think?