Friday, April 18, 2014

Writing the Sex Scene—Not

Whenever we cross paths—shoveling our cars out of a snowbank; picking up a few last-minutes items from the supermarket down the street; clearing away winter's debris in anticipation of the tiny green shoots of spring—my neighbors A and AM always ask me how my novel is coming. AM, a schoolteacher by day, has aspirations of becoming a writer, too, she's told me, although I think that like me, she's in the early stages of the process. A year or two ago, during one of our infrequent talks, she recommended I check out the classes at Grub Street, a well-regarded writing school downtown. Last fall, I finally got around to following up on her suggestion. Unfortunately, though, the class I chose, one which I thought would focus on writing genre fiction, ended up not being the best fit for me; the teacher turned out to be a horror writer who seemed more interested in having us read literary fiction which happened to draw upon popular culture than any popular genre writing itself (with the notable exceptions of a bit of Sci Fi, one superhero comic book, and some James Bond film excerpts). After a few weeks of trying to push the teacher to teach something closer to what I was interested in without much success, I just chalked it up to a bad fit, and finished out the semester.

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 ran into A again only a week later, and thought for a moment about ducking away before she saw me, bummed out at not being able to reward her and AM's thoughtfulness with the news that it had been worthwhile. But I sucked up my embarrassment and thanked her for her efforts, even while I explained that I wouldn't be booking a plane flight to Iowa any time soon. Undaunted, she replied, "AM subscribes to Poets & Writers. Lord knows that magazine is filled with enough ads for classes. I'll bring over a copy." Another day later, and another delivery arrived in the mailbox: the Jan/Feb edition of P&W. Lots of ads, yes, just as A had described. But for workshops like Iowa's, and for M.F.A. programs from coast to coast. All geared to literary, not genre, writers.

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?


  1. Fun question! Also a hard question. I guess I'd want to narrow it down to, "What kind of sex?" There is lots of well-written sex in romance and the tone is often quite different from writer to writer and book to book. Cara McKenna is a favorite for everything from sweet and tender to dirty and rough. Is "best sex between a newly minted dominatrix and a self-loathing masochist hermit" a category? ;-)

    Elizabeth Hoyt is another favorite. I guess I'm mainly thinking about Thief of Midnight here, but I don't want to give anything away for anyone who hasn't read it. It all just seemed so perfectly in character--not generic at all.

    Victoria Dahl often impresses me with her humor and handling of characters with sex and body issues. Also three different sub-genres here: erotic, historical and contemporary which has to somewhat influence the tone and content of sex scenes I think to be believable.

    Oh, and I'll tack something on at the end here. I read a lot of fantasy growing up and Mercedes Lackey wrote a really interesting though not especially graphic sex scene with two characters who have telepathy in By the Sword. I imagine paranormal romance fans have had similarly interest-piquing reactions to sex that would be impossible outside the sub-genre. I'll be following this thread closely as I need some new reading material to take with me on vacation!


    1. Elisabeth:

      You've named many of my favs when it comes to sex scenes! Just read McKenna's latest, and enjoyed it a lot, especially the way the two protagonists have very different ideas about what the other wants/should want from sex...

  2. You might consider looking to the Clarion writing workshops. They are geared toward sf/f, which may be too narrow for what you are looking for, but I know of Clarion grads writing in other genres.

  3. I think the main issue is that literary writing tends to be about discontent, and that's why so many sex scenes are deliberately not glamorous. Sex in romance novels is usually portrayed as arousing, intimate, fulfilling, and as moving a relationship forward in a positive manner. The literary world derides the romance genre because the key to the formula is ending with Happily Ever After (or HFN), key work HAPPY, which is anathema to literary writing.

    I really wish there were better academic programs for genre writers. I keep telling a certain college that won't be named that if they offered romance writing they'd get a huge influx of applications to their MFA program!

    1. Why, though, does literary writing HAVE to be about discontent? Is it specifically because it defines itself in contrast to genre writing, and since genre writing has already cornered the market on HEA, literary fiction defaults to discontent? And what are the gender implications of such genre bifurcation?

      In THE GLASS SLIPPER: WOMEN AND LOVE STORIES, Susan Ostrov Weisser makes the point that in the Victorian period, discussion and depiction of love was not confined to genre literature, nor to a primarily female audience: "In the Victorian age love was discussed and defined in high-toned intellectual and literary journals as well as in low-quality penny newspapers, and articles about its nature were frequently written by men. Well-known authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Grant Allen, and Washington Irving, contributed their opinions on the subject, clearly an important one. It seems to have been assumed that both sexes would be interested in thinking about this newly fascinating topic and exploring the feelings and problems associated with it" (52).

  4. I like what Sarah MacLean did when romance writers were ignored in a discussion about writing sex scenes. (I've never read her books, so I can't comment on her writing):

    I can't think of a 'best' at the moment, but I can say I'm sick and tired of the historical romances where the heroine loses her virginity by 'feeling a slight pinch' and then goes on to have an angels and rainbows and unicorns experience.