Show Me, Don’t Tell Me – Unless it’s Sex.

There were some really great comments on my last post about the literary world and its aversion to including erotic sex scenes in literary fiction or eliciting arousal in readers. Laughingly, and perhaps a little brutally, I said that it might have something to do with individual authors and their own feelings of sexual inadequacy. But I’m hoping you realized that was somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

However, Lauren posed a very valid question and I think it deserves a considered exploration:

“In all other scenarios, budding writers are drilled to show and not tell in their writing, so why is sex getting special treatment?”

First, I’d like to be upfront and say that I don’t have a pat answer. In fact, this question forms one of the branches of what I’d very much like to research in my thesis.

It would be easy to say that we’re hung up about sex. Well, we are. But are we more hung up about it now than we were in the 50’s and 60’s? Because those decades saw the publication of a number of novels which were quickly recognized for their literary merit and contained very explicit sex scenes and/or sexual scenarios that would send the legal teams of major publishers running for the woods these days.

Frankly, I don’t think many of the most acclaimed literary writers today are shy about writing sex. Nor do I believe most of them could not do a pretty good job of constructing a very effective and steamy erotic scene.  Perhaps Martin Amis doesn’t feel up to the task, but Howard Jacobson certainly is. Most good writers are. I think they are choosing not to.  And it needs to be noted that a number of them of them choose not to write graphic violence either.

I think there was a time – in the later part of the 20th Century – when it was considered revolutionary and innovative for a ‘serious’ novelist to write explicit and erotic sex.  These writers were writing this material at a time when, for the most part, media depictions of sex were very conservative. It’s worth remembering that at the same time that Miller published the Tropic of Cancer, (originally published in France in 1934 but not legally published in the US until 1961), Hollywood still had the one foot on the floor rule – an interpretation of the Hays Code (basically, bedroom love scenes required on of the actors to keep one foot on the floor).

It’s also worth remembering that, although the 1970’s US saw the legalization of ‘adult’ films and the establishment of movie theatres which showed pornographic movies, there was still a very strong class element as to who and who didn’t go to see porn. There was a whole class of people who thought it beneath them to be aroused that way, but felt it was okay to be aroused by a good piece of literature. But with the innovation of home video, one no longer had to be seen entering a ‘dirty movie theatre’. One could watch what one wanted in the privacy of one’s own home.

The rise of feminism in the 70’s and the focus on the ‘male gaze’ (Lacanian in origin but appropriated and expanded upon in Laura Mulvey’s seminal and groundbreaking essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema“) also probably played a significant part in painting visual pornography as fundamentally evil.  So, whether you were from the right or the left, it wasn’t considered acceptable to watch pornography, but it was perfectly fine to read the hot bits in Miller.

Sex has always been used to sell products, but during the height of the golden years of advertising, the strategy became much more focused. Psychology was used to measure its efficacy.  And progressively, from the late 60’s onwards there are very few products which haven’t used sex either directly or indirectly as a marketing ploy. And the trend has continued with increasingly explicit associations between sex and perfume, alcohol, watches, airlines. Sexuality is now considered the single most powerful tool of marketing.

And, of course, although prostitution is still illegal in many countries, sex is obviously used to sell sex in whatever ways sex may be sold. Most notably as pornography, telephone and video sex and virtual sexual services on the internet.

In the past ten years, the appetite for sex scenes in TV, in music videos and in film has been so great, it is virtually impossible NOT to have – for instance – a  film which involves lovers that does not have at least one scene of them humping away at each other in bed. It really doesn’t matter whether it is acted or real.

So one theory I have is that, because sex is such a present part of mainstream media – in both advertising and entertainment – many writers who pride themselves on taking their readers into new, forbidden and seldom traveled ‘landscapes’ in their fiction, feel that sexuality is such a familiar landscape, there’s no compelling reason to take their readers there.

And here, as a writer of erotic fiction with pretensions of literariness, is where I fundamentally disagree. Because the imagery we have come to identify in many forms of media as sexual bears almost no resemblance to real human sexual experience.  We see sex in movies, on TV, in porn, in still images and we have all seen them so often, they have become the signifier of sex. It doesn’t matter that they’re acted or over dramatized or abstracted or stylized. This is what we are constantly told that sex looks like. And since we so very rarely see examples of what real sex looks like, it’s not surprising that, in our minds, any reference to sex in something like text is far more likely to trigger mental images of commercial pornography than it is to trigger memories of our own sexual experiences.

I guess this is why I return to the discussion over what pornography is and why I feel that erotic fiction should be fundamentally different. I don’t think it is a ‘cheap trick’ to arouse a reader, but I do think it’s a cheap trick to do it using imagery that is clearly reminiscent of commercial pornography. When I write erotic scenes, I expend a serious amount of energy trying to make sure they are more likely to trigger memories of real experience than memories of mediated ones. And even when I write fiction about situations that most of my readers may not have experienced, whenever there’s actual sex, I do my level best to keep to my goal of triggering real memory.

I honestly think this is what a lot of literary writers fear – that if they write explicit and erotic sex scenes, they’ll be triggering memories of the last UPorn clip someone saw, instead of lived experiences in their readers. And perhaps that’s because those are the images and memories that are triggered for them in writing the scenes. Perhaps this is why literary writers choose such empty, soulless, unerotic sex scenes when they do decide to write one: because we don’t often have mediated representations of bad sex.

But, what I’d like to say to the likes of people like Martin Amis is… don’t be lazy. Don’t refuse to write erotic passages just because it’s hard to write with a sense of authenticity.  It IS hard, but that’s a challenge. The human mind is flexible and our language is rich. Writers who elect to write only what comes easily to them should consider hanging up their laptop and taking up other professions.


  14 comments for “Show Me, Don’t Tell Me – Unless it’s Sex.

  1. January 8, 2012 at 12:02 am

    While I agree with you about the hegemony of visual representations of sex in films & advertising infecting how a reader reads literary portrayals of sex, I think there are also other factors that inhibit writers from writing such content. And it comes back to your initial commentator’s question about show and tell. Our language isn’t terribly well geared up in its vocabulary to handle sex (nor is it ironically terribly well served for nouns that tag emotions). Now one can say it is the gauntlet thrown down to writers to forge a literary language to overcome this paucity of vocabulary, but then the more metaphorical and literary the writing about sex is, the easier it is to fall over into pseuds corner or qualify for the bad sex in literature awards. Think about the role language has during the act itself. There’s directional/instructional/guiding language, there’s expressions of love & ardour, and there are imperatives to establish the power relations at any point. Then there are the host of non-lingual sounds mined from the bodies as their grip and control are loosened through the act. I find these more interesting, but hard to write (much like the Blammo & kerpow of comic book violence). Our language isn’t actually that good for encompassing anything about the physical body. Personally, all my writing starts from the body and moves up to the head. But writers are perennially told it’s all about character, all about psychology, ie the head. That’s why I always opt for “Voice” over character and voice of course is all about words. I don’t know how you feel about this, but I tend to write less than transcendent sex, but I would say it is highly literary and seeks to paint the picture of the ebb and flow of power between the protagonists for the duration of the clinch.

    Don’t know if much of the above makes sense, but thanks for posting and thanks for your commentator’s question which is a very interesting one.

    • January 8, 2012 at 4:18 am

      I think Marc’s writing on sex is very ‘visual’.

      That piece ‘spineret’ about the web used in S and M was very much a ‘picture’. I think he ‘showed’ me the scene rather than telling me about it.

      I find I write better ‘sex’ scenes (though my sex scenes often degenerate into pure violence and are not mutually pleasurable for the characters, or even the reader, or the writer – I am a masochist after all) when I am visualising them and not intellectualising. I go into a kind of ‘dreamworld’ where I see the scene in front of me and describe it. My piece about the ghost on the coast path for example kind of ‘came to me’ as a vision.

      Ok I sound mad now!

  2. Sacha
    January 8, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    I did begin write a response to the previous discussion—Why Good Writers Write Bad Sex: An Exploration of Literary Prudery, but I thought the points were covered very well; however, reading this seems to reinforce some of the thoughts I had.

    “I honestly think this is what a lot of literary writers fear – that if they write explicit and erotic sex scenes, they’ll be triggering memories of the last UPorn clip someone saw, instead of lived experiences in their readers.”

    IMHO this is what I feel it is exactly. Despite the fact that we’re visually bombarded with sex, I feel that people have a tendancy to tune out—similar to news and violence. There’s a point where it stops affecting the people—but this only runs so deep. People are still afraid and uncomfortable with sex for whatever reason that may be: it’s private, it’s dirty, they’re repressed etc. When I think of it, even discussing sex with people I’ve known have mainly come under two guises—alcohol and humour. Someone else I once knew had no qualms about discussing their illicit activities but completely baulked when it came to sex—more so than less open people I’ve known.
    I feel sex that is written well is incredibly powerful and perhaps coming back to your comment above it’s the reason that certain authors elect to gloss over it.
    Does this in some way lead to the idea of sacrificing some of your craft or affect your decisions as an author(or possibly editors and publishers), by taking into account considerations for your readers?

    • January 9, 2012 at 11:38 pm

      Does this in some way lead to the idea of sacrificing some of your craft or affect your decisions as an author(or possibly editors and publishers), by taking into account considerations for your readers?

      I guess it depends what you think your readers expect. I don’t think I’m a very reliable writer to visit if all you want is a quick wank, because although some of what I write is erotic, it’s usually eroticism mixed with other more complicated states of mind. What I hope is that readers take their own journeys away with them from what I write, and then kind of process it, and weave their own erotic imagery from it afterwards. I guess my goal as a writer is to seed my readers’ imaginations – because that allows them to hopefully have an erotic experience that they’ve appropriated as theirs, not mine.

  3. January 10, 2012 at 2:25 am

    The thing I love when you write about writing is that you’re giving such good writing advice that’s easily transported to other places/practices/genres.

    Authenticity is key- just like in any other scene whether it is a heart-wrenching breakup or a violent murder. Sex and erotic writing can be and has been so much more than its portrayal in porn. Thanks for another great read.

  4. LMC
    January 10, 2012 at 8:22 am

    Could it not at least in part be that, for some of those writers, sex (whether erotic or empty) is not where their interest lies? On the other hand, I find some writing profoundly erotic which on the surface has little to do with (human) sex (and no, I’m not talking bestiality). I’m thinking in particular of some passages in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Prodigal Summer”.

    • January 10, 2012 at 9:13 am

      Hello LMC,

      It could be very well as you say, that sex is not where their interest lies. But if you step back and say ‘the human experience is not where my interest lies’, then I’ll bet there goes your Booker Prize. Sex is a significant part of the human experience.

      Oh, I think you are totally spot on about writing that is erotic without directly addressing sex. There are some brilliant examples of it. And I appreciate them, applaud them. Celebrate them.

      I also think it’s intensely personal. For me, history is erotic, and well researched historical novels are immensely arousing to me. But then, I get aroused walking by old walls. I am not sure why, but I equate ‘falling into history’ with falling in love.

      • LMC
        January 11, 2012 at 10:13 pm

        I enjoyed your take on history as erotic (especially the walls); it’s not something that had previously occurred to me. I often find writings on growing things and physics erotic (which I’m pretty sure perplexes lots of people).

        I take your point that sex is an important part of the human experience, but I also suggest that it is not so for everybody all of the time, and not all artists are called to address all aspects of the human experience. I don’t disagree with you that some so-called literary writers shy away from writing about sex for the reasons you explain so well, I’m just hesitant about the implicit generalisation: namely that if you choose not to explore sex in your art-form, it’s because of laziness or cowardice, rather than a choice.

        After all, food and digestion are a pretty vital part of the human experience too, and many artists leave that out of their work.

        • January 13, 2012 at 8:10 am

          Hello LMC,
          You’re suggesting that I think everyone should put erotic scenes of sex in their novels. That is not my point at all. If a story doesn’t revolve around interpersonal relationships, attractions, love, etc. then I agree, sex doesn’t belong in the book. The issue is that love and sexual attraction are main motivating factors for a lot of characters in a lot of novels. But either the sex is left out, glanced over, or it’s written as a banal and empty.

          It is both unnatural and coy to have your main character motivated by an obsessive love about someone and then either skip the sex altogether, or paint it as hollow and alienating. In writing, we are told it is a virtue to write believable, realistic characters acting in real and believable ways. But if real people kept having the horrible kind of sex they have in literary novels, I think the human race would probably grind to a halt.

  5. January 10, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    This may not add much to the conversation, but I’d just like to say, as a reader, that I love reading about sex. I love reading something that produces a reaction in me, I love being awakened to a situation emotionally, being moved, being able to tap into emotion in the visceral way good sex scenes allow you to.

    I think sex scenes can hold a magnifying glass up to human emotions and motivations.

    Plus they’re hot, they’re a little treat, they can sweep you away.

    I think if we started allowing ourselves to enjoy the idea of sex publicly – like we enjoy food – then things would be better. I mean, we do do that, just most of the world pretends there’s something wrong with it, instead of something beautiful and powerful and excellent about it. And so we make the sex industry tawdry and exploitive instead of positive.

    I think good sex writing might go a long way to return sex to its rightful place as something to be celebrated and respected and loved.

  6. January 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Late to the party – I’ve had an indulgently long summer break.

    I wonder how much of authors’ reluctance to write real/interesting/dimensioned sex scenes can be attributed to their higher powers? I’ve read a few articles recently about YA authors being forced to “straighten” gay and lesbian characters, or of characters of colour getting whitewashed etc. Not directly relevant to the topic at hand, of course, but I’m sure editors and publishers have a lot of influence in how a sex scene is handled.

    • January 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm

      I think it’s probably true for genre fiction. Not so much for literary fiction. The issue for publishers is explicitness, not the tone of the explicitness so much. I’m pretty sure that Jonathan Franzen is perfectly able to write whatever kind of sex scene he likes. He chooses to write depressing and ugly ones.

      • Ann
        February 1, 2012 at 1:56 pm

        I don’t think so. Publishers have started to be frightened of sex in books, we are living through an era of renewed puritanism with people more repressed than in the 60ies or 70ies. E.g. for YA writers it is these days impossible to write pleasurable, positive sex between teens. The sole, absolutely sole book I found containing a little of that was Melvyn Burgess’ Doing it – and look how he was aggressed over that!

        If you look what was publishable via “serious venues” in the 70ies and what makes it past the gatekeepers these days it’s obvious what is happening. A large part of it is self-censorship. Another part is censorship, plain and simple, even if it disguises as peer pressure.

        • February 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm

          Hello Ann,

          I think you’re probably right as far as young adult fiction goes. Under-age sexuality must be the largest elephant in the room in our culture at present. But as far as adult literary fiction is concerned, honestly, pick up a Houllebecq novel. There is a LOT of sex in it. It’s just horrible sex. So I don’t think publishers have a problem with descriptions of sex, as long as that description is not likely to be arousing to most readers. And, to be fair, I’m not sure it is the publishers who are the problem here. I think it might very well be the writers.

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