Starting with the Bad Sex Awards and culminating with Alan Elsner’s utterly clueless “How Romance Novels Take the Romance Out of Romance” piece at Huffington Post – I’m just fed up with how little writers understand about the power of sex in a book.
Generally, when some author from another genre whines about romance and how it’s stupid, silly, oversexed, porn, whatever, I shine it on. Because to be totally honest, I don’t care what Alan Elsner thinks about anything. He’s completely irrelevant to my life in general.
In romance novels, these scenes are pretty much all alike, relying on an unfortunate mixture of strained metaphors and graphic anatomical detail. It turns out that one stiff nipple is much like another; one engorged penis pretty similar to the next. How many ways can one describe a mind-shattering orgasm? But mostly, I don’t do sex because I’m more interested in love — and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.
Yannow, I’m sure he’s so much better than me in every way and all, but pffft to how he’s “more” interested in love. Bullshit. Love and sex are NOT mutually exclusive. Nor does writing a couple in love who have great sex make it less romantic.
Sex and romance, sex and love, these things are interconnected. Sure, many people have sex outside out love and many times sex that starts out as like can take a couple into love. But I absolutely reject that it is NOT romantic for people to love having sex with each other.
In the bad sex awards, authors, generally ‘lit’ authors’ books are combed for horrible sex scenes, mocked and it makes the news every year. Then in the wake of the awards, we get these op ed pieces like Elsner’s, wherein people who try to appear very scholarly and oh so very intelligent, too intelligent to read that porn for women they call romance, ooze from the cracks to shake their fingers and tsk at us.
Sex is important.
Do authors miss that and write horrible sex scenes wherein women’s vaginas are compared to oysters or cyclops? Sadly, yes. Sadly there are myriad ways in which sex is written poorly and not used to its full potential in books. Sometimes it’s because the author clearly feels uncomfortable writing it and they feel it’s necessary to anyway. Sometimes it’s because people think of sex as a “crutch” or “filler” (so says the sweet romance writer commenting to Elsner to whine about how she doesn’t have the crutch of sex scenes and therefore writes real stories). As a result, the sex is poorly written, lacking in any connection to the story and characters and unappealing. And sometimes, well sometimes the writing just sucks.
Sex has a lot of power. And it should be used – if you write a sex scene is should MEAN something. A hot sex scene is awesome, but like any other scene in a book, it should be there for a reason. It should move the story forward.
There are times people miss this – they think, oh page 34, time for DP! or whatever – they use it to fill pages and it does nothing. It’s sloppy. And it’s bad writing. Not that sex is bad on the page, but that the particular author just didn’t use it to the full potential. It’s also not in any way only about sex scenes. Authors do this all the time with dialog, fight scenes, whatever. It’s easy to fall back on something when you want to get the words in and I’m absolutely sure I’ve done it too.
I know there are many in our culture who think sex is bad or dirty, who think it should be left off the page. And to those readers and authors, you have a right to your preferences – I’d never force anyone to read what I wrote, or to like the things I do. But to those authors who don’t – you’re not superior because you don’t.
If you put sex on a page, make it mean something. Write it with the same care you’d write any other deeply emotional scene! If you don’t, you’re wasting all that potential. Sex can be so many things, use that. And I don’t mean you have to tie people up and spank them just for effect – that’s one of my personal peeves. USE the intimacy of that moment and own it. There is power in writing that way, power on the page, power for your characters.
Contrary to some opinion – writing sex is hard (no pun intended). As an author, you’re creating a connection between your characters, you’re showing readers the inside of the protag’s head and heart – there are times and scenes that take me a day or two to write just right – the sex scene with Abbie and Roman when they had to break off, took me a long time to get right. The scene in Laid Bare when Ben takes a bigger step into Todd and Erin’s relationship was complicated (menage scenes are often the most difficult for me because the focus has another facet and that needs to be addressed).
Sometimes a closed door is better. Sometimes that’s what the story calls for. But I don’t write porn because my characters don’t close a door and enjoy their orgasm. I feel sorry for Elsner for thinking it’s a fantasy for women to find men who cherish them and who care if they have satisfying sexual lives. But I don’t care beyond that, if his wife is okay with that, that’s his choice and he’s making his own statement.
In a sense, sex is part reality and part fantasy on the pages of a romance novel. There are things you leave out, the same as I leave out bowel movements or other things humans do but aren’t really necessary for the story. There’s a level of reality I personally think is important to portray – in my contemporaries I make sure to make clear there are condoms involved – to me, a man worth the hero title is sure to protect his lover or explain why not (and it doesn’t have to be written like a PSA either!). Sometimes you get interrupted. Sometimes you’re too tired. It’s my job as a writer to move the story well and to connect what the characters do, feel and say to the plot.
The point is – sex is part of life for a great many people. That there’d be sex in a romance novel, or other novels does not surprise me. I don’t find that unnatural or abnormal. I don’t think writers who feel otherwise should write sex either. Personal preferences aside (what I like as a reader, is not what you may like, etc), I find the idea that sex isn’t romantic utterly absurd and a fallacy.