Monday, March 18, 2013

Sex in Literary Fiction

I recently read an article about how difficult it is to find quality sex scenes depicted in literary fiction. The argument is that the absence feels pretty conspicuous in a genre that prides itself on laying bare the internal mysteries of character. The author of the article suggests the lack may come down to simple embarrassment, in light of things like the annual Bad Sex Review, run by Britain's Literary Review.

As a writer myself, I'd say there are two main concerns when writing sex into my story. The first is: What will my family and friends think? As much as sex is a big part of human experience, it still doesn't get discussed in realistic terms even in some of our closest relationships. This is what makes it such great territory for a writer to reveal intimate parts of their character's nature, but it remains taboo. When I sent my dad a copy of my first novel, Monsoon Season, I blacked out all the naughty bits and in the margin I wrote: "REDACTED."

The second major concern for writers including sex in our books is: Is it gratuitous? We've all heard that "sex sells" and we don't want to be seen as using sex to transform an otherwise uninteresting story into a page-turner. Frankly, many of us don't want our work dismissed as a Fifty Shades knock off when we're trying to write something of literary value. But the "fade to black" approach can feel a bit cowardly.

It's a tricky balance. I notice when it's done well and think Michael Cunningham, Sue Miller and Lauren Grodstein get it right. Perhaps I will locate some of their well-written passages for my next blog.

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