There are those who believe that great literature and trashy romance (i.e. badly written stories/sex with little to no plot). Are mutually exclusive. I would have to agree. However, some take it to the extreme that any description of sexual encounters cheapens the entire plot. I do not agree with this assessment.
Certainly the market does not agree with it. Daniel Steele, Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton to name a few, make big money off of what a good deal of literary critics see as bad literature. They perhaps do not blatantly say it is poor writing but lauds for works of this nature are only given in certain instances. To mention works of any of these authors in the same breath as classic writing such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick or others is a sacrilegious thing.
Yet, sex sells. So what is a writer to do when they want to be taken seriously but want to make money as well?
There is poetry. One can write poetry and describe sex but in the case of poetry it is art. Why is that?
I have many theories and arguments as to why sex should be reevaluated from its current all or nothing deal when it comes to literature.
Poetry is a good place to start. I believe in the case of poetry it is the focus of the writing that changes the perspective of sex as a context. Poetry by its nature is a more emotional, visceral medium. When describing intimacy the focus is the body and the emotions. The reader is separated from the act of two (or more) people going through the motions of (let’s face it) a messy and laborious act. This separation allows for the beauty and raw energy to come through.
Why then is it so hard to translate what is so awe inspiring in poetry into prose? Looking at the bare essentials of writing–words–there are no good words to use for the sexual anatomy of either male or female. The words are either too scientific, too crass or too hilarious to use. A writer comes off as sounding vulgar, aloof or like a middle schooler.
Vagueness then becomes an issue. If one cannot use words to describe aspects of the body then a writer can simply innuendo, lead the reader to the edge of the water and let them fill in the blanks. Well then the problem becomes the rest of the act. There is only so many times a writer can use the word sigh. Fifty Shades of Grey has this problem. She sighed. He sighed. They sighed.
Erotic dictionaries, emotion dictionaries, regular dictionaries only can go so far.
Then the obvious answer if the act of sex is so hard to write is to leave it out. Problem solved. For many a Young Adult Novel this approach is best. Still, I would argue that while gertudious sex, pornagraphic or prolific sex is not needed and is overkill, there are times when a sex scene is the only way to express an aspect of a character or the relationship of two (or more) characters.
This is especially true if the character(s) in question are extraordinarily physical. If they express their love, their anger, their sadness and the gamut of other emotions in a physical way in mundane routines in life then it only makes sense that this physicalness would translate into the bedroom.
There are exceptions to this idea of course, but overall physical expression isn’t going to change suddenly. Thus, the description of sex, more importantly the thoughts, the emotions of the characters engaged in the act become important to the plot.
In the instance of the piece that I coauthor with my friend Harlow Hunter, describing Katnes mastrubating, enjoying and orgasiming by listening to her partner’s voice becomes important when she realizes that she had put limitations on their relationship, had said they needed to go slow. In her mind, when she relaxes from the ecstasy and figures out that she got release and her partner did not, this was unfair and confusing as to what to do going forward. So on Katnes’ end it was the joy that leads into angst. Ursa, on the other hand, being part bear, has turmoil because her bear side instinctively wants to mate with her partner, but the human side knows Katnes has set these limitations. The tangible things associated with sex, smells, sounds, only compound for Ursa’s bearself the need to go to Katnes and mate with her.
By describing the act but not focusing on it makes it necessary but not the entire story. The story, the plot is about the angst, the turmoil both personally for each character and relationship wise. The act then is used as it should be; a tool to communicate a greater theme.
Anyone can write rutting sex. If you have ever visited a fanfiction site you know this. Interestingly enough most sex stories in the fanfiction world tend to be written by 13 year old girls, college students, and soccer moms. All of which mostly likely have a limited knowledge of sex but a incredibly rich fantasy life. (Hate mail arguing about how wild you were in college or as a soccer mom…I don’t want to know if it was when you were 13…should be sent to email@example.com.)
Writing sex in a way that is beautiful and moves a story along and lends to the overall plot is much harder to do. I love and embrace a challenge and I would encourages others to do the same.
Being a serious writer does not mean you have to shy away from writing sex in order for your work to be considered great literature. Instead, perhaps by elevating the level of well written intimacy it will lead to the reevluation of sex in literature which I previous spoke of in this entry.