Do you enjoy reading the steamy scenes in novels?
One of the frequent comments that comes to me about my work, from beta readers, editors and my writing companions-in-arms, is that there is a lot of sex in my novels. Happily, most of the compliments are positive. Either I’m getting positive comments featuring the quality of the sex writing, or I’m getting a pointed silence on the quantity of the sex writing.
This intrigues me. Why are readers surprised by the intimacy in my novels? What defines good sex writing versus bad? What are my insecurities in writing sex scenes and why do I have such an interest in writing about sex?
Let’s start in reverse order. Why do I have such an interest in writing about sex?
I’ve been reading some rather good family sagas recently and one of the things that leapt off the page, or rather didn’t leap, was the absence of intimate detail. Kate Morton, Lucinda Riley, even Kate Mosse (historical family saga, a stretch I know, but let’s run with it.) These are mainstream commercial saga writers, dealing with themes that fascinate me: home, family and love. But I could have wept over the sex scenes. They were all so discreet, so predictable, so straight, and so lacklustre. Now, in theory, if you want hot and steamy you go read romance or erotica, right? With side genres for specific requirements. Not like there’s not enough out there. But I want more than this in a book. I want home, family, love and sex. Preferably all of it in lots of detail, with nuances and backstory and consequence.
Growing up I had a habit of borrowing my mum’s books and truth be told this was a piss poor education in intimate matters. From Mills and Boon to Jilly Cooper to Barbara Taylor Bradford, I came to the conclusion that sex was mostly about muscle bound men and sighing, swooning women. I expanded my understanding through the library. Is not the library still one of the greatest artistic liberties of humankind? Where you can go and read anything, anything, for free, off the back of a library card, from the time you are 16? I went through classics like a dose of salts, consumed The Story of O, found passion in fantasy with The War of Powers (some parts of which I must be honest sexually haunted me for years, hmm…still haunt me). I recently found myself disappointed when reading Becoming by Michelle Obama that there was no mention of intimacy at all. Not because I wanted to know the inner workings of the Obama’s marriage (no thank you, Mr President!) but because this was an autobiography, of her whole life. Of her own voice. A mother to two daughters. And there was no mention of sexuality in it. Great book, loved it, but no sex.
Our sexuality is a contributing part of our personality. No, it isn’t everything, but it sure as heck is a lot. A whole big lot of who we become as adults. No matter what route that sexuality takes us down. And I’m curious. Terribly, insatiably, inelegantly curious. I want to read about and understand so many other sexual experiences than my own. I’m also tired of the ‘strong woman’ trope. The woman who knows without a doubt her sexuality and goes out there with gusto to fulfil it. I wanted to see a complex female character learning about herself and her sexual experiences. My own experience, and that of many of the women I know, has been that our sexuality is not static. It is influenced by our society, our family, our lovers, our expectations and disappointments. Our bodies, our wealth, our race, our class, our age. Our gynaecological experiences. Our pregnancies, abortions, miscarriages, infertility and birth experiences. And that’s just women. That’s just cis, straight women.
Sexual identity influences our personality and identity in such a big way, and I don’t want to read about sexuality isolated from the world I know and live in. I’m happy to read queer literature for the sense of leaping into another literary world but I want to see broader sexual inclusion in mainstream literature. I’m tired of secondary character tokenism. So, when I set out to write an epic series about a family and their home, I always knew a lot of their identity would be wrapped up in their sexual experiences and relations. I knew I was going to want to write about that part of my characters lives with an open heart and a sharp pen, taking its edge to my own boundaries as well as those of my readers. I wanted my readers to get more comfortable with sexual content. To normalise a sexual conversation about healthy, consenting sex so that when we get to dealing with unhealthy, non-consexual sex, we could face the ugly realities of our life that get swept under the carpet. When people are shy about talking about good sex, how do the experiences of bad sex get openly discussed? And if we feel forced to strangle the truth in our own families and homes, how do we build a healthier social construct?
What are my insecurities about writing sex scenes?
How long do you have here? Any writer will talk about their self-doubt. My editor says only bad writers have no anxiety. Who are we to write about anything? What authority do we speak with? With the strong movement, at last, towards #ownvoices in literature this is a key concern for me. How can I write authentically outside of my own perspective? If I choose to write outside of my own gender and sexuality perspective, why am I doing it? I’m not doing it to claim representation of an identity not my own. I’m not doing it to speak for representatives of identities not my own. I’m doing it because I want to explore the interface of identities both my own and not. I write about families. How family builds and impacts on character. If every one of my characters were white, female, straight, it would be a terribly unrepresentative, not to mention tedious, family to write about.
Increased diversity in literature must adamantly be built upon an increase in the support and publication of #ownvoice authors. No buts there. So how do I write about family interfacing beyond the white, straight demographic of my own authorial world in a genuine, non-appropriative way? For me the answer, at the moment, is in narrative voice. I use my narrative voice to focus the experience of the interface through characters I feel confident in relating. And where my characters reach into another sexual experience other than my own, I make sure I am connected to that character in a genuine, three-dimensional capacity. No tokenism. My characters don’t exist to represent an idea.
Kit de Lavelle, a main character in my Riverdell series, is bisexual. He also has ADHD, a high sex drive, is a talented interior designer, obsesses over details, is loyal to a fault and fickle to the core, and is a control freak with no self-control. None of these other character traits exist because of his bisexuality. They co-exist with it. His bisexuality is less relevant to his character arc than his inability to make a decision and stick to it, and that inability is not as a result of his bisexuality. His bisexuality is a source of discomfort to the heterosexual people in his family, as well as a source of liberation to another main character, Moth. When creating Kit’s character I had trouble at first getting him clear in my head, he kept unpicking my expectations. Eventually it became clear to me that I was assuming his heterosexuality and that I needed to stop it. Bisexuality is the ability to be attracted to both genders, to switch between love and sexual attraction for the same and the opposite gender, to feel it at the same time and/or in isolation. The experience of bisexuality is also different for each person, as it is for heterosexual people. Kit is adamantly a cis-gendered man and so I create his experiences with that in mind. Being (mostly) heterosexual myself makes it harder for me to create the scenes when he is with a male lover, but not that much harder, because I am already working, as a female author, to imagine how he, as a cis male, is experiencing love with the women in his life. Sure, I use my own sexual experiences in life to imagine sexual scenes, but I also use the experiences I have read about, talked about with friends and family, research and imagine. Because at heart, though I write about the sex, what I am interested in is the emotional repercussions of that sexual interaction.
I also worry about misrepresenting experience. About adding to stereotypes and misunderstanding by not doing enough research, not taking enough time to explore the great realms of intimacy. I’m a woman. Can I write the sexual experiences of a male character? Let alone an LGBTQ character? Or a sexual abuse survivor? I’m white. Can I represent the sexual experiences of a person of colour? I’m middle-aged, can I represent the sexual experiences of older people? Will I do it in a way that brings outrage or ridicule? Will I write with bedroom eyes that induce squeamishness in the mainstream commercial world of women’s fiction? Will my mother read this? Will my daughter? Will my partner get insecure wondering about my research? Will I win the Literary Review’s Bad Sex In Fiction Award? This might seem like a lot of insecurity but writerly anxiety is a 3am heart-stopping, sleep-stealing evil-arse genie that lives in the glass of water on my bedside table. Biggest one? Will I have to read sex scenes out at author events if I get it right? Oooffff. Let’s move on to the next point. Rapidly.
What defines good sex writing versus bad?
Well according to the afore mentioned Literary Review Award, bad sex writing amounts to ‘crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel’. So, effectively, does the sex serve a purpose in the plot or theme or characterisation of the book? And if it doesn’t, why is it there? To fulfil a genre demand? To sensationalise the moment which might otherwise be dull? Even if it fulfils the requirement of having purpose and adding merit to the page, the chapter, the construction of the book, how does it read? Is it cringeworthy or cliché, full of swoons and instantaneous orgasm? Lust on first sight to sex of the century in three paragraphs or less? Perhaps it helps to answer what is bad sex writing by defining what is good sex writing?
You can’t do better than start with this article from lithub.com, which points to the core of my endeavour. Whilst I may write about sex quite a lot I don’t write erotic novels, because I aim to produce a novel which like ‘many great novels portray sexual encounters as an inseparable part of the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life’ (Hannah Tennant-Moore) Thank you, Hannah, I could not have expressed my writing goal better and I’m happy that someone else formed the best way to say it. ‘To write well about sexual behaviours and impulses demands the same things as to write well about yard sales or dogs: attentiveness and time’ (Hannah Tenant-Moore). That is, to not encapsulate the actions of lips, tongue and fingers, penis, vagina and anus, but to capture the intimacy between people employing these parts of themselves. To recognise that sex is woven through the novel in the same way that it is woven through our lives. Present even when not happening, in the dreams, hopes and memories of us all. Part of all that is good or bad in our lives.
Finally, why do readers comment on the sex scenes I write?
Honestly? I hope it’s because they enjoyed them. That it aroused their senses as well as their bodies, whether or not they enjoyed this experience, and lingered with them. Even if it didn’t turn them on, I hope it made them question the actions of the characters. Because one thing I am certain of in the exploration of sexuality is that this is not a journey often taken alone. Whoever we are in our sexuality we have most likely been through a tonne of experiences or are due a tonne to go through. Our sexuality is a living part of who we are daily and, yet, sexuality is a thing all too often pushed under a carpet. Discussed with a well-armoured dose of humour. Shared within the sexes not between. Watched awkwardly in movies or read avidly in the privacy of a book. So, when my characters make decisions, when they act foolishly on whimsy and desire, when they spurn love in themselves and others, I want to write out the moments in which their bodies lead them. Because I hope that my readers will ask what yearnings linger inside? Unspoken, unexplored, holding us at bay, confusing and enriching us. I hope that, in writing a wider sexual scene in the mainstream fictional world, I might reach people who have yet to ask themselves such questions, to encounter their own shock or fascination and to follow where it might take them.
So, yes, I write with an honest, blushing pen. But please don’t ask me to read those passages out loud. The first book in my Riverdell Series, The Doors of Riverdell , will be out on November 25th this year from Oriel Books. Don’t miss the chance to dive beneath the covers of this steamy saga and let me know how I did.