Sex in books: Give ’em what they want

Standard

shocked readerWhen I was a boy, I would often pick up novels wherein I didn’t actually read characters’ swear words; instead, I read the author’s account of the characters’ swearing, to wit: “He swore,” “he gave his opinion in language not fit for polite society,” “her language, as crude as any sailor’s, caused her companions to blush furiously,” etc.  And I was introduced to the familiar scene known as “kiss kiss, cut to morning,” in which something significant happened in-between, but was apparently not appropriate enough for me to be privy to.

The United States has been called a very Puritanical country for most of its existence; it stood for very pure concepts like hard work, clean living, ten commandments, church on Sunday, that kind of thing.  And these concepts were (mostly) reflected in its media, stories that generally depicted what the people in power wanted everyone else to think was The American Way.  But as some people wanted to tell stories that weren’t necessarily emblematic of The American Way, the U.S. applied censorship to many mediums, rewriting or removing the parts that upset their sensibilities.

This was the standard in American literature, as well as television and movies, throughout the twentieth century.  Certainly there were exceptions to this rule, but such exceptions were quickly seized by the censors and given “X” ratings, hidden behind curtained walls or cardboard backings, and protected by gatekeepers that demanded to see your ID in order to judge you worthy to see the forbidden things.

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we have seen many changes in media related to the depiction of sexuality and impolite language: Where, in the past, all of that was hidden away, today the exposure to such risque fare on pay-television has slowly brought about a lowering of the gates, as it were; cursing pierced the boundaries of pay-cable and ended up on basic cable; lingerie eventually begat bare bottoms on prime-time shows; and finally, sex scenes that showed everything except the holy grail, clitoral penetration, appeared before the witching hour of midnight.  As much as three hours before midnight, in fact.

This sea-change has come about in books as well, including areas previously considered to be pre-adult fare, like science fiction and fantasy.  My first exposure to this sea-change came from the Wild Cards series edited by George R. R. Martin, a science fiction series in which I discovered very explicitly-described sexual situations, including (but not excluded to) a pimp who required a blow-job from one of his ladies in order to wield tantric magic.

Whoa.

I’ve followed these changes as a reader (avidly!), and as an author trying to create stories for other readers to enjoy.  As I’ve developed, and developed my stories, I’ve come to appreciate that the audience is much more tolerant of the more personal moments of human interaction, and do not shy away from things like sex and crude language.  Moreover, as an independent author I do not need to respond to the concerns of publishers who were more concerned about their reputations, or the reputations of those who supported them, and who edited books into G-rated products accordingly.

And finally, a wonderful aspect of ebooks is that a consumer can read one without displaying a cover that might tell others what they’re reading.  Consumers have discovered the liberating aspect of being able to read any ebook without worrying about public reaction or condemnation, whether the book be Starship Troopers, Lady Chatterly or Harry Potter.

In short, I can be as lewd and crude a writer as I need to be, in order to tell a good story and entertain.  And readers can happily lap it up without reservation.

I applied this realization to my earlier books when I updated them, as well as applying it to my more recent books as I wrote them.  So far, I’ve heard a few comments from people who thought the more explicit sex scenes were not needed for the story, but they have been more than compensated for by those who have told me they enjoyed the books more for being unafraid to show relationships up-close and personal.

It appears that sex really does sell; and I won’t shy away from writing it where it’s appropriate to the story. (And maybe, occasionally, even when it’s not.)

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2 thoughts on “Sex in books: Give ’em what they want

  1. Donn

    I need to reread the three Krestal Voyages novels. Because Carolyn Kestral had a definite sexual aura about her. And some “Kiss kiss, cut to morning” scenes.

    But to be honest, I normally want to separate my “erotic fiction” from my other genre fiction. If it is done well, and then moves on quickly I am satisfied (with the story, not the… well). But I don’t particularly like several pages of description of sexual encounters when I am really most interested in how the central plot is going to be resolved.

    In _Factory Orbit_ you included “working women” sent to the orbiting platform. Nothing explicit, and in fact it, oddly enough. reminded me of a plot twist in the film Paint Your Wagon, It worked.

    I have noticed that you occasionally have ambitious females, and males using their sexuality as a bargaining tool. Again that is realistic, and works. Ben Bova does does the same thing on his novels.

    But when they go to “seal the deal” I really don’t need much in the way of details. I pretty much know how the mechanics of the negotiations go.

    But Carolyn Krestal (who if the novels were ever made into a movie, I would want Uma Thurman cast as Carolyn) well, some description of the mechanics would not be unappreciated.

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  2. Hmm… Uma Thurman as Kestral… intriguing! I was thinking more along the lines of Charlize Theron, but it’s not like Hollywood has a shortage of statuesque blondes. I haven’t added explicit scenes to the Kestral stories; future stories may include more explicit material, but the subject matter is so… let’s say “innocent”… that it probably doesn’t need much.

    I agree that explicit sexual scenes aren’t always required for a story. It’s more about including them because people enjoy them, whether they are required for the story or not, and readers are getting used to seeing them in what used to be sex-neutered stories of the past. Consumers are throwing off the blinders that publishers and producers had us wearing for so long, “for our protection,” and accepting the sex. Shows like Spartacus on Starz demonstrate that audiences are good with the sex, whether it is required or not, and will watch it as opposed to tuning away.

    So I’m adding (or not avoiding) explicit content in order to make my books more popular with readers, and I don’t see a downside to that. It may take awhile for consumers to get fully used to the idea, but when they do (and they will), my books will be there, waiting.

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