Explicit sex in the novel: too much information?

sex‘Fatal Reckoning’ has been out a few weeks now and I’m beginning to get feedback from readers about it. Overall views are very positive, but there are always some who wanted something from the plot which I didn’t choose to provide. In particular, two male readers have regretted  there wasn’t more explicit sex, or a more romantic view of the two protagonists.

They’re right. I could have added a plot development that involves a wedding, and there was opportunity for some more explicit sexual content. So why did I reject both? The wedding thing is easy: I’ve never been a fan of weddings, and both my female lead characters have similar ambivalence. I’m particularly unwilling to represent a wedding as part of the end of a story. ‘Lived happily ever after’ seems to be then required and in my experience that’s not often the case. Does that make me a cynical old feminist? Probably.

My response to the  request for more sex is another matter, less personal, more ‘writerly’. There was one explicit sex scene in my very first book, ‘A Good Liar’ but it wasn’t actually about sex at all: it was about power, and the casual use of physical force that proved to be a turning point in the main character’s view of her lover. The details were necessary to provide the reader with the facts of her humiliation, and to heighten her dilemma about how to react.

As a writer I’ve decided, for the time being at least,  that unless details of sexual behaviour add to either the plot or the readers’ understanding of a character, they should left to the imagination. The writer can feed that imagination with a fragment of detail, – the line of a shoulder, the play of light on skin – but hesitate to do more than that. Verbal descriptions of good sex fall hopelessly short of the real thing, in my view. The act itself is pretty basic and widely understood. Trying to describe in words the complex intertwining of senses and emotions, beyond the physiology of the act itself, is a pretty hopeless task and the result could fall far short of what the engaged reader can supply for him/herself. So why spoil it by explicitness, especially if the outcome detracts from the readers’ potential enjoyment?

Having said all this, I may change my mind by the time the next story gets ‘fleshed out’.

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Genre cliche and sex

As you may remember from previous posts, dear reader, I’ve always struggled with the notion of ‘genre’. I’m not keen on stereotypes generally, and genre has often seemed a rather lazy and delimiting way of categorising a book, to make it easier for booksellers to know which shelf to put it on. As a writer of regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction, my irritation may be understandable. ‘Fiction’ is OK, but the rest of the labels are perjorative, and it’s particularly galling when the ‘local’ label condemns my books to the bottom shelf or the back room alongside books about copper mining in Victorian Cumberland.

After a trilogy in the ‘regional/local women’s commercial historical fiction’ category, I decided to try crime fiction, which I read much of myself and have always enjoyed. As usual, I began by trying to learn about this mode of writing, and enjoyed a day at Crimefest in Bristol last summer, to immerse myself briefly and see what I could pick up. Part of it reminded me of a weekend spent at the Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Buxton the previous year. At both events everyone seemed to know everyone else, except me of course, and there was an air of shared language and complacent jollity, with much kissing and expressions of joy. Even the names at Crimefest had a certain pattern: I was struck by the number of Camilla’s and Jocelyn’s, for example, of whom we see very few in West Cumbria. That must be a cultural habit emanating from London. 

The workshop with Matthew Hall and Bill Ryan was really good, as I’ve mentioned before, and focussed mainly on the 3 act structure, that was new to me and quite challenging, which I liked. There was also the interesting idea of a parallel between the external crises in the plot and internal personal crises for the protagonist. I could see how the best of what I’ve read reflected this dual thread. I could also see how the main characters required some personal demons that made them more interesting and vulnerable, and also generated mistakes, false assumptions and some of the blind alleys and red herrings of good crime stories. 

The crime fiction shelves,and especially the Nordic noir variety, are full of depressed, lonely, single men with fraught personal relationships and alcohol problems. When does a recurring idea become a cliche? You can change gender, as MR Hall has bravely done, but still end up with the same formula: Hall’s female coroner is depressed, lonely, single etc etc. Or you can give your hero a very particular setting, as with Bill Ryan’s Korolev in Stalinist Russia, and make him a more sympathetic character, but surround his intrinsic goodness with potentially overwhelming conspiracy and evil doings. 

There is a general absence of joy among current crime fiction ‘heroes’, which inevitably affects one of the genre cliches, the requirement to include at least one sexual encounter. We are led to believe that sex in fiction increases sales. And sex does appear to be de rigeur these days in crime fiction, which is quite a challenge when many of the current protagonists, however physically attractive they may be, are deeply depressed. They are drawn to the most unlikely and unsuitable people, sometimes against all their better instincts, although the apparently inevitable sexual encounter is often described in unspecific euphemisms. We should be grateful for that at least : anything more graphic might be too grotesque. Incidentally, this feature of the genre was never mentioned in Hall and Ryan’s admirable workshop, but there it is in their books.  

So here’s my dilemma as a novice crime writer. Do I absorb the lessons from my more experienced and successful peers and include the obligatory sex scene, even inferentially, or do I eschew it in the interests of the reader’s digestion and stick to the crime stuff – the ‘meat and potatoes’ without the gravy? Much will depend on how I choose to draw my main characters, and I’ve already decided on a rather wild and perverse young woman who finds herself collaborating with a more conventional young man with a less intuitive and more procedural approach. One woman, one man, both relatively young and unattached. The reader’s expectation of sex might be high, but does it have to happen? If a sexual encounter is part of the genre cliche, it would have to be simultaneously provoked by too much alcohol in her case and uncharacteristic lust from him. I could engineer that I suppose by some tricksy plotting, but do I really want to? Is it not possible that two people of different genders can work together without sex? I remember my mother telling me gravely that such a thing was not possible. ‘They’re all the same, dear,’ she said (meaning all men). ‘They only want thing. It’s in their nature.’ I have no clear opinion on this issue.

In each book of my earlier trilogy there was some sex, but I maintain that it was a product of, and necessary to, the development of a character-driven plot. In the current foray into crime fiction, the same must apply. If neither plot nor character would generate a sexual episode naturally, by its own volition, then it won’t happen. Part of me is quite relieved. Trying to write with commitment about something implausible is too difficult. I’m grateful too that as a self-published author I’m under no external pressure to increase sales by giving way to this particular genre cliche. No editorial or marketing voice is whispering in my ear to include something I don’t feel the need for. 

This is not to say that in future books, even those with the same characters, sex might not arise plausibly and find a place in the story. But genre cliche alone will not be enough. If we rightly criticise cliche in other aspects of writing, we shouldn’t let the obsession with genre lead to formulaic structures and plots. If that makes them less likely to be best-sellers, so be it. Most of us will never make a full living from writing anyway, so we might as well hang on to our self-respect and avoid cliche in all its forms.

Explicit violence in crime fiction: is it necessary?

Interesting piece in the Telegraph this week about the apparent increase in explicit violence in crime fiction. I read a fair sprinkling of the genre, and know that I have learned my limits in what I choose to read, and to watch. Reading words leaves less of an imprint on my brain than seeing and hearing images on a screen: and it’s easier to skip pages than it is to block both sight and sound. I skipped many pages in the Stig Larsson trilogy, although by the third book I was skipping to avoid badly edited tedium, wondering if it had in fact been edited at all.

Most of the time I prefer my books and films to infer, and avoid excessive violence. Against children the mere inference of violence is too much for me: I even have to avoid  some of the NSPCC ads on TV. Violence and cruelty against adults, female and male, are difficult, and even more troubling is the trend towards female victims, where the violence tips over into sadism that makes the reader complicit. Not good. I have no doubt violent scenes in books sell copies – why else would there be such a plethora in these times when sales seem to count more than anything else? I want to sell copies, of course I do, but not if it means writing something I really wouldn’t want to read myself.

One of the beauties of self-publishing is that the author can be under no external pressure as they make choices about content, style and everything else. Instinctively, and without any evidence, I picture the editor of a publishing house whispering in the author’s ear how a bit more explicit sex or violence would catch more readers’ attention, and probably media attention too, cajoling and tempting the writer to go against their own better judgement. Maybe that’s just my ‘don’t even think about trying to push me around’ mindset. Maybe it would never be like that, but for me it’s hypothetical anyway. My editor Charlotte is a fine professional and an old friend who knows there would be little point in pushing me to do anything I wasn’t happy about.

My interest in writing crime fiction for the next book, number four, remains strong, and I’m gradually resolving some of these issues in my head. There are bound to be bad and violent people and actions, or there would be no crime in the crime fiction. But I want to make both content and style more subtle if I can, without sacrificing the grip of the story. I just hope crime fiction readers who pick up a book of mine aren’t so jaded that they lose interest unless the details are laid out, full and frontal and covered in gore.

Writing about sex

After nearly three books with my main character Jessie Whelan, I know that sex has always been important to her. Her first affair resulted in a baby she was forced to give away; the second reckless fling with a much younger man ended with a drunken sexual assault that left her bruised and humiliated. When the love of her life finally arrives, how will the sex be, if at all? And – the big question for me – how will I represent this on the page without being too graphic or too coy, and in a way that honestly illuminates their relationship, as the best sex should?

Writing about Jessie’s violent encounter with the young man in ‘A Good Liar’ (Book 1 of the trilogy) was very difficult: even thinking about it in retrospect makes me feel uncomforatble. The first draft of the sex scene in Book 3 ‘Fallout’ was easier to write, but that may be because both parties are clearer about what they mean to each other. It also helps that their friendship is based on mutual intellectual respect and a similarly rational, even ‘matter-of-fact’ approach to sex as a natural extension of their close relationship. Now I’m on the second draft, and the issue is on my mind again. My guess is that some of my readers will prefer implicit allusions with more left to their imagination, while others would prefer more explicitness. Anyone who thinks that sex is irrelevant doesn’t understand Jessie Whelan.

So far in writing this scene I’ve been explicit about a few ‘stages’ in the first sexual encounter, but left gaps, to avoid the tedium of a ‘blow by blow’ (sorry!) account. It is their first time and both partners are relatively inexperienced, so extended feats of sexual athletics are therefore unlikely. I anticipate that their enjoyment of each other will grow with trust and practice, and this might be hinted at later. Despite all the passion, we can still laugh about sex too, and they do. My mother would have been appalled, no doubt, but my heroine doesn’t aspire to be ‘lady-like’.

I’ll have another go at it and then check with one or two people for their reactions. My best hope is to steer a readable middle ground between too much information and too little, and to avoid the ghastly Lawrentian euphemisms that ruined a good story in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. If you want to see how it turns out in the end, Fallout should be out in June 2014. The difficult sex scene in ‘A Good Liar’ can be found in the book, which you can get through my website or through Amazon. The Kindle version is available as well.