Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sensational or Essential?

I recently finished a beautiful book. The characters were deep, the plot poignant, and the writing by turns lively and heartbreaking. About a third of the way through, I was certain I’d found another book to recommend.

And then. (You knew there was going to be an “And then,” didn’t you?) The author threw in a sex scene.

I realize we all have different opinions about what is and isn’t appropriate in literature. And I understand that sex can be a necessary plot point. But so often I find that the scene itself is more sensational than essential. That the scene’s only purpose is to hook us by appealing to the basest part of ourselves.

This happens all the time in film. Have you ever noticed how previews tend to show the movie’s steamiest moments, even if those moments are the only steamy ones in the film? It’s almost like the directors think no one will see the movie if they don’t sexy it up a bit (or a lot). Like they doubt the ability of the story itself to carry the piece. And authors often fall into the same trap.

Now I can understand an author’s desire to be authentic, and even I must concede that sex is about as commonplace as a handshake these days. But does authenticity require two--or twenty--pages of description? I don’t think so.

I’m sure some of you disagree with me, and I’d appreciate hearing (reading?) your take on the subject. But for me, sex scenes in books--and movies--are always a turn-off.


Myrna Foster said...

I agree.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Amen to that. I agree entirely, Of course. I have been fighting the language issue. The sex thing I haven't touched. Thankfully it isn't quite as commonplace in YA as it is in adult. I can easily avoid that one.

Good post.

Kelly Bryson said...

I will do a certain amount of skipping over scenes, but make me flip more than a page or two, or repeat the process and I'm done with a book.

I went to a writing class a few months ago about how sex and violence are often downright silly in books because while you can name body parts and actions, you can't replicate it on the page. According to the very secularly minded writer teaching the class, less is more.

My imagination works just fine and is very good at walking the line of my comfort level;)

Anonymous said...

I agree. I skip over those scenes, even the vague ones in YA novels, and tend to find them distracting and inessential, most of the times.

Janet Johnson said...

This is why I read YA, though unfortunately they're becoming more and more common even there.

Anonymous said...

Yes!! I agree. Too many times a sex scene is thrown in for the sake of being "edgy" or "controversial". Silly.

Thanks for the great post.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Wow, so many people who agree with me! I was kind of afraid I was sticking my neck out there on the chopping block...

Myrna, oh, good:)

Kathryn, language is often a problem, too (although I'm usually a little more lenient in that category, for some reason). I once put down a book after four or five pages because I was tired of reading the F-word every other paragraph. Which was too bad - it was a book I was really excited to read:(

Good point, Kelly. Morals aside, sex scenes can be detrimental from a writing perspective.

Sandy, I'm glad I'm not the only skipper. (Although, honestly, sometimes the only thing I can do is hurl the book across the room - and then return it to the library, unfinished. That deserves another frowny face: :( )

Exactly, Janet. Seems like you can't trust anything from the adult market anymore, and YA is becoming sketchier and sketchier.

Anon, you're welcome. And yeah, you're not doing yourself any favors anytime you add ANYTHING to try to make your book fit a particular adjective.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

Very good topic and one which will have a wide variety of opinions. Strong ones.

I agree that 99% of the sex I read is sensation and I don't think anyone's saying it isn't. Sex sells. People like sex. I've closed a few books because I prefer to maintain a private and realistic view of sex. I know plenty of women who seek after it in books and as long as there are people who want to read it there will be people who want to write it.

One author at WIFYR talked about editors trying to pressure her to include sex in her books. "60% of teens are sexually active." The author replied "So what? That's 40% who aren't. Who's writing for them?"

I will buy her books. :)

Theresa Milstein said...

I don't read a lot of chick lit, so I don't come across too many sex scenes in books. The best ones have something to do with the character or relationship development. If there's a blackout in YA, I feel like it's a copout, but I don't want a play-by-play either.

As for movies, just like action scenes, it's usually over the top.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Liesl, great story. Sounds like just the kind of author I like to read.

Theresa, those kinds of scenes are generally over the top.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I'm right there with you! I skim over them if I come across them. Thankfully, it's not often. Picture books are usually pretty clean. :)

Red Boot Pearl said...

I've put down many books this year for sex/language...mainly in YA, because I don't feel like I can recommend them. It's frustrating that people think their YA characters have to be that intimate (even if they don't describe it explicitly...) and that people embrace this kind of media, especially for a YA market. I'm sick of people saying it's realistic and that's why they include it...also the whole caveat they include about the characters having 'safe sex'--just bugs me...I had an eighth grade student who was pregnant--and being pregnant wasn't the worst thing she had to deal with, the emotional instability she struggled with was hard to watch. Wow...I'll get off my soap box. Oh and thanks for visiting the blog :) it seems we do have a lot in common.

thelisas said...

We did a humorous post with a similar theme, from the authors' perspective, we titled it Gag Order. ;)

Lori Folkman said...

I totally agree-- I like the implications and a little bit of imagination.

I've been astonished with content in some of the YA books I've read recently. Why aren't there ratings on books? We all deserve a little fair warning!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

And thank goodness for that, Sharon:)

Yeah, Pearl, it's always sad when I find a book I love (at first) and then have to put it down. And you're welcome - it's a lovely blog.

Thelisas, I think I'd definitely be TMPK in that post - The More Prudish Krista:)

Folksinmt, I'd love for there to be a standardized book rating system. Susan Kaye Quinn over at Ink Spells includes her own rating in all her book reviews, and I've found them helpful. Here's the link:


A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I agree here, though I'm a little late chiming in. I don't like reading sex scenes in books at all, and I have to cover my eyes in movie theaters. (Yes, I'm very innocent!) I agree that books need ratings, as much for my kids' protection as for my own! :)


Krista Van Dolzer said...

Amy: "I agree that books need ratings, as much for my kids' protection as for my own!"

Couldn't have said it better myself:)