Thursday, July 1, 2010

Good sex: a rant

I read a review of "It Takes Two" yesterday (by someone I don't know called Ryan), which runs, in part:

I liked the prose in general, but there are a few descriptive passages that feel like generic erotica (i.e., the sex has to be super-awesome and mind blowing). I’m not sure this sort of idealized fantasy sexuality has any place in a story that wants to examine human relationships in a serious way.
This is not the first time, or even the hundred-and-first time, a reviewer has said that the kind of sex I write is fantastical in the unrealistic sense.

A few years ago I was on a panel with two or three other writers and the talk turned to sex in literature. It turned out everyone on the panel (except me) thought all fictional depictions of people having good sex were ridiculous because sex was never, ever super-awesome and mind blowing. No, they said, sex was comical and self-conscious; sex was fumbling and clumsy; sex was embarrassing. Sex, everyone (except me) agreed, never went right the first time, so why did writers insist on writing as though it did?

I didn't say much on that panel because I was shocked by the notion that so many people thought and felt this way. I'm older now. I've heard this supposition many times. I'm tired of it.

In my experience, sex really is super-awesome and mind blowing. It really is astonishing, transporting, and ecstatic. It really is the closest thing on this earth that we'll come to swimming in a tide of light and magic. If it's not that way for you, maybe you're doing it wrong.

I understand you might not agree, that this might not be your experience. But it is mine. The very first time I got completely naked with a woman and had sex it wasn't miserable or difficult or tense. It was better than anything I could possibly have imagined. Better than anything I've ever read in a book. I write about the best sex possible and, frankly, it doesn't come close to the tearing brilliance of the real thing.

Yes, sex can be bad (and I've written about that, too) but that just makes it bad sex, the same way having a bad job is just having a bad job. Does that mean there's no such thing as a great job, or that anyone who writes about someone having a great job (or drinking the perfect glass of wine, or weeping at an uplifting piece of music) is writing idealised fantasy?

Sex is about the body. A by-product of our bodily design is the urge to seek out and luxuriate in the things that are good for us: sex and sunshine, food and cool, clean water. These things of the body--the seeking and finding and satiating, then the weighing of same--are exactly the lenses through which I want to examine the human animal.

So don't tell me my experience isn't valid, don't tell me great sex isn't a worthy subject for serious literature. Get over your Puritanical dualist crap and admit the world is a big place, full of difference. Open your arms to it, feel it on your skin.

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35 comments:

  1. "Just a quick note to let you know I am awesome in bed..."

    I kid! Yeah, the idea the failure is the only experience with verisimilitude is a prevalent one in a lot of middlebrow literature these days, paired off with the idea that only suffering equates to a valuable emotion (see also: the Oscars). It bores me; Feel Bad literature is so much sloppier than even juvenile comedy.

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  2. More like "Just a quick note to say just about everyone I've had sex with is awesome in bed..." :)

    Yep, I'm sick of misery lit, failure lit, small-time-small-life lit. Tuh.

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  3. The message I get from this is that if you must write sex, as a serious writer you will not write it in a way that might arouse your audience. If the reader squirms through the sex the way that an eleven-year old might fidget while her mom tells her about "becoming a woman," or better yet, skims or skips it, then your reputation as a writer is safe.

    As an erotica writer, I'm of course beyond the pale and can never produce work of merit. Don't be like me. Keep your sex scenes awkward and icky.

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  4. Whether one agrees with your general point or not, that the sex in the story was too good seems a particularly inapt comment to make in this case. Given what draws the two characters together, how could the reviewer possibly expect disappointing results?

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  5. Kathleen, yeah, I don't know when this fashion for misery, awkwardness, and failure began, but it drives me up the wall.

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  6. James, lust tends to lower the IQ. It's just that some people don't like to admit this, don't like to admit that mind is dependent upon brain and body. They like to think they're Above All That. So they make their bad judgement calls and don't understand why.

    So, hey, in this case, you could say the inapt comment was my own fault for writing sex that triggered the reader's mirror neurones :)

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  7. Thanks, Nicola. I'm reading this, vigorously nodding, smiling, and fist-bumping you through the screen. Wish I had a point or two of further substance to add, but you spoke my mind and experience with cleaner precision than I would have.

    As you put it: Tuh.

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  8. How sad for all those people who can't understand/believe in the ecstasy that sex can be. And it's also too bad that people like that have to validate themselves by tearing down other people's experiences. I think you hit it on the head when you said that about lowering the IQ. Maybe those people never have mind blowing sex because they are afraid to let go like that. I would hate to be in a relationship with anyone that thinks sex like that doesn't belong there. Whoa.

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  9. I suspect a lot of people do not have good sex and read descriptions of it with resentment. But it's petty to resent it, so they transform it into intellectual superiority and condemn it as trashy romance writing.

    I have also noted that when the sex in a story is written to illuminate character, some people *really* fidget and often condemn it as gratuitous (while pretty much ignoring genuinely gratuitous writing), so all these people dissing the words are probably reacting out of a sense that they just don't get it.

    Which is sad.

    But you have to wonder (or maybe not) just what it is that passes for sex for them. In all honesty, I've never had bad sex. As an old friend of mine used to say, "It's all good, some's better." That's been my experience.

    The only other question to ask, just where do these folks think sex actually happens?

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  10. jennifer, I'm beginning to think good sex might--like just about everything else on the planet--be connected to good self-esteem. You've got to believe...

    Mark, I've been puzzled by this notion of the sex in "It Takes Two" being gratutitous and pornographic (and let's not forget the sheer number of times it's been labelled lesbian, with that particular lip curl of contempt--there should be a font for it). I find the whole thing just...well, rant-worthy.

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  11. I think you're probably right. It takes good self esteem to feel good enough to take a chance on letting go and possibly looking foolish to some.

    Hard to see how the sex in ITT could be considered gratuitous since it factors heavily in the whole plot and question. Pornographic? What?!?

    Good rant!

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  12. But not all of us feel the same way about sex. And it doesn't have to be about low self-esteem. It's something asexuals constantly struggle with in trying to deal with a society that places lots of importance on sex. What some consider totally normal and even healthy for others, may not feel or seem that way to those who don't feel about sex the same way. So, the asexual who also happens to be an author and/or reader, will skip right over any sex scene. It just isn't interesting. The author won't include it in their literature. Does that make the story any less worthy or notable or natural?

    Thanks for the interesting post, Nicola.

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  13. I work in the sex industry (at a retail level, not anything too exciting) and I can't thank you enough for pointing this out. I see that "it can't be good, it has to be real instead" attitude every day, and it amazes me that so many people keep their adolescent hangups and cherish them instead of flushing them. I'm going to send people to this article when I see them whining about perfect sex scenes.

    This isn't about It Takes Two, which I've not yet read, but I do feel compelled to mention that I have seen "good sex" in books that I didn't find very realistic. I certainly believe in good sex, but it was the writing itself that made me doubt the author's idea of what good sex is, much like when I read something about a subculture I'm familiar with written by someone who clearly hasn't lived it. I don't want those authors to stop writing what they consider fantastic sex, but since I suspect they're idealizing something they haven't experienced, I'd rather they went and HAD good sex first and THEN wrote about it. ;)

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  14. It's entirely possible that most people have never had that kind of sex. It could, I suppose, be the Occam's razor explanation for the dismissal of amazing sex as incredible. If one repeatedly had bad or mediocre sex, one would learn to see that as normal. And the thought of other people having the amazing sex that oneself had never had might then trigger deep subconscious feelings of inferiority that needed to be warded off by rejecting such a scenario as impossible. [/psychobabble]

    As Patty notes, sexual feelings and response exist in a continuum, like most every other aspect of our humanity. Maybe the ability to have amazing sex is a gift, like a kind of creativity. Some people might have little or no aptitude; many/most would have varying degrees of aptitude that could be developed and improved on with practice. But they would never have the same level of experience as those who had a true gift for it.

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  15. Personally, the only way that I can relate to awesome, mind-blowing sex scenes is as fantasy. I mean, I can imagine what it might be like to think and feel and respond in those ways, but my mind and body don't really work like that. There's just nothing there that speaks to me on a personal, experiential level. It definitely sounds good, and I like imagining that it could be how I work, but it's just not how I really do.

    I'm sure that for the people who have had mind-blowing sex or sex that was sufficiently similar, it's perfectly realistic to describe other people as having mind-blowing sex. The scene passes without comment, because it's perceived as normal. It's just that for those of us with zero grasp of mind-blowing sex as a personal possibility, there's nothing to really ground that idea for us, so we're left taking it entirely on faith.

    And when it comes to accepting ideas on nothing but faith in order to follow a story... well, one does that when reading about dragons, too. It truly doesn't diminish the story to do so, or make the relationships within it any less realistic.

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  16. Patty, interesting. I wonder if we different in other ways, too. For example, when I lost my sense of taste for a year or so, and thought I'd never get it back, I loved reading about smell and taste and fictional characters' responses to it. I wanted to experience what it meant to them, even if I couldn't do it. Anyway, you've given me a challenge. Thanks for that.

    Anon @5:02, suspension of disbelief depends, I think, on the quality of writing. But, today, because I'm feeling bloody difficult, I refuse to believe that my writing is at fault in "It Takes Two" :)

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  17. Sometimes I wonder where the passion went. How long since there was an impassioned protest. Think back to the Greenham Common days for example. I know there have been protests - marginal - G20 meetings etc. I really feel as though the world has changed. Agree with an early post in this thread - passion is about life - food, wine, women, music - it's about a completeness, a giving, openness, abandonment, trust and heart. And I wonder about the currency of sex, is it McDonalds now instead of luxurious restaurant? Have expectations been lowered? Is fast food, cask wine & the "music industry" lowering sensitivity to awareness?

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  18. Jude, I think most Western-style lives lower awareness of the body. I think that in turn limits passion, which is a body-based lifeform.

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  19. I guess I set off this discussion with a poorly worded, off-the-cuff review, but I think I'm glad I did because it was a great read.

    The main point I wanted to clarify is that I do believe sex can be, and often is, "super-awesome and mind blowing." I just think (outside of erotica) it's also usually comical/self-conscious/fumbling/clumsy along the way, especially the first time. I think that mix is really interesting, but you rarely see it in even the best prose.

    I'm sorry that the review offended; I think it came off much harsher than I meant it. The comment here that most got me thinking (besides Nicola's original post) is Kathleen's. Writing an sf-review blog, I often think about the so-called "sf ghetto," but I was completely unaware that I was doing the same thing to erotica. I was probably too dismissive of the genre.

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  20. Ryan, thanks for dropping by. I don't feel particularly offended, I feel exasperated.

    Readers often criticise authors for not writing fiction the way they, the reader, would. I can't speak for other writers, but I don't write fumbling sex scenes because, well, for me they're not real. Those for whom they are real should write them. Add to that the fact that "It Takes Two" is about the Best. Sex. Eva. and how a person might be conditioned/programmed to achieve that, and what the consequences might be--and the sex had to be mind-blowing.

    Hence my exasperation. Make sense?

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  21. Nicola, this post is definitely a reason I am going to go get your book. I have been searching lesbian blog sites all day and it is exhausting. I have experienced both sides of sex (with the same person, believe it or not). My partner and I have had mind altering insanely good sex... as you can guess, for the first year. Our sex is still always good, but there can be a lot of awkwardness leading up to it (and she has been lazy to put it lightly because of a recent battle with low self esteem). I am also a bit like you, I sort of demand good sex. It's what I know, its what I'm capable of, and it's what I demand. This demanding part of my personality has put an awkward pressure on my sex life. Anyway, bravo, and can't wait to read the book. Also, I started a new blog today (I've been writing for lesbian publications but this is my first blog and I think you will REALLY enjoy it). www.thedesignerlesbian.wordpress.com

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  22. Very nifty post indeed! Well-expressed.

    "The very first time I got completely naked with a woman and had sex it wasn't miserable or difficult or tense. It was better than anything I could possibly have imagined."
    Just love these lines!

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    1. I'm still appalled at how miserable most women's first-sex stories are. It makes me want to bang the world's head on the wall.

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  23. Great post. Mostly I'll say, "What she said," to Kathleen. (Hi Kathleen!)

    I often find that people who meet me -- readers, writers, people who like books and stories -- will not bother to read my work because it's "erotica." Sometimes I'll send them a piece and they will be *shocked* that it's good! Or they like my other writing and ask me why I don't do more of *that*?

    But they will *not* go out and buy a book with my fiction in it because you know, the whole genre must be useless cuz it's about sex, right?

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    1. I've just been listening to a more-or-less hagiographic New Yorker podcast about Hilary Mantel. I think she's a great writer--not a term I use loosely--but was shocked (yes, again, even after all these years) at the casual prejudice against genre on display.

      We do all have our prejudices as readers--we're human, after all, but our job as thinking, learning, empathetic human being is to not respond from those prejudices. So: I hear you.

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  24. amen, sister.
    i always say:
    we do not *have* a body
    we *are* the body.

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  25. I realize that this conversation is for all intents and purposes over, but I just happened across it and I have a few things to say.

    I sing in a chorus, and not long ago as we were starting to rehearse a Bach cantata, the director gave us a little speech about how he realized that we probably all hated the piece, that Bach was hard to sing and hard to love, but that it was worth the effort, and if we gave it time we would come to love it. I was appalled. Me, I found sight-singing that cantata to be super-awesome and mind-blowing! It was aggravating and shocking to have my experience so completely negated, and as soon as I got the chance I told the director that I didn't need to learn to love Bach; that for some of us, it's love at first sight.

    So I'm certainly in sympathy with you. Also, I think writers should write what they want to write. But I'm also a little surprised at the assumption that sex that is awkward or comical, or even clumsy or embarrassing, is necessarily bad sex. Awkwardness can shade into vulnerable and intimate. To my mind, that's not a failure. Neither is sex that makes you laugh. It may be that I'm misinterpreting what you wrote about the panel discussion, but it seems to me that you're making an unwarranted leap from “non-transcendent” to "bad sex” and “failure.”

    I've had super-awesome, mind-blowing sex -- occasionally. I've also had clumsy sex, giggly sex, trying-to-get-pregnant sex, interrupted-by-the-cat sex, elegiac post-funeral sex, etc. It’s not always, or even often, transcendent, but it's usually very good. Oughtn't there to be some sort of middle ground between "transcendent" and "bad"?

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    1. The nature of a rant precludes the introduction of caveats :) So you're right, it--real sex or literary sex--isn't an either/or situation.

      Good sex isn't always perfect or mind-blowing, it can be enormous fun, it can be sweet, it can be rushed, it can be slow and tender, and--as you say--elegiac.

      The point I was trying to make is that it doesn't have to be bad to be human, to be real, to be worthy of literary exploration.

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    2. Thanks for the response. I do understand about rants. If I had a blog, it would probably be mostly rants.

      The word I keep coming back to is failure. I understand that for the purposes of a rant one must be stark, but I think that the idea that if sex isn’t transcendent and awesome then it’s a failure is exactly what motivates some of this dismissal of awesome sex as a possibility. It’s part of what makes some people feel like sexual failures. There are some comments above that attribute an inability to believe in awesome sex to sour grapes, but I think that misses the point. It’s not just that people are envious of something that other people have that they don’t or can’t have, but that they feel they were promised something that they don’t or can’t have. They feel burned. I don’t think this is a particularly rational or reasonable point of view, but I can certainly understand it. For a long time, it was the way I felt about romantic love and the way that fiction had influenced me to think about it.

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    3. I only used the word 'failure' in response to a comment. Not all non-amazing sex is failure. But failure--misery and giving up--is failure. And that's what some people focus on. That's what some writers appear to believe is the proper subject of literature.

      Of course failed sex happens. But then it's just, well, failure in the moment or, in some instances, with that partner. It doesn't mean the person is a failure. Ooof. I don't think a person can be a failure at sex anymore than we can be a failure at breathing.

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  26. I love this rant so very, very much. It's ironic that you're called out for being unrealistic because I've always felt what you write is the closest to the real thing. I recommend you as a writer more then any other and one of the first things I always say is, "Wait until you read the sex--it's incredible, the best sex you'll ever read."

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    1. I write sex as a feeling. People of all sexes and persuasions have told me they like the way I write it. So thanks. Good to know some people don't find it unrealistic :)

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  27. I like the way you think :)

    Your post reminds me of the Veronica Mars TV show, where Logan catches Veronica sneaking away from her first sexual tryst -- Logan is her ex-boyfriend, but she's doing it for the first time with her previouser ex-boyfriend (sorry, it's complicated, her life is complicated), but Logan says to her as he sees her exiting the hotel room where she trysted:

    "If cuddling is the best part, he's doing it wrong."

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