Monday, May 16, 2011

On Writing, Part VII — Sex, Love and Foul Language

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the seventh in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

I once wrote a story for an Indianapolis alternative newspaper. A lady had written a letter to the local daily complaining of the explicitness of a JC Penny underwear ad. The letter prompted me to take a look at Midwestern prudishness. "No Sex, please, we’re Hoosiers" was the title of the story, in which I also referred to the trial of a bookstore owner who was arrested for selling a copy of the "obscene" Tropic of Cancer to a customer. The prosecutor read the entire book to the jury. I believe there was a conviction, later overturned. But the point here is that Henry Miller wrote about the reality he knew and the reality of the people, whose portrayal he wanted to explore. Miller wasn’t interested in lost puppies and their dramatic trek back to the family living on a farm in Ohio — not that there is anything wrong with that.

For many people, though, life is sensuous. Food, sex, drink. It is no doubt inconceivable for writers of a certain nature to get through 400 pages NOT talking about something that is so integral to their (and their characters’) lives. But it must also be noted that some of the greatest literary writers of our times have embarrassed themselves, not by splitting an infinitive, but by attempting to describe sexual conjugation.

Rowan Somerville won the 2010 Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award for sexually related prose. Taken from his second novel, The Shape of Her, one passage read: 'Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.' His words were not the worst, nor was he the most famous to be singled out for such an acknowledgement. The prodigious Norman Mailer, the sophisticated John Updike and sensuously neurotic Philip Roth are among those who have earned this kind of unwelcome notice.

So, when do you use sex and when don’t you? How much and how graphic? In a sane society, it seems we should have a far greater tolerance for gratuitous sex than gratuitous violence, but in our writing is there really room for gratuitous anything? It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of style. In a soon-to-be-released novella, Mascara, my long-standing reluctance to describe a sexual act (the act of seduction is more interesting than the act itself) was overcome. Maybe overruled is a better word. The circumstances required the main character to have sex with that woman and that the act be consciously embedded in the readers’ minds. The story required it. Yes, yes, I know; but it’s true.

For me, sex is like any other element in the story. Is it integral to the story — for characterization or to propel the plot? If it is, the use is as valid as anything else. Certainly, if one’s table manners reveal character, his or her behavior in bed can be even more telling. Earnestness, inexperience, worldliness, all can be exposed, not to mention a propensity toward violence and cruelty. We all know sex is big deal when defining why we do what we do. Having it or not having it can be a major motivator and provide a major motive.

Less so in books — because we can skip a couple of paragraphs — but especially in film, sex scenes can go on too long. They can be embarrassing for the viewer. If the scenes are poorly written, they can take the reader completely out of the book and out of the mood to finish it.

As far as foul language is concerned, that’s easy. If it’s in keeping with your characters’ character, by all means let the four-letters fly. But like sex, guns and autopsies, make sure you know what you’re doing and that it’s not a substitute for substance.

No comments: