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Steam Along the Mohawk

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As for the title, don’t ask.  It’s one of those days.

But I’ve been looking over the comments from the last post, and two things struck me.

First, pace Mique, Harold Robbins never wrote an explicit sex scene in his life.  Even Grace Metallious (Peyton Place) only informed her readers that some kind of bizarre sex had taken place.

For explicit sex, you had to look at Henry Miller, who was a sort of cult icon among (mostly male) writers in the Sixties. 

But the issue comes down to what will and won’t sell books, and writers and publishers are looking for “the kind of thing” that will get readers to buy.

It’s not entirely true that any “good” book will find an audience.  Fashions come and go in fiction as in anything else, and very good books that are outside their time often go nowhere.

But the fashion for very explicit sex and violence is something else.

It’s an attempt to make books not books.

Books have always been addressed principally to the mind. 

I don’t mean they were Intellectual with a capital I, but that the writer and the reader both assumed that the attraction of reading was getting your mind to work, either logically or imaginatively. 

A book doesn’t have to be difficult to read in order to do this.  The idea isn’t to give everybody the mental equivalent of a full body workout.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. 

The issue is only that it be your mind that is appealed to, and maybe to your emotions in the sense of sympathy for the characters, which is also a mental act.

What books do when they provide more and more graphic sex scenes and more and more graphic violence is to appeal not to the mind, but to the gut.

I’m not talking about sympathy or imagination here, but a reaction similar to getting tazed.  The material bypasses mind and emotions both to give you a kind of electric shock.  And if you like that electric shock, you’re going to want a bigger one the next time.

For centuries, the only kind of literature that went for the electric shock was pornography, and that was why pornography was deemed both trashy and illicit.  It was trashy because it didn’t appeal to the mind, which was assumed to be the most human part of the human.  It was illicit because the Powers that Were thought it was a bad idea for human beings to spend their time chasing ever larger electric shocks.

Think drug addiction.  Or–closer in actual experience–chronic gambling.

I do not like to read or watch explicit violence, so I was unaware that graphic descriptions of child rape and murder had become so prevalent. 

It does occur to me that such graphic violence marks a distinct change from when I started publishing fiction, when I was told that violence done to a child would hurt a book.  I even had a book–Charisma–with such violence, that was roundly panned in several places, including the New York Times, for having such violence.

But if violence is becoming more common in books, my guess is that it’s there because there is no other place to go. 

And all graphic violence looks like a how to manual.  It would almost have to.

But if such books are selling, then somebody wants to read them. 

And it seems to me that books without the electric jolt are selling less well.

And I have, really, no idea of what any of this is supposed to mean.

It may, though, explain something about the tendency to shove books that are not cozy into the cozy label. 

Maybe we have just reached a point where there is no name for a novel that is just a novel, genre or otherwise.  You either have “dark,” meaning explicit, or books that are deemed before they’ve ever been read to be cutsey, silly and unrealistic.

I’ve got a good one, by the way, if you want to read a decent traditional mystery novel but might get turned off by the cozy label because you don’t like detecting cats or characters that are less like human beings than vaudeville skits.

Try Jane K. Cleland’s Consigned to Murder.

It’s the first in her Josie Prescott series, and it’s very good indeed.  And very well written.

And not in the least bit cutsey-wootsie, giggle and give recipes.

That’s my recommendation for the week.

Written by janeh

March 17th, 2012 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Steam Along the Mohawk'

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  1. Memories of adolescence and disreputable paperbacks! It’s true: Robbins never delivered a respectable sex scene, though he kept stringing the reader along. The man had the makings of a dull mainstream novelist–or a shady real estate salesman. But Metalious I remember as sometimes being about as explicit at that scene in THE GROUP which came up earlier. If one’s a “blow by blow” so is the other, I think. Probably it has to do with background when the scene was first read. Neither scene would make the grade as “erotic romance” today.

    It’s interesting that it took the Supremes nearly two centuries to decide that “free speech and press” included pornography. No one who actually wrote or ratified the Bill of Rights seems to have felt it did, which makes a pretty good case for pornography being different. Two hedges, though:

    One is that you can’t read and altogether turn off the mind. Setting aside smuty woodcuts, the words still have to be read and meaning extracted from them. It would be entirely–maybe “proper” isn’t the right word, but feasible–to read a sex scene and critique the prose style. Even at its lowest level, reading involves parts of the brain not involved in looking at pictures or listening to music.

    Second is that there can be an element even in pornography which is not appealing to what a friend calls the reptile level of the brain. Consider: the participants are of age and the sex is consensual and reasonably straight–so stress is laid on the impropriety of the relationship–incest today or class lines crossed a century ago. The act itself hasn’t changed, but the scene is moved further along toward–wherever pornography goes.

    I once heard it said of a man that he wouldn’t make money honestly if he could: the appeal (for him) was in the fraud. I think, apart from the drive for more and more explicitness, there is also a population for whom breaking the rules is the whole point. This troubles me, because some of the rules are there for good reasons.

    I would agree that material not “dark” is sometimes deemed unrealistic, and I think this says something very interesting about the critics and reviewers, since both history and personal experience have shown me that uniform darkness is at least equally unrealistic. For myself, I think it means we need new critics and reviewers.

    And STEAM ALONG THE MOHAWK is clearly a science fiction novel set in the 18th Century. Benjamin Franklin figures prominently.


    17 Mar 12 at 2:06 pm

  2. Ah! CONSIGNED TO MURDER gets no hits. CONSIGNED TO DEATH seems to be the title meant.


    17 Mar 12 at 3:33 pm

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