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I hate to sound like a complete idiot here, but I need somebody to explain something to me.

Why do writers put sex scenes in novels, and why do readers like to read them?

I don’t mean the sort of perfunctory “and then they went to bed” sort of throwaway thing that shows up pretty much everywhere these days. 

I mean the play by play–her put his tongue into her mouth and she began to melt kind of thing.

I mean, what’s the point? 

I assume there is one.  And I assume that most people find this sort of thing a turn on.  They must, because they like reading it, and they read a lot of it.

It turns me straight off.

For a long time, I thought that this was because what I’d read of this kind of thing was actual pornography.  And, for some reason I’ve never understood, most actual pornography seems to be aggressively ugly. 

I’m not sure why this is, or why people who go looking for pornography–for literature to turn them on, sexually–seem to want such a varied array of the physically violent and the generally unappetizing, but there it is.

Lately, though, I’ve been reading some mainstream fiction, and some romance novels, and the explicit sex scene now seems to be a staple of them all.

In general, these scenes are not aggressively ugly.  They’re just very explicit–his tongue, her tongue, how things feel when they go into orifices, whatever.

And I find myself thinking–even in scenes describing activities I have engaged in myself and found very nice indeed–I find myself thinking, “my God, that sounds unpleasant.”

Somebody once said that the only way we ever make love is that we fool ourselves into thinking (for the moment) that we’re Robert Redford, when in fact we’re Woody Allen.

I’m putting that badly, but I think I know what it means.

And I also think that we are only able to do the things we do when we make love because we bypass the logical faculties and feel instead of think about what we’re doing.

But a book is a logical thing.  It requires linear thought to understand.

When I read, all my logical faculties are up and running.  I am–necessarily, in order to do what I’m doing (meaning: read)–in a cold, non-physical place where I can concentrate on how words go together.

When he puts his tongue up her whatever, what I experience is a something on the order of what that would feel like in the mental state I’m already in.

In other words, yucky as hell.

I presume other people do not do this.  If they did, there would be no pornography, and no erotica, and the fact is that something fitting these two categories is probably the most prevalent aspect of literature throughout time.

But I don’t get it.

And I really don’t get it at five o’clock in the morning.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2012 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Dork'

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  1. I can’t explain it. I just returned a library book unread because it got into one of those scenes about six pages in. I think it was fairly standard, as these things go. But it doesn’t interest me, and in fact, I’d be much happier with a half paragraph or so of sinking into a passionate embrace, without the details, and which I can make as much or as little of as I want. It was a lot easier to find an entertaining novel about vampires or werewolves before every second published author started writing books about them which consisted of clinically-described sex scenes separated by the absolutely minimum possible amount of plot or characterization. Sometimes, they hit the ‘below minimum’ level. Laurell K. Hamilton has a lot to answer for. I actually liked her early books, but she went that way, and I haven’t been able to read any of later ones. I gave up trying years ago. Unfortunately, she’s inspired a lot of imitators of her later work.

    Someone somewhere told me that, unlike most men, most women don’t like graphic sex scenes in their novels. They like descriptions of relationships instead. If this is the case, who’s buying all these books – not just the vampire ones; the last time I glanced into, but didn’t buy, a romance novel, it seemed to have the same characteristics?


    18 May 12 at 7:54 am

  2. Jane says: “When I read, all my logical faculties are up and running. I am–necessarily, in order to do what I’m doing (meaning: read)–in a cold, non-physical place where I can concentrate on how words go together.”

    Okay, I guess I suspected this all along. For Jane, and for many readers, reading is not a *visceral* experience. It’s intellectual only. Or intellectual first, experiential down the line, maybe.

    I guess I’d say I have different “styles” or modes of reading. Sometimes I do the intellectual-only thing, to evaluate how the author does what they do, or to connect in kind with cold, intellectual writing. That’s useful for evaluation or review of the writing itself, but it’s definitely not where I go when reading fiction for pleasure.

    I don’t necessarily disconnect my intellectual evaluation when reading fiction, (I do recognize and reject outright bad writing) but particularly the first time through I’ll try to experience the emotions the author is trying provoke and the sweep of the action, rather than experience the words AS WORDS.

    In my younger days actual pornography was both educational (he did WHAT to her WHAT?!) and titillating. You’d be amazed at the things you find when babysitting other people’s children. I mean really, people. Your kids are in school. They can read. You keep THIS in your living room end table? But that was before I knew what the real thing was. Young hormones take what they can get.

    As an adult, sex scenes seem repetitive and lack reality. Certainly not as good as the real thing (or far far too good to be true). There are few new ways to describe the mechanics (what a good friend calls the “Boingy, boingy factor”: http://nickzone.net/NickZone/html/penis.htm).

    I have the same problems with combat scenes. How many ways can you describe a sword-fight or hand-to-hand combat? The one time I tried a more recent Tom Clancy, the techno-weapon porn style really just kicked me out of the experiential mode right away. But I understand that some people can experience that same writing with appreciation and enthusiasm.

    What I can read and enjoy from a participatory and experiential viewpoint are description and dialog about alien or future worlds & societies (sf or fantasy), or ordinary people involved in extraordinary situations (your standard mystery). I’ll tolerate a fair amount of grim (Karin Slaughter comes to mind) but won’t participate in saccharine cozy crap, and mostly vampires etc. make me gag.

    Re-reading, for me, often fulfills the intellectual connection with the words. First reading is for thundering through the story and *living it* as the author intended. What happens next? Will hero survive this? How?? At least that’s how I think the author intended it. Why write exciting scenes of endangerment, suspense or thrilling action otherwise? Some authors may include sex scenes (or battle or techno-weapons scenes) for the same reason, they think this is part of the living experience. Or they crassly believe sex scenes sell to people who page through looking for the dirty bits. ;)

    Romance novels have always baffled me, FWIW, because of the standard romance meme of people disliking other people they nevertheless are extremely attracted to, and keeping secrets and running around not talking to each other. I just want to smack everyone involved and thus these kinds of stories never seemed very romantic to me. I don’t want someone I love to treat me that way.

    But back to sex scenes. If you have a single, intellectually-based mode of reading, any of these things, erotica, action, combat, etc, take second place to how the words are used and assembled, always. And it makes it more difficult to understand how other people can experience their reading and become immersed in it.

    So I’ve maundered enough and have to go earn a living.


    18 May 12 at 1:37 pm

  3. In reading Jane’s post and Lymaree’s comment, I’m reminded of another reader on another list for another author. She can’t believe that people actually learn behaviors, conduct, etc. from fictional characters. To her the people in fiction aren’t “real” – they’re solely entertainment. I’m a very plot/character reader and that’s what I read for first. I read fast to find out what’s happened! If the language is beautiful, then I read it again – slowly – to appreciate it. Or I listen to it as an audiobook because I find that listening makes me slow down and appreciate the writing more.


    18 May 12 at 6:20 pm

  4. I agree with Lymaree’s comment. I have at least 2 modes of reading. If I’m reading non-fiction (usually history or science), I’m intellectual and logical. If reading fiction, I tend to turn off the intellect and go with the story. Sometimes I’ll reread a novel more slowly and critically but most of the time I just enjoy the plot and characters.


    18 May 12 at 9:16 pm

  5. I also agree with Lymaree. There was probably a time when I was mildly turned on by literary sex scenes, but it was a long, long time ago in a country far, far away. These days, in my dotage, I am turned off by many things in books and movies/TV shows, but most of all by sex scenes, the more gratuitous then the more I am repelled.

    My suspension of disbelief is also immediately crippled by any suggestion that the “hero” is some sort of Navy SEAL/Army Ranger/SAS superman who, we are expected to believe, is capable of a continuous series of physically daunting, if not physically – in the scientific sense – impossible. I immediately reach my limit if the female protagonist is said to be “beautiful”, incredibly brilliant and, again, physically capable of extraordinary endurance, unarmed combat, and expertise with a wide range of weaponry. Think any of the female characters in NCIS.

    Against these standards, I have long since given up trying to justify my continuing enjoyment of Robert Crais’s books or, for that matter, Lawrence Block’s. Exceptions that prove the rule, I guess.

    But my own recollection of the 1970s is that things were much worse then for gratuitous sex scenery than they are now. All gods be praised.


    19 May 12 at 2:00 am

  6. Pace NCIS, Abby? Unarmed combat? I don’t think so ;-)

    As for a different sword fight, I recommend Roger Zelazny, alas I can’t quite recall which novel it’s been so long but may have been in one of the Amber series where I think Corwin ends up fighting a character who can . . . so they . . . well, you’ll have to read it. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy it, but you’ll have to agree it’s different. And I can think of far worse things to read than the Amber series.


    20 May 12 at 8:08 am

  7. Hmmm. Some, I think, effectively is pornography–that is, it’s written, read and purchased for the same reasons, and I’m not going to discuss those reasons here and now. (Probably not there and then, either.)

    The other possibility is that this is a reflection of sexual mores in another way. As late as 1968, it was possible to write a romance novel in which characters were presumed to be sexually inexperienced and marriage irrevocable–commitment was the point and sex part of the total package. If the sex needed work, they could be presumed to practice until they got it right. A contemporary novel in which that was true would be a difficult sell, and far too many historicals reflect the sensibilities of the period of writing. And if everyone is sexually experienced and marriage isn’t binding, the temptation to show the characters having the best sex ever is going to get stronger.

    But in absolute fairness, I really have seen–not often!–fairly detailed sex scenes which advanced the plot. Jennifer Crusie’s FAKING IT really needs to have two characters having “mediocre sex” at one point and better sex later, and it’s equally necessary, but more complicated in WELCOME TO TEMPTATION. And in both novels, other characters–even viewpoint characters–are mentioned as having sex with no description given.

    Swordfights are trickier because the readers often lack the technical vocabulary. Burroughs and Sabatini do a nice job of describing how a swordfight is going without getting technical. Second the recommnedation for the orignal five Amber books. I wasn’t equally impressed by the sequel series.


    20 May 12 at 3:36 pm

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