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01 July 2010 @ 03:18 pm
Portrayal of Sex and Other Good Things  
In her blog Nicola Griffith explains, skillfully and convincingly, why she often (usually) portrays sex as an ecstatic, mind-blowing experience, rather than as embarrassing, awkward or disappointing, which is frequently the case in literature. I'll leave you to read her argument for yourselves, but I think it can be summarized this way: "That's the way I experience it. That's the way it should be experienced. That's a realistic way to portray it." She was responding to critics who called her portayals unrealistic and misleading.

It's easy to agree that a monolithic portrayal of anything is bad art. So always portraying sex as embarrassing/awkward/etc. would be a problem. Nicola's experience is as valid as mine, and mine hasn't been too bad either, thank you for asking.

And to quote Le Guin, "[W]e have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain."

But there are other issues here, issues of cultural assumptions and power, that maybe need to be addressed.

If we look at popular portrayals -- film, television, and, let's go there, Harlequin novels -- we do not, in fact, see sex presented as embarrassing or awkward. What we see is typically a monolothic portrayal of sex as ecstatic, mind-blowing, world-changing. (Exceptions do occur on "sexually sophisticated" programs like Sex in the City or The L Word, but they are portrayed as exceptions.)

As we know, there are other areas in which popular culture tends to show monolithic portrayals. Women are skinny and clear-skinned; men are bulked-up and competent with violence; values are Western middle class; Americans are heroes.

The trouble with those portrayals is that they impart the implicit message that this is the way things should be. Women should be skinny, men should be competent with violence, values should be Western middle class. Those who are not, are implicitly told by these messages that they are "wrong," that their difference is a defficiency, that it is their fault.

When popular media consistently portrays sex as ecstatic and mind-blowing, it sends the message to every person whose experience is disappointing, "There's something wrong with you." (Actually, Nicola did it in her blog entry, probably unintentionally: "If it's not that way for you, maybe you're doing it wrong.")

I agree that sex should be wonderful. And food should be plentiful, nutritious and tasty, and people should be able to hold their tempers until they can speak rationally, and parents should be nurturing and kind, and brother should not raise arm against brother, and they should beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. But the possibilities for fiction become limited when we portray the world as it should be.

One of the virtues of "sophisticates and pedants," annoying as they are, is that they try to subvert this hegemony of the Normal. They portray class, race, body type, cultural value differently -- and they portray sexuality differently too. The advantage, or supposed advantage, of this sort of portrayal is that it is a remedy to the cultural power of the Normal. They send the message, I hope, that you need not think there is Something Wrong With You if the stars didn't fall from the sky every time you had sex.

I don't think Nicola is arguing for a monolithic portrayal of sex-as-miracle. I think she's right to point out that monolithic portrayal of sex-as-unsatisfying is lousy. She acknowledges that "bad sex" exists. I wanted to complicate the discussion a little.
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J. Kathleen Cheneyj_cheney on July 1st, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
Having read my share of romance writers, I think that very few portray sex as anything other than mindblowing.

(I rather like Mary Balogh for her protrayal of this. Amazingly enough, her women don't always have an orgasm...and the men are often surprised if the women do. But to be honest, she's the only romance writer I recall doing that.)
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 2nd, 2010 04:11 am (UTC)
Yes. What fascinates me is Nicola's observation that, at least among the literarati, the opposite assumption seems to hold.
J. Kathleen Cheneyj_cheney on July 2nd, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
And I have no explanation for that...
celestialgldfsh: Normalcelestialgldfsh on July 1st, 2010 08:05 pm (UTC)
Portraying sex as mind-blowing is part of the appeal of romance. Hot guy + planet-exploding sex = happily ever after. People don't want to pay to read about bad sex, not when many experience it themselves (not that I'm speaking from personal experience, of course).

I have a sex scene in Normal, but it doesn't show the complete act. It doesn't need to. The intimacy of touch means something special when my heroine has spent her entire thirty years unable to make any bare skin physical contact and remain conscious.
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 2nd, 2010 04:12 am (UTC)
You're pointing out something similar to Annette's observation below. It's the effect of the sexual contact on the plot and characters that really makes the difference. I'm sure Nicola would agree with that.
Tiffanienggirl on July 1st, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
Well, I have to agree on the messages that we get in the media vs. "reality" that doesn't live up to that message. Maybe it's less about *mind-blowing, fabulous* sex and more about *unrealistic* sex, with the pinnacle being the whole "simultaneous orgasm" thing. (I personally want to call a moratorium on that one in lit.) Sure, sex can be amazing, but it can also be ridiculous and a bit weird. And to write about both is to be true. I think it's when every last sexual passage you read is full of fireworks, it begins to seem as if the person who wrote it is just writing fireworks for the sake of putting a sex scene on the page and not for the sake of trying to describe a real encounter with fumblings (that could, of course, lead to fireworks). *Too* perfect feels false, like the glossy photos in a fashion mag.

And I'm just repeating what y'all said. But yes, I agree on both sides I think is what I'm trying to say. One more thing: It's better to leave the sex scene out altogether than to keep a bad one!
Tiffanienggirl on July 1st, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
And on that last sentence: By "bad" I meant "badly written" not "full of bad/awkward/non-fireworks sex." Because there is such thing as fireworks sex scenes that are just plain gosh-awfully written.
Ken: Winkken_schneyer on July 2nd, 2010 04:13 am (UTC)
I suppose that last line could apply to any kind of scene: better to leave it out than leave it bad.
moonette1: helmet 4moonette1 on July 1st, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
Fascinating discussion, Ken.

I think it is sort of artificial to make a sex scene one way or the other for any purpose other than to serve or progress the story/characters. A scene of mind-blowing sex or bad sex can be 'correct', depending on the story. But no one should have to apologize for writing about mind-blowing sex. That certainly is a reality for some people, and even if it is not a reality for some, it is what some might choose to read for escapist fantasy. I do get tired of those 'sophisticates' who think there is something less artistic about the good or the best of the human condition, and who want to dwell on the lowest of the low. You might have guessed I don't quite agree with you about the "virtue" of the sophisticates and pendants who try to subvert the hegemony of the Normal. Why is it a virtue to force, emphasize, glorify, exaggerate, a portrayal of certain 'less than the best' experiences just to increase someone's self-esteem? Why not celebrate the wonderful, and hope those less fortunate will aspire to it? The problem here, of course, is the definition of what is wonderful.

My bias is to have my fiction show, somewhere, the best of the human condition, and this doesn't mean shying away from pain or sadness or tragedy, or even bad sex if it is warranted ;) - it means that even through the struggles, or because of the struggles, we can see the core of the wonderful in our existence, and are left with hope. But if it serves my characters to celebrate the wonderful, I absolutely will without apology. I simply don't have the time/energy to spend writing or reading works that leave me solely in despair. Bad sex leaves people in despair. I think with something like sex, most all of us can agree that good sex is better than bad, whereas we cannot all agree that it is better to have men competent with violence or women skinny. So that analogy doesn't quite work for me.

Damn, I wish I had more time to stay and play, but the kids are calling.

Edited at 2010-07-01 09:01 pm (UTC)
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on July 2nd, 2010 04:20 am (UTC)
Of course I agree entirely that a sex scene (like any other scene) should advance the characters or plot. Apart from an erotica story someone once asked me to write, I've written only three actual sex scenes (although several "fades to black"); in each case, there was a specific character transition I was trying to show.

I also like your notion of celebrating the wonderful. Interestingly, I think that Nicola would probably agree that "subverting the hegemony of the Normal" is a good thing. (This post was originally designed to be a comment on her blog, and got too long for that -- hence I failed to explain or elucidate certain things I assumed she'd take as given.) But your point is well taken.

The analogy with the skinny might not work, but how about the analogy with good food or gentle parents? Even effective romance writing depends on things not going as they're supposed to -- the "flangst" sequence, yes? -- for a substantial portion of the work.
Antosha Chekhonte: Hmmmmmm...mickawber on July 2nd, 2010 04:16 am (UTC)
It probably won't surprise you to hear that I have a lot to say on this subject.

Unfortunately, I'm answering this on my phone, so I'll stick to two thoughts. First, I tend to write sex as transformative and positive because, with very few exceptions, that's how I've experienced it. Most of the time, anyway. I know that not everyone does, I know that I'm likely coming to an age where that's less a given, and I... Well, I can't say I ENJOY reading about bedroom disasters and and disappointments, but I find them just as compelling as positive portrayals--in the right story.

Which is my second point. Unlike a character's weight or nationality, a sex scene in a story is a plot point. So the scene itself will be defined by it's function in the story, don't you think? The stories in which I've written sex scenes are all stories in some way about relationships and intimacy. So if I write a scene as a disappointment--which I have done once or twice--then I feel as if I've put those authorial first act pistols up on the wall, you know?

Which isn't by any means the only way to look at it. Just how I look at it, y'know?
Ken: Crazy or Gleeful?ken_schneyer on July 2nd, 2010 04:29 am (UTC)
Yes, exactly, it's a plot point. So the nature of the sex sequence -- thrilling or dull, joyous or miserable, novel or familar -- depends entirely on the direction in which you want to move the characters and the plot (see Annette's comment, above).

I think there are some scenes in Facing Backwards that maybe fit the bill, yes?
Antosha Chekhontemickawber on July 2nd, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)
Well, I would hope so, yes. Also—I hope!—scenes in Back to the Garden and my other fics as well. ;-)

What I guess we're both getting at, from different directions, is the idea that, like any other elements of a story, sex scenes ought to be centered on the characters and their journey (the plot) rather than purely the sex itself.

In Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, Joyce defines pornography as art that excites desire for the object:

The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing. Desire urges us to possess, to go to something; loathing urges us to abandon, to go from something. The arts which excite them, pornographical or didactic, are therefore improper arts. The esthetic emotion (I used the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.

So, I suppose, we are talking—in slightly less high-flying language—about just this distinction: between sex scenes as proper art, which evokes what Joyce calls aesthetic arrest, on the one hand; and pornography, which simply tries to get the reader's mental salivary glands going.