Discussion: The Relevance of Sex in Literature in 2016.

My guest today Jeff Rose-Martland.

“Is Sex Relevant in Literature in 2016?”

Let’s disregard the date, because recent years haven’t changed all that much in terms of ‘need’ for sex in writing, that is.  Since the 1960s, at least, sex in a book hasn’t raised many eyebrows.

Relevancy is easy: either it fits, or it doesn’t.  Sex in Romance/Porn, obviously, is crucial, since that’s the whole point (in those genres, one is more likely the debate the relevancy of the non-sex plotline).  In other words, the relevancy of sex depends on the story.  Is sex more or less relevant than a Can o’ Beans, a Dirty Sock, a Spoon, a Painted Stick and/or a Conch Shell?  In 1984, sex is a critical part of the plot, as it’s a basic human right which has been denied.  Sex can be critical to the plot, or it can just seem part of the natural flow of the story.  It can be suggested, implied, or graphic, but above all it needs to belong.

In many airport novels, sex between stock-protagonist and stock-person-they-just-met is der rigour, but generally not relevant to the story at all.  Hollywood does this too in many films, almost as if some producer saw a final cut, then threw a tantrum, “Where’s the SEX???  You can’t make a movie with no sex in it!  No one will go!  People LOVE sex.  If boy doesn’t get girl, then what’s the damn point??? I wanna see titties!”

There are literally thousands of examples of that, but I’ll give you a for instance: Blood Work.  Based on a novel by Michael Connelly, starring and directed by Clint Eastwood, what would have been a decent retired-cop-turns-PI movie gets really sleazy when Eastwood, aged 72, suddenly starts boning 43-year-old Wanda De Jesus.  There you are, fist full of popcorn, waiting for the shooting to start, and suddenly grandad is giving it to a woman who could have been his youngest daughter.  (To put this in perspective: the year Wanda De Jesus was born, Clint Eastwood landed the lead role in Rawhide.)  There had been no hint of romance between the characters, and the whole scene was so out of place, and ugly, that it ruined the film.  Given that Clint made the movie, as my date that night said, “Clint is a dirty old man who just wanted an excuse to feel up a younger woman.”

I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, but I’m increasingly annoyed with the fact that Jack falls into bed with women he’s just met.  Novel #21 is coming up, which means Jack has had at least 21 bedmates – which should strike anyone as being entirely too promiscuous – and most of the books would be just a great without the sex.  In fact, if Jack was less of a mattress bunny, the books where Jack falls in love would be so much better.

That sort of thing is exactly why I objected to Soooz’ questions on the whole.  The question implies either a prudish censorship or a need to pushback or some massive change in society either should occur or has done.  All of those implications open the door for more sloppy story arcs.   Ultimately, that’s the problem with sex in literature.  Sometimes, it is a pivotal, crucial part of the narrative.  But most times, sex doesn’t need to be in there at all, any more than taking a piss, eating breakfast, or scratching one’s arse.  Think about all those little moments of humanity which we experience every day.  How many of those get put in books, and for what reason?  We don’t need to know that the protagonist had a huge dump, unless that’s going to be when he discovers he should see a doctor, and eventually learns he has cancer.  The woman crossing the parking lot, horking her hotpants out of her ass-crack can be turned into a social commentary… or it can just be 5 pages of wasting the readers’ time.

Sex in literature is not new.  From the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos to 1748’s Fanny Hill to Anais Nin to Story of O knockoff 50 Shades of Grey.  It took no time at all for the printing press to move from religious texts to exploring sex in The Canterbury Tales.  50 Shades, despite media fervour, wasn’t innovative – the Victorians wrote all sorts of smut about beatings, inspired by the rampant use of corporal punishment in that society.  No, there’s nothing new or innovative in writing about sex.  Just like the act itself, it has all been done.

Yes, in a broad sense, sex is part of the human condition and, therefore, suitable for exploration or inclusion.  But unless one is writing erotica (sex-fiction, pornography, whatever you want to label it), then sex has to fit the story.  Sex is every bit a part of life as eating, breathing, stubbing one’s toe… and deserves a place in literature alongside such things.  That is to say, only in keeping with the story.

Does it fit the narrative?  Is it crucial to the story arc?  Is it being used to make a point, or is it just filler?  These are question the writer must answer.  If a sex scene is crammed in just to fill a hole in the timeline, then it doesn’t belong.  If typical people, under the circumstances described, wouldn’t fall into the sack, then the scene probably doesn’t belong.  Portraying the human condition requires humans to act like humans, not contrived sex deities.

Sex can be used to great effect in a story, but a bad sex scene can kill an otherwise great tale.  And that is why focusing on the relevancy of sex is muddying the waters.  “Is Sex Relevant in Literature in 2016?” Possibly.  But frequently not.

– Jeff Rose-Martland is a writer and advocate living in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.  More of his work can be found here.

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