Did that get your attention?
There’s romance in my novels, and it often culminates in sex. Not all of them, but many of them. I’m told this is still an unusual thing in the fantasy genre — an almost entirely new development centered around the popularity of urban fantasy (UF) and paranormal romance (PR), and the publishing industry’s desire to attract women readers. I’m not sure why this is such a new thing, given that romance (especially romance with an erotic component) is the biggest-selling category in genre fiction, and given that women have been about half the human population for oh, awhile now. Seems odd that fantasy has only recently started trying to attract them. Nevertheless, not so long ago, used to be that fantasy, like other speculative fiction, shied away from anything deemed sufficiently girly, and romantic subplots are about as girly as it gets.
Sex, note, was never off the fantasy table. From the comparatively mild sexual silliness of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series to the “is this legal?” master-slave ethos of John Norman’s Gor books, the fantasy genre has never been prudish. But this take on fantasy sex has usually been oriented towards a specific demographic: male readers, probably young or at least adolescent in their sensibilities, and probably heterosexual. This demographic has made up the bulk of the fantasy audience for the past few decades, and even with the advent of PR and UF, it’s still probably a very large percentage of the readership.
Particularly in epic fantasy, which is what I write. Which puts me in a bit of a quandry. How does a female epic fantasy writer, whose audience will include many or mostly male readers, handle the delicate matter of sex? Do I write sex in a way that appeals to me as a modern, postfeminist woman? Or do I write the kind of sex that sells, and has sold well in the past?
This is more than a sales issue. This is about my values, my complicity in perpetuating problematic genre conventions, my career reputation. This is srius bizns, yo.
So I give serious thought to the sex. I often ask myself whether I should include it at all — and sometimes the answer is no, I shouldn’t. So I don’t. But when I do, I have to consider how to include it. “Fade to black” or explicit? Stylistically depicted or plain straightforward language? If I’m writing a third-person narrative with multiple PoVs, should the sex scene be written from the hero’s perspective or the heroine’s? (And since I sometimes include gay characters, hero 1 or hero 2?) Given societal reactions to sexually assertive women, how will readers react if my heroine initiates the sex, or controls it? Given the male-centric history of sex in fantasy, is it good or bad if my male character is into bondage? What if the core romance is a threesome? How far can I push the envelope, and still make both myself and my readers happy?
It’s a delicate balancing act. Too realistic and the sex feels gratuitous. Too stylized/symbolic and it becomes laughable, or incomprehensible. If I follow the genre’s conventions too much, I run the risk of repeating the problems and cliches that have repelled me from other fantasy novels. If I get too avant garde, I risk alienating my traditional-fantasy audience.
This balancing act is not unique to me, note. I think most fantasy authors do it to some degree, especially the women. Quoting here from Dr. Debra Doyle, one of my instructors from Viable Paradise and an award-winning established fantasy author herself, in her hilarious essay, “The Girl Cooties Theory of Genre Literature”:
It’s possible to include sex (as distinct from romance) without adding girl cooties, but it’s risky. There’s always the chance that the hero might take a few minutes to talk to the girl afterward, and that gets you perilously close to cootie territory.
I think UF and PR have successfully proven that girl cootie-infested fiction can sell like hotcakes. But can it sell beyond these categories? That’s still up in the air. I hope to become one of the authors that proves it.
But y’know? In spite of all this talk about sales, those aren’t my first consideration. In general, I tend to opt for what makes me happy first. But then I always show my first draft to others — my writing group, or my agent, or friends who are willing to give me an honest second opinion. Then I rachet down, or up, depending on how they react. (And yeah, it’s sometimes weird giving sex scenes to friends; I do wonder what they think of me! But I usually hope they’ll apply the same fiction-reading standards to sex stuff that they do to any of my other writing. Writing about serial killers doesn’t make me one, and writing about characters who are into Sexual Kink #475 doesn’t mean I am.) This input is invaluable, and often keeps me from making mistakes.
For example — there’s a scene in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that you’ll never see, or at least not as it existed in its original form. In this scene, a woman makes love to a god whose appearance varies depending on his viewer’s perceptions and expectations, even on a subconscious level. So although she wills him to look like the man of her dreams, there’s some slippage: at one point he manifests distinctly feminine characteristics. (Yes, I mean that.) I’m a psychologist in dayjob life, so I’m aware of concepts like the Kinsey Scale, and the relative rarity of people who fall into the “exclusive” extremes of this scale. This woman’s heterosexual, but not exclusively so, and her lover reacts accordingly.
When I showed this draft to pre-readers, however, those who mentioned it reacted strongly in the negative. It was squicky, they said; it made the scene completely non-erotic. One person said it “took her into primordial Id territory”; this was not a compliment. Worse (IMO), it was too obvious that I was trying to make a statement about human sexuality and my beliefs; this turned the scene from one of pivotal, climactic character development into an authorial soapbox.
This proved to be the clincher for me, so I modified the scene, removing the variable-gender bit. I can make statements anytime, after all — but with this novel, my job is to entertain my readers. I think pushing the envelope and challenging dominant paradigms can be entertaining, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t make readers run screaming from the Message ™.
So now I’m curious. What novels have you read in fantasy that handled sex well, and what did those authors do that made it work for you?
(Sex sex sex sex sex! Does that make you want to comment?)