Why We are Embarrassed about Romance Writing

The goods on WritingNot too long ago, a member of my creative writing group wrote for the first time a sex scene and read it aloud to us. Now, this person is a pretty decent writer. They were featured in an anthology before and is head of an editorial board this year. This person knows the craft. They just never wrote a sex scene before. What this writer read to us was atrocious, to say the least. When I gave feedback it was difficult to justify my opinion, however, considering I spent the whole reading complaining about the excess of cock (in a humoristic manner). I’m a lesbian and the scene was two guys going at it. Where do I have an opinion, right? How am I supposed to know what works?

Well, dear reader, hold on tight. Here comes the good stuff.

When we think of erotic fiction, what comes to mind first? Maybe 50 Shades of Grey? Or perhaps those $2 trashy romance novels at the used bookstore? Whatever it is, there is usually an accompanied sense of shame behind the thought of “erotic” romance writing. Women and men smuggle their romance books out of stores like they were loading up on bricks of cocaine or something. Decent people would not be caught reading that material, of course. And despite the social taboo, people do read it. It’s one of the best-selling genres.

With this social stigma behind the genre comes the problems for writers. Who would dare write such a thing? Usually people dismiss romance writing as an easy mark they dare not dirty their hands with or say sex scenes ae just too much for them to handle. They say they’re not qualified for whatever reason. Because the sex scene is granted this mystical status from writers, it often creates the most anxieties when people attempt to write it.

Which brings me back to our writer from the beginning. This sex scene was about 8 pages long and took place between two men. It covered a variety of activities and kept a good pace.

Despite this person’s ability, the writing fell flat. The characters were little more than body parts and the prose nothing but stitched-together buzz words meant to get a rise out of the intended audience (pun intended as well). But why did this happen? Why did the writer think it was all right or perhaps necessary to shove aside character building and meaning in the story when the characters decided to do the nasty? Another scene between the characters (not a sex scene) read beautifully. It made people cry. And the characters actually felt like characters. It’s not like they felt like two different sets between the scenes. It’s that the sex scene did not have characters.

Here lies the problem: we have somehow decided that good writing does not include the sex scene of a story. In fact, people often judge the merit of a romance novel by asking if the sex scene can be left out. If a sex scene is not regarded as necessary in any way, why bother writing it? This is where the sense of embarrassment can enter behind the writing. Somehow, this piece is just a load of fan-service, and a real writer would not bother with it.

This is wrong though. I think if a story is going to have sex scenes, they better be important in some way. The big thing about writing is to never include excess. If a scene is not essential, cut it away. Is that not the mantra of our generation’s writing style? That means the characters cannot just become body parts. Words cannot just be inserted because they are associated with pornographic images. Sex scenes should be used in stories to create a deeper sense of character or explore elements of the story the reader could not understand otherwise. Yes, we are provoking a physical response, but it should never be exclusive to a person’s sexual preference. That means there’s an emotional tie-in. We are emotionally invested in these characters, and that feeling should not disappear in the writing, ever.

Actually, I would like to issue a challenge to writers everywhere: include a sex scene in your work. Do not treat it like a shameful smoke-and-mirrors trick to garner more readers. Treat it like an important, integral part of the story that cannot be done away with and write it so that it needs to be there. It can be done. I have read stories where almost all the character development happens within sex scenes. I’ve read stories where there’s the one big sex scene, like it’s the pay-off for getting through the book. Make it more than that. Make it part of the story in a genuine way. The emotional bridge between a reader and the characters is too important to simply discard when scenes get a little intense.

So, I would also like to invite you all to share your thoughts on the subject. Did my rant make any sense? Do I have a point here? I think discussion is the only way to wade through difficult topics like this one.

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8 thoughts on “Why We are Embarrassed about Romance Writing

  1. I completely agree with you. Why should sex scenes by done away with? It’s a natural part of life – it’s not like we can deny this. I don’t see why people should be uncomfortable with it at all.
    If someone is writing a romance, they don’t gloss over the feelings or even the kisses. To me, sex is another way to show these feelings.
    Here is where I have to admit, though: I have written sex scenes before but I never feel as though I managed to capture the characters in them. I guess my challenge to myself is to work harder to accomplish this.

    • They are hard to write! Don’t get me wrong there. I wrote a lot of terrible sex scenes before I produced one good one that people enjoyed. Thanks for the comment though! As far as writing the scenes goes, my only advice is to keep trying. Think less about the physical actions and more about what exactly your characters would do. It’s another way to show them off.

  2. I completely agree. Sex itself has become such a taboo subject, people just don’t want to speak about it, much less write it. It’s sad because we’re bombarded with the subject everyday, everywhere and yet people don’t want to actually talk about it. Sex can be a beautiful life-altering experience and it should be considered an intricate part of a character’s life if the time is right for them. But the time has to be right, though, a writer can’t just throw in the sex scene to be the sex scene. Like you said, it has to be a meaningful part of the plotline. Good post!

    • Hey, thanks for throwing in a comment! Especially about this topic. I just got really frustrated with hearing people discuss how you should be able to do away with a sex scene for something to be considered good lit. I get what they’re trying to say, but the writer is not doing their job right if there is a dispensible part of the story.

      • For sure! If there is any part of a story that can be cut and nothing would change, then it should be, regardless of the type of scene it is. If the sex has a reason to be in there, a concrete reason, then let it be, Literature (with a capital L, here) or not.

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