There’s nothing like a touch of the erotic in a story to polarise the public.
Around 15 years ago I wrote a series of erotic vignettes. For a few intriguing weeks, a male friend and I exchanged intimate short stories with one another. He wrote well and I cherished the notion that I held my own in this domain too, armed as I was with a reasonable grasp of the English language and a willingness to embrace the moment. How wrong I was.
A few weeks ago, I was clearing out my old archive of stuff – you know – the odd bits of stuff you keep because it seems premature or a bit brutal, to discard them. And somehow years later there they still are, in a box, tucked away somewhere. In my archive of stuff there was a sealed envelope with a cryptic label. I realised immediately what I’d come across: my naughty stories.
I couldn’t help myself, I had to re-read.
But oh, oh… oh, how they made me weep. I really, properly cringed at how wincingly, oozingly, butt-clenchingly ghastly they were. What I’d remembered as intense and subtle scenes creaked with cliché, uncomfortable metaphor and the direst of dialogue. Mortifying. But at least this was all private, locked-away, shared with one other person in a mutually assured destruction kind of a way, destined never to see the light of day.
Writing sex is challenging. When it comes to the erotic, what excites one person will bore another and offend still more. You write about sex at your peril because it will polarise opinion, and you’ll never please all the people. The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex Award bears awesome and awful testimony to this.
Writing good sex requires so much more than a grasp of the English language; so much more than a talent for creative storytelling; and so much more than an eye for imaginative imagery and metaphor. You can have all that and still your sexual episode can end up as a damp squib, a corny joke or, worst of all, an embarrassment of inappropriate excess. That’s because when it comes to writing sex, it’s about more than technique. It’s about how it’s… received. There are two key components, about which you as a writer can do nothing at all; your reader’s personal, private perspective, and the mood of their moment. So you write your sex and you take it to market and, like Marmite, there’s them that’ll love it, and there’s them that’ll hate it.
A couple of weeks ago, a newbie book club in which I’m participating was discussing which book to read first. There was considerable support for Fifty Shades of Grey. It surprised me that several ladies in the room hadn’t yet sampled its pages – and most of these ladies keenly desired the excuse/justification to read this notorious novel.
I’ve read it – the first book only – that was enough. So have many others; a gazillion copies have sold across the world. Hats off to EL James for that, by the way; because whatever I think of the writing and the fact that it’s not for me, she’s done very, very well. Many readers have found her stories stimulating and exciting. For some it’s even been a springboard to improving the quality of their own personal relationships. And it’s churlish not to celebrate a book which achieves that for anyone.
But I’m not one of those; I’m one of the readers who found it dreary and insipid. Am I betraying too much of myself to say that I thought it was tame, that it ventured towards a line, but then turned right around and ran home to mummy? I didn’t like the repeated oh my’s or the euphemistic turns of phrase. I thought it too sickly sweet and not nearly edgy or dark enough to do its subject matter any justice. But that’s just IMHO – and those books sold and sold and sold, so what do I know?
A touch of the erotic in a story can feel dark and delicious, or it can come across as cheap and tawdry, depending on the mood of the moment. It’s the heat of the night, versus the cold light of the morning after. It’s candlelight and Armagnac one moment, and the stained bedsheets of a run-down motel the next.
So what of my secret package of erotic vignettes? They had their little private ‘heat of the night’ moment and that’s where they should have stayed. They don’t belong in the cold light of the morning after; fifteen years later, in the hands of someone who fancies she’s learned a little about life since then, not to say a great deal about writing fiction.
They don’t belong; they’ve embarrassed me quite enough. Now they’ve gone for good, courtesy of my office shredder.
So, are you wondering if there’s any sex in my first novel, Singled Out? Are you wondering if I’ve been bold enough to have another go at the challenge of writing sex into my fiction?
I have, kind of. I’ve written a story about a singles holiday, after all. Whilst I haven’t written romantic sex scenes (it’s a psychological suspense novel, not Mills & Boon), I have toyed with sex in one way and another throughout the narrative. Here and there it’s become quite dark and unsettling too – I think, dark and unsettling enough, although others may feel I’ve wimped out. But it’s all about personal perspective, isn’t it?
So one of these days, if Singled Out gets representation and wins the affections of a publisher, you judge those love-it-or-hate-it Marmite moments from your own personal, private perspective.