HE SAID, SHE SAID is a brand-spanking-new feature created and hosted by Rachel (at) Confessions of a Book Geek and Joey (at) Thoughts and Afterthoughts, where formality is thrown out of the window in no-holds-barred discussions on all things bookish.
Let’s Get It On – Sex In Fiction
Welcome to our first ever (S)he Said discussion! Following on from last month’s #sexmeup readathon, we’ve cranked up the heat as we get down and dirty with a three-part discussion on Sex in Fiction. So dim the lights, turn up that Marvin Gaye, and join us as we take you into the steamy world of Sex in NA/Adult Fiction.
*Warning* This post may contain some explicit content!
She Said: The #sexmeup readathon got me thinking about sex in fiction and I made a couple of revelations:
- It pops up more often in fiction than I realised, and
- I actually don’t read as many hardcore erotica books as I thought.
I’ve read 40 books so far in 2014, and of those around 8 had some obvious sexual content (mostly New Adult), and a few (mostly YA) had something a bit more subtle and subdued.
He Said: Well statistically, you can look at that as 20% of the total or a hundo percent if you base it off the NA genre only. But before we delve into NA as a genre, let’s start with the basics: when did you encounter your first literary sex scene?
She Said: Aside from the odd snippet here and there in books that I can’t really remember, the very first time I can vividly remember a sexual scene in a novel was Pretty Things by Sarah Manning (YA). The story follows four main teenage characters over the course of a summer – Brie is in love with her gay best friend Charlie, who is crushing on straight bad-boy Walker, who loves lesbian Daisy. You can see where this is going…
He Said: Sounds like a mishmash of confusion and teenage drama-llamas to me. Truth be told, I can’t remember the first sex scene I ever read, but I do remember a few from this year. I think one was in a YA novel, but it was suggestive at best. The other scenes were in books marketed as “Adult Fiction” and they had polar opposite impacts on me; one worked and the other one was a flop. To elaborate a bit: the moments of sexual exploration in Dublin in the Rain by Andrew Critchley gave me context; it was raw and honest on a variety of levels (there were multiple scenes) because it delivered the level of companionship mirroring an old married couple–basically, it was more than just lust. On the flip-side, The Furies: A Thriller by Mark Alpert, was just an unnecessary moment of exploding sexual tension. Don’t get me wrong, pent up lust can work in some cases to drive progression and development but it definitely needs to fit within the reigns of the novel. You can’t just be like, ‘Hey, I just met you, and this is – sex, now.’ Yes, that was a Call Me Maybe reference. Substance, where you at?!
She Said: Haha! I’ll be singing that song all day now… OK, I see what you mean, but I do find a lot of the romances I read have background stories, though the relationship can move at ridiculous speeds sometimes. For example, the main characters dislike each other, or are wary of each other, and then suddenly they’re head-over-heels in love and consumed with lust. It’s all very dramatic. I think you’re referring to “insta-love”? There’s plenty of dislike for insta-love among female readers too, but I think males would maybe find it more tiresome. For a while, insta-love was everywhere. A lot of girls like to “swoon” when we read books with sex scenes, and in some cases the insta-love doesn’t matter so much, in fact in the right context (e.g. paranormal), it can add to the swoons. It’s subjective.
He Said: I can understand where insta-love is coming from but doesn’t it make you wonder sometimes? I’m generalizing a bit but it seems like there’s always this good girl who knows all about the antics of some guy – how slutty he is, how bad he’s supposed to be, etc. – and yet they’re seemingly jigsaw pieces from the same puzzle. Uncanny. Where’s the thought of stranger-danger, mutual non-sexual relationship building, safe-sex and the like? I can gather that it’s fiction and therefore should make an effort to put forward idealistic and dreamlike writing but isn’t there a niche for a tinge of realism as well? But hey, maybe I just don’t buy into insta-love as a theme despite it being featured in a lot of romance novels.
She Said: It does tend to feature quite heavily in NA, which I only started reading this year. I didn’t know NA was even a genre before I started blogging, and now I tend to gravitate toward it. Not only do you get a romance hit, with some more steam than in YA, but the characters usually have issues or back-stories of some sort. It can get a little tedious sometimes when the same themes are beaten to death and repeated constantly, but I like my characters to come with some baggage. I’d like to see some more sexual/relationship realism rather than the “bad-guy-good-girl, only she can change him, and she’s really sweet and innocent and doesn’t know how hot she is” thing. This post is fantastic at rounding most NA up.
He Said: Haha, I hear ya. For the longest while, I thought “Fiction” was the encompassing genre for all things adult, so it’s nice to know that there are distinct categories for it. I’ll admit that I’ve read some novels that are probably considered NA despite being labeled as Fiction or Adult, assuming NA has to have sex scenes?
She Said: NA is supposed to be defined by the age of the protagonist. So, YA is about teens, Adult is about adults, and there was a gap for that college-age protagonist. When NA first burst on to the scene, the sheer amount of sex in the novels was something you couldn’t help but notice – it seemed as though publishers believed we went from being 16/17 and reading about light-hearted romance, to waking up one day at 20 thinking of nothing else but sex. I think authors and publishers are starting to move away from that now, as there are more NA titles that will just about touch on sexual elements in the story-line, but there’s so much more to the plot than the sex scenes (Maybe Someday by Colleen Hoover being a prime example!).
He Said: I feel like sex might be one of those all-encompassing, catch-all plot devices that authors seem to think readers are interested in. The main readership for NA is female through and through, at least from what I’ve seen, and so if history and statistics hold any relevance then girls and women seem to enjoy reading about sex as the focal point. With that in mind, it seems like the NA genre put itself in a bubble where it had to meet the sex criteria, so it became an expectation; and usually that doesn’t do much to entice the male audience. That isn’t to say that there aren’t guys who will read it—that’s by far the case—as I’m sure there’s a sample size of men, irrespective of sexual orientation, that truly enjoy reading it. But, if first impressions of book covers hold any value, then many of the guys that I know wouldn’t open up a NA novel based on its superficial appearance; i.e. a greased up body-builder on the front. And I’m sure there are some girls who are the same. It isn’t even about having a narrow mindset or the pretense of femininity in a novel’s face value that can turn away potential readership, it’s that people will read what they read and they’ll enjoy what they’ll enjoy. So if that ends up being sex in fiction, then cool beans to you.
She Said: Hold it. Hold it! You’re confusing genre covers. The greased up body-builder tends to be used on Adult Romance novels, NA covers are usually a lot more subtle than that – I suggest a cover challenge! I’ll insert a variety of popular covers below and you can tell me if you would pick them up or not based on their covers/titles. Also, before we do this, it’s an interesting point you make that NA is geared towards females – I’d be interested to see a NA novel aimed towards a male readership for comparison purposes. I think that some girls and women do enjoy reading about sex, and relationships (we do call them “book-boyfriends” after all!), but I assumed that sex in fiction would interest a male too.
He Said: While I’m sure there are NA/Adult novels that have a male-driven perspective (or a dual-POV narration at best), I believe it’s unlikely that a book would have incredible retail value if males are their targeted audience. There’s a greater chance in females picking up said novel because from what I’ve seen, girls are often interested in reading into a boys perspective as it’s apparently refreshing to read into. I could be wrong though but that’s what I’ve seen in passing comments. However, in respect to your comment that sex in fiction would interest a male, I think sex in fiction can interest everyone if the reader themselves enjoys and puts the effort into reading about it. But if the value of any book is primarily being marketed as an object of sexual stimulation (and therefore potentially erotica), there are much easier ways of achieving this (i.e. print or video pornography). Do these alternate forms of media have an effect on the lack of a male readership in books in particular? It’s possible, but a whole different beast to discuss. And hit me up with those covers even if it’s likely that there will be a resounding no to them, I’ll give it a go with first impressions that come to mind.
He Said: The name and cover basically tell me everything I needed to know. I wouldn’t make it to the synopsis.
She Said: Haha, really? I love the name. So obvious, yet so tongue-in-cheek. This is actually on my TBR.
He Said: Concept of the cover doesn’t tell me much of anything, I would read the synopsis to learn more about how a butterfly gets trapped inside a jar–oh wait, a metaphor?!
She Said: Ironically, from memory, the butterfly has bugger all to do with the story. This one gets a little controversy in terms of domineering male leads, but I enjoyed it.
He Said: Random dude with a book name Collide. Okay, let’s be real: probably some love at first sight trope, am I right, or am I right? May skim the synopsis to confirm judgment.
She Said: Nope, apparently this one side-steps the trope nicely, which is why it’s also on my TBR. I’ve also heard the sex scenes are very good.
He Said: If I look at the cover top-down, my train of thought is: “YA, YA, clothed YA, transparent text, YA, omg-there-are-people, YA…? Hoover.” Speaking from past reads, I’ve never picked up a Colleen Hoover novel so it’s unlikely I’d start now, though, I guess that means I’d read the blurb to find validation on it being NA or YA.
She Said: Best fricking NA ever. It’s mixed media, dude! There’s a soundtrack for this book. Pick it up. I bet it surprises you. I dare ya!
He Said: Greyscale plus an equally gray item screams 50-shades of torture. Way to ruin one of my favourite achromatic colour. Not likely to read the synopsis.
She Said: Haha, it is a popular series among 50-fans, and the sex scenes are quite heavy from what I’ve heard.
He Said: There is so much back. Zeus sounds mythological—are the Greek gods getting down and dirty?! And of course: one woman to save them all. Still wouldn’t read the blurb.
She Said: Naked men get a resounding “no” from you then? Me too, to be fair. I don’t like naked people on my covers, thanks very much. And the bad Photoshop job just makes it even worse.
He Said: How did I do? While I always read the blurb to make my final judgment, there are certain covers that just simply won’t allow me to transition into that next step from cover-to-synopsis. And so my answers to these might reflect that somewhat.
She Said: I’m surprised you wouldn’t pick any of them up! You’ve said you don’t shy away from sex in fiction, but I think what I’ve learned from this discussion is that guys just don’t go out of their way to read a book about relationships and sex, but if it happens to be part of the overall story then it’s OK? Maybe the publishing industry should rethink gender-focused covers, I know there are equally a lot of “male” covers I tend to steer clear of (e.g. boring high fantasy covers). Or maybe male readers should be encouraged to step out of their comfort zone. Or maybe there will always be a divide between male and female readers who enjoy sex in novels, because our fiction tastes actually are different…
He Said: Well I can’t comment for the masses, but individually, I know I wouldn’t actively seek out novels with sexual content. I’m sure there are men and women who take interest in these narrative elements and that’s what’s so great about the power of choice–you read what you like! But for me personally, it always returns to the topic being written about and the quality of the writing itself.
She Said: It’s notoriously difficult to write good sex scenes that aren’t cringe-worthy. As you’ve pointed out, most romance novels (Adult, YA or NA) seem to be geared towards female readers, so what does a male make of how the sex scenes are written? Do you prefer graphic detail? Or more of a movie-style fade off into the distance that allows your imagination to fill in the blanks? Also, because sex in fiction is often aimed towards the female reader, emphasis is usually on the description of the male character, so do male readers feel sold short as there is a lack of focus/description of the female character?
He Said: At the end of the day: sex is sex, and if it works it works.
I don’t know where I stand with other readers in terms of expectations, but I’m the type of person to read into every detail (which is why I have so much to say about so little of anything) and so if/when I come across a novel that delves into the realm of sexual fiction, there definitely has to be substance to support the end-game scene. That being said, I’m not going to scrutinize whether or not they had an explosive foreplay session or if their conversation during post-sex cuddling was a literary goldmine. While these are meticulous elements to read into, I find myself more concerned with whether or not the plot points leading up to the moment worked as either a mechanism to propel the relationship forward or if the progression in their relationship is aligned to their character flaws and what have you. There are millions of ways sex can be written regardless of whether or not it’s graphic or minimalistic. But fundamentally, I think media and books have mixed representations on what sex ought to be rather than what it is at its core: the value of communion with your partner. This is a pretty dubious area to delve into because it enters the realm of happily ever after–and who’s to say that these characters are even remotely at that stage yet? Now don’t get me wrong, this is quite the pragmatic outlook for the sex for pleasure trope but all I’m really asking for is substance over form. I mean, you can climb to the top of the mountain and achieve glory but you should also remember to take-in the environment as well.
Your question regarding the lack of focus on female attributes is difficult to answer. It really depends on the perspective of the narrator, right? I can’t complain about the terrible descriptions of the female if I’m in her point-of-view as there are more NA/Adult romance books catering to the female POV, so I seldom see any that are in the male perspective. Now if I am reading from his perspective, then I’d be able to truly engage this question to know how much judgment I throw around. So I guess until that happens (if it ever happens), I can’t really give a definitive answer.
She Said: Very well said. For me though, while the story leading up to the steamy scenes is important, I do tend to focus more on how realistic the scene is and how it’s described, and I also focus more on the post-romp context. Nothing will put me off a book quicker than a badly written sex scene. If we’re looking at NA books, many of them are written from a joint perspective, but as I’ve said I think it would be very interesting to read a NA novel from solely a male point of view for comparison purposes. Maybe we should look into this for a future post? One last thing I’d like to know: girls tend to swoon over the things male characters say/do during sex scenes or in romance novels, but how true to life is it? Do boys cringe at the gushy romantic stuff?
He Said: Let me start by saying that everyone experience feels; of which swooning may or may not be part of. Now putting things into perspective, swooning over a ship or romantic gestures is not an impossible feat to reach for guys and girls alike. I mean, if you genuinely feel for something or someone then sure, give yourself a sway, but I can’t really describe the intense-ness of how much swooning is done because who really keeps track of these things? While I’d be lying if I said I didn’t react to certain tender moments, I don’t think I’ve ever swooned (I had to Urbandictionary the meaning because I was getting it confused with feels) but I most certainly always have feels for the success of those I ship making it out okay (amongst other things). Like I said before, I judge the content of books through its writing and while I don’t think that I cringe at gushy romance, I have most certainly found myself saying ‘what the f-?’ at questionable moments; often when things just didn’t make sense to me or felt out of place. That’s basically it for me, though.
She Said: I sway myself pretty regularly. I think I can speak for the majority of the female book bloggers (and therefore female readers?) when I say that we can swoon pretty hard, to the extent that those damn cute fictional men need to be real and take us on a date. Swooning is really different than regular feels for us. Feels can be heartbreaking, emotional, sad, joyous, shocked emotions you feel when reading a really good book, but swooning is basically falling in love with a fictional character.
(S)HE SAID: We’d like to hear what you think — what is your opinion on sex in fiction? Do you go out of your way to read steamy scenes (‘fess up!)? Do you cringe or swoon at sex scenes? What do you think about males who read sex in fiction? Would you be interested in reading more NA books from a strictly male POV? Hit us up in the comments!