Sunday, February 19, 2017

When Sex Is Not Enough

I’d hoped to share a book review with you this week, but that is not to be. The book in question was written well enough, had a promising premise and an ambitious erotic vision; I got past the first few pages without being terminally turned off or overly impressed. Things did not subsequently improve, nor did they become dramatically worse. In other words, ho hum. I kept myself reading page after page with the notion that, while the book was no great masterpiece, it was nothing I couldn’t slog my way through, and, perhaps, find something worth writing about in the end.

As it happened, I did discover something to write about, though it wasn’t necessary to suffer through to the end in order to find it. The writing had been putting me to sleep—notwithstanding a few pleasingly steamy episodes—and I was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain concentration with something like 400 pages left to go. Then the author gave me an out; made the rankest of rooky errors—the sort of thing any competent editor would have caught immediately, and, very probably like me, been inspired to throw the book across the room (though, with an e-reader, I am denied that visceral satisfaction). The author had carelessly allowed head-hopping to creep into a third-person narrative, probably not even realizing that they were doing it. Granted, this is a common pitfall, and a flaw I might have chosen to ignore had the story been more engaging or the language less simplistically third-grade level. But, given the other doubts that had built up in my mind, this issue was the proverbial last straw.

The author was counting on the novelty of their book’s premise to carry the story—basically, eroticism in ancient cultures—and was endeavoring to employ an antiquated “storybook style” of narrative. But the novelty was not enough. The sex, for all its vibrant plenitude, was not enough. One came away less with the sense of having been entertained than patronized. The auctorial attitude seemed to be that of a patient grownup telling a story to a group of children while greatly underestimating their intelligence.

Sexy content does not in itself absolve an author from the basic rules of writing. Telling a story for adults does not give one license to write like a dolt. It takes more than sex to write a sexy storyCharacters have to be more than pornographic pawns, with no other purpose than to be maneuvered into the next occasion to copulate. Readers looking for more than just a quick stroke—who might actually be inclined to read the entire book—need to recognize the elements of a good story; character, conflict, plot. A conscientious author owes their readers nothing less—a truly fine writer will give them infinitely more.

Personally, I’ve resolved that life is too short to waste on books that bore me. The only thing I truly care about is good writing—I’m open to all sorts of stories, so long as the writing is exceptional, but I am done babysitting dilettantes. I’m done coddling the delicate sensibilities of amateurs who've never  heard a healthy “no”.  It’s time to grow up.   

[Next time: Things I’ve Learned from Reading (and Writing) Erotic Novels] 


  1. I have the attention span of a fly so long works scare me because they often have so much fluff or are forever stuck in internal dialogue. A very helpful beta reader caught me falling into some head hopping recently on a WIP. It's easy to do. I don't think readers are as critical as authors. Some day I'm going to post chunks of Vince Flynn books. He does stuff that would get him a beating from all of us who haven't sold a book, but his stories are so engaging that I'm way past the gaff before I recognize it.

    1. You're absolutely right; writers tend to catch things the average reader glosses over. Lately, I've been reading mystery-writer Lawrence Block's books on writing, and he puts it very succinctly; a good story is what sells; all other considerations are secondary (for better or for worse).

      I'd simply hope that someone who chose to make writing their profession would care about sweating the details--would be ashamed to commit inferior work to print. Or maybe that's a luxury most people can't afford?

  2. It's more than being "ashamed to commit inferior work to print". It's learning and growing as a writer. No one springs fully formed and without error into the world of book publishing. The important thing is not to stand still and think you're good enough. I recently reread my first book, and was dismayed to see the head-hopping I'd written, before I knew better. I love that book, and I struggle now to figure out if I want to revise it, or just grit my teeth and recognize that I know better now.