Friday, June 08, 2012

10 Things Fiction Writers Should Remember About Sexuality (6-10)

6. Kink is not depravity

Particularly the great canon of British Murder Mysteries, to spot the slightest hint of kink about a person's sex life - as little as an ostrich feather or a jar of Marmite on the bedside table - is to know that this character is either going to end up the tragic victim of a fatal tickling-gone-wrong or they will become a fishnet-stockinged killer who batters his victims to death with a neon pink dildo.

It's not that kinky people can't commit murders, but nor is it the case that people who know Karate don't go round beating people up. Kink is a lot like martial arts; both involve behaviour which could, potentially, seriously damage people - and both attract a minority of people who want to seriously damage people - but most people who are into these things are extremely conscientious in their desire to avoid that and channel stuff that's a little bit dark and spikey into something mutually enjoyable for everyone concerned. When the lines between full consent, reluctant co-operation and coercion are muddied or ignored and most folks seem uncomfortable to confront the problem, it's very often kinky people who tirelessly discuss enthusiastic consent.

Of course, most real life murderers you hear about are tragically dull, with very domestic, banal and shallow motives. I can understand why writers want to spice things up, and there's nothing wrong with giving a murderer sexual kinks, if you're into that kind of story (and goodness knows, lots of people are). But this is the twenty-first century; who hasn't dressed up as a hedgehog, wrapped their partner in bubble-wrap and proceeded to pop all the bubbles? A character needs a little more than common or garden kink to point to murderous inclination.

More seriously...

7. Depravity is not normal

Sexual abuse and assault are all horribly common, but they are often handled very very badly in fiction. They are often made to seem like the normal consequences of normal things, such as being an attractive woman, being a teenage girl who interacts with adult men, being a man in prison etc..

Sexual violence happens to normal people, all kinds of people, but sexual violence isn't normal behaviour. It is motivated by a desire to exert power, to exact punishment, to control or humiliate. Sex is in this mix, but it's never ever about fancying someone so much you can't help yourself.  Many people who are capable of very bad behaviour are not capable of rape, whereas some people who manage to be decent most of the time are capable of committing rape in circumstances where they can get away with it.

Sexual violence should not be a taboo subject in fiction, but it must be handled with care. For one thing, it must be acknowledged for what it is, when it happens. I once read a dreadful scene by a bestselling novelist where the woman resisted to the point of kicking the man in the balls before submitting, which was referred to the first time the couple "made love" for the rest of the book. I was so horrified at this that I put the book down and told my Granny, who I happened to be with at the time. Granny was equally shocked, (maybe even more so that I had just explained all that to her).

But I think the biggest mistake writers make is to fail to examine the motives of perpetrators; they write as if sexual violence is something that happens to people, as opposed to something people do to other people. Not that writers need to focus on perpetrators, only not to present rape like a piece of tremendous but random bad luck.

See also Ana Mardoll's excellent Twilight: Rape Narratives, Good and Bad from earlier this week.

On a far more positive note...

8. True love is a real thing.

It is often said that we live in a culture which is obsessed with sex without being sex-positive. I'd say the same about romantic love. Romantic love stories are everywhere, we suffer from a cult of coupledom where single people are often made to feel faulty, but at the same time our culture encourages the idea that there's an unfathomable gulf between the genders which must be negotiated with a combination of deception, passive-aggression and consumerism. Every happy ever after is just another small victory in the life-long war against the awful people we are inexplicably compelled to love. Watch some adverts, which are fiction in miniature - count how many couples you see presented who seem happy together.

In real life, sometimes people fall in love in a magical way. They feel the same way about each other, they seek to outdo one another in making each other happy and as a result, their love does live happily ever after. This doesn't mean that nothing exciting or interesting ever happens to them, that they never have any problems, but true love does happen. It's not fair that not everyone experiences it, but that doesn't make it less real.

Human beings tend to rate tragedy as the highest form of art, and being at least 63% human, I understand where that comes from. But there's a tendency in literature, especially the kind that wants to be taken seriously (and to some extent, the kind that is taken seriously), to take a horribly cynical approach to romantic love - not just all true love is doomed, but all romantic love is dysfunctional and destructive  In recent years, there even a trend of scientist characters explaining that science shows that love is all a meaningless bio-chemical illusion, even though the book will still be every bit as preoccupied with sex and romance as a TV soap.

In the The Lover episode of last year's BBC series Faulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks talked about the evolution of the romantic novel from Jane Austen to what he described as more realistic views of love like The Golden Notebook and The End of the Affair where everyone is miserable and doomed to hurt one another. You can watch it on Youtube. If you are have a romantic bone in your body, you may throw things. The rest of the series was pretty good, though occasionally funny in its pretentiousness and there's shockingly few women around.

9. In real life, no two love affairs are the same. 

This is especially, though not exclusively, a problem for those who are cynical about romantic love. 

Raymond Chandler is the only writer I can think of whose hero (Philip Marlowe) fell repeated in love with only very slight variations of the same woman and it didn't matter. Chandler is all style and that's okay - more than okay, it's delicious. But those women weren't complete characters. Or they were, but just the same troubled kind-of-sleazy kind-of-classy blonde who was sometimes a brunette, but usually a blonde - "the kind of blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window," no less. Was she ever a redhead? I can't remember.

In real life, I've known people who have "types", but these tend to consist of very lose criteria. I don't know anyone who has repeatedly dated the same kind of person.  Sometimes they have things in common; I've had friends who always seem to be going out with people who do the same kind of work, or tall people, or musicians. I have a one friend who is always dating model train enthusiasts! But these relationships are completely different, different dynamics, different significance and intensity and everything. I know from personal experience that one kind of romantic love can be so completely different from another that it doesn't feel right to use the same words about it.

Yet I've read authors where all protagonists fall for the same kind of person, to the same depths, every time. Where one relationship ends to be replaced by an exactly duplicate relationship. Different couples within a story operate in exactly the same way.  I don't even believe these "types" are necessarily the author's own, just a type they feel comfortable writing about.

Real life should never be that much more interesting than fiction.

10. Beware cultural resources on sexualities which are not your own. 

People are, of course, quite capable of writing about sexualities which are not their own, just as we can write about people of different genders, ages and so on. But if we need to talk to friends about attraction, observe the world around them and write from our gut. What kind of thing would this character find attractive? In a sense, anything is a valid answer - sexual attraction is diverse enough to include anything you can dream up - but you need to believe in it. Otherwise other people certainly won't. 

When straight and gay people get it wrong, it usually holds to a horrendous stereotype. Ian Fleming, bless him, did this constantly in the Bond books. He successfully created a character that almost everyone wants to be (James Bond), but not so many people want to have sex with (no they don't - people want to have sex with a young Sean Connery, not the character James Bond.). So Fleming comes up with all manner of odd pseudo-Freudian psychologies which drive all kinds of women and girls into those Rolex-adorned arms. His female characters are generally very weak, but their sexualities are even weaker and some of them are extremely problematic.

Straight women aren't a whole lot better when it comes to writing about gynophilia. I'm sympathetic; straight women are at particular disadvantage with understanding why people love them, because they're given so many consumerist messages on the subject. Straight men may get the impression that nobody could possibly them hot, but there's nothing they can do about it and hopefully, sooner or later someone does anyway. Every time a women turn on the television or leafs through a magazine, we are instructed on new and sometimes contradictory ways to be sexually attractive.

So occasionally you read a sex scene written by a straight woman who has absorbed these messages on what it is that men look for in a woman:
She had driven him crazy with desire by being the perfect combination of available but not too available. A man won't buy the cow when he can get the milk for free, but after months of her Thatcherite stance on free milk, he was finally prepared to hand over his magic beans. She slowly removed her lacey thong, in this season's primrose yellow, £5.99 from M & S. Her freshly-waxed hoo-hah had the scent of apple blossom, whilst the rest of her body smelt variously of vanilla, cocoa butter and cucumber, which the ancient people of the Cotswolds regard as an aphrodisiac. His heart skipped a beat at the absence of any trace of unsightly hairs or stubble, blemishes, flab, tan-lines, laughter-lines, pantie-lines, split-ends, open pores, cellulite or wrinkles. She was a perfect size 6, with the bottom of J-Lo and the perfectly formed breasts of whoever's breasts happen to be popular at the moment...
As I say, sexuality being so diverse, there must be someone, somewhere, who is attracted to women in that way. But you'd be better using your imagination - being an equal opportunities lech, who has had many conversations about attraction with various folk over the years, I'm pretty sure that, whatever butters your muffin is basically the same kind of thing applied to slightly different social and physical markers.

The clue is in the fact that our love songs are almost entirely interchangeable. The heteronormative world being what it is, when Roberta Flack sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, we might have assumed it was about a man. When Johnny Cash sang it, we might have assumed it was about a woman. It means the same thing, whatever.

So what did I miss out?

Here's a link to 10 Things Fiction Writers Should Remember (1-5)


Ruth Madison said...

Amazing list. You've hit the nail on the head. Ten times.

Thank you in particular for: 6. Kink is not depravity

GirlWithTheCane said...

I second Ruth. Amazing list. And kink has definitely gotten a bad name.

I also really liked #10...I think it really does explain why writing sex well is so difficult. It takes such insight into who your character is, and into what your feelings as the author are about sex and your culture's view of sexuality..."50 Shades of Grey" springs to mind, which a friend has just read, and says does the BDSM community a terrible disservice by portraying it inaccurately (and writing about it badly to boot)...she worries about the impression that people will get from the books.

The Goldfish said...

Thank you both, very much. :-)

GWTC - I have heard nothing but either bad or hilarious things about 50 Shades of Grey. Jennifer Armintrout has been blogging as she reads. In this particular post she writes about how the central relationship is such classically abusive one. Though others of Jennifer's posts on the subject are worth checking out for some quality piss-taking. ;-)

Matthew Smith said...

I actually find that romantic aspects to a plot put me off - I find they distract from a story about someone trying to make something of themselves, or a historical plot, or whatever. I read novels rarely, but a number of years ago I read the Annie Proulx novel The Shipping News and enjoyed both the plot and the scenery which she paints with her words. The lead character did have a romance and get married but it was just a few words. Sadly, in the film, they made it the whole plot (and the film's Wavey isn't how I imagined her from reading the book, either).

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comment, Matthew.

As with Number 5 in the first half of these, I think the problem is often that writers feel that a story is incomplete without a romantic aspect. And because they've tried to fit it in, it often becomes distracting or can feel inconsistent (like the lead man and woman getting together at the end of an action movie, regardless of whether there was ever any chemistry between them).

Funnily enough, I'm reading The Shipping News just now and yes, very different from the film. But fantastic!

Louna said...

I haven't dressed up as a hedgehog, wrapped their partner in bubble-wrap and proceeded to pop all the bubbles, but I find the mind-image hilarious.

More seriously, yes, yes and yes.