by | Aug 9, 2017 | Gayle Lynds, On writing | 8 comments

by Gayle Lynds:  Is sex really necessary in fiction?  I have industry secrets to reveal about this hotly debated subject, at least about how it relates to my career and the careers of other authors.  Then you should judge for yourselves….

I wrote my first novel, Masquerade, without a literary agent or a publishing contract.  Which means I had no one to answer to and was able to create the kind of novel I very much enjoyed reading.  In this case, that included a couple of sex scenes because I felt the characters and story called for it.  No one questioned what I’d done, and the book was published with the scenes untouched.  Readers enjoyed Masquerade, and it went on to win good reviews and hit the New York Times bestseller list.  I thought the response was an indication I kinda knew what I was doing.

A Top Ten Spy Novel, Publishers Weekly

I wrote the next book, Mosaic, another spy novel, in the same way, with the characters dictating a sex scene.  But my editor’s boss said no, no.  Not enough sexual tension.  Steam, you must have steamy tension!

I thought I’d accomplished that.  Still, how bad for the book could it be to heighten the sexual tension? 

So I took a deep breath and inserted a few lingering looks and body assessments and pauses fraught with, well, steam.  The manuscript was approved and published.  More nice reviews, and a prize. 

Okay, I was getting the hang of this. 

My third novel was with the same publisher, so I knew what sort of sex was expected of me.  Done.  Book published.  Lovely responses, etc.

But then I jumped to a different publisher, joining a terrific editor.

“No sex scenes,” he told me. 

Shocked, I explained I’d gotten good at them.

Margaret Mitchell received the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the book.

“Nope, no sex scenes at all.  Thrillers don’t need them.  You don’t need them.  You’ll be taken more seriously as a novelist without sex scenes.”

But I just wanted to write great books that people would find riveting, seriously.  My editor assured me they’d be riveting.  And so I turned down the sexual heat.  Still, I managed to sneak in sex scenes in my subsequent novels.  Come on, sex is part of many people’s lives.  What’s a sex scene here and there gonna do to my reputation? 

Ohmygod, she knows about sex.  Horrors!  Geesh.

By the way, just for clarification, I consider my sex scenes tasteful but, well, also sexy. 

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to moderate a panel at ThrillerFest with some heavy-hitting authors who had earned good reviews, prizes, and large followings.  I was amazed to discover half of them didn’t write sex in their books.  They believed the scenes weren’t necessary.  Sex could take place off the page.

Roger Ebert: one of the “10 Best Movies of 1981”

But what about relationship development, I asked.  One can reveal character through sex scenes, I argued. 

A few on the panel agreed with me.  Others remained unconvinced.

So let’s approach this from a different direction: quality.  I’d been assuming all of us were talking about quality sex scenes.  You no doubt know there are books with awfully written sex in them.  This happens often enough that the Brits at the Literary Review have created an award for it.

Here’s how the review explains it:  “Each year since 1993, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has honoured an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction. The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature.”  To read a sample of what the judges consider Really Bad Sex, click here.

“For People Who Devour Books”

Meanwhile, other Brits countered.  In “Good Sex in Fiction” in The Times Literary Supplement, Jonathan Gibbs writes, “It’s easy to sneer at the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award – sneering at the sneerers, as it were – but it’s no lie that writing well about sex is difficult, and perhaps more difficult in prose than in poetry….  Nevertheless, good sex writing does exist – and here, sticking to the parameters of the award, I essentially mean the sex scene in the literary novel or short story, ignoring outright pornography or its kissing cousin, erotica. Which is not to say the scene should not be arousing, but its primary object should be to serve the story. The writing should teach us about the characters. Ideally, it should teach us about sex, too.” More here.
Since I’ve been quoting the Brits, I leave the coup de grâce to them.  A recent story in The Independent announced the Good Sex in Fiction award “hoping to end the ridicule of erotic literature:  The Erotic Review has had enough of the infamous Bad Sex in Fiction award, which it fears may dissuade authors from writing about sex, starting up the Good Sex in Fiction award in protest.”  More here

Yep, the Good Sex in Fiction award.  Given by The Erotic Review.   

So here I am, out on a literary limb, advocating for well-done sex scenes that reveal character and enhance the story.  I’m working on a new book.  Will it include a little sex?  As Dr. Seuss would write:  Tell me, what would you do?

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  1. S. Lee Manning

    It depends on the sex scene. I really like it when it informs the reader about the characters or about their relationship. So, my vote for the well-written, well-placed sex scene, to quote Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses, is "Yes."

  2. F-18

    Pretty sure once the people are already having the sex, the sexual tension part is over, so that "tension" thingy is not a good reason to have sex scenes.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    To a certain extent, yes … the editor's point was he/they wanted more tension off and on throughout the book. Thanks for your comment.

  4. john

    When I think of great thrillers I have read, like The Day of the Jackal, Gayle's Masquerade, and The Eye of the Needle, I don't remember the sex scenes at all. The sex didn't drive the plot.

  5. Karna Bodman

    I recall receiving comments from men who read my thrillers (that did have some brief romantic interludes in them) that they were unnecessary and "slowed down the action" — however, many women appreciated the "break from the action" and enjoyed reading about the development of the personal relationship. So I'm speculating here that men don't need it, women enjoy it. I wonder if other authors have had the same responses based on the gender of the reader (?)

  6. Rogue Women Writers

    Exactly, the sex was part of the story, and the story is BIG. Thx, Johnny.

  7. Rogue Women Writers

    I have one thriller that has no sex scene in it, and the only complaints I received were from men. One told me that he enjoyed seeing sex through a woman's eyes, and so he wanted me to resume adding the scenes. We are such a complex species!

  8. Sonja Stone

    Gayle, I can't fathom writing a sex scene, much less a sex scene in an award-winning thriller. My cheeks flush just thinking about it. I'm so happy I write young adult!