Sex and the American Novel

Sexuality and gender identity-based culturesImage via WikipediaJ.A.Konrath recently fumed about sex: when his books contain explicit sex scenes, his readers are unhappy and call him a pervert! Amazing! 

Although I know America well and am a keen observer of American mores, I'm still puzzled by the way Americans view sex. This is particularly evident in politics. The on-going Dominique Strauss Kahn affair or scandal if you prefer to put it that way, certainly shows the complexities and innuendoes of how sex is viewed in America.

And it's not just a reaction to the sexual habits of a French celebrity, American politicians have repeatedly fallen prey to American public opinion. 

Most recently, it was Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - N.Y.) who sent nude photos on Twitter to some woman in Texas. He caused quite a stir and subsequently the Washington Post explored the question, polling some women on how exciting they found "naked man-parts" (not very), and what research had turned up. Unsurprisingly, research shows that women, as the Post delicately put it, are "nuanced sexual beings whose arousal depends on context, mood and a whole bunch of things they aren’t even aware of. Men are different. Men do tend to find the equivalent naked pictures of women titillating."

If this is the way it is in politics and American society, where does it leave the American novelist writing for adults?

It would seem, on the face of it, that a writer should figure out who are the majority of his/her readers, men or women, before sticking torrid sex scenes in novels.

Now, if you write romance or what used to be called "chick lit", it's pretty clear that the majority of your readers are women. So, no explicit sex scenes please!

But if you write mysteries/thrillers? Science fiction? These are genres that presumably are read by both men and women - perhaps more men than women. So some sex should be okay.

Yet, if you insist on your torrid sex scenes, you're in trouble, as J.A.Konrath found out. It is a fact that the genre he writes in - mysteries, thrillers, detective stories - has traditionally very little sex: it's there but it "fades to black".  Readers don't expect to find it in that kind of book. In fact, two of his followers who left comments on his blog, were quick to point that out.

I can agree with them on one thing: people don't expect torrid sex scenes from someone like Konrath. One goes to his books for the suspense: violence is right smack in the middle but sex is peripheral. Still, here is a writer who would like to write sex scenes: he enjoys writing them, he feels they forward his story plot, they enable him to better describe his characters and their relationships.

Sex scenes have definitely a place in literature, and why deny them to a writer?

A way out of that conundrum, and it has been chosen by many of my professional writer friends, is to write erotica under another name (I could name at least three...all women). To write sex scenes, if they don't fit into your genre, you have to hide behind a pseudonym.

In short, you can't write the way you feel like because your novel won't find a market.

And that's the whole point about pushing novels into genres. Yes, genre is a STRAIGHTJACKET! This can be very frustrating to an author: it conflicts with (part of) his inspiration. But, hey, you can't get out of it, you're in America, this is a business matter! It makes business sense! Genre, as everybody knows, is a marketing tool. It picks out the main features of your novel and shoves your book in a box where people who like that particular genre will find it. Past sales history shows how a given genre fares, so you know what sort of sales to expect.

Books that are "cross genre" are trouble: they're difficult to categorize, and therefore to market. Hence you have to be careful not to cross over: in the mystery/thriller genre, too much sex means crossing over. Konrath beware!

As I see it, there really are only two ways out:
(1) you pick a pseudonym and write as many sex scenes as you like turning your novel into booming erotica, or
(2) you move up to the "literary" category where anything goes, and indeed where erotica and violence work well together!

How do you feel about sex and the American novel? Is it easier to work in sex scenes in French, German, Spanish or Italian novels? Or is it about the same as in America, with genre acting as a straighjacket?

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