"No sex, please, we're morons."

I think it’s the moral duty of studious readers and of karma-conscious authors to combat the legion of poptarded skimmers posting “book reviews” (which are in fact just opinions, the source of which we have no way to consider) on Amazon, BN.com, and other bookselling sites. So I hopped on Amazon yesterday to post this comment on Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows:
My husband (a Grisham-Clancy-Elmore Leonard type) and I (a Dante-Hesse-Didion-head) wrestled this book back and forth between our nightstands unmarking each other's places until I went and bought a second copy. That's how engrossing, broadly appealing, and wonderfully well-written it is. I laughed out loud, marveled at a few Proulx-caliber metaphors, and was entirely sucked into the intricately woven story. My dad (Zane Grey-Crichton-AARP Magazine) will be getting a copy for Father's Day.
And I meant every word, though I will say up front that Gruber and I have an editor in common. (I don't know him personally.) Glancing over the other comments, I was stunned to see several utterly unwarranted complaints that the book is oversexed, including this one:
I'm no prude, but reading this book was like watching a good movie that is spoiled by gratuitous sex scenes. One look at the author's picture tells you that our portly writer is projecting his aging sexual fantasies onto his rotund, sex-machine heroes. If characters want to "get it on," please spare me the gory details.
Without even addressing the grossly inappropriate personal attack on the author or debating the meaning of the words ‘gratuitous’ and ‘prude’, I would like to take this moment to request that this person and any other “reviewer” who thinks there’s too much sex in any given book a) close the book and b) shut up.

As you may have detected, this is a pet peeve. I ground my teeth to stumps when I saw this 2-star screed dragging down the Amazon rating on my novel The Secret Sisters:
…I must say, however, that I did not expect the level of "humidity" (i.e., sexual content) that would be found in some of the "tales." I, like Pia, found myself "leaning in closer to hear" and yet not able to imagine why I "wanted to hear them." (Those lines were GREAT writing by the author, by the way!)…I would have appreciated knowing ahead of time that there were some sexual tones in the content.
The rest of the comment is very complimentary, but -- two stars. The dirty bits just ruined it. And apparently, the cover blurb saying "Joni Rodgers can write sex scenes that curl your hair and straighten your toes" (or something to that effect) wasn't enough of a clue that I am not tortured about that topic and treat it with no more reservation than I treat baseball or sleep or pumpkin pie or anything else that enters into human experience. I'm frankly confounded when a reader comes away from a 380 page book remembering nothing but the 3% (if that) that had to do with sex, I can honestly say to that reader, "It's not me, dear. It's you."

There's no such thing as a "sex scene" in good, well-layered fiction. It doesn’t matter if two character are having sex, making coffee, driving to Dallas, or weaving baskets -- something else should always be happening. Character development, a furthering of the plot, some clue to an interpersonal mystery. Sometimes a scene misses the mark and that underlying element isn’t as clear as it could be, but we never hear complaints about gratuitous basket-weaving scenes. The “too much sex” complaint comes from a very specific type of vociferous reader and strikes my ear on exactly the same note as the “too many big words” complaint.

A book is what its author has decided it should be, based on thousands of invested hours. A reader is entitled to an opinion, based on the dozen or so hours he/she has invested in the book, but that means saying, “I didn’t like it” or if they want to be mean, “It made me want to puke” or if they want to be honest, “I didn’t get it.” If they prefer books that have more or less or bigger or smaller of something, I wish them the best of luck on their quest for literature that features whatever commodities in whatever quantities suits their taste, and I promise to never ever show up at their jobs and say, “Hey, you used too much mortar, Mr. Bricklayer” or “I’m no prude, but I would appreciate a warning if you’re going to be tossing around all those numbers, Ms. Certified Public Accountant.”

Yes, there are bigger and more important challenges going on in this business, but I think this one is worth a little rant. Or maybe I just need to get laid.


lady macleod said…
Great rant. You make "The book of air and shadows" sound a must read. I doubt I can find it down here, but it might be at the English bookstore. If not I shall put it on my "buy" list the next time I visit the U.S.
TJ Bennett said…
Joni, you're hilarious. I'm going to pimp you rant over at my blog, right now. Not that anybody reads my blog, but the gesture is sincere.


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