"Nice dress. Take it off.": Literary sex in brief

I've been thinking a lot about sex.

My agent and I have been dialogueing about the sex scenes in the novel she's about to start shopping around, and having already cut a LOT of sex from this book (the plot of which hinges on an unusual sexual proclivity) I was loathe to follow her recommendation that I tone it down. Frankly, I am offended by coyness, which is really just hypocrisy with a sunbonnet on it. However, I am interested in getting this book placed with a great editor for a tasty advance, and the old saw about how "sex sells" really does not hold true for mainstream/suspense fiction.

I did some homework on it. Using Amazon's "Search Inside" feature, I looked for the word kiss in about a dozen bestsellers by highly commercial authors. Every book had some sex in it, but my agent was absolutely correct that there are limits. As I've said before, while my books do have sex in them, I don't write "sex scenes". There's always something else going on. Most of the sex I observed in the suspense novels I searched on was the plugged in (pardon the pun) "sex scene" which really didn't take the characters or story anywhere they couldn't have gone while playing Scrabble.

My epiphany of the week came (as so many epiphanies do) at critique group the other night. One of the midwives mentioned the Janet Evanovich novel High Five, which ends with the main character opening the door for a gentleman caller.

"Nice dress," he says. "Take it off."

Fade to black.

How brilliant is that? It's definitely one of the sexiest things I've ever heard of, and not a wasted word, the essence of excellent dialogue.

Tied in first place for the Shortest Sex Scene in Literature is Barbara Kingsolver. I cannot for the life of me remember which book it's in, but a character hears the crinkle of cellophane in a man's shirt pocket and says, "If that's a condom in there, this is my lucky day." The sex scene in its entirety:

He did. It was.

Kingsolver's books aren't known for being particularly torrid, so she took a lot of flack for the erotic tone of her novel Prodigal Summer. The always erudite Kingsolver responded:
I can't say why other modern writers have turned their backs on Eros, but I can guess, because facing her head-on made me pretty nervous at first. Sex in our strange culture is both an utter taboo and the currency of jaded commerce. It's very tricky terrain to write about copulation, when the language seems to be held in the joint custody of pornography and the medical profession. But Prodigal Summer is about life and fecundity, and it could not be an honest book without sex at its very center. For this book to be taken seriously as literature, I realized I would have to invent a new poetry of copulation, and that is what I tried to do.

Yeah. What she said. I'm going to do that. And I'm going to look at every sexually oriented passage I write from here on out with a very nice dress take it off kind of eye.

A sex scene is a lot like that little black dress. No matter how great it looks, there's a point at which it's simply getting in the way.


Great post, Joni. Just wanted to say that I loved PRODIGAL SUMMER. Didn't even notice the "erotic content," so clearly it was well done and germane to both the characters and story.

To me, a good love scene reflects the tone/type of book, moves along the plot, and deepens characterization. If it stands out from the rest of the novel like a violently-purple porch built onto a mannerly Victorian mansion, the author's gotten too self-conscious. Or something. :)
TJ Bennett said…
And leave us not forget, the best sex is all in the mind. The characters *wanting* to do it can be even more interesting than the characters *actually* doing it. In my humble opinion, of course.
I do write love scenes (not sex scenes), but I focus more on the sexual tension building between two characters, and the relationship progressing, than the actual "to bed!" scene itself. Although I do those, too. :-) Great post!


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