Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writing and Sensuality

Sensuous writing, to me, has little to do with sexuality. It has to do, in large part, with engaging the senses, of enmeshing the reader in a world of lush experience. Ray Bradbury is a sensuous writer. Robert E. Howard was, despite the fact that he is often considered a hyper-masculine author. When you read Bradbury or Howard you feel the chill wind, taste bitter drink, hear the crack of ice, and pant from the heat. But the details are put together in such a way as to create a sense of exotic beauty. And there is more. Sensuous writing not only excites the senses, it creates a mood, most often a melancholy one.

Poul Anderson was a master of sensuous writing. His book The Broken Sword, or his long story “The Queen of Air and Darkness” illustrate Anderson’s love of language and command over mood. They sing with poetry. Even the darkest imagery is combined with a sense of sad beauty.

For me, and feel free to say if you disagree, I find the most sensuous writing in the fantasy genre, followed by science fiction. Mainstream literature seems to be suspicious of sensuous writing, and hard bitten genres like noir and crime fiction try to immerse the reader in gritty detail. These stories also create a mood, but not one that is infused with beauty. There are times when I want just that kind of mood, but more often than not I seek out the beautiful, even if that beauty is tinged with darkness.

I strive for sensuality when I write, and I think I’ve gotten closest to it in my fantasy work, such as in the Talera Trilogy, and in some of the stories that appeared in Midnight in Rosary. While many of the stories in “Midnight” feature vampires, most of these are not ‘horror’ vampires but ‘fantasy’ vampires. And there is a clear difference. Sensuality is important to fantasy vampires, while gritty savagery is the drape that clothes horror vampires. Some time back, I put up a link to a free story from Midnight in Rosary. I’ll post it again here since it indicates the kind of sensuality I’m talking about (and in this case has some sexuality as well.) The story is called “The Poetry of Blood” and the link is here.

I’ll end with a couple of quick passages from the Talera series, these two from Wings Over Talera. Here, for the first time, Ruenn MacLang meets Vohanna. With Vohanna, I hoped to create a villain who would combine both beauty and evil, attraction and threat. These are important elements of sensuality in the language of fantasy literature. At least, I think so.

1). There were no adornments anywhere upon Vohanna—-no web of black pearls in her silken flag of hair, no bright jewels at her finely sculpted ears, no copper brassards clasping her upper arms. She wore no kohl to darken her sable lashes, no paint upon lips that were already riper than the rising sun.

In her form, she looked guileless and fragile. In her face, she looked...innocent. But her gaze was ancient and black upon mine, with firefly runes twining and beating in the depths of her glance. I felt that glance like a bruise.

2). Vohanna took another step toward me. And a third. Down the skull steps from her throne she came, and it seemed her sandals spurned the dusky wine that cascaded beneath her feet. Her eyes teemed with scarlet embers and with...other things.

“Kneel to me, Ruenn,” she said.
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27 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

I understand what you mean by sensuous writing. While not as well versed on Howard as you, anything I've ever read by him, and Bradbury of course, I find myself sinking into the story and feeling everything with around. I'm there in the story and those are the best tales.

Anderson is a different matter. His fantasy has never engaged me as much as his science fiction. Not bad mind you, just not my cup of tea.

Ty Johnston said...

I get where you're coming from, though I'm not generally a sensuous writer and it's not something I often go out of my way to seek in my reading material. When done well, it's awe inspiring. When done badly, which unfortunately is most of the time, it's awkward at best, awful and even distasteful at worst. I admire the hell out of it when I see it done well.

A few times I have tried to pull off beautiful, sensuous writing, mainly with short stories as I don't believe I have the capacity to keep up such prose in longer works (at least not now, anyway). For me, I have to be in a certain mood or a certain mindset, and it's not one I can drum up easily.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy, Anderson's fantasy is usually somewhat less "realistic" than Howard, but a lot of it takes place in the land of Faerie, or on other worlds. Some of his early stuff though really resonates with me, and I liked his Last viking series a lot.

Ty, I think it is often a gamble and has to be kept up throughout a piece to be really effective. It's a risk, but man I love it when it happens.

Kate Sterling said...

This is something I've noticed and appreciated about your writing, Charles. And "The Poetry of Blood" is now one of my favorites.

Someone else I think is very good at this sort of thing is Jon Zech.

eric1313 said...

If fantasy writers could not achieve that, even to a lesser degree than the masters of whom you speak, they would fail at their craft. The Form, I think, demands that they strive to convey that proper feel and texture.

Poetry too must be this way, otherwise it's only a collection of lines, regardless of the subject. That was one of the reasons I was always drawn to poetry, I feel it made me a better writer in general.

I'm not master, and certainly I cannot call myself a true scholar, but I do pay attention to the things and think about them more than anything else. Perhaps I over think it, but I feel that in time I'll reap the great benefits of having paid that close of attention to the craft.

David J. West said...

Exactly-that is the writing that makes me say, "I want to write like that"
& I love the Talera series (though I'm still only about half way through WINGS-moves slow you down)

Deka Black said...

"Sensuous writing not only excites the senses, it creates a mood, most often a melancholy one. " ---> that's right. Building not a world, but his atmosphere, the things that makes thw world loved.

Create a mood when writing is important, because is one of the most important things to "live" the story.

In this sense. Robert E. Howard is a Great master.And ERB too.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Noir movies can be very beautiful with their sense of light and shadow. But you're right, on the page they don't convey this.
I have never read much fantasy or science fiction but I can see from your passages how important that must be.

oceangirl said...

I will take time this time and read the story, now that I know it is sensual :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Kate, I know John but have not really read any of his stuff. I'll have to make an effort to do so.

eric1313, I remember when I discovered the true sensuality of poetry, through the work of Dylan Thomas. Wow, what an education.

David J., I know. I see a beautiful line and I think, oh man to have created that.

Deka, the mood created by the writing is so important to me. There's a kind of decadence shown in sensuous writing, but lovely decay.

Patti, yes, there's something very interesting about the starkness of light and shadow in Noir. Sensuousness isn't needed at the same level in all types of SF, but it is in some.

Ocean girl, the story isn't violent really, but it is...well, kinky might be the word.

BernardL said...

It is very easy to overdo sensuous writing. At some illusive point quite ofter hard to gauge, it can become filler. Your example from Talera clearly hits the right note and leads to a strong character line cemented in the story. That is a key factor.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernardl, I know you're right. I think it's a very personal border, though. Depends so much on the personal tastes of the reader.

Richard Godwin said...

There is definite sensuality in your prose Charles, which contains fine passages of lyricism. For a surprising take on sensuality in novel form I would encourage you to read if you have not already done so any of the great novels of Graham Greene, while restrained, his prose tips easliy into rich sensuality and some of the most profound character portraits of the twentieth century.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I guess I've just never thought of it that way. I'll have to pay more attention next time I read.

Cloudia said...

gotta return and re-read this carefully.



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Erik Donald France said...

Sensuous, indeed. I'm all for it. Agreed on much literary and other genre writing.

I'm trying to weigh Hemingway and Larry McMurtry's Last Picture Show, but have come to no conclusions. Elegiac, maybe, for the latter.

Travis Cody said...

I think fantasy and science fiction require sensuous writing in order to bring the reader into a world of imagination, in which there is very little of ordinary experience to rely on to visualize the atmosphere and setting.

Although, I think it can be a fine line to walk. You want the reader to become immersed in the feeling you're trying to evoke, but you don't want to push them too far to the point when they start to think "get on with it already".

the walking man said...

I find it VERY hard to write sensual without drifting off into the covert sexual. Maybe because I take my prompts more from what I see than what I imagine.

At the same time though I have a hard time in my own understanding of what the difference between the two is, one seems to be more "adjective" driven and the other more "verb" oriented.

I think I just need to get out more because to be honest with you (I know you hate when I do this) but I found, if I understand your post correctly, The Idiot by Dostoyevsky to be extremely sensual with no sexuality implied at all.

laughingwolf said...

no argument from me, love to get lost in the sensuousness of a tale, more so than immersed in some gritty story... my own mood at the time of the reading plays a huge part, too...

Ron Scheer said...

Some genres rely on atmosphere more than others. Fantasy and noir take place in a kind of dreamscape and go for a certain range of affect. So sensuous detail is needed to evoke these narrative aspects. I think this is less true of the western and some kinds of crime fiction.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard Godwin, I’ve not read Graham Greene. I’ll have to give him a try. Your Apostle Rising certainly had a great deal of sensuality in it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, maybe it was my early exposure to Ray Bradbury is what made me think of it.

Cloudia, thankee.

Erik Donald France, elements of Lonesome dove were sensuous. Hemingway is excellent, a favorite of mine, but there’s almost an anti-sensuality in his work. It seems to me.

Travis Cody, absolutely. And yes, a fine line, a line that differs from one reader to another.

Mark, I think good adjectives are definitely an element of sensual writing, although it can’t succeed without strong, sensuous verbs as well. I’m not a writer who is against adjectives myself. I like them, although they certainly can be overused. It’s been so long since I read “The Idiot” that I’m not sure of my opinion on it. Bradbury is often sensuous without being sexual.

Laughingwolf, my mood is very important too. At times I don’t want anything sensuous but want the grittiest I can get. But that’s relatively rare.

Ron Scheer, I think westerns come in two different varieties, the sensuous and the gritty. I’ll have to think more on that topic, though. They are certainly not as sensuous as fantasy needs to be, I think, because the landscapes are more realistic.

eric1313 said...

DT is excellent, can't agree more.

Speaking of authors skilled in this subject, McMurtry is likewise sensuous without being sexual, though he veers in to the sexual rather easily while remaining sensual. (yes this is yet another plug for All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, as well as the conversation at hand.)

But it's like you said, it's an immersion into the reality being presented, and yet more, as it does not pull you in so much as invite you to come of your own free will--and does so very successfully.

Harry Markov said...

There you go. You understand me, even if I didn't know how to place what I liked in the prose that you have just explained. I couldn't quite place the term. I never connected beauty in writing with sensuality, but the way you put it is very great.

Charles Gramlich said...

Eric1313, good distinction about the "inviting" quality of this kind of prose. It draws you in without you being really aware of it.

Harry, thanks, Glad you enjoyed. I think part of my thinking is influenced by my enjoyment of poetry.

Jodi MacArthur said...

The collection Bradbury has called Dandelion Wine comes to mind. Your short story is a perfect example. Great post.

Barrie said...

Hmmmm....I do agree with you about noir and crime, but I think women's fiction and literary can offer up some good examples of sensuous writing. That's my 2 cents. ;)

Greg said...

Great post. I like that passage you included. Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, because he is so good at creating description and mood.