Sunday, February 22, 2009

So How Much Sex Do You Need?

How much sex do you need?

In your reading?

I just finished reading book 279 in The Trailsman series, which is an example of an “Adult Western.” There are, or have been, several such series, including an even longer running one called “Longarm.” These types of books appeared as a subgenre in the 1970s, and though they’re pretty standard western stories in most ways, they always contain a few scenes of explicit sex. They generally have a somewhat higher level of violence than the westerns of earlier days, as well. The sex, in particular, is actually required by the series guidelines. If you don’t put it in, you don’t write for the series. The sex is also much more of a male oriented sexual fantasy than the female oriented one you find in romance and urban fantasy.

I’ve only read one Longarm, years ago, and a couple of the Trailsmen books more recently, the latter because they were written by friends of mine. Depending on the skill level of the writer, and both my friends are very fine writers, these books can be excellent examples of the western genre. I almost said a “rousing” adventure, but that skates the pun line a bit too close.

Now, I like westerns and have read a lot of them in my day, but I started wondering why I’ve read so few of the Adult Westerns, despite the fact that many are available. I realized that the explicit sex actually detracts from the story for me. (I found the same thing when I tried to read one of the later books in Laurell K. Hamilton’s series, although at least there has been something ‘more’ than sex in the Adult Westerns I’ve read.)

What happens is that I get involved in the adventure and the suspense of a “story,” then the characters go hopping into bed. I’ve got to page through to get back to the story line. And it’s not because I’m a prude. I don’t flinch at the explicitness of the sex; I don’t screw my lips up in a faint moue of disgust. I just don’t really want to experience “Story Interruptus.”

There is certainly a place for sex, even explicit sex, in fiction. I had a fairly explicit sex scene in Cold in the Light. I’ve also enjoyed some sexually explicit books where the story itself revolved around sex. But when I read fiction I’m reading for the story first. Usually, for me, sex is a garnish where fiction is concerned. And I hardly ever eat the garnish when I order a meal at a fine restaurant.

So, how much sex do you need…in your reading?


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Ha HA!!! Story interruptus! That's too funny Charles!

Seriously for me, in general I find it detracts. But I readily admit to being a bit of a prude. That said, if a love story is a big part of the storyline, and the sex doesn't go on for every on the pages, I don't mind it. But for me, less is more.

BernardL said...

When you enjoy writing stories, having to add explicit sex scenes is also story interruptus. :)

Sidney said...

I often find what you're saying to be true. Sex certainly has its place in fiction as it does in life, but if it's just thrown in it is an interruption. If it's what the story is about, well that's a different story.

I read an entry in one of the less well-known Western series several years ago and also found what you're saying to be true. Very male in its fantasy point of view.

Interestingly when I worked at a library, someone would check out mostly Westerns and Liquid Paper the four-letter words.

Angie said...

A skilled writer can make the sex itself an integral part of the story, so that reading it isn't just sex, but is also necessary for development of the plot, the characters, the relationship, something. Despite reading (and writing) a lot of fiction with strong sexual content, I personally don't care for sex scenes which are only there for the sex. If a sex scene feels like the writer just stuck it on with duct tape because they needed or wanted some sexual content, I skim over it too.

For me, it's not a matter of how much, but rather of whether the sex scene pulls its weight in the story. I've read books with a lot of sex, where every sex scene served a purpose in the story. So long as the story isn't "interruptus" then there's no such thing as too much sex, any more than there's any such thing as too much dialogue or too many plot twists or too many action scenes or whatever -- if they serve a necessary function in the story, then they work, and if they don't then they don't, whether it's sex or anything else.


G. B. Miller said...

Hmmm....I've learned the hard way with my first book about having way too much sex in it (instantly developed a reputation that I write porn).

I now try to write it as more of ways to move the story along/make it relevant to the story, as opposed to simply being there for the sake of being there.

That said, for the most part when I come across sex scenes in what I read (and it isn't much yet), I don't read it to get anything out of it personally, but simply read it for how it's written and what tips I can gleam from the scene in question.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ello, I was inordinately proud of that one myself.

Bernardl, you're exactly right. I know I'd find it hard to write to such constrictions but I'd actually like to give it a try sometime. I'd enjoy the challenge of it.

Sidney, that's so weird about the white out story. Sheesh, some folks.

Angie, it's certainly a combination of how skillfully the sex scene is handled, and the genre in which it fits. Explicit sex doesn't generally go with westerns, to me, but it can fit nicely in horror fiction. So much depends on why you select a story to read in the first place. I started the Hamilton story looking for some adventure and found nothing but sex. That got old for me quickly, although the scenes themselves were decently done.

BernardL said...

December Quinn's blog series on writing erotica you and I read helped me a lot.

Barbara Martin said...

It should be an integral part of the story and fit to carry the story forward. Too much throughout the book would be annoying for me unless it's labelled erotica. One problem I can see, if a reader skims through to where the story resumes they might miss something said that is important to the story.

Angie said...

Charles -- sure, a sex scene can be wonderfully well written but still bring nothing to the story except sex. The skill is in making the sex scene vital to the plot development or the reader's understanding of the characters and their relationship.

I read a book a little while back, I think it was by James Buchanan, where a couple of characters had sex in the back of a classic hearse, and during that scene they bonked against the back panel and it flew open. The character who owned the hearse said yeah, the catch is wonky and it does that a lot. Later on, during the climactic chase scene where the hearse owner had been kidnapped and the bad guys stole his hearse with him in the back, he was able to escape by bonking on the back panel until it opened. Got a bad case of road rash, but they were going to kill him so road rash was a large step up from that. :) And since his lover (who was chasing the hearse down the freeway in his car) knew about the un-sticky panel, when he saw the panel fly open he knew exactly what was going to happen, instead of being shocked for a second, and was able to swerve in time to miss running over his lover.

A detail like that is important to the plot. It wouldn't have justified a ten-page sex scene, but it was fine to justify a couple of pages and you could look back later and say, "Aha!" :)


Lisa said...

Less is better. I think the only time I find it interesting is when the focus is on what the characters are thinking leading up to or during sex, not what they're doing.

Travis Erwin said...

I only need enough to leave me satisfied.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I agree - the story may need a sex scene and that's valid but more often than not the scene is put there for no other reason than titilation. I mean I know where the porn is - I don't need it in my westerns.

Lana Gramlich said...

"Rousing" adventure...Bwa ha ha!
Considering that I tend to read non-fiction these days, I guess I don't need sex at all. I can't see where a sex scene would even fit in "Guide to Getting Art Grants"...well, come to think about it, now I do... <:\

Anonymous said...

I'm not against writers putting sex scenes in, but I'm not too fond of them. I feel the same way about the interuptus.

I've always avoided reading the westerns like Longarm, because they looked like they had heightened violence and sex scenes primarily to juice things up. I suppose that can be fun too, but not for me.

Crushed said...

It depends.

Guy Gavriel Kay, I rate as a writer, but sometimes I think he shoved sex in for the sake of it.

Robert Jordan seemed to get it about right.

I know what sex is, I don't need the details.

Travis Cody said...

I feel about sex in stories the same as I feel about violence. If it fits the story and doesn't pull me out of the world, then I'm ok with it.

But if it reads like "there hasn't been any sex in the last few pages so we better get the characters nekkid", well that I can do without.

Don't just put it in there because you can. Have a purpose for it.

writtenwyrdd said...

I called this "Plottus Interruptus" when I found this sense of story...gratuitous sex...more story...more gratuitous sex. But I was reading erotica (purely in the interest of discovering how to write it, honest ;)

Now I want to read some Adult Westerns because you have got me curious how a male-oriented sex scene should be written.

One thing I will say in defense of Laurell K. Hamilton's increased sexual content is that, though there is too much of it, she does (to me anyhow) manage to make the plot and sex seem to make sense. but I liked her earlier books better.

Donnetta said...

Has its place as you say, but is a bit distracting. Feel like saying: "I'll open the book back up when you're finished." D

pattinase (abbott) said...

It is so hard to do well, I prefer it in small doses.

laughingwolf said...

i'm with you on that 'story interruptus' kick... and feel pretty much the same as you

having compulsory 'explicit sex' in a story goes beyond the pale... like el says, less is more... and i side with sidney, too

even with dee's 'how to' on the subject, if it does not advance the tale, and is there for the sake of prurience cuz of guidelines, i'll look elsewhere

Rachel V. Olivier said...

Ya know, sex is okay in the right spots. Lately, though, I find myself skipping over the sex bits. It seems that's that what they put in these days to attract more readers.

Greg said...

interesting post. i never really thought about that before. and i've never heard of the adult western subgenre.

i think most of the times i've come across an explicit sex scene in a story, it called too much attention to itself and seemed more like a gimmick than part of the plot. i've read a few mysteries recently that were laden with sex scenes, though they were pretty short and fit in well with the story.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I also find I have less patience these days with the new "urban fantasy" and paranormal romance. It all depends on the writer, of course, but I do get tired of stories all about some woman finding her sexual magical self, like Laurell K. Hamilton. On the other hand, there are writers like Stephanie Rowe and it's an obvious romance, paranormal or not, but just enough spice, not too much and never gets in the way of the story.

Gabby said...

I think, regardless of whether it's sex, violence, overly descriptive scenes (which can sometimes be essential, but usually aren't), can all fall under the less is more category. I prefer less. And, even if it IS needed (for example, I just read Gaiman's Stardust and there is a sex scene, but it's somewhat important, seeing as the child that results from that is basically the "hero" of the book), does it really need to be all that explicit? Unless it's erotica, I don't see the point. I kinda agree with Rachel that I think these days it gets put in to attract readers. Not necessary in my opinion. But then maybe I'm a bit oif a prude. ^_^ (I will usually skim or skip, anyways....heh....)

Charles Gramlich said...

BernardL, yes that was a good series definitely.

Georgie B., I think erotica works best in short doses. It’s a powerful emotion, but hard to maintain over a long work.

Barbara Martin, I’ve run into that before, skimming a section then realizing I must have missed something. It’s always hit or miss to go back and try to pick up the threads.

Angie, I think it must be hard to write for a series where certain requirements, like sex scenes, are in the contract. I admire the writers who can pull it off and still make it seem natural.

Lisa, yes, if there’s an emotional connection, or if the sex is used to advance the plot, as if someone is trying to manipulate the other person. Those make sense to me.

Travis Erwin, now that could be taken a number of ways. And seems pretty open ended. ;)

ARCHAVIST, that’s pretty much my thinking. Both my friends pulled off the sex scenes well and they did have some tie in with the plot, but there still seemed something a bit out of synch with the story in them.

Lana Gramlich, Yes, I imagine sex would help one get grants actually.

Jack, I read the one years ago for curiosity sake, then never had much urge to read any more until I found some written by buddies and I knew they could tell a good story. And they did. The sex certainly wasn’t needed to make it good.

Crushed, yep, I feel much the same way. Sex is a realistic element of characters and should probably fit into the story in that way.

Travis, I’m going to post in a few days about violence in fiction. I think we’re in agreement.

writtenwyrdd, sex, like violence, has to be handled delicately, I think. The Hamilton book I was talking about was Narcissus in Chains. It seemed to me to be all sex and virtually no plot. Although I also read the first in the series and it had much more of a plot and less sex.

Donnetta Lee, LoL. Like telling the characters to “get a room.”

pattinase (abbott), yes, and it can become cliché pretty quickly.

Laughingwolf, it must be difficult to write for any series that has really strict guidelines about material.

Rachel, I tried skipping over the sex bits in Narcissus in Chains but the book was over pretty quickly that way. As for romances, at least in those cases the sex is integral to the story, because it’s all about the development of an intimate relationship. I’ve not read much urban fantasy, though, so I’m not sure who is good and who’s not.

Greg Schwartz, adult westerns were a really big market in the 70s but I think they’ve really lost a lot of readership these days. They appeal almost exclusively to men, and men aren’t reading as much these days.

Gabby, my mood in reading is usually looking for the story and the adventure. Unless the sex scene moves that along really well it often seems tacked on.

LoveRundle said...

That is so true. When I had read LKH's early work, it was pretty darn scary for me. Her later work became very sensual. I'm not sure how I feel about those things. It depends on my moods. I've got a few romance novels on my TBR list, but they are squeezed in between books that probably have very little romance.

Angie said...

Charles -- definitely tough to make it work over and over just because guidelines say you have to. [nod] I gave up trying early on; plot is too important to me, and I don't have nearly enough interest in sex for the sake of sex to be willing to put that much effort into it.


PS -- sorry about the stray e-mail. I just woke up and obviously don't have a full complement of synapses firing yet. [laugh/flail]

Steve Malley said...

I gotta say, I have a rule of thumb that serves me well, reading and writing:

If the important thing is that they *have* sex, fade to the damn fireplace.

But if *how* they have sex matters, then we're obligated to stay with it.

Which pretty much eliminates every 80's action movie ever....

the walking man said...

If the writer is skillful enough to integrate it with the story seamlessly I can enjoy it. But if it appears to just drop in from a seeming need to prop the word count I would most likely stop reading.

ivan said...

I love the writing of the late John Updike.
Bus sometimes he writes about cunning linguists, however the way you spell it.
"I'll do it. It's me. It's my wetness."--or something like that.
Ooh. Shades of Jacques Custeau.

laughingwolf said...


mark echoes my thoughts, too

ivan said...

Comes to getting Arts grants, there's a sex term for it.
If getting grants is like rare stamp collecting, it would appear that philatelly will get you everywhere.

Heff said...

Considering it's usually the ONLY reason I read, QUITE A LOT. You probably had that figured out already though.

Virginia Lady said...

If the story needs the sex to move the plot, then it's a good thing, but if it could be removed without changing the plot significantly, it's annoying.

And I agree with Bernard, writing the scenes can really interrupt my writing. I tend to leave a space that says 'sex/romance scene' and come back to it later, but then often my story tends to force its way out of my head.

Erik Donald France said...

Sex in a western is absurd, or certainly not a good idea if it's supposed to be romantic.

Deadwood was probably about as realistic as anything, and it was pretty brutal in language as well as "romance." One scene with starving Chinese prostitutes being brought to camp in cages was as frank as it gets.

You're right -- context is everything when it comes to explicit sex scenes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Christina, I like Hamilton's sensual prose style, but in the later books it seemed that was almost all there was.

Angie, I wonder if the guidelines for the Star Trek books are as stringent. No prob on the email. My mind is like that much of the time.

Steve Malley, very good point. I hadn't really thought of it that way but I think I'm going to make that my rule as well from now on.

Mark, It must be pretty difficult to pull it off when the guidelines are pretty restrictive.

ivan, Hemingway surely gave the impression of sex being had without showing it. Of course, the times were much different. LOL on the stamp collecting joke.

laughingwolf, I'm much the same. I don't "need" to read about sex but I can enjoy it if it really helps develop the story.

Heff, yeah, but it's different when you're reading specifically sexual material. Like Penthouse letters say. I will say I've read that kind of material much more in the past than I do today.

Virginia Lady, I've only written a few sexual scenes in my books or stories and so I haven't done that "put sex here" thing, but I know plenty of writers who do. In one way that says maybe the material isn't as integral to the story as it might be.

Erik Donald France, the Adult westerns really don't have much romantic type sex in them. That's why I think of them more as having male type fantasies. I never watched Deadwood but I bet I would have enjoyed much of it.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Chrales,

Love the hook on this one! I think sex scenes are incredibly difficult to write. That said, I don't mind reading them. But when I write, I tend to do a lot of jump cuts -- and then the next morning . . .

David Cranmer said...

Unless it's well done the explicit sex can come off looking pretty lame and I often wonder who it's being marketed for. I suspect I know the friends you mentioned and their entries in these series are tops. I've gotten to the point where I will only read their supremely crafted yarns.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

You know, genre literature has been notorious for it's prudishness. Science fiction and horror have been rather above that fray, unless you include the recent development of the paranormal romance.

Me? I'm going to go write something erotic. It's a great way to pick up women.

cs harris said...

Sex works in a story when something is happening (besides sex!) between the characters in the scene. IMHO, if it's just thrown in there for titillation, it's basically porn. That's when I skip.

Two examples of writers who do sex scenes well are Martin Cruz Smith and James Lee Burke. Both very much sex from the male perspective (you can sooo tell those scenes weren't written by a woman!), but we learn something about their characters in those scenes, and the scenes advance the plot. If you skipped them, you'd miss a thread in the story line.

Charles Gramlich said...

Michelle, I find 'em pretty hard as well. It's difficult to say something in a different way.

David Cranmer, yes and I wonder if they dislike having to put in the sex scenes.

Stewart, let me know how you do.

Candy, Burke is definitely good, although I've not read enough Smith to remember his stuff well. It's usually pretty clear when a woman writes a sex scene as opposed to a man. There definitely seems to be a different focus.

Anonymous said...

I read one of the "Edge" westerns in the 70s. What put me off reading any more was the sadistic violence, and I think thats related to what you are talking about. Most of the books I read contain violence because its part of the plot - but with Edge I felt it was in the book because the reader was supposed to enjoy it.

cs harris - I've loved all of Martin Cruz Smith's books but I can't remember much sex in them - maybe thats an indication that he does it really well.

- Jon

Gabby said...

Okay, I have to make one more comment, because a manuscript I'm currently proofing has a few sex scenes. The first one wasn't very detailed, and the following ones I've read so far are ... laughable, at best (okay, maybe all of them have been laughable). The scenes are awkwardly written -- "Ahhh" she says. *snickers* And the less-detailed sex is awkward, like the author starts to give you some image, but kinda muddles through it, so you don't quite understand what's going on (thus making it seem awkward). Definitely this is sex thrown in to "develop" a relationship between two people who just met, whereas, if the author had built the tension until much later in the book, then it might have a proper place -- IF the author knew how to at least write lead-up and fade-to sex (since he clearly doesn't want to write a full-out sex scene). It's a fail. It's better left out in this instance, IMO.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jon, I read the first Edge years ago and felt the same way. I'm reading a couple of them now because I actually want to do a post on the violence. I agree with you. I don't mind violence but there was something far too brutal about Edge. I'll be commenting more a bit later.

Gabby, yes, if you do it you have to do a decent job of it. It's very easy to mess up a sex scene it seems to me, and you don't want people laughing at it.

writtenwyrdd said...

Charles, fwiw, Narcissus in Chaines is TAME compared to the latest four or five tomes. There the sex really does derail the plot about half the time.

The first I'd say seven of the series are wonderful books, though. There's always a mystery to solve instead of sex all over the place. About the first four(?) don't have any sex at all, even. (Are you shocked?)

Clare2e said...

Charles- I didn't know about this genre, but I guess, of course it must exist. Interesting.

I like a variety and will read from the extremely smutty to very violent (which often subs for sex) to super-tame YA stuff. Sex scenes have to feel in context with the characters and what's happening, not just slapped in for the hella. When writing's very sensual, and I mean literally, like in the early Anne Rice books, you can have no actual sex occur at all and the scenes still feel erotically charged. I've been reading a couple of fantasies where the writing emphasizes connections, grazes between characters, but not the brass tacks if you will, and I found them very satisfying as a reader. I don't want more or less than what reads well in context.

That should be easy enough : )

Randy Johnson said...

I'm like you, Charles. All those years ago when they started, I sampled a few and wasn't impressed. I told someone at the time, "If I wanted to read a porn novel, I'd read a porn novel!"
I've read a few recently by the same writer you referenced and they are much better than I remembered. Still, the sex is distracting from the story line and, though I enjoyed the few I read, I probably won't read more. I will just stick to the traditional westerns.

Sarai said...

I read a lot of romance and paranormal fantasy which usually includes sex. If the story calls for it, and its well written I don't mind it but if it the sex scene is odd, out of place, uncalled for, or just over the top I'll skim it to find the story.

It really just depends for me.

Randy Johnson said...

The most oddly placed sex scene I ever remember reading was in Benchley's Jaws. Matt Hooper started a relationship with the Sheriff's wife and it seemed like it had been pasted in later to spice things up. Completely stopped the flow of the action.
Fortunately when Spielberg made the movie, that whole subplot was dropped.

Jon said...

Erotica. I love to read it and I love to write it.
Sex scenes in literature ought to be like sex scenes in life: The more planned or contrived they are, the worse the scene. They should develop, they should happen and then you shower, take a nap and go out and cut the grass...or chase the bad guy if you live in a novel.

Virginia Lady said...

Yeah, you have to look at whether the scene really is integral or not, but usually I have a hard time writing the sex when my kids are nearby, so the actual writing gets delayed, the scene often plays out in my head quite clearly though. DIsconcerting at times.

Charles Gramlich said...

writtenwyrdd, I sensed Hamilton was headed that direction and that’s why I haven’t read any more of them. I did like the first book in the series pretty well.

Clare2e, I enjoy a wide variety of stuff as well. I do read erotica sometimes but these days mostly only if written by friends. I’ve always been most about the adventure.

Randy Johnson, Yes, the story was pretty good in The Trailsman volume I recently read. It surely didn’t need the sex, though. I don’t even remember that sex scene from the book Jaws, although I did read it many years ago. Guess it certainly wasn’t memorable.

Sarai, I see a bit too much of folks putting sex in a book because sex sells, I suppose. Sometimes it can be just the right thing for a book and can be beautiful and sensual. Other times I just page on past.

Jon, I have to be in a rare mood to either read or write erotica, although I’ve done both at times. I don’t mind erotica as much as I mind when sex seems to be grafted onto stories that aren’t basically erotica.

Virginia Lady, most of my stuff doesn’t lend itself to sex scenes, although I did write some sexually graphic horror stuff back in the day when that was more popular.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm with you, particularly with short books, where the sex scenes seem to take the place of plot. In general, I'd rather have the sex scenes replaced with plot.

Danette Haworth said...

I bet you received a lot of hits on the title of this post!

I'm with Ello, a bit of a prude here. But I don't mind knowing that things are taking place off-stage.

j said...

LOTS of romance, not so much on the sex. If sexual tension is written into the story really well, then a kiss can be amazing and almost enough.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna Roberts, yes, more plot could be a theme song for many books, especially some of the series written in the 70s and 80s.

Danette Haworth, I'm looking to see. I bet I did too. That's one reason I titled it that way, just to see.

jennifer, Lol. Too much romance makes me want to kill something. (sorry, couldn't help myself with that comment.) You are right about how sexual tension can be based on non-sexual intimacies.

L.A. Mitchell said...

Great comments here. I wonder how many of these authors are pressured to inject what doesn't grow organically from the story.

Someone who is an avid fan of erotica once told me fans of that genre LINE UP at the brick and mortar stores on the Tuesdays the new erotica titles are released. Editors and houses are chasing the money.

For me, it has to advance the story or relationship. To many distills even the best love scenes. Sexual tension is a supreme art..far greater than too much sex.

Vesper said...

I think that suggestion can be much more powerful than anything explicit.

Charles Gramlich said...

L. A., I agree, the development of sexual tension and sustaining it is very much an art, and more thrilling for this reader at least than the climax.

Vesper, the imagination of the reader is a powerful tool for the "writer" to use.

Mary Witzl said...

I'm a bit of a closet Victorian myself, but when you've got to have it, you've got to have it, and not having it makes for a book that feels incomplete. But when sex in a book is gratuitous, it sure is ho-hum. And there's nothing sadder than being bored by sex.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary Witzl, I agree, it's pretty bad when sex gets boring in a book.