Monday, April 16, 2007

Are We Having Sex Yet?

There was an interesting post a few weeks ago, on the review and discussion web site, about whether there's a room in romance fiction for the extravagances of style we tend to associate with "literary" fiction - or whether romance readers prefer (and romance writers ought to be content to achieve) a narrative that’s clear, clean, and quick to deliver the goods. I recommend the discussion (and I was delighted to have a few lines from The Slightest Provocation chosen as one of their examples of lyrical description in romance).

But I prefer to think about these matters a bit differently. I mean of course I'm of the opinion that romance ought to be rich enough to comprise any damn kind of writing an author wants to try her hand at - aren't love and sex big and important enough to be approached from like a gazillion angles? But I'd like to take the discussion beyond the craft of description. Because taking time out from fast-moving narrative structure isn't just a matter of "literariness" or lyricism.

It's about trying to write about time itself. And for me, it’s also usually a way of writing about sex - which is, I think most of us would agree, a matter of timing.

So it makes sense that writing about sex has got to be a matter of knowing when to take your time and when to hurry. And writing a sexy romance is about finding or creating the style that catches the rhythm you need.

...there aren't enough tenses for all this to happen in, the past and the present fragmenting as they bop off one another...
This line - from a wonderful poem called "Erotikon" in a book of the same name by Susan Mitchell - expresses one of my core credos and favorite conundrums about sex: that it's never completely in the present or in the past. Because every moment in the present was once in the future and soon enough will become the past. Because how can anybody know exactly when anticipation becomes experience or experience becomes recollection (and how can any writer resist trying to pin it down)? And because when you're paying attention to each moment, when you're living it intensely and in the round (so to speak), your time sense gets confused, enchanted, or bent into new and surprising shapes.

I've been musing and meditating on this sort of stuff for most of my adult life - or at least since my late teens, since I first read T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland."

Well, I sort of read it. I mean I didn't read it all the way through to the end that first time; I stumbled and got lost among the weird arcane references. And anyway, I didn't see any point in going further when I was already so knocked out by those famous opening lines:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Being in the April of my own young adulthood at the time, I knew that "cruel" was exactly right for what I was feeling. And that although "stirring/ Dead roots with spring rain" almost hurt to read and think about, it was the good kind of hurt I was learning to recognize as "desire" (and to begin to consider how yearning is the flip side of remembering what you've lost, cherished, or almost forgotten).

So at least that first time I gave up on whatever Eliot was trying to tell me about European culture and mythology, and went back and read and reread about April and the lilacs and the spring rain about a hundred more times.

After which (well many years after which, and having dutifully finished reading and even sort of understanding the hard parts of "The Wasteland") I became a writer of erotica and erotic romance - a job that demands, imo, a constant state of itchy confusion about the linked mysteries of memory and desire, and of attention to verb tenses that have to be tweaked and stroked until they signal the sneaky permeability of the erotic past, present and future tenses. Not to speak of the conditional, past perfect, imperfect, and the subjective… because I also sometimes wonder if French came to be called the language of love because of the exquisite care their writers pay to all those shifts in tense and mood. Though of course there are also the strange and exotic things that speaking French does to your mouth and throat...

…which would be a different discussion. For some other time, perhaps.

But meanwhile, I’d love to know if anybody else out there thinks about these issues, and what they mean (or don't) for that narrative arc so critical to genre fiction.


meardaba said...

Honestly, you guys slay me. I mean, here I am, a year out of uni, and I can't keep up. All of my grey matter has atrophied in this last year, and trying to come up with an answer to your questions is like doing 50 squats after doing none.

It hurts.

That said, I'll try. I'll stop whingeing.

Perhaps sex is timeless because when one is having sex, one is truly living in the moment. No past, future, nor daily worries. When one is enjoying sex to its fullest one is fully focused on her partner and her pleasure, and time disappears.

And that can be incredibly hard to write about, because our language is trapped within the confines of time, matter and space.

And interesting question: time to us is a linear plane moving forward. To the Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin, I think) time is a linear plane moving up. Do you think they would describe sex and timelessness differently?

Kate Pearce said...

I agree about the timeless nature of sex and I try really hard to get all the sensations and senses into my descriptions when I write sex scenes.

I've been told that I have a literary style but that might just be because I'm from the UK and we tend to use more flowery language over there :)
Do you get that Jane?

Pam Rosenthal said...

You slay me too meardaba. But since I'm way past one year out of university, I don't think sex is timeless; for me it's fraught with time and its quiddities and all that winged chariot stuff. But that's why I'm begining to need to write romances with characters of different ages (multiple couples situated in differing relationships to their mortality) to see it from many angles.

Jane Lockwood said...

I've always felt that writing should be like music, in that you bring in different rhythms and moods and colors. I'm definitely not of the "keep the pacing tight" school because that limits you so much. Sometimes you need to linger and take your time, other times things are fast and frantic. Like lovemaking, in fact.

There's a bit I love in Bookseller's Daughter, Pam, just before Marie-Laure and Joseph make love, where you describe a breathless moment where outside birds sing and life continues, but the two lovers spin time out together. It's beautifully done.

As for the literary voice, Kate, the Englishism is a curse and a blessing. You can mutter away about dirty socks and people will associate it with the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Even when you have an upper middle lower middle south east urban accent like mine.

janegeorge said...

On sex and mortality:

I once had a dream where I floated in space. My body was shaped of light but shot through with *veins* and *arteries* of colored light. Another identical being floated near me. By wordless agreement of mind, we began to blend bodies, touching *through* each other, an arm through a torso, a foot through a thigh.

Every time we did that was akin to a total body orgasm. Yes, it was weird. (and I may be, too)

I consider sex to be of time and outside of it, just as our spirits are inside these bodies we drive around in like cars while we're here, but are larger than our bodies as well. Sex grounds us in this earth (it's May! it's May! Well, almost) and also frees us from it for brief sensations, in time.

Sex is so odd, and difficult to write well, because I don't know of anything else that is so completely overwhelming one moment, and then clicks into, "Oh, damn, I forgot to clean the litterbox," a few moments afterward. :-)

Celia May Hart said...


My head hurts.

I just write the stuff. And rewrite it if it sounds wrong, and rewrite it to tweak for that emotional moment, and I very rarely pay attention to what verb tense I'm using. (Which, um, might say a lot, but I sure hope not.)

Maybe I would skip on the rewriting if I stopped to analyze, but that's just not how I work.

Or maybe it's because I stopped at T.S. Eliot's "Cats"....

Pam Rosenthal said...

I love that bit, Jane G. about being overwhelmed by sex one moment and then there
s the litterbox (which is probably why it works to stop at "Cats," Celia).

Oh and thanks, Jane L., re the birds outside in Bookseller's Daughter. I'd forgotten about it, but it's sort of the poetic version of the litterbox businss, isn't it? Poetic, of course, when written in that unmistakeable "upper middle lower middle south east urban accent."

Colette Gale said...

Heh heh....Meardaba, Celia, I know what you mean. My head's hurting too ('course that could be because it's 6 am)....

I should think that sex is timeless. 'Cause if it isn't and you're thinking about who/what/when/where as you're partaking, well, then, it's probably not going very well.

Er. Right.

Kalen Hughes said...

This is so funny, because one of the things I LOOK FOR when I read, reguardless of genre is style (which I think is part of voice). This is one of the reasons that Pam's books are always at the top of my MUST HAVE list.

Kate Pearce said...

Jane: "Upper middle, lower middle south east urban accent"

hmmm-sounds a lot like mine with a slight hint of London cockney thrown in