Can I Write Smut?

Can I Write Smut? August 24, 2015
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These ladybugs have had their faces scrambled to protect their identities.

A friend on Twitter asked me about how Catholic writers ought to deal with sexual content in fiction, and I couldn’t figure out a way to answer the question in under a 140 characters so I figured I’d blog it.

I’m currently reading Eve Tushnet’s novel, Amends, which I’ll be reviewing properly once I’ve finished it. Eve deals with sexuality with reasonable frequency, and so far she’s been cleverly relying on the fact that her characters are all alcoholics going through rehab to justify having all of the sex scenes happen off-screen, appearing primarily as painful mornings-after or vague blackout memories. It’s a good twist on the “love ends below the neck” approach that was popular in the ’50s – good enough that until I actually thought about it I didn’t notice that she was getting all of her smut value out of occasional racy jokes and super-awkward post-coital consequences.

So that’s one possibility, but obviously it’s not one that’s going to work in every context. So the question is, how do you decide where portrayals of sex in fiction cross the line into immodesty?

I don’t think that the question can be answered without first dealing with the highly relative nature of modesty itself. Modesty is one of those virtues that is really contextual. For example, if Doctor Who were to suddenly show up in my living room, yoink me into his TARDIS and carry me off to a Puritan colonoy in early America, I would probably be stoned for what I’m wearing right now. But I would happily wear these clothes (a pair of maternity jean shorts, cut mid-thigh, and a scoop-neck olive-green t-shirt) in public today, and nobody but the weirdest of conservatives would see my outfit as a sign of our culture’s moral decline.

Similarly, what’s modest on the beach would be scandalous in the boardroom. Language that’s fine at the pub with a group of friends must never be used at a church social. Personal revelations that are perfectly normal in the blogosphere would seem weird and kind of emotionally nudist in the cafeteria.
These standards are constantly in flux, and it’s not like they’re on a single, fixed-variable plunge towards indecency. Not long ago, it was normal for small children to run around naked. Now some people get skeeved by parents taking photos of their kids in the bath. During the Middle Ages there was no problem with painting Our Lady breastfeeding Our Lord. At some point breastfeeding was relegated to the private realm, and right now we’re in the midst of a social controversy over whether it’s okay for a woman to nurse in public.

So how do we navigate all of this when it comes to writing fiction?

The problem is that there’s an absolutely huge spectrum between something like Tolkien, where love doesn’t even make it as far as the neck, and something like 50 Shades of Gray, which is obviously just schlock pornogaphy. Where do we draw the line?

Unfortunately, comfort levels will vary drastically from reader to reader. For example, I find the sex scenes in Robertson Davies frankly hilarious and I’ve never objected to the fact that they’re sometimes quite explicit. I can’t imagine anyone finding them alluring, since mostly he’s aiming to portray the ways in which human sexuality is amusingly messed up (with a reasonable Canadian balance of sensitivity and satire, of course.) On the other hand, I found that when I was reading Love in The Time of Cholera there were several scenes where I felt like Marquez had crossed a line, that he was describing things that were too intimate, like he was inviting the reader to intrude on the privacy of his characters.

Perhaps that’s part of the equation. In Les Miserables, Hugo has a fairly tedious and overwrought rant about the sanctity of the marriage chamber, and how he dare not intrude upon it on Marius and Cosette’s wedding night. The text itself is pretty dull, but the point is a good one: Hugo’s characters would not, in fact, be comfortable having their nuptial consummation take place on screen. He withdraws out of consideration for their privacy, which I think is only proper and reasonable. (I’ve always felt a writer has responsibilities towards their audience, but also towards the characters that they portray.)

The second consideration is the difference between realism and fantasy. For example, if you look at the sex scenes in, say, The Diviners by Margeret Laurence, or The French Lieutenants Woman by John Fowles, in both cases the scenes are fairly explicit, there’s no point at which the camera discreetly withdraws, but the focus is much more on sexual psychology than on titillating details. Both scenes are kind of awkward, they’re realistically drawn and they’re important to plot and character development. It’s not just sex for the sake of sex, and it’s not intended to feed anyone’s sexual fantasies. Quite the contrary: these are scenes where fantasy is deflated.

Thirdly, there’s the consideration of audience. If you’re writing a postmodern novel for adults, the standards are going to be different than if you’re writing Christian YA. Writing without an intended audience almost invariably leads to bad writing, and part of a writer’s responsibility is to consider the effect of their words on the people who will be reading them. Generally, as a Christian writer you probably don’t want to be pushing against your readers’ sexual sensitivities unless there’s a really good reason to do so – but if you’re writing for a contemporary, secular audience then you’re not obligated to write as though it’s 1890 anymore than you’re obligated to wear full-body wool swimwear at the pool.

And finally, I think it’s important to consider the role that sex plays within a work as a whole. When I was younger, I used to read a lot of science fiction and it drove me nuts when authors like Heinlein or Herbert would have a really great, interesting sci-fi idea – and then for no reason they would devote huge swathes of text (in Heinlein’s case often most of the book) to the sex-lives of their characters. Sex should contribute to the narrative, it shouldn’t steal the limelight. Generally, when sex takes over the text it’s obvious to any discerning reader that they’re basically being exposed to the private sexual fantasies of the author – which, just no. Sex should contribute to the plot and show something important about the characters. It should be handled with delicacy but without prudery, and it should be included when it’s necessary – but left out when it’s not.

Photo Credit: Pixabay


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