Sex scene rant & errors in novels–a no-no?

Someone on a mystery mailing list suggested:
>I wish they would print the sex scenes in blue type so I could
>just skip over them.

That’s an idea. In fact, I have so much trouble reading light blue on white type that I couldn’t read ’em–perfect solution!

I think what bugs me is twofold. First, as you’re reading along, the narrative goes from having a “normal” psychic distance, in which sensations are not mentioned unless they’re important to the plot or being used as character speech tags (and usually are character tip-offs)–for example, “her foot itched” or “she scratched her ear” or “he tugged at his earlobe” will usually convey something about the environment (there are lots of mosquitoes ’cause they’re in a swamp) or show nervousness, etc. You don’t hear every eye blink or every breath taken in, is what I’m saying. Unless it’s a clue to character or guilt, we don’t get “he blinked” every thirty seconds, because it’s assumed.

But suddenly here comes a make-out scene, and the lens goes macro (as a 35mm camera’s lens does to take an extreme close-up) and we’re suddenly seeing it through the electron microscope. It’s just too close! Nothing is assumed, everything is described in loving detail. Well, blech. Excuse me, but after you’re out of junior high, the thrill is gone in reading the “good parts” of the classics, and also in reading these scenes.

Hey, just say he/she reached out and drew her/him to him/her and kissed her/him (arrgh, that’s tedious–just assume him/her from here on in) and it felt good and everything was right and the chemistry was there, so they made love . . . or they “went all the way” . . . or she woke up happy . . . whatever. Just let the bedroom door close. We get the idea. Sheesh–why do I want to know what he or she rubbed, tickled, licked, yuck!! Yuck!! Too much information!! It’s like, I don’t want to hear about your bowel movements unless I’m your gastroenterologist. (That comes to mind ’cause my mother, who had bowel surgery and successful colon cancer treatment, but is still vigilant, will come out and tell you just what she saw in the bowl, what color and so forth, and it is TOO MUCH INFORMATION, but I can’t break her of the compulsion, so I just keep her away from crowds ) It’s really gross. And the same goes for when the movies show people rolling endlessly around. Sure, a naked Mel Gibson is nice to gaze at, but get over it. Hey, I got the idea when you showed the wide shot of them falling onto the bed or the area rug or whatever. Why do I need to see several minutes of it with all that symphonic music (or, perhaps more fitting, that “Oh Yeah” song they used in “Secret of My Success” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and several other movies!!)? Unless you’re doing a stag/porn film, pleeease don’t do this.

The other half of my gripe is this: the complaint that is honored oh-so-strictly by all crit partners and literary agents (as far as I can tell)–you cannot fight this complaint by anything other than changing your work–is ignored with sex scenes. What I refer to is “the action stopped, and the plot is not moving forward” sin. I ask you, why is it that when my heroine was musing about the price of tea in China and buying her groceries and admiring the hair of the man in front of her in line, the crit partners all yelled, “Doesn’t advance the plot, and you’ve already used similar stuff to characterize the woman–no clues here, no red herrings, so cut this whole scene and get to the action. The action has stopped!” But if they encounter a scene of “he rubbed this” and “she twisted that” or what-have-you, they let that one pass! Even though the action is completely in another sense now. The forward action of the story has stopped. All that’s needed is a statement that they’re Doing It, or whatever. Is everyone else a fourteen-year-old boy who doesn’t know how it’s done and wants a how-to? Seriously, now, why must there be “titillation” in a mystery and every other kind of book? Leave that for the specifically designated erotica and “steamy” romance novels. Good grief. I mean, how old are we? If we’re over eighteen and have actually Done It, then we really don’t need every book to be a sex manual.

That said, if it’s important to the plot that one of the suspects dresses up as a clown or a private duty nurse and climbs into a Volkswagen bug in order to get off, then you might mention that. But there’s really no need for a three-page microscope scene of slot A and tab B in the middle of a storyline that isn’t intended to teach you about sex and sexual practices.

Um, was that a rant? Why, I believe it was.

But what the market has gotten, it will continue to get, I suppose. Until people actually quit buying the books and cite this loudly enough as the reason, the Requisite Sex Scene will probably still be in just about every other novel you pick up.

I guess everybody else likes it, after all.

I still maintain that the constant writing of sex scenes in just about every novel (and showing them in every durn movie) is
pandering to the prurient interests, playing to the lowest (and least) common denominator. Why sex scenes would be interesting and not scenes where someone goes step-by-step through opening a package, I dunno. It’s the same microscopic observation level. Or the tale of going on a roller coaster ride gone over detail by detail. All of them who say they NEED to SEE the hero/ine making it ’cause there has been sexual tension, bullshit. You can enjoy the tension all day in the book and then you can say, “Whoopee!” when the author writes, “He took her in his arms and they fell into bed” or whatever, and “she was swept away,” and whatever. We don’t need a “he picked up one foot and raised his knee to accommodate the level of the curb, then placed his foot on the sidewalk. He lifted his body smoothly on the joint of his hip and flexed the other knee, raising the other foot to join the first near, but not quite, on the same square, careful not to step on the crack. His toes clenched as he took another step, the temperature of the pavement seeping through the thin soles of his sandals. A warm breeze blew over him and petals from the chinaberry tree overhead dotted the sidewalk and green lawn. A dog strained at his chain and barked loudly as Our hero picked up the rear foot, raised his knee, and placed it in front of the other foot and slightly to the side. . . .” Sheesh! Too much information! “He walked across the street on the hot sidewalk, a dog straining at its chain and barking,” is plenty to give us the information. Better yet, “He crossed the street, avoiding somebody’s dog out on the front lawn, and approached the front door with Trepidation. ‘Wanna ring that bell, Trep?’ he said softly, glancing back at the vigilant mutt, who danced back and forth around the tree he was hitched to as if it were a maypole.

You know what I’m talking about.

Anyway. If people want to read softcore or hardcore porn, that’s fine with me. But why must EVERY book have some stupid sex scene in it that’s either softcore or bordering on it? Why must I know that he traced her something with his something else, or a moist whatever drew a line down her thigh, or WHATEVER? I mean, really–it’s not supposed to be a marriage manual! It’s supposed to be a friggin’ mystery! Er, I guess that’s what I’m saying–why must it be a FRIGGIN’ mystery and not just a plain old enjoyable mystery?

Someone on that list wrote of an irritating book (a book that seemed like a shaggy-dog story which existed solely for the purpose of getting to use the last line, a punch line–similar to the episode of SOuth Park in which all the wealthy African-Americans come to live in South Park and the “poor” middle-class people run them off, in which the last line, spoken by the gay teacher with the hand puppet, is obviously the big joke of the whole episode): “[I]t reminded me of PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, a book that hit the wall when I finished it, because I had waded through all that tedious stuff just so that he could write that last line. (Which I don’t remember now, nor anything else about the book.)”

I replied:
Oh, yes. Roth’s other “Defining Jewishness in the 1950s” novel (the other is Goodbye, Columbus, which talks about the 1960s, IMHO). Very “literary” novel. The last line was clever, though. However,
I only remember his complaint. They stole the “shocking pie scene” in the film “American Pie” from the complaint of Portnoy. Although Portnoy was doing it with chopped liver and whatever else he could find. I mean, why didn’t Roth speak up? Too embarrassed? (I would’ve been.)

When Philip Roth went on the “Tonight” show to promote “Portnoy’s Complaint” in around 1967, the subject was not a mainstream household topic. As Roth extended his hand to the host, Jack Paar, Jack said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d rather not
shake hands with you.” It got a huge laugh from the in-crowd. But it was a sincerely felt sentiment. (I miss the intellectual talk shows. Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, even Irv Kupcinet. But above all, Mr. Steve Allen.)

Back to Portnoy. The entire book is about a subject that used to be taboo, but which is now touted constantly as The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread on all the TV shows and even in commercials. It’s just as well you forgot it, ’cause it’s old news nowadays. Today, Port-boy would just be considered normal to be obsessed with it, since it’s so natural and normal. Okay, I agree, fine. Just don’t come over and tell me all about it, though. Too much information.

I was really puzzled to see Roth’s book appear on one of the “100 Best of Century” lists that actually left off _To Kill a Mockingbird_. Surely they weren’t serious in saying that TKaM was less worthy than Portnoy. Aack. Another list left off other worthies and included it. What’s the logic there? I dunno. At least they knew to leave off idiotic trash such as what has hit the BS lists in the last fifteen years or so. (Fill in your own least fave touted hyped novel.)

And talk about a digressive writer. Roth goes on and on about all these ideas and things the character is thinking. If I did that, I’d get rejections back saying they want action, action, action and that all this stuff isn’t necessary to the plot. (I think today’s agents go too far in their belief that fast is the only good pace, but that’s a different story.)

*However*, to tie this in with another recent thread, if you like sex scenes, you might like _Portnoy’s Complaint_ lots better than _To Kill a Mockingbird_. Not conventional sex scenes, mind you.

Mr. Roth never wrote a mystery, so I suppose the thread ties a knot here.

Ah, to arouse such passion with one’s writing. I refer to the response to my claim that sex scenes detract from most mystery novels in that they interrupt the story and narrative flow. (Although it’d have been nice to arouse ’em with the prose in the novel itself . . . take that in any sense you like.)

Someone said, Especially in movies, I am turned off by some of the
pornographic depictions of sex (as in the latest Matrix movie). I have 3 kids, I know how this stuff works–I don’t need a step-by-step demonstration.”

So far, the (private) e-mail is running two to one against sex scenes. Someone said in a previous digest that if you see one complaint, there are ten people in favor of whatever it is; that’s just the opposite of what we assumed in the marketing division of E-Systems, where the research showed that if you see one complaint, there are from ten to a hundred people who *also* would’ve complained, but were too lazy to write a letter (we went by actual snailmail, because e-mail wasn’t at all widespread in 1985-87). I remember reading something in TV Guide to that effect a long time ago–that if sponsors got one complaint about the content of a television program being inappropriate, it meant that there were several more people who were also upset but either didn’t bother to write or didn’t have the means (no typewriter–wow, that *was* a long time ago–or had no access to it when they were upset, and by the time they got to an office, the moment had passed.) Now that e-mail and the Web (clicking to fill out a form) are widely available, it’s got to be easier for people to complain or praise (if the sponsor or publisher has a website.) Still, most people won’t bother to go to the trouble. It’s only a fraction of those who are dissatisfied who’ll rumble. Similarly, if you get one fan letter that’s positive, you can probably assume that you have other fans. (All I’m saying is that the original claim doesn’t seem to fit the paradigm used by marketing firms; you can’t assume from a complaint that there are *any* people with positive feelings, although you may assume that at least one person watched your film clip or read your article. At least that’s what they taught my boss in college, so we based our metrics on that.) So I suppose there is a silent segment of the readership who skips over the Good Parts.

On the topic of mistakes in published novels, including best-sellers, and some mistakes that are howlers, many participants violently defended authors who do boo-boos. I said we needed to get things right.

At 12:14 AM 7/11/2003 -0400, Laura wrote:
>I’m inclined to cut Michael Connelly some slack [for sayin’ a
>woman with 6% body fat is possible, let alone healthy]. I know
>it’s hard for some readers to understand this, but writers make
>mistakes because they think they’re right.

Um, yeah, I know we do. Still, it’s part of our responsibility not to look stupid to let the critique group or partner read through and catch this stuff. That one wasn’t so tough to double-check, IMHO, because my dietitian (several of us have type II diabetes around this household) would’ve known, as would the lady at my gym who comes around to say, “Oh, you actually showed up! We hardly ever see you in here!” and maybe even my primary care physician. I’d be more lenient on him if he’d been vague and misty about the details of, say, the blessed/holy undergarments worn by members of some churches (and it’s not widely known about, although insiders know the details and it’s not a huge secret, as long as you aren’t asking in order to make fun of the belief system but just ’cause you’re interested.) What I’m saying is that’s a bit more obscure than the body fat issue, which he should’ve double-checked just as a matter of course. After all, he’s being PAID to write this stuff!! (And I check my Internet posts!)

>After all, you check the stuff you don’t know, but if you are sure
>you know something, you probably won’t flag it. […] [Many]
>people think they know what the immaculate conception is.
>I have friends who attended parochial school who get it wrong

It refers to Mary, not Our Savior. But you could look that up on the Internet in a dozen ways, or ask any priest, or ask just about any layperson on the staff of a Catholic church, for example. I know where to go to ask, is what I mean. I knew the answer. And I’m not even Catholic.

>If an author took a manuscript and subjected it to the level
>of fact-checking used at, say, the New Yorker

(I can’t help but be reminded of the character in _Bright Lights, Big City_ who was the crummy fact-checker there)

>, it would probably add 2-3 months to a book’s schedule.

Ah, here’s the difference. I’ve had waaay more than three months to fact-check my books, since they don’t have publication schedules. I suppose the Great Unwashed Pre-Published crowd gets it right (in first and possibly second novels) more often because we have lots more time to mess with checking and we beg more people to read it (“Here, look at this and see why they aren’t lining up to publish it.”) But the fact remains that when I worked at Alcatel USA, a telecom firm, I was expected to get my documents 100% correct you-betcha-dammit, and if I had a mistake, I was in big boilin’ water . . . because I was a professional software engineer being paid to do it. I was expected to be SURE about every detail. And only a few people actually read my documents (yes, I know for sure that a FEW weirdos did, because I got detailed footnotes and feedback from cavedwellers all over the telephone network before I published each 300-pg report!) What I’m saying is that I believe I should be held to an even higher standard if I’m putting out a novel meant to be widely read by lots of people; I know from experience that people like to learn something when they read pop fiction (it makes us feel better about reading some fluff , according to one of my professors in college who had theories about these things). And so I don’t want to make excuses for somebody multiply pubbed and supposedly professional. I think he ought to have his act together and if he’s got a howler, he should be called on it. But that’s just me.

>I think that’s a lot to expect of copy editors, too.

Well . . . the copyediting-L list taught me that there are a few really good and smart copyeditors out there. I hope I get one of the good ones. . . .

>Also consider that mystery novels have three levels of
>fact-checking — the real world, the world of facts created by
>the story at hand, and the body of facts established in previous
>books in a series.

The author and any faithful crit partners know about these things, so they ought to be able to catch most errors that are nontrivial at the read-me-and-proof-me stage. (This sort of begs the question of what’s trivial, and we don’t want to get into that, ack.) I think it’s part of the job for me to find out (for example) whether a process server says, “Here’s your summons,” or “Have a nice day,” or whatever, so I can portray it properly in the book, even if I’m not writing a mystery. Otherwise it’ll shatter the suspension of disbelief and ruin the vivid, continuous dream for the readers who say, “Wait a minute–it just doesn’t WORK that way!” Which is the last thing I want as an author.

Um, but the specific example of body fat percentage is NOT an obscure detail about the backstory of the series (“Let’s see, was Joe the name of that cousin who drowned when Miss Protagonist was a baby? Or was he Jake? Have to look that one up. And hey, did she have three dates or four dates with that stalker? Gotta look that up. . . .”) It’s an easy-to-confirm detail that a helluva lot of health enthusiasts would be stopped in their tracks by. Er, make that “a detail that would stop a lot of readers who are health enthusiasts in their tracks.” (Not that I insist English must be like Latin and never end a sentence with a preposition, but that sounded awkward.)

>I’ve made the biggest gaffes on some things I know very well.
>Or, more correctly — on some things I thought I knew very well.

All the more reason to have a couple of trusted readers from other walks of life who’re willing to read it through at final draft stage. Don’t most authors have some trusted readers? I can only speak for the non-anointed who don’t have series books with large NY houses, but most of us out here do have at least a couple of non-family readers who tend to catch these things.

I don’t mean a detail like whether April 15, 1900 was on a Sunday or not (even though that’s easy enough to check on a perpetual calendar program), but something like whether the Navy’s equivalent of the rank of Colonel in the Air Force is such-and-such. (I happened to write that a minor character, a witness in one of my mysteries, was a “retired Colonel,” thinking of McLean Stevenson on M*A*S*H, I suppose, but I said in the next breath he was ex-Navy and had been a sailor.) FYI, there are no colonels, retired or otherwise, in the U.S. Navy. My first reader Dennis Havens suggested I make him a retired Commander, the equivalent rank. (He directed me to several places to confirm the answer–but if I had doubts, I’d be double-checking that on the websites and/or with an active Navy enlistee.)

I’ve had people correct my Internet posts privately! And I appreciated it, furthermore. Maybe I’m just weird because I always loved school and considered myself a scholar and Renaissance (wo)man. But I don’t think so. I think authors are held to a higher standard because we’re used to believing things we read in published books, for better or worse.

If I were lucky enough to be a widely read published mystery author with books coming out from a prestigious New York house, I’d be sure of my details. But that’s just me.

I just think it’s part of the job to be perfect with the details. Else you’re going to get fan mail or e-mail correcting you, and that’s one fewer person who has respect for your work. Why risk it?

Martha writes of the Amish, so humble that they include a missed stitch in every quilt:
>No human is perfect […], so I suggest we just all take the
>errors [in published novels] as deliberate mistakes for humility’s

Hmm. Wish the boss had felt the same way at my last job. I’m pleased to see that so many readers will forgive me the inevitable slips that may creep into my novels and stories. I still think we should strive to prevent all the obvious and preventable boo-boos that we can by using “first readers” and reliable experts of our own. But that’s just me.

After I mentioned that I corrected my manuscript to reflect a rank of Commander for my suspect, Chester replied:
>>the Navy’s equivalent of colonel is captain. A commander is the equivalent of a lieutenant colonel.

Ah! Okay, that makes sense. So Dennis and I gave my suspect a promotion. I think he deserves it. He works hard and is a nice old fellow. He didn’t do the crime, though he witnessed a significant event that’s going to help the sleuth. *Still*, though, Dennis was right in that Commander is a naval rank; I had it wrong when I typed “Colonel,” and he corrected me so that if the book had gone out, it wouldn’t have been a honker of a boo-boo.

Caryl adds:
>some foreign navies do have colonels. [Israel and China]

Noted. (Useful thing to know.) My fellow fought on our side, though, so his rank needs to be that of an American. His slogan is, “USN, Never Again.” Not really . . . that was my cousin. Nowadays, he won’t even get on a JetSki.

Guess they told Me off.

The conclusion.
Some people love graphic sex scenes in real life, but not in books, especially not fantasy and mysteries.

I mean, it’s just boring. There’s nothing so boring as someone else’s sex life. Those who talk about it the most do it the least, as we used to say in high school. The quiet, closed-mouth types are the best lovers–they don’t kiss and tell, and don’t feel the need to brag and talk about it all the time. Enough said.

Did you realize that Sven Hjerson is the fictional Finnish detective of Ariadne Oliver, the fictional mystery writer invented by Agatha Christie? So my “Ariadne” is partly a homage to that. Shades of “Kilgore Trout.” My Ari is the detective, though. It upset me greatly to find that a 2001 release from Tor by Fred Saberhagen uses my preferred title, _Ariadne’s Web_, for his SF book. However, I suppose they wouldn’t have used that as my title, anyway. It makes the book too hard to order (ppl can’t recall how to spell or say the name). the title has to appeal and be easy to relate to. It’ll be something like, “Murder on the Half Shell.” Hmm. I only wish that were something I needed to worry about. At this point, I’m still trying to get a contract!