Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: Kate Elliott, veteran author of fantasy and science fiction, with a romantic twist. Thea started reading Kate Elliott two years ago (with the publication of the first novel in her Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Magic), and instantly fell in love with Kate’s writing style and characterizations.
Recent Work: The second book in the Spiritwalker trilogy, Cold Fire, came out in September of last year. Thea loved it, and eagerly awaits the release of Cold Steel in 2013 (heck, it’s one of her most highly anticipated books of the year and made our recent Kirkus list!).
Give it up for Kate, everyone!
I would like to thank Ana and Thea for giving me this platform to talk about sex.
In 2012 I thought a lot about sex.
To be more precise, I thought a great deal about how sex is portrayed in fiction and how I wanted to write about sex in my own fiction.
There is so much variety in how sex is portrayed in novels. Some stories don’t involve sex or sexual feelings. Others refer to it only tangentially or keep the feelings chaste or never allow more than an oblique reference or perhaps a kiss. In some fiction, all sex takes place off stage, while other stories introduce sexual situations and foreplay but draw the curtain before any hardcore action takes place. Finally, of course, some romances and erotica portray explicit sex scenes, some of which have a function in the plot and others of which seem to be smut for the fun or titillation of reading it.
That quick synopsis only references depictions of sex and sexual feeling without addressing how sex and sexuality fit within the story. Who is having sex and how are they having it? Is sex part of the main plot of the novel (as in a romance)? Is it an important element but not the only crucial one? Is it a side plot, a reward for the hero, an afterthought, a problem, a nightmare, or a moral lesson?
There has been a fair bit of online discussion about how epic fantasy in particular too often portrays (usually heterosexual) sex in a non consensual or commodified manner, with a lot of sexual violence, sex work, rape, prostitutes, sluts, camp followers, and other such roles in particular for women but also on occasion for men and for children of both sexes. There seem even to be some readers who think that consensual positive sex has no place in an adventure story, as if it is not exciting enough to make for a real plot or is merely a sort of feminish wish fulfillment because manly adventurous men don’t fall in ugh mushy love much less want to read about it.
I propose that the opposite is true. It is *easy* to use sexual violence to push the adrenalin and action, to create a sense of peril and pain and victimization. Television and film are filled with depictions of men (and occasionally women) rescuing or failing to rescue or inflicting damage on terrified and abused women. We’re used to the story of sex bound up with fear and pain. We know that language too well, and frankly I don’t think there’s anything edgy or challenging about it, not any more.
As writer N. K. Jemisin said in a Twitter conversation on this topic, it is important for writers to portray positive sexual encounters between consenting adults. When so many sexual encounters in fiction are negative, violent, coerced, or frightening because that is seen as “proper” narrative tension, it is doubly important to depict positive sexual encounters as part and parcel of an exciting tale.
By that I do not mean every story must have sex in it; not at all. Rather, I mean that when appropriate to the story such positive sexytimes be seen not as escapism or wish fulfillment (and thus denigrated) but rather one element in a wholistic portrayal of a full range of human experiences.
So I am here today to talk about sex in five different books/series that I read in 2012 (not necessarily published in 2012). I read other books with good and interesting and fun and sexy depictions of sex and sexuality in them, but I have specific reasons to highlight the ones below.
Susanna Kearsley’s The Rose Garden is a fairly traditional love story with an historical twist. I love Kearsley’s writing for its beauty and its evocative description and especially for the way she builds so much emotion in the relationships between people. She is never dependent on violence and fear to create tension, which is not to say that violent and frightening things don’t have a place in fiction but rather that sometimes writers can start relying on them to the exclusion of more nuanced portrayals of human interaction. I can’t stop reading her stories because I become so invested in the characters that I have to find out what happens to them. The Rose Garden is no different. It is a love story between two level-headed adults with an unusual obstacle to overcome. I found it both heartfelt and deeply satisfying.
Malinda Lo’s Huntress is another fairly traditional love story, this one in a fantasy setting with magic and a perilous quest. While marketed as a YA, I would call this a book that falls between YA and adult, with its close attention to the emotional journeys into full adulthood of the two main characters. Lo does a wonderful job evoking the tremulous stirring of young love, of how shyness and reserve can create obstacles, of how each touch and look creates sexual tension. Good kissing can be difficult to pull off in a way that isn’t bombastic but rather real, and Lo writes good kissing indeed. The journey is truly dangerous and the romance is really sweet. It’s the way I remember young love. I particularly liked her resolution.
As I mention above, too often these days I find disturbing and often violent portrayals of heterosexual sex, as if only non consensual or skeezy sex is “dramatic enough” to be included in a novel or as if a wounded past is the best way to establish a heroine’s bonafides as a tough gal. I also have read, even recently, sexual encounters in fantasy novels between men and women (or men on women) that seem steeped in a kind of resentful and “uncontrollable” adolescent male heterosexuality. There are all too many sexy scheming women who have their way with sex-crazed but weak-willed men, or accommodating Playboy-style courtesans who make their way in the world with their breast-baring clothing, or victimized women subject to endless sexual violence, as if the only narratively interesting way to depict sex is when it is violent or demeaning. Not only do I find these depictions of women disturbing, but I find these depictions of male heterosexuality equally disturbing because healthier depictions of the male libido fall by the wayside and then people begin to argue that this is “how men really are deep inside” rather than “these are depictions of unhealthy male sexuality.”
I found an excellent antidote to this tired and unpleasant attitude in Ben Aaronvitch’s Rivers of London urban fantasy series about young London constable Peter Grant. (The first volume is called Rivers of London in the UK but Midnight Riot in the US.) I don’t recall Grant’s age being specified but I would guess him to be between 23 and 26 years old. He is a good looking and charming young man, even if he must say so himself, and it’s clear that women genuinely like him. He certainly likes women. He checks women out; he gets erections when he feels aroused; he has sex. He is young, male, and heterosexual, and that sexuality is captured in the first person narrative, but at the same time mostly he goes about doing his job as a constable and learning magic in the modern day London of the series. Most of his interactions with women have nothing to do with sex, and it is clear he respects women–even the ones he is attracted to–and treats them as people in the same way he treats men. What a pleasant change of pace that is!
Last winter term my daughter took a class in Chinese Vernacular Literature at university, and she called me and demanded that I read along with her the famous epic novel Dream of Red Mansions (aka Dream of the Red Chamber, aka The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin (mid 18th century). I was skeptical. Old classic, many volumes, probably worthy and dull. To my surprise, it was anything but (we read the David Hawkes translation). It resembles in some ways the modern telenovela, with comedy and tragedy and humor and melodrama and poetry contests. It is a page turner. I mean that literally, as the author will end a chapter with the oldest trick in the book which for all I know he invented: “She opened the door and there on the other side . . . but you have to read the next chapter to find out.” The story is filled with women and follows one main male character as he grows up in the women’s quarters of a Qing dynasty household. One of the really interesting things is how completely matter of fact it is about sex. People have sex, and all kinds of sex: heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, between people of equal status, between people of unequal status, coercive, passionate, problematic, sweet, you name it. The ways the characters think about sex and what behaviors may be shameful have less to do with sex itself and more to do with social relations within and between clans. It is never coy and thus makes for a refreshing read.
Last, I want to mention Sherwood Smith’s magnificent Banner of the Damned, a finely-wrought fantasy novel with a complex plot, beautifully observed details of food and clothing and culture that matter to the plot, and any number of emotionally fraught relationships and love stories. However, the narrator and heroine of the story is asexual. I don’t consider that a spoiler; it matters but not in the way you might think. It is so rare to depict an asexual person who is competent and social that I realized I am not even sure how many other books I have ever read that have depicted positively and centrally an asexual character. I was really delighted to read this one.
As for pleasing and consensual literary sex in 2013, I’m hopeful there will be lots of it. I have tried to do my part with Cold Steel (the third volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy), and I quote (for those who haven’t read the books, Bee is Beatrice and Cat is the narrator, her cousin Catherine):
“Kisses!” exclaimed Bee. “When was there kissing? Cat!”
Here I emulate the master, Cao Xueqin, and say, “June 2013.”
Are there trends or tropes in literary sex that you particularly dislike or particularly appreciate? What literary sex did you enjoy in 2012? What are you looking forward to in 2013?
Thank you, Kate!
Thanks to Kate, we have ONE of her previously published books up for grabs! These include: Cold Magic or Cold Fire (from the Spiritwalker trilogy); Spirit Gate, Shadow Gate, or Traitors’ Gate (from the Crossroads trilogy); or any one of the volumes from the Crown of Stars series. The contest is open to ALL (we will select one US and one International winner), and will run until Sunday January 6 at 12:01am PST. In order to enter, use the form below. Good luck!