sex and violence

Sex and Violence

Stephen Watkins wrote an interesting post called, "Links to Chew On: Publishing, Dialog, Language, Culture, DRM, and Weirdness," where he linked to a post by David B. Coe called, "A Father and Writer Looks At Violence In His Books."

This struck me, because I did deal with this question in writing Stevie One.

It was not much of a question in the mystery stories. Because of how mystery stories work, you often see the results of violence but not the violence itself, since the detective doesn't become involved until after the violence happens. There is sometimes some violence in the "capturing the murderer" scenes, but that tends to be very quick.

As far as sex goes, that's pretty much set by the fact that there is a first person narrator, and Marshall would certainly never describe himself having sex with his wife. In fact, in the mystery stories I use the very old-fashioned device of a break, with asterisks, when the sex scenes happen.

But in Stevie One, which is a "an adventure" (though it is also a mystery) and which is written in third person, I had to think about this. To quote from my response to Stephen's post (slight edits for clarity):

In Stevie One, the violence is explicit and the sex is mostly not. This is not because I think violence is cool and sex is icky. The violence is explicit (both the altercations themselves and the injuries which result) because they are necessary to the story and the development of the character. (I’m trying not to reveal too much about the actual story in how I write about it here.) The reader has to understand why the fights are happening, and the risks involved, and the implications for the future.

Most of the sex is not explicit for a few reasons. It is not a dramatic event in the story (the characters are in a long-term and, in its way, stable relationship), and the main point in the scenes they have alone together is how comfortable they are with each other. They present a fairly formal front to the world, but there is an extended and intimate (and non-sexual) scene where they are alone together and both are naked.

The one more explicit sexual scene is brief and very quickly interrupted, mostly because it struck me funny and also because it shows how the participants feel about the person doing the interrupting.

I have no problem with explicit sex or violence, if that's what's necessary to tell the story. This is why I'm always clear that my stuff is not YA.

Why Writers Write

Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books blog again tackles the question of whether writers would write without being paid (if copyright would cease to exist), and, as far as I'm concerned, comes up with the wrong answer: "Does Copyright Matter?"

He makes several interesting assertions, including this one about copyright: draws the author into a bourgeois mentality where writing is a job with an income; the writer now has an investment in stable markets and attentive policing. In short, copyright keeps the writer in the polis, and indeed it is remarkable how little creative writing today is truly revolutionary, in the sense of seeking a profoundly different model of a society.

There is also this, which ends the piece:

If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.

But if poets will write without any chance of significant payment, why assume that novelists are different? Because novels are harder to write? Nonsense. As my father used to say, the two hardest forms of literature are poetry and humor, because they're the only two where every word has to be perfect for the piece to work.

The NYRB blog already has a response from a poet ("Poets and Money") who talks about how he writes poetry with no expectation of receiving any money, and talks about the possible underlying assumption that poets write for free because it's easier.

What I'm doing

I've been thinking about what to work on next. On one hand, I have a couple of ideas for new mystery stories. On the other hand, I'm thinking of a new Stevie One adventure, and I already have the first two scenes and the ending written for that one (but with only a vague idea how I'll get from one to the other).

But I've started to re-read Stevie One, particularly thinking about the points about sex and violence, and I've realized that it needs a little cleaning up. A word here and there could be better, and there a few details which are not covered. For example, in the scene I mention above, one of the two naked characters leaves the room twice to get things from the rest of the house. She would have put on a robe to do this, but that isn't mentioned.

So, that comes first. After that, who knows? I have noticed that there are twelve mystery stories, which I said I'm not going to edit until next year, and next year is scheduled to have twelve months, so I may do one story a month. Spruce them up, rewrite when necessary, and then post each as the "story of the month" for that month.

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5 Responses to sex and violence

  1. It never ceases to amaze me how much thought you put into the “why” of your writing. You use language and scenes very specifically, i.e. in terms of your reasoning behind using violence on the page but leaving the sex off the page in Stevie One. That’s what we’re supposed to do, as writers, but I think many people get caught up in developing characters, or moving through the plot, and they don’t think about why they choose to include or omit certain things.

    It’s always scary, to me, to finish a project, whether it’s writing or knitting. (Your twelve months / twelve stories sounds like a great concept, and fodder for interesting blog posts on revisions. Going through one per month may lead you someplace by month twelve that you hadn’t anticipated getting to in month one.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I think that when and how information is revealed (or not) is particularly important to mystery writers, so that may be why I’m especially aware of it. What does the detective know (and when, and how), and how much of that is revealed to the reader (and, if it’s held back, how is that justified) — that’s a constant question in writing mystery stories.

    I always think of this example: Two characters are having a conversation. One of them is lying. When do you tell the reader about the lying? Before, during or after (or never)? Depending on the answer to that question, the reader experience of the conversation can be completely different, even though the dialogue and body language are exactly the same.

    It’s similar to the question of telling a story in chronological order vs. jumping around. Re-order the scenes in a story and it’s a very different experience for the reader.

  3. sonje says:

    Although I affectionately call my four book series “smutty detective novels,” the truth is that there is absolutely no descriptive sex in books 1 and 3 (shh, don’t tell anyone!) whereas there is in books 2 and 4. Why? Well, in my opinion, sex scenes are necessary in books 2 and 4. They reveal something about the characters. In books 1 and 3, it matters that my protagonist is having sex, but just that matters–the fact that she sleeps around–and I felt like describing that sex would just be gratuitous, and what I mean by that is it would contribute nothing to further the plot.

    That being said, one of my friends has complained bitterly about the lack of a full-fledged sex scene in book 1. Oh well. You can please some of the people some of the time and all that nonsense.

  4. This makes sense — applying the same rules to sex scenes that we apply to every other kind of scene. Does it reveal character? Does it advance the plot?

  5. Pingback: reporting on the world, writing on the screen » Anthony Lee Collins

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