Writing S-E-X in literary fiction
Written by
Julia Fierro
February 2013
Written by
Julia Fierro
February 2013

A friend and a writer I greatly admire, Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose second novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, is out in March, asked me about writing sex in literary fiction, a topic that has come up in just about every Sackett Street workshop I’ve taught, where it is common for these literary writers to completely avoid, sometimes without even being aware of it, writing about sex. Here’s my response over at my website/blog:

            I’ve taught experienced literary writers for 10 years, many graduates from top MFA programs, or on their way to those programs, and a whole bunch now published by major publishers and great small presses, and I think there is a definite fear of writing about sex among literary writers. I felt this fear myself when I first started writing, and especially during my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a student, where subtlety and nuance (I think of it as “The New Yorker fiction-style”) was admired above all.

            I strongly believe this fear of writing about sex is tied to another fear prevalent among literary writers, which is the fear of sentimentality in their work. This fear of sentimentality is so strong that I find I am most helpful to advanced (literary) writers in helping them add emotional implication to their work, and in urging them to risk a bit of sentimentality so that they can discover what is truly at the heart of the story they are trying to tell.

            This fear of revealing emotion in literary writing takes root during years of writing workshops, where undergraduate writing professors, and even their MFA program professors, admonish writers, even berate them in harsh and often angry (ahem, “sentimental”) tone and language to avoid sentimentality in their work, a rule that is repeated so often that the writers accrue what can be likened to a layer of scar tissue, blocking their ability to imply emotion, all of which inevitably leads to a clouding of meaning in their work.

            I always tell my students that you have to dare to be messy and maybe even sentimental in early drafts, which are really meant to inform the writer only. They must risk stepping right up to that rocky cliff overlooking sentiment, and even melodrama, to look over that perilous edge at what is below, or you yourself won’t know what it is that the reader should feel. You must feel it first. And you can always revise later, take a step (or a few) backwards and make the emotional implication more subtle and nuanced, but it won’t exist it at all, if you never inform yourself by taking that leap of faith. The writing gods will not strike you dead if you write a scene that is sentimental or melodramatic, or if you write a sex scene that may feel just a bit too much.  75% of what we do as writers is practice. It is later, in revision, that you fine-tune.

            And, chances are, that after years of workshops where the Show Don’t Tell mantra was (necessarily to a certain extent) drilled into your writerly subconscious, what you think may feel sentimental won’t feel that way to the less sensitive reader.

            I think the above goes for writers writing about sex - and these are advanced literary writers who admire subtlety above all, to be clear. They fear their sex scenes will come off as exaggerated or over-the-top (sex is much louder on the page than in real life, if you can believe that), and so they avoid sex overall.

            I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ran a workshop and, in the middle of a critique, stopped the class and asked, “Okay, what’s missing?” and they all look up at me, quite innocently, without a response.

          “The sex scene!” I say. And then we have to have the discussion of why the writer ended the scene right before the sex took place, and why are we so afraid of writing about sex, and how can we work on this.

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