When to close the bedroom door (and when is it okay to leave it hanging wide open)?

Into every life, a little sex must fall.

Wait. That’s not right.

It seems like it, though, doesn’t it? Listen to the news, watch television, read a book – unless you’re reading or watching something written specifically for children, or something that dates back more than a few decades, chances are there’s sex involved in it somewhere. As a culture, it seems that we’re obsessed with it.

This isn’t a blog about that, though I could probably write one. This is a writer’s blog, and we’re faced with a different problem.

When the subject of sex arises, how much do we show, how much do we tell – and how much do we simply leave to the reader’s imagination? In other words, at what point do we close the bedroom door?

It’s pretty clear at this point that as far as publishing heterosexual sex scenes is concerned, anything goes. Plenty of stories have no sex at all  – but we also have bestsellers like 50 Shades of Grey, or Kushiel’s Dart, stories that are not only unabashedly sexual but present alternative flavours to vanilla, as well. (I confess I haven’t read 50 Shades, I wasn’t interested; I have read Kushiel’s Dart and its first few sequels. From what I gather, as far as prose is concerned, Kushiel’s Dart is the vastly superior work. 50 Shades, however, has clearly touched a chord, and is also proof that occasionally, self-publishing works.)

The question was raised at our regular meeting, however: what about LGBT relationships? What is acceptable for publication in the LGBT subgenre?

My answer to that is in two parts. First, that the LGBT subgenre is generally a sexualized one to begin with; it has always been a place where LGBT issues and relationships could be explored without judgment from “mainstream” publishers, and many authors were and are happy to leave the bedroom door wide open and let the audience see the whole show. Explicit LGBT novels were being published even before the activities were decriminalized, and the modern LGBT subgenre has existed formally for decades. In the current social environment it has expanded by leaps and bounds, so it’s certainly a reasonable place to be, as a commercial author.

Second, though, is that I believe in today’s market, there is enough variety among the major publishing houses and imprints that a home can be found in mainstream literature for LGBT relationships, as well, without slamming the bedroom door shut and fading to black. When Marion Zimmer Bradley started publishing her Darkover series in 1958, perhaps she was told that no matter how expressive her relationships between heterosexual characters were, she needed to keep the relationship between Regis and Dani discrete. And she did. You knew they were there, and that they had a relationship – but that was it.  Mercedes Lackey, publishing her Valdemar series starting in the late 1980s, a full generation later, did no such thing. None of her sex scenes went very far – she basically shut the bedroom doors on all of her characters – but the heterosexual and homosexual pairings were treated equally in the writing.

Kushiel’s Dart, published in 2002, is an interesting example in more than one way. Its extensive sex scenes are described in lush, loving detail – and some of them are fairly extreme. It caused something of a splash when it was published, due to the subject matter, but that didn’t prevent it from becoming a bestseller. And while most of the sex is heterosexual, there is also an interesting FF relationship between Phedre and Melisende that persists throughout the series, and is treated exactly like the rest.

Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunners series, begun in the mid 1990s and still active, presents an alternate way of doing things. The central relationship of the series is MM. In the main books, while she doesn’t precisely slam the bedroom door, she keeps what she shows relatively subdued. She has also, however, much more recently (2010) published a collection of short stories for the series, a few of which are quite explicit.

I could easily go on – Anne Rice, Lois Bujold, dozens of others – but the point is, none of these are strictly LGBT genre fiction. (All right, the examples detailed are all fantasy-genre fiction; so sue me, that and science fiction are mostly what I read.) All of these represent highly successful, essentially mainstream publications. They don’t all handle sex the same way – but that’s also my point. There’s room for variation.

There’s nothing wrong with having sex in a book. There’s also nothing wrong with not having sex in a book. And I don’t think, in this day and age in adult commercial literature, the genre you’re writing in is the main thing that determines that.

What does determine that? Well, they aren’t exactly rules. More what you’d call… guidelines.

In my opinion:

  1. Author comfort. If you’re not comfortable writing the scene, your readers aren’t going to be comfortable reading it. In most cases, that defeats the purpose. (Note: Comfort doesn’t equal approval. You can know that the character is making a bad decision, one he will regret for the rest of his life, and still be comfortable with writing the scene.)
  2. Appropriateness to the plot and characters. Don’t force something into your story that really doesn’t fit; by the same token, don’t delete something that makes perfect sense, if it follows the rest of the guidelines.
  3. Keep it relevant. Granted, the little things count, too – not every scene has to be of earth-shattering import. But every scene in a novel should either advance plot, advance character understanding/development, or both. On the flip side, if something about the scene is critically important – show it to us, please!
  4. Make sure the quantity/length of the sex scenes don’t overwhelm the rest of the story. In most cases, the sex isn’t the main plot; even in a romance novel, the plot is the development of the relationship as a whole, not just the sex. Keep things balanced. This is somewhere where I’ve seen even experienced, bestselling authors go astray (IMHO).
  5. And finally, make sure the style, language, and level of detail of what you do write matches the rest of the story.

With #5, we’re back to the bedroom door again. If you’re going to close it, then close it, and fade to black. Catch up with the characters later and fill us in on the main points. If you’re going to leave it open, then show us what happens in the same level of detail as you would any other scene in the novel.

It comes back to author comfort in the end, which can be a tricky thing. I have a fair number of MM pairings in my work and generally I’m comfortable writing sex scenes for them. But I was revisiting an old pair in a half-written story, a few months back, and discovered that I simply cannot seem to write an explicit scene for them. I have no trouble with scenes showing their emotional connection but an explicit physical one throws me, even though I’ve always felt that they had a strong physical relationship.

I haven’t figured that one out yet. We’ll see if someday I do, or if I end up needing to tell their story in a different way.

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