Sex sells but is it necessary? Authors
By Matt Kelly
sex necessary to sell books?
but not sufficient, says Susan Benedict, author of The Joy of
was one of five authors who spoke March 22 at a panel discussion
on sex in writing at the University Bookstore, part of the eighth
annual Virginia Festival of the
Benedict on the panel were Christopher Tilghman, a professor of
English at the University; M.J. Rose, who attracted mainstream
publishers by publishing an erotic mystery on the Internet; Alexandra
Ripley, a local historical fiction author who wrote the authorized
sequel to Gone With the Wind; and moderator Susan Tyler Hitchcock,
who has written memoirs and a history of the University.
who has literally written the book on the subject, said that what
defines a sex scene is the relationship the characters have with
each other. There must be dramatic tension and surprise. The tension,
she said, can be created through such devices as illicit sex,
adultery and sex between strangers.
sex scene is not a manual, nor does a good sex scene have to be
about good sex, Benedict said. The writer should take his or her
cues from the characters, and the characters must want something
intensely. A good sex scene is about sex and something else, she
said, adding that sex scenes should be specific, but not necessarily
sex scenes also depends on genre and market, with popular fiction
being more concerned with what influences sales than literary
fiction, Rose said. Approximately 80 percent of popular fiction
is read by women, with the remaining 20 percent being mostly thrillers,
horror and adventure. At the same time, women read only about
60 percent of literary fiction.
and Tilghman both said they were advised by either agents or editors
to include sex in their manuscripts. Ripleys agent told
her that the publishers were looking for more sex and she wanted
to sell books. She obliged, but found it boring, preferring romance.
She bought several books containing sex scenes as research, but
found the scenes were interchangeable from book to book.
asked the audience of about 60 people to explain why readers want
sex scenes in books.
it because people dont have sex lives of their own?
she asked. Is it because they dont have any imaginations?
This is very ordinary stuff. Cant we just hint at it? Is
this something the book, the readers, the world needs?
said his editor suggested the sex after reading the first draft
of Masons Retreat because she thought it worked in the story
and the characters deserved it, not with an eye toward sales.
added the scene, and his editor responded with, Does your
mother know you write this? During the rewriting and the
editing, he said the sex scene was trimmed down much closer to
what he had originally written.
review of Masons Retreat in the Boston Globe sternly criticized
the sex scenes in the novel, and both Tilghmans neighbor
and an anonymous West Coast reader gave him a copies of Benedicts
book on writing about sex.
observed that mens sense of the erotic is different from
womens. He worried that the sex scene he wrote was not very
good because it was too male.
There was agreement among the panelists that if sex is written
by a woman, it is usually accepted as erotic. But
the same material, written by a man, is often considered pornography.
Rose cited a male friend who published a well-received erotic
novel under a female alias. Later, when the author revealed his
true identity, the book was dismissed as pornography.
is not necessary to sell books, Rose said. There are 20 million
books sold and 3,500 new titles published each year, ranging from
erotica to books that have nothing whatever to do with sex. Ripley
cited the Harry Potter series as an example of strong story-writing
with no sex at all.
writer must understand the psychology of the character, said Rose,
whose agent advised her to take some of the sex out of her book.
Sometimes, it is more erotic to get into a persons head,
writer needs to determine what the characters want from the sexual
encounter, over and above the physical enjoyment of sex, Benedict
said. One character could be looking for revenge, or to connect
with someone, and this is what keeps the tension in the scene.
character could have great sex and still be disappointed,
she suggested. Pornography is all about having great sex.
Literature deals with failure, with what the character is not
getting, or has lingering doubts about.
who said the sex scenes she included in her memoir on marriage
were derided as banal, middle-class and
marital, said writers and readers need to confront
their embarrassment about sex.
sex is used also depends on the times. Ripley noted that in historical
fiction, sex is a matter of period and class and was totally different
from sex today.
birth control pill was magic, she said. Sex back then
was not fun and games. It was what they did. A woman had to be
obedient, have a child every year.