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Sex sells but is it necessary? Authors discuss erotica
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Sex sells but is it necessary? Authors discuss erotica

Virginia Festival of the Book By Matt Kelly

Is sex necessary to sell books?

Necessary, but not sufficient, says Susan Benedict, author of The Joy of Writing Sex.

Benedict 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 Book.

Joining 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.

Benedict, 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.

A 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 explicit.

Introducing 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.

Ripley and Tilghman both said they were advised by either agents or editors to include sex in their manuscripts. Ripley’s 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.

Ripley asked the audience of about 60 people to explain why readers want sex scenes in books.

“Is it because people don’t have sex lives of their own?” she asked. “Is it because they don’t have any imaginations? This is very ordinary stuff. Can’t we just hint at it? Is this something the book, the readers, the world needs?”

Tilghman said his editor suggested the sex after reading the first draft of Mason’s Retreat because she thought it worked in the story and the characters deserved it, not with an eye toward sales.

He 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.

A review of Mason’s Retreat in the Boston Globe sternly criticized the sex scenes in the novel, and both Tilghman’s neighbor and an anonymous West Coast reader gave him a copies of Benedict’s book on writing about sex.

Tilghman observed that men’s sense of the erotic is different from women’s. 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.

Sex 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.

The 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 person’s head, she said.

The 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.

“Your 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.”

Hitchcock, 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.

How 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.

“The 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.”


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