Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Topic: The Relevance of Sex In Literature in 2011" My Guest today is author Maxwell Cynn

Topic: "The Relevance of Sex In Literature in 2011."

Please welcome my Guest Today...

Maxwell Cynn

Follow me on Twitter @maxwellcynn

Should Books Have Parental Warning Labels?

Thank you, Soooz for letting me come on your blog and rant a bit.

Censorship is ever a contentious issue in art. We bring it on ourselves: pushing the limits, trying to be hip, begging attention by being controversial. "It's art!" is the general cry--when someone pisses in a glass or takes a picture of something in their arse. When Hemingway, and those of his generation, fought with publishers it was about the odd curse word. Hemingway wanted his dialog and prose to be real--the way people actually speak. When romance writers battled against the censors they wanted to show the sensual side of romance. But those battles were over long ago.

Today I can drop the f-bomb in a book or on my blog without anyone batting an eye. I can describe scenes that would make a nun wet or a hooker blush without fear of being arrested. But still some people push the limits. When I first started writing romance my wife accused me of writing porn. But current YA romance makes what I write seem quaint and almost prudish, and teenagers are reading it without blushing. So writers and artists go to unbelievable extremes to be controversial, and then people scream for censorship.

There will always be those who wish to draw a line and keep everyone behind it. The line itself is arbitrary and changes with generations. And there will always be those who seem compelled to step over that line if only because it is there. But there is a difference between being true to our art and being controversial simply for the sake of controversy. Hemingway wanted characters to speak as men speak (he actually had a battle over the word "swell" because it was slang--not proper English) and romantics wanted to portray love as couples truly loved, without resorting to euphemism and purple prose.

The only good censorship is that which we impose on ourselves, for the truth of our art, not that which we impose on others. I often write fairly provocative erotic romance. In the context of those stories I feel it is beautiful and expressive. I enjoy fine erotic art for the same reasons. But I also write hard science fiction, fantasy, and romance, among other things. There is a different standard, a different feel in mainstream fiction.

In a recent manuscript set in the 1920s the dialog I wrote contained virtually no cursing. That fit the sensibilities of the period, the characters, and the setting. I threw the f-bomb into a scene that was very intense and violent. It fit, and added powerful emotion to the scene. The hero and heroine never kiss, until the scene where he proposes to her, and not even the professional girls venture beyond a 'PG' rating in their flirtatious behavior. Yet the story is at times highly romantic, the heroine is extremely sensual, and the villains are harsh and violent. It is an adult novel.

When we use sex, language, or violence simply to shock and stir controversy it lessens our art. It also lessens the impact of our words. When a villain in the above novel says, "I'm gonna stomp your ass and fuck your girlfriend," it's a shock to the reader. When the hero drops the f-bomb in the midst of an intense and violent scene the reader feels that intensity along with the hero's fear and frustration. The words have power because they are rare and unexpected.

In the same way, less is more when it comes to sex in literature. If the romantic lead goes down on the heroine in the first few pages what is left for the remainder? Sexual tension is best achieved by no sex at all--the desire, the need, the longing, restricted and contained at every turn. Anticipation builds to a long awaited and often denied climax, yet if that climax becomes common place, mundane, there is no anticipation, but only rote predictable outcomes. His tongue slips over her clit yet again, yada, yada, yawn--let's move on with the story.

And so we are left with only the most graphic, deviant, kinky scenes with which to titillate our readers, and the would-be censors scream foul. Sex has lost its power and our words are left limp and impotent. Sex in literature is like anything else we write--too much lessens the value of all. The same happens with violence, blood, and gore. Readers become desensitized, writers ramp it up to new levels, and censors try to establish new lines of defense.

I never want to see Parental Advisory labels slapped on the cover of books, nor publishers attempt to censor Free Speech, but writers do bear responsibility for their words whether they wish to admit it or not. With YA, and even Middle Grade fiction taking on ever more mature tone, Adult and Erotic fiction push the extremes to compensate. Writers are why the sensibilities of censors are inflamed. When teen heroes are slinging f-bombs and teen heroines are playing the slut it's hard to blame parents for being upset with contemporary fiction.

Writers need to understand that by flooding literature with more sex, more graphic language, more violence, and more controversy we dilute the power of our own words. We must censor ourselves or be censored by others. Throwing our characters in bed is cheap and easy, while not letting them quite get that far may be more difficult it is far more powerful and often more erotic. Mama used to say that people curse because they have a weak vocabulary. I implore my fellow writers to use your words. Set limits on your characters and make them strain against the bonds.

I'm interested in what you think, dear reader. Is there too much sex in literature? Should books be rated and labeled? Post a comment.

Disclaimer: Of course none of this has anything to do with Literary Erotica, which is all about the sex. The above diatribe concerns mainstream fiction. Erotica is by definition pure eroticism--the triple X of the literary world. I write that too, and enjoy reading it as well. But as purely adult entertainment, different standards apply. Erotica is already branded as Adult Only and often resigned to a child proof section in book stores. Should all books with sexual content be likewise branded?


  1. Excellent post! I completely agree. I recently read "The Hunger Games" and was shocked by the topics in this YA book; however, the adult themes in the book were appropriately handled, and the book accomplished what it set out to do.

    I, too, have wondered about this trend setting need to be as shocking as possible. For example, on TV, viewers never used to see people actually vomit on-camera. Now it is the order of the day. (And something I really don't want to watch!)

    I'm not being prudish (I hope), but I do appreciate the build-up, as you say. I read Gone with the Wind last winter and thought it was a surprisingly hot romance (given that it was actually so tame.)

    Personally, I think that the 'one-up-manship' is a lazy writer's way of trying to engage the audience.

  2. I don't want to pre-empt my post too much but I have to say on the censorship of sex and language thing I just don't get it. For me a single Republican/Conservative Party political broadcast will do more to damage our youth than any and every swear word under the sun. But that's just my point of view. And that, as it were, is the point. Some people think showing sex and bad language is bad and should be censored. Right wing politics makes me sick to my stomach. Both are opinions about what's OK and what's not OK. I just don't see the *logic* in saying one set of opinions is privileged over another - other than that it's to do with the majority. Which makes sense. But the kind of sense that also makes me sick to my stomach and provides a very worthy line against which to push.

  3. Hiya Sooz - and hi Max! Long time no see. "Make them strain against the bonds." I love that.

  4. Dan old boy, when I put up the cover art of my short story collection for comment on FB (a mid-1800's painting of a bare chested Mary Magdalene in agony, by Jean-Jacques Henner called "Solitude") it wasn't - oddly - some of my less-than-right-wing writer friends told me to cover her up.

    What's up with that?

  5. Hey, Pete! Good to see you.

    Everyone, thanks for the great comments. I'm on myphone so it's hard to reply as I should. Be on later with a keyboard ;)

  6. Excellent post, well-reasoned. And I couldn't agree more.

  7. "I never want to see Parental Advisory labels slapped on the cover of books, nor publishers attempt to censor Free Speech, but writers do bear responsibility for their words whether they wish to admit it or not. With YA, and even Middle Grade fiction taking on ever more mature tone, Adult and Erotic fiction push the extremes to compensate. Writers are why the sensibilities of censors are inflamed. When teen heroes are slinging f-bombs and teen heroines are playing the slut it's hard to blame parents for being upset with contemporary fiction."

    When I was a teenager, I totally didn't "get" the mothers of the quieter, more naive kids. Why a ban a book because it said "fucking" (and didn't allude to the verb?

    But times have changed from the early nineties to now. Back then, Judy Blume was exception. Now she'd be the rule. I'm against censorship in all forms. But you're right. Flooding the YA and teen market with sex and gratuitous violence may just desensitize us. I let me 7th grader read what she wants to, within reason, and ask her to postpone certain titles that I don't think she's ready for...but I have to wonder what the future for these kids looks like. I worry.

  8. oops. excuse the typos...

  9. Pete, no offence intended at all - I'll be talking at greater length about what I mean in my post on the 17th :) I was more making the point that if we accept censorship at all in principle, then why draw the line at sex/violence/language just because some or even most people think they are sensitive, when other people don't think that, or think other things are?

  10. Dan, I look forward to your post. I don't advocate censorship except in the form of writers being responsible in what they write. Literature sculpts a culture, as all art does, more than politics ever can. Politics are the outgrowth of our pluralistic society, but art is the expression of who we are as a people.

    Words have power. I'm reminded of the adage "The pen is mightier than the sword." Our words not only reflect society, but mold it, influence it, for good or ill. We may argue what is best, though most can agree what is harmful. But the debate in politics will sway few, while literature and art informs generations.

    My point isn't conservative, liberal, progressive, or whatever political agenda one may esspouse. We can build whatever world/society we choose, but we should be honest enough to admit our part in its current and future state.

  11. Thanks again for all the great comments. This whole series so far has been great. Thank you Soooz! You're awesome! And thanks for letting me be a little part of it.

  12. Excellent post, Max, and great comments by all. I'll touch on a your theme of "censorship” and “restraint.”

    I recall George Carlin's seven words you could not say on TV back in the early 70s- Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits. Ok, so it was almost 40 years ago, but in the whole scheme of things, it’s really not that long ago to have a culture shift occur. Now you can turn on the TV any day of the week, (not necessarily even prime time), and hear any of these words. They are used regularly on late night talk shows and likely the news too (FOX, for sure!)

    Of all the words listed, the only one I think would still make some people wince is cunt. Yes, CUNT. I actually love the word because it is so powerful, but do I use it sparingly? Without a doubt.

    When I call someone a cunt, it’s because that person is behaving in the most awful rude manner and there is just no other word better to describe it.

    I also use ‘cunt’ in my writing to describe the female genitalia, which to me is beautiful and bears no resemblance to the meaning ascribed above.

    My point is that words carry power; but that power is something WE give it. It’s the volition behind the word that either classifies it as vulgar or not.

    To say “I’m going for a piss” is not the same as “I’m going to take the piss out of you” which is also not the same as “I’m going to piss on your grave.” Simply put – to ban words is ridiculous because they carry a different meaning within a specific context.

    In your post you say, “The words have power because they are rare and unexpected.” I agree with you, and in writing, it’s restraint of certain words that creates this power.


  13. Absolutely Max - I totally wasn't advocating censorship in politics or anything like that, just saying that what we find offensive is personal to us. I think that's the key with what you say about self-censorship. That has to flow from what we believe as individual artists - from our own consciences and absolutely *not* from what is generally agreed upon. For example, to use the example I cite in my piece - I can write sympathetically about incest or bestiality or someone peeling off their own skin because they believe it's the only answer to their life's worries without anything even registering on my conscience radar but Aggie's Shoes required me, as part of its transgressive aspect, required me to write sympathetically about a racist and I couldn't do it. I don't know if that was self-censorhip or cowardice but the key is this:

    self-censorship *must* mean an author censors according to *their own* values *whatever they are* and not anyone else's perception of what should be done - otherwise it's not*self*-censorhip, it's peer pressure.

    Eden, those three "piss" statements are really good examples of context. Makes me think of Gilbert and George's infamous Dirty Words series of artworks and, of course, this piece of art that I'm not even going to mention the name of because some people will find it too offensive - there, self-censorship :)

  14. “current YA romance makes what I write seem quaint and almost prudish”

    Please can you recommend something, Maxwell? My bookshelves are bare.

    I like sex to be unlabelled and unexpected. Is there any hope for me?

  15. Intensesensations,

    May I humbly recommend a book for you only because it's my fave read this year, and happens to be written by Maxwell Cynn. It's an incredibly sensual read. Sexy, beautiful, uncensored. You already know he can write based on his article here.

    The book is CybrGrrl.



Please leave a comment/review on any of the stories/poems contributed.