Friday, February 15, 2008

The Art of Sex (writing about it, that is) - Part I

OK, this could take awhile. But for starters....

One of the first major reviews I saw for my first novel (OUTLANDER) was published by the _San Francisco Chronicle_. "Well, it's not Art," began the review, "and it's not Literature, but..." followed by several inches of raves (which came in handy for inside cover quotes for the paperback).

While I appreciated the favorable attention, I was mildly bemused by that opening. And exactly why _isn't_ it either Art or Literature? I wondered. The reviewer didn't trouble explaining, evidently feeling that her apparent enjoyment of the book made that plain (everyone knows you _appreciate_ Art, you don't _enjoy_ it, for gosh-sakes! I mentioned this particular review to someone at my publishing house--whose pragmatic response was, "Thank God they didn't call it Art or Literature; we'd have been lucky to sell 5,000.").

Now and again, I get further reviews that make it clear that what I'm writing can't possibly be either Art or Literature, because it is "genre fiction,"--this, contrasted with the occasional oddball critic who insists that the books _are_ Literature (nobody seems willing to go out on a limb and call them Art yet; just as well; I have kids to put through college), because I have managed to squeeze every possible known genre (except Westerns (give me time)) into one book--therefore it can't be genre fiction anymore. (Well, critics have to make a living too.)

Interestingly enough, most of the reviews and public comments that make an issue of whether these books (or any others) are Literature or Genre Fiction (an artificial distinction, if I ever heard one) base the distinction largely on grounds of sex.

If I read my NYT Review of Books aright, you cannot have sex in Literature unless it's violent, abusive, obsessive or warped (if such a word is possible in conjunction with such a…er...'plastic' activity). If you have anything approaching a depiction of pleasurable or entertaining sex, or a relationship in which the characters appear to be having a good time or otherwise benfiting themselves, then obviously you have descended to "genre fiction." (Actually "genre fiction" essentially just means you have a recognizable plot, coupled with a theme of universal appeal. Sex, of course, is pretty universally appealing.).

Now, I get mail. I get _lots_ of mail (and not infrequently, I think I should have had my head examined before I put my email address in my latest book).

Not a few of the letters and messages I get deal with the sexual relationships described in my books. A few correspondents (four, by the latest count) feel that I should not depict the details of sexual encounter, because (and I quote) "Great works of Literature don't have graphic sex." Their (otherwise quite gratifying opinion) is that my books otherwise have merits which would qualify them as Great Literature, were it not that I had lowered the tone of the proceedings by observing that people have genitalia (in vain do I protest that it's difficult to get a Ph.D. in biology without noticing this. They think I should in all decency have kept it to myself).

Of course, we must balance this with the (roughly) 3,000 correspondents who wrote to request _more_ sex in subsequent books, but most of them weren't concerned with my literary reputation.

Frankly, neither am I. We'll just wait a hundred years and _see_ if it's Literature, won't we?

Still, whether you want to put this "Real Lit does not have Real Sex" notion down to lingering puritanism, high-school brainwashing (MOBY DICK does not have explicit sex; ergo Real Literature does not include prurient passages. Obviously, these people were not paying attention when Melville explained why sperm whales are called that), or the ignorant conviction (born of inexperience) that all printed depictions of sexuality must be pornography, the notion does exist.

You know FANNY HILL, I expect? Subtitled "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," it's one of the most enduring bits of Western European "literary" pornography, having been published in 1747. What's literary pornography? Well, interestingly enough, while the difference between most present-day "Literature" and the less-esteemed "genre fiction" is that the latter has a recognizable plot and universal themes, the difference between literary pornography and its less-esteemed relation, "porn," is that the _former_ has a decent plot and universal themes.

FANNY HILL caused a certain amount of comment following its publication--evidently times change, but literary critics don't. Among these, however, was a mention in a London magazine called THE MONTHLY REVIEW, which reads as follows:

"Yet it does not appear to us that this book has anything in it more offensive to decency or delicacy of sentiment and expression, than our novels and books of entertainment in general have. For in truth they are most of them (especially our comedies, and not a few of our tragedies) but too faulty in this respect."

These remarks were published in 1750. FANNY HILL is still in print, having survived the entire Victorian Age and the neo-puritanism of the mid-20th century, as well. This doesn't suggest to me that the inclusion of sex _per se_ negatively affects either the enduring popularity or the literary quality of any book.

Next time...Why People Have Sex, and How to Make That Clear when you Write about It.


  1. Thanks for you great blog posts.
    I don't know if you have heard about studiVZ but thats a kind of forum for students.Don't ask me if that goes around the world, I don't know.
    There is also a Claire and 'I always thought her hair is curlier' discussion in the Diana Gabaldon group.So everybody talks about that picture of Claire. *gg*

  2. Thank you, thank you!!! Great post on the 'science of sex' in literature. The only time I don't like to read it is when the author has written it so poorly that it's painful to read. I can't wait for the next installment.

    Does make me wonder though...if in the grand scheme of things, literary critics don't believe people have sex, where do they all think we get more literary critics from? After all, they don't just jump off the pages of that 'great art or literature'!

    And Diana, you write it so very well! I would love your books regardless but you give us such a grand view of your characters, whole and complete and fallible and...human.

  3. Diana,

    I am learning so much from you, I feel like I am taking an online course!

    Thanks for adding to my daily life!

  4. Diana
    Just read your "Art of Sex" blog. I always felt if there was to be a sex "scene" written, the passages leading up to it should be considered a form of "foreplay". If it is well written and flows to a natural conclusion you don't even consciously consider if it's graphic or not. Why do human's from the beginning of time have so much trouble expressing this most natural act, written or otherwise? Funny how one mans "porn", can be another mans "literature".

  5. Dear Diana,
    So what does it say about us then, if we read 'literature', 'genre fiction', etc.? Are we more intelligent if we only read 'literature'? Or is it interest based, " I like Sc-Fi, so that's what I read"? Does it matter? And why can't your books be called 'art'? You've created some of the most beautiful, intense, violent, ugly, strange, wonderful and interesting characters I've ever read. Isn't 'art' all of that? Isn't the craft of writing an art in and of itself?

    I hate the whole label thing anyway, from what we read, to where we are classified in school, to personality types. I love reading, and I read everything: lit, chick-lit, romance and I guess 'genre fiction', if we want to include your books. To me they've always been 'fiction', but great fiction at that!

  6. i haven't even finished reading the post! Someone, 4 someones actually, don't like the sex!???? That is crazy! Please don't listen to them! My first thought is that they must not have any experience in which it was enjoyable for themselves.

  7. Diana:

    I decided to look up the definition of Art in my Widgets (if you're using your Mac Book Pro then you'll have Widgets, too) and found: ART 1 - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

    Hmm. Are you creating a Mona Lisa? I don't believe so. Can you be thought of as a Hieronymus Bosch type, creating fantastical situations with characters skilled beyond human capability? Maybe. (HB was a serious, early-Renaissance Dutch artist for those possibly unfamiliar -- I refer to him because DG has in her Books. An apt comparison, IMHO.)

    If Art is a creation that evokes an emotional response then I believe your books may be entitled to that descriptive. When I find myself hypnotized or seduced by the power of the words before me, when I become submerged in the moment, then reemerge stunned, stupified, reduced to tears, in awe of what I just encountered, then most likely it can be called Art in some form or another.

    Are they Literature? Well, that I cannot begin to argue because, though I love the printed word and am intoxicated by the fragrance of books (books are a sensual experience for me) I do not consider myself a critic. I don't possess the qualifiers.

    You will notice, Diana, that not once, except now, have I mentioned sex. I think I will wait to comment further on Part 1 of this discussion once I see what others write.

    PS: I loved Fanny Hill the first time I read it.

  8. Dear Diana,

    One aspect of your work that captivates me is the honesty in which you portray the people in the novels. By capturing the intimate moments between characters and the motivation / emotion leading up to that moment, the reader is given a 'nakedly' honest view of what makes the characters tick. We know so much more about Jamie, Claire, Brianna, and Roger because of the intimate moments they exchange. We also know a great deal (maybe even more) about the characters after witnessing the intimate encounters with characters like Black Jack Randall and Stephen Bonnet.

    I think you do an amazing job at making sex a natural, honest part of life (which we know it is!) and use it as a brilliant way of allowing your readers a means of seeing into the hearts and souls of these characters.

    Literature? Time will tell. I, however, have never been more inspired by a greater Epic Love Story than that of our beloved Jamie and Claire. My tent is in the Gabaldon Camp!

  9. Merrymags, I loved your post!!

    I have to say I love the way you write about sex and relationships. Jamie and Claire's character evolution would not have been the same without it. Sex is probably one of the most valuable ways to show communication (of body, soul, and spirit), motives of the heart and flesh, and finally the sheer passion that makes life worth living!

    I love how you have shown the various emotional and physical states that go with sex; whether it be using it as a means to control someone with violence or the tender loving mercies of two people joined by body and spirit. To me it is art.

  10. I'm surprised you've only gotten 3,000 letters asking for more sex. :)

    Fanny Hill, incidentally, was written to pay off a debt and to be the dirtiest book possible without using any dirty words.

  11. Diana,
    Consider this about those 4 critics: they may be negative about the sex because it is so close to their own experiences that it makes them uncomfortable; or it may be so far removed from their own experiences, it makes them uncomfortable.
    Can't wait to read more. Thanks for your effort.

  12. re: Charlotte Carroll
    I have reread the comments before yours, including my own. For the life of me I can't see where you think we don't "like" sex. One person can't wait for the next installment, one person is learning so much, and one person wants to call D.G"s books Art(which I agree). I personally would hate to do without that most loving, passionate act. Written or otherwise. As you can see this subject can get "heated" very fast when assumptions are made.

  13. Charlotte Carroll' where you meaning Diana"s post or the blogger's comments. If the former then I apologize for going off half cocked?

  14. Sharaf,

    In the seventh paragraph of Diana's blog, she is the one who states there are four, by her last count, who think the sex downgrades the stories.

    CC didn't say anyone commenting on Diana's blog said that. I think you might have misread her post.

  15. As I mentioned before, when I've said a mouthful my foot generally goes in right behind it. Apology again C.C. I-- just-- knew this subject was going to bring out the best and worst in me. I'll try and be more cautious next time, but I wouldn't bet on it. I just love this subject. No more blogging for me today, me and my foot will be quiet.

  16. LOL Sharaf!!! It doesn't matter whether I'm blogging, foot is never far from my mouth and never, ever quiet! :D

  17. Interesting that your sex blog follows your happy 31 years of marriage blog. Because whatever else your books are, they are essentially a story of a loving marriage, and while I only have half the years invested in wedded bliss that you do, even I know that you cannot have a happy and loving marriage without sex. To ignore it is disingenuous. The only other series that I read that even came close to yours in describing the complexity of the marriage relationship was the "Claudia" series by Rose Franken, written originally in the 30's and 40's I think, with references to sex, but no explicit content. I don't know how that would be classified either, only know that I loved that series too, so I don't care how it's labelled. I'm glad that you don't either.

  18. Diana et al~

    I'm back for more. Okay, sex. And everything I write from this point on is MY OPINION, so no name calling. ; )

    I love sex. I adore thoughts of sex, the idea of having sex, and actually engaging in sex. I enjoy reading about sex. (I won't say anything intimate about my sexual practices) Am I oversexed? Nah! I don't think so.

    Sex is communication. It is raw, angry, tender, loving, selfish, abusive, empowering, punishment, redemption. It expunges loneliness. It is one of the most intimate, personal forms of communication -- we all know this.

    The sex of our teen years (for those who partook -- I didn't until after high school) was hormones, nothing more. It was cloaked in feelings, true, but for lots of us, it was an exercise of our genitalia.

    The sex of our young adult years was our connecting with another person or persons (depending on your lifestyle). It was a form of social communication. For those who didn't *communicate* liberally, the restraint had purpose. I didn't have sex much at all because it was, and remains after almost 20 years of marriage, a gift to be given and shared.

    Then, that one person entered the picture and, for most of the readers here I'm guessing, something changed. There was a deep-seated need to reach out and maintain a connection and sex is the avenue we all traveled to reach it. It is a fact of Life.

    So, if it is a fact of Life, then why can't it be written of when it celebrates the history of two people, fictional or not, and not be considered Literature? Certainly, we read in Voyager that Jamie was violent with Claire in the moments after Laoghaire discovered them... and Claire scratched and clawed Jamie in return. Jamie verged on abusive when he dominated Claire at Leoch. While it isn't my thing, Jack Randall's treatment of Jamie was certainly warped and damn near obsessive.

    If, as Diana states in her blog today, Literary sex is of a violent, abusive, obsessive or warped nature, then the jury is in, in my corner of Los Angeles, and I say that Diana's writing of sex constitutes Literature.


  19. This is strictly a comment on the critic who thought the Outlander novel would be great literature if Diana hadn't been so descriptive of the male anatomy. Would it have been better if Jamie's body had been described as looking like a Ken Doll? I will say it again, this series of novels is so believable in it's depiction of it's characters, body parts and all. I wonder if these critic's with all their knowledge could write the perfect piece of literature. I guess I didn't understand the meaning of the word literature. To me the word encompassed all forms of written text.

  20. I warned you all my mind goes ninety miles an hour on this subject. I had a incident the other night with me and my friend. I knew she belonged to a book club and I thought I might want to join(thinking this could keep me from being a blog hog). I suggested some books for her club. Do they have grahic sex in them? Agh! Yes. Well the ladies don't want those kind of books. Do they have any bad language? Agh, Yes, some. We don't want that either. I believe I am a little to earthy for them. Also I would have been bored to tears. It's a shame they have limited themselves to such a narrow choice of books. I probably wouldn't have been asked back anyway. So you are stuck with me till I find another outlet. Some of you bloggers write so eloquently. So envious.

  21. Sharaf:

    Where are they finding books with NO graphic sex OR bad language....
    You should join - just to shake things up for them ; )

  22. Rebecca
    I didn't even mention that I liked the VIOLENT WEE BUGGERS, or the Methadone list. They would probably still be in a coma.

  23. Hello Diana,

    I guess this means that James Joyce, D.H.Lawrence, Henry Miller or Annais Nin were writing "literary pornography" despite the fact that many colleges now include works by these authors in the syllabuses of their English courses.


  24. I recently (yesterday) recommended your books to a friend and he was very interested in reading them. I said that they are kind of historical novel, kind of fantasy, kind of romance. But I also said they were great story telling and had great sex!!! He raised his eyebrows a bit, wrote down Outlander on a piece of paper along with your name and said - "I'll get it tomorrow."

    People like reading about sex whether they admit or not!

    I think the way you write about sex is very sensuous -- delectable. Thank you.

  25. Oh, and by way, Happy Anniversary. I'm getting ready to celebrate my 30th. Ain't love grand!

  26. Hi Diana--

    I’d like to second Scott’s comment. Many of James Joyce’s first readers might have agreed that the sex in Ulysses was “violent, abusive, obsessive, [and/or] warped” (Joyce was no slouch in the genitalia department, hence the novel’s famous New York obscenity trial in 1933), but few readers today would see it that way.

    Although the Bloom couple certainly have their problems, Ulysses does end on a positive, erotic note, so great literature can mix sex--graphic sex--with pleasure. That ending consists of Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy, in which she thinks about everything from getting her period to the size of her lover’s penis. Breasts, breast milk, bottoms, farts, and orgasms wander through her mind, and yet nothing about it seems abusive, obsessive, or warped. It’s just the internal dialogue of a sensual woman contemplating her difficult marriage and her one infidelity. She’s lost one child, has another nearly grown, and knows she’s getting older. Her sexual relationship with her husband is troubled, but she still loves him and has lyrical memories of their time together. Molly ends her soliloquy recollecting her joyous and erotic response to Leopold’s marriage proposal. So, “yes I said yes”--you can have great sex in great literature!

    I don’t know who benefits from distinctions like the ones made by your reviewer. I suppose such distinctions help publishers and bookstores, and more than a few literary critics have turned a coin by making them. But overall, a really good book will not be chained down by genre boundaries. It may take a few decades, but excellence in writing always finds a way to burst through those chains.


  27. I will never understand why people always feel the need to make sex such a dirty thing (although it is understandable in our society when you look at how its been trivialized but that is a WHOLE new topic!). Its not, when its shared between a married couple its a god given form of intimacy and pleasure meant to draw two people closer to one another.

    I think the thing I love the most about the way You portray sex in your novels is the human approach, you have shown loving sex between married people, sex used as a means of abuse, control and torture; sex performed as necessity and at times sex as unsatisfying, its portrayed in a very real light.

    I think the problem with people not being able to see the difference between smutty cheap novels and something of your magnitude is their attitudes towards sex. If people want to argue about not being able to take a book seriously that contains sex... you can always remind them, THE BIBLE has Song of Solomon! *evil grin*

  28. I very much like the graphic of Claire but I thought she was a little older - experienced maybe - not so ingenuous. Can't wait to see Jaime. Don't know if any picture or actor can live up to everyone's imagination! But sure is fun to try. I can't believe you actually look at emails and reply in a blog. That is so great. DGK

  29. I agree that the public in general rarely agrees on the subject of sex.

    Case in point....there is a small used book store near my home. I had stopped in several times, and the woman who worked there had always struck me as friendly and knowledgeable....until the day I mentioned Outlander!

    WOW, one mention of Diana Gabaldon, and I got a VERY unexpected response.

    "Oh, I can't read her books. They are full of adultery. As soon as I got to the part where she marries that man (Jamie), and she's already married (geez...200 years in the FUTURE to some guy she may never see again), I just couldn't read another sentence!"

    I felt like screaming, "HEY DIP-WAD...IT'S FICTION"!

    Honest to God, this woman, peddler of worn out romance/smut novels, said this!

    I haven't been back since.

  30. Dear Scott--

    Oh, indeed they were! If you listened to reviewers of their time, that is. [g]

    The only test of "literature" is how well it lasts. Every year I read the short lists for things like the Booker Prize...and reflect that I usually don't remember a single title from the short list of the year before. Not that they aren't generally good books; they just don't have the staying power that the Real Stuff has.

  31. I remember as a teenager --CATCHER IN THE RYE--was THE book to read. It wouldn't even be a blip on the screen for parental control into today's society. I've read all of Frank Yerby's books. At first because I was told they had some racy scenes in them (hormones was guiding me back then). It didn't take me long to figure out they were very well written,too. He's still one of my favorite author's.

  32. I have never understood why 'good' and 'classic' fiction cannot have any explicit sex in it. I am a High School English teacher, and I frequently begin any teaching of Shakespeare with: "Shakespeare is all about sex, violence, and potty humor." Never ceases to awaken their curiosity. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth (there’s a whole speech about what alcohol does to the male member, it’s quite funny) or Hamlet, I guarantee you that there is sex in there somewhere. And who wouldn’t call those plays classic or fiction?

  33. Hello Diana,

    I sometimes wonder if a sex scene is really necessary in a novel. Ideally, isn't it supposed to advance the plot of the story? Many times it seems that the bed scene is dropped in there to titillate the reader rather than move the action of the protagonists. Don't get me wrong I am not a prude. I like a well written sex scene as well as anyone else, but I get the feeling that many authors are uncomfortable writing them.


  34. Dear Scott--

    Well, I often get that impression, too. I don't know how much of it is embarrassment over speaking of sex in public (!), or simple ignorance as just how to proceed, or what a sex scene should do (a lot of people _do_ assume that a sex scene is just about sex--to the detriment of the writing).

  35. Scott: You wonder whether a sex scene is really necessary? Perhaps not, but I think it matters a great deal on what the book is about. I could not imagine Outlander (all the series actually) without it. As I try to imaging having everything else the same but removing the sex, I envision a very sterile uninteresting book. Perhaps I just lack imagination. A character's sexual response is one of their most humanizing traits, so long as it is well written.

    Without knowing the depth of Claire's passion for Jamie as portrayed through all their previous sex scenes, would anyone believe that she would go to the lengths she did and find the strength she mustered to go after him in Wentworth Prison? To me it is an integral and necessary part of the book. Anyway reading fiction is not necessary, but it can be so enjoyable.

    I have never been one to hold the opinions of critics any higher than that of the average reader. Books are written for the reader's enjoyment. I lost interest in English studies, when the focus became the examination of the opinions of critics. A lively discussion with a fellow reader, substantiating an opinion with reference from the book is much more valuable.

  36. I don't entirely agree that there's not healthy sex in literary fiction. I've read quite a few short stories published in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies that contain great sex scenes.

    As for novels, what about The Time Traveler's Wife?

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