Maybe I’ll never quite get over my mother’s disapproval of all things sexual. Nice girls don’t know and certainly don’t talk about sex. So how is a writer to deal with this parentally created obstacle? When is a sex scene in fiction commercially obligatory, mere titillation, or structurally important?
Recently a friend gave me a stack of contemporary novels, and I’ve been sampling them, devouring some, throwing others down within the first chapter. One element that leads me to discard a book is the way the sex scenes are written. The book that opened with an explicit and poorly motivated romp between people who were satisfying only their physical needs landed on the floor pretty quickly. I had no connection to these characters, so I was uncomfortable being included in what could have been their private moments–well, they would have claimed more than a moment, this very athletic couple. So there’s one factor: for a sex scene to matter, the reader needs a connection with the characters, rather than encountering a cheap trick to draw the reader in before that connection is established. It did not help that the characters involved were stereotypical and one dimensional.
In Catherine Coulter’s Beyond Eden, the sex is epic. Detailed, explicit, whatever adjective you choose. And Coulter’s approach is right for this book, because the story-worthy problem, as Donald Maas calls it, is a woman’s deep-seated terror in the presence of men after a brutal rape. We need to see the rape and her subsequent awakening to healthy sex in order to understand the story. That is the story, and by the time we get to the second sex scene, we care about her and her lover, are ready to cheer them on in discovering each other. Another lesson learned from reading and thinking about what I read and why.