Writer’s peeves

I don't know if that's shared, I'd be very curious to know. Any writers reading this?…

Major peeves — Explicit material

You're going to say, why don't you just cut the explicit scenes? Why describe sex and violence in loving detail anyway? The answer seems obvious to me: because they happen, and just leaving them out because it makes you blush to write them is not a honest way to write, no more than dismissing any kind of explicit material as "gratuitous" is an honest way to read. It's just so terribly difficult, no wonder writers often look for a way out.

Of everything that happens in our lives, most have been shredded and put back together again by our collective brain, in forms of symbols. Meaning can generally be divided in three levels. The first one is denotation: the literal, down-to-earth meaning of any word. A peach, for instance, is a fruit with a colour ranging from white to golden, a high sugar content and a strong taste. Then there is the second level: connotation, the hidden implications that almost all words have. When you hear the word "peach", various things may spring to your mind, most comonly summer, sweetness, softness and other pleasant associations. Connotations may differ from one person to another, but the collective brain has gathered some of them in tight bundles, that constitues the third level of meaning: symbols. What does a peach symbolise? Most commonly, the plenitude of youth and sexual prime, when women have peach-like skin and curves and life is sweet as juice running on your hands. Those nostalgic of ancient Japan have probably stumbled across the "split peaches" in the hair of the geishas-in-training, that red cloth that was visible in the middle of their dark hair as a red crevice, the symbolism of which is too obvious for me to dwell upon. Just like physical characteristics are bundled up to form a single word, connotations are gathered in a symbol. A competent writer should be expected to navigate between those three levels, and layer them like lacquer on a work of art. Most writers don't even realise it. 

Problems arise  where the collective brain refused to do its job. And this is precisely where I start splitting my head over how to write a proper sex scene. You can talk about sex. All the proper words are here, with the proper denotations. The problem with those words, however, is their lack of connotative or symbolic level. What is a penis? The male reproductive organ and a receptor of physical pleasure. What images spring to mind when you mention a penis? Um… A penis, maybe? And maybe I could talk about power, domination, aggressivity? And once I've finished apologising for such a ridiculously chauvinistic attitude, will I be able to find what penises symbolise? They pretty much  symbolise what they're here for: sex. Or power, though this symbol is starting to be more laughable than evocative after decades of feminism. 

A penis, in our culture, evokes a penis. A vagina evokes a vagina. Sex evokes sex, and then people start blushing and make crude jokes or change the subject. The best any writer can come up with is a vague connotation of power, domination, aggressivity; or passivity, victimisation, receptiveness, when they don't try to play the Earth Mother trump, which hardly ever fools anyone. If sex scenes sound so appallingly bad, so often, it is because they show nothing of the prism of symbols and connotation that any moderately skillful writer can inlay in their prose. It is no wonder that nine out of ten of the few well-written sex scenes you can find show intimacy in a negative light, as a play of power and domination. Writing about how two people can find happiness in carnal contact seems to be an almost impossible task. Stendhal reduced the sex between his two main characters to a semi-colon. I'm afraid he was close to the best you can find.

Violence follows the same pattern. There is nothing behind gore but gore. The collective brain did not shred what it blushed to think of. In the present cultural state of affairs, excrements and putrescence have more symbolic power than a fellatio or an axe blow. Which is why, after all this time, I'm still putting off writing battle scenes and sex until the very last moment. 

What do you think of that? If anyone has read authors who can prove me wrong, I'd be happy to hear about them. Or to get lectured by anyone who can teach me something on the subject…


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