Not so fast.
What if the recognition that comes your way is for writing some of the most descriptively awful, tortured-metaphor, laugh-out-loud-funny sex scenes ever committed to print— then how would you feel?
Such is the position two 2019 novelists find themselves in: Didier Decoin and John Harvey. Britain’s “most dreaded literary prize”—the Bad Sex Award—was, err . . . awarded . . . to these two gentlemen for the creation of grammatical hydra-headed monsters of such overwrought metaphor, mangled syntax, and ” wait . . . what?!” disorienting narrative description that awed judges truly could not decide upon a winner between the Gallic or the Anglo-Saxon contestants. They co-share the prize.
Readers in search of saucer-eyed, hand-to-mouth diversion may peruse this link for further details: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/02/bad-sex-award-twosome-prize-goes-to-didier-decoin-and-john-harvey
Once you’re done reading the article, however, let’s regather here and discuss. Have you ever written a sex scene in your fiction? How did it turn out? What is your opinion of sex scenes in fiction, generally? Are they necessary? (Let’s exclude, for purposes of this discussion, “one-handed books”—explicit erotic fiction primarily targeted at cisgender men: “I never believed this could happen to me: I hawked my wad of chewing tobacco onto the macadam, took a swig of whiskey from my flask, slung my reflector vest away, and stripping down to my tightly bunched gray underwear waded into the writhing, moaning mass of naked women softly trilling my name: Ebenezer, Ebenezer . . .”)
David Foster Wallace once notoriously dismissed John Updike as “just a penis with a thesaurus”. Are there writers you think take things an explicit passage too far? Perhaps offend by tone, subject matter, and/or authorial voice? Obsessive “sex focus”?
On the other hand, do you think there is something to be said for writers who dare to write against the grain of “contemptible bourgeois morality” and Puritanical prudishness? Are there writers you think handle sexual passages well? Do you regard titillation and/or sexual arousal as a legitimate aim of literary or genre literature? (After all, we applaud the writers who best evoke the senses when they write, so why should sex—an essential part of the human condition and a most poignant and transfixing experiential phenomena—remain “off-stage” in literature?)
by George Salis
The act of writing a novel elicits a series of revelations punctuated by epiphanies. I will share with you two major eureka moments that occurred during the writing of my debut novel Sea Above, Sun Below.
Connected to the myth of Icarus and other vertiginous tales of yore, my novel features a group of skydivers who fall, metaphorically and literally. I’m afraid of heights but I felt like I needed to skydive in the name of research for my novel. As it happens, I loved the surreal experience so much I would do it again. Strapped to my instructor, we waddled to the plane’s open door, and he stood on the edge while I dangled unfathomably high above the earth and with fear I reached out to grip the metal portal, but the instructor gently pried me from even that precarious perch, and then the insensate suck, the slip from everything into nothing, and I realized this was it, that I was truly falling, skydiving, and the wind felt as though the sky wanted to make my mouth and lungs home, palate-scouring, and the seconds were drawn out into a brief infinity, an eternal moment. From there, the world below struggled between a two-dimensional illusion and the reality of three.
Yet, for all that that’s worth, I was fairly surprised to discover, once my feet were on the ground and I was back at my writing desk, that my skydiving description was quite accurate before I had conducted my research and so I ended up adding only a single sentence afterward: “Up here, while the wind became a chorus of tragic furies, the sun detached from the sky, letting the earth revolve like an orrery.” This is one example in which I learned to trust my own instincts, my own imagination. Was skydiving worth the effort, the confronting of fear? Absolutely. Research still has many benefits and can be a delight in and of itself. I should add that while the experience of falling conformed quite uncannily with my predescription, as it were, I did add a plethora of details from my experience within the skydiving hangar, such as the almost anachronistic bowling balls littering the hangar floor which I learned are used to push out air from the parachutes while folding them back into their packs for the next fall. So, aside from personal development, research can give you all those minute details which enhance a fictional scene, but if you cannot afford to go to Japan, for example, then you should rest easy knowing that you have the power to evoke your own germane version of the country.
Also, do not underestimate academic research, which is often less expensive and no less simmering with potential details, for one’s picture of a place or person will always be incomplete and eventually all that’s left for you to do is continue writing.
Mentally juggling and tallying the oftentimes ambiguous constituents of a novel in one’s head, even with the aid of notes and miscellaneous marginalia, can cause a daunting dizziness. To lessen the vertigo, I offer this lesson: I learned that it’s much more manageable to write each chapter as a short story (with chronology being far from a priority). There are certain aspects the short story is known for, yet there is no reason such aspects should be exclusive to it: an ensorcelling first sentence; a strategic entrance into the very story of the story; a self-containment that can feel like a certain tightness, which is not to suggest that you should avoid digressions (they can be, as Ray Bradbury said in defiance of Shakespeare’s Polonius, the soul of wit); an immediacy of image or action or development; and it allows you to weave your novel as if it were a tapestry, depending on the type of novel you are writing. I’m enamored with stories within stories, stories besides stories, in the vein of The Thousand and One Nights or Cloud Atlas, so my novel contains around ten different threads which were written with the mentality, the focused lens, of the short story, connected thematically, genetically, and more. An additional benefit to this method/perspective is that while you work on your long project, you might be able to send out some pieces of it for potential publication. Before Sea Above, Sun Below recently came out as a whole through River Boat Books, I was able to publish ten pieces from it, and in a few cases I received edits on the stories which ultimately helped the final vision.
It is worth noting that you should rage against my advice as you see fit. By all means, do the opposite of what I say if it works for you. Or better yet, use your finger to write your novel in the fog on a mirror; spin around quickly ten times before you sit down for the day’s quota; whisper your sentences backward to yourself; write your dreams then dream what you wrote. Who truly knows what will help?
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is the editor of The Collidescope and is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland.
Aristotle is quoted as saying: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
I have been fortunate, so far, in receiving largely positive and constructive feedback on my first published novel, “Unearthed.” I of course know that no creative work can appeal to all audiences, though. Somebody, somewhere, will not care for your writing, your painting, your music, your recipe, etc. I know people who don’t even like chocolate … and I mean … it’s chocolate.
Like many authors, I felt some anxiety when publishing my novel. I had three beta readers and multiple rounds of edits; I was happy with the result. But I haven’t been living in a cave. I’m on social media, and I read the comments on public posts. I felt I should steel myself for the negativity that seems to thrive on the internet.
Here are my tips:
- Make a list of popular things you don’t enjoy
The beauty of this step is that nothing is off limits. Allow me to demonstrate: Fortnite, Game of Thrones (I really tried), every song by Drake, bicycle shorts, calamari. The fact that I don’t care for these things won’t (and shouldn’t) stop them from being successful. Except for whoever designed bicycle shorts. They should be stopped.
- Read the 1 and 2 star reviews of your favorite novels
This is an eye-opener. One of my favorite authors, Karen Marie Moning, received a review titled “Seriously?!” that opened with: “I am mind-boggled that, at the time of this review, this book has over a 4-star rating.”
Another gem from a review of J.R. Ward’s work: “The characters are the most awfully cliched stereotypes I’ve seen since … actually, no, they ARE the most awfully cliched characters I’ve ever read.”
Yikes. I read other reviews that are overly critical (imho) of story line or character development, but these snippets stand out in my mind for obvious reasons. Fortunately, these authors continue to turn out successful novels and connect with audiences who enjoy their work.
- Watch Jimmy Kimmel clips of “Mean Tweets” on YouTube
This is a hilarious segment that highlights the most scathing comments on Twitter, read by the celebrity target. It’s brutally funny and frighteningly enlightening. Celebrities respond in various ways and some surprise you.
That’s it. Three easy steps that cost you nothing but a little time. For me, this was the perspective I needed before sending “Unearthed” out into the cruel, cruel world with my eyes wide open. I sincerely hope I never receive a Kimmel-worthy review of my work, but if I do, I’ll remember that I’m in good company with every other creative talent out there—and keep writing.
Escape mundane reality with “Unearthed”—a fun, fast-paced contemporary fantasy romance.
I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’
In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.
Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.
Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.
Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.
Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?
Carl E. Reed has now published four poems in Spectral Realms (issues #10 and #11), with more poems scheduled to appear in issue #12. He has just published an exhaustive and picturesque review of Spectral Realms #11 on John O’Neil’s Black Gate website.
An earlier poem of Carl’s was published in The Iconoclast a decade ago.
Thanks, Carl, for suggesting that we post this link:
James Tiptree, Jr. — aka Alice Sheldon — wrote a story back in 1974 called “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.” It’s a tale about memory. Scenes from a life play out one after another: a boy on his first duck hunt, failing miserably; a young man in his first, eager sexual encounter, failing miserably; a man back from war proposing, finally, to the woman he loves, failing miserably…you get the idea. Framing this jumbled litany of humiliation and disappointment is the gradual realization that all of these memories are playing out in a sort of repeating loop, observed by — perhaps even instigated by — some unknown presence: alien researchers perhaps? Or even just alien sightseers, feeding on the memories of the long gone inhabitants of a dead world? Because the earth is dead, a burnt out cinder. All that remains are memories.
But — and here’s the gut punch — the only memories left are unpleasant ones. Only the horrible stuff, incidents our protagonist would rather forget. Instead, he gets to live them out again and again.
A hellacious vision. Thanks, Alli.
But still, a fascinating premise. Sad memories, painful memories, seem to have a disproportional staying power. Enjoyable memories can linger as well, but they are less vivid, less intrusive. It seems like we have to go looking for those, we have to coax them to the surface. But deeply unpleasant memories find us. We have no idea when they might swim into sudden focus. It’s like they’re always lurking in the shadows, just around the next corner.
There’s a good reason, of course, why we would be predisposed, genetically, to have a better memory for the unpleasant things. After all, unpleasant things are often dangerous things, and it’s an adaptive advantage to avoid danger. If a situation feels unpleasantly familiar, you’ll tend to shy away from it and not repeat it. As for joyous memories of good times, well, it’s nice to remember them, but it’s not usually a matter of life or death. Lack of joy might kill you in the long run, but it’s only a gradual death and it won’t necessarily interfere with your ability to pass on your genetic code.
But danger? That can kill you right now, the immediate termination of your particular configuration of base pairs. So we avoid unpleasantness. It’s baked in, a survival skill.
And to avoid it, we have to recognize it. We have to remember. If I were an alien, researching the former dominant species of an extinct planet, I might focus on exactly that: what drove their worst memories? What were they so afraid of?
So how does this concept relate to stories? Does this predisposition explain why we have such an appetite for tragedy, for conflict-driven narratives? Such a fascination with crime and horror and dystopian futures? Could be. I’d admit that there are other factors. Catharsis plays into it — and the guilty thrill we might feel at experiencing someone else’s misery while knowing it isn’t our own. But it isn’t hard to see how these pleasures might have their roots in the original preoccupation. Suffering fascinates us because it’s important to our survival. We rubberneck the freeway accident because, at some level, we know that could be us.
And if it might kill us, we need to know about it.
Footnote: It feels worth mentioning that some of our most persistent personal memories are of rejection and humiliation, which might not correlate directly with situations of danger or physical threat. We don’t, as a rule, die of embarrassment. But being rejected or humiliated, at least publicly, can be correlated with social ostracism, which could be almost as bad as death. In terms of passing your genetic material on to the next generation, it could be exactly as bad as death. The process of natural selection really doesn’t put a priority on our happiness. It’s only concerned with us surviving long enough to procreate.
Another Footnote: I would accept that being joyless might be a hindrance to finding companionship and a partner for procreation. But this seems to me a very modern view of our mating relationships. While romance isn’t very new, it’s pretty new compared to our time as a species, and there’s good reason to believe that marriage probably developed more as a practical arrangement and didn’t necessarily require having a winning personality or a great outlook on life. Fortunately, we’ve progressed beyond that point, mostly — but that’s a subject for another time.
As you doubtless remember, I left the city because I was being blamed, (I feel unfairly) for the publication of a book of children’s tales. These tales were claimed by some to cast a harsh light on the antics of the rich and powerful, amongst them, Radsel Oeltang, chair of the Council of Sinecurists. The claim was that his latest manoeuvrings were described in forensic detail in the stories. To be fair, had this been true I can see why he might be legitimately angry. But the intrigues he was accused of actually happened after the book had been published, and between two and three decades after the stories had been written.
Now normally I am somewhat cavalier when contemplating what upsets those in high places. I tend to adopt a robust attitude to their problems, feeling that if they have both considerable wealth and great influence, they can cope with a little disappointment. On the other hand, when they make their unhappiness felt by hiring thugs to hand out beatings, I take their transient unhappiness rather more to heart. My difficulty was that I couldn’t keep sneaking around the city, attending upon my patrons and simultaneously trying not to be seen. After all some of my patrons are friends of Master Oeltang. He could well turn up at an event where I had been asked to perform. I felt I had to do something to spare him embarrassment and me bruises.
I decided to call upon Desli and Misli and discuss the stories with them. Perhaps they could throw some light upon their mother’s apparent political prescience. When I arrived, Desli was out selling pies and Misli was cooking, assisted by a rather shy young man who was taking cooked pies out of the oven. I vaguely recognised him, he was one of the wherry fishermen who take boats out on the falling tide and bring them back in as it rises.
Misli introduced him to me as Villen, and explained he was the crew-member sent to buy the pies they would take with them when the boat sailed. I merely said, “How wise.”
At the same time I was thinking to myself; when a young man walks an extra half a mile there and half a mile back, every day, to buy his pies from one sister, rather than purchase them from the other sister who is far more conveniently located; he is thinking of more than pastry. But still, I estimate at least three-quarters of all courtship happens before the couple realise that they’re courting. I made no comment.
So when Villen had paid for the pies, I explained my problem to Misli. In short, it was that people saw in antics of the imp Pugglewood the devious deeds of Radsel Oeltang.
Misli burst out, “But I loved Pugglewood when I was a child. He was the one who saved everybody.”
This came as a surprise to me. “But he’s always playing devious tricks on people.”
“Well he does that a bit, but when you get to the end of the story, you’ll see how those tricks make people better able to cope with the callousness of the world.”
“They do?” I obviously sounded bemused, because Misli added,
“When the bladdersnitch arrives, it’s only Pugglewood and his tricks that help them survive.”
It was at this point I realised I had better go home and re-read the stories. The problem was that when I first put the book together for Desli and Misli there was far more material than I needed. So I started reading through from the beginning, intending to discard that which was unsuitable, hoping I would have enough material for the book. As it was I got half way down the heap of stories, had discarded nothing and had enough. So being busy, I hadn’t read the rest.
Once home, I had read the rest, I could see what Misli meant. To be honest, in the first half of the material, Pugglewood is one of those somewhat vexing characters. One instinctively feels that they would be better for a swift kick. He intensely irritated me. But when I read the second half of the material it slowly dawned on me that Pugglewood was a far more complex and farsighted character than I had suspected. In the first half of the material Pugglewood is a childish and irritating nuisance who makes life difficult for a lot of ordinary folk who’re just trying to make the best of things. In the second half of the material you realise that Pugglewood has thought his actions through, lifted his fellow citizens out of their rut and has set them along the path to self-reliance. Hence when the bladdersnitch arrives, he leads them to defeat it. At the end of the book you realise that Pugglewood is the one truly sympathetic character and his neighbours are a bit lumpen and unenterprising and really do need shaking up.
It struck me that somebody had erred, and that somebody was probably me. The obvious thing to do would be to publish the second half of the material. I bundled it up and took it to Glicken’s Printers. They were perfectly happy to print it. Given the first volume was still selling well, they welcomed a sequel. I waited for a proof copy fresh from the press and, greatly daring, I called upon Radsel Oeltang in his office at the Council of Sinecurist’s building.
Now it has to be admitted that I have, on occasion, had dealings with him before. But as far as I knew, the Pugglewood business was the only occasion when I’d seriously offended him. I knew I had done things which would upset him but I was moderately confident he didn’t realise it was me who had done them. So armed with my copy of ‘More trite tales for little people,’ I attended upon him in his office.
It has to be admitted that when I entered his office the atmosphere was distinctly cool. He was formally polite in a way that tends to make a person nervous. It was the way he called me, ‘friend’ Steelyard, that told me I was not forgiven. So I confessed all. I explained what had happened and passed him the second volume to peruse.
He started reading it. After ten minutes he rang for coffee. The fact that he specified a cup for me as well struck me as a good sign. After an hour he closed the book.
“So Tallis, what do you intend to do now?”
I’d given a lot of consideration to that. “The two young women cannot afford a large print run. But if you were to invest, say, twenty alars, I’m sure that the printers would be delighted to print a few hundred extra copies.”
He looked at me over half-moon glasses. “Hmm. I will, but in return you can reprise your explanation to the entire council. That way we can put this matter to bed, once and for all.”
It struck me as a not unreasonable suggestion. “And I will sell copies in the foyer afterwards. This will ensure that people read the full story.”
I have addressed the Council of Sinecurists before. It’s not something I do lightly. After all I firstly have to convince them of whatever it is I’m addressing them on. But also, and this is of almost equal importance, I want to use the chance to prove that I’m the person whose work they love and who they want to hire. In this case it was even tougher, because I had to point out to them that they were in error. Not merely that but that it was I who had inadvertently deceived them. So most of my address was by way of apology. To be fair, when dealing with the pompous and the powerful, one can rarely apologise too often.
When I had finished my discourse, I made my way to the foyer and there I sat behind a table with the books on it. It had occurred to me that there might be some who hadn’t read either of the two volumes, so I’d fetched a stock of both. In the course of the afternoon I sold perhaps a hundred copies, which considerably exceeded my expectations. Still I felt that with a little bit of luck, I’d not merely turned away the wrath of the powerful, but I’d managed to help boost the earnings of the two sisters. I made my way back to the barge a happier and less nervous individual.
Two days later a note was delivered to the barge by a footman in the Oeltang livery. It merely read, “And now they’re calling me the bladdersnitch.”
Still he included a bottle of a perfectly drinkable wine with the note. I felt this gesture indicated I wasn’t being blamed. So we opened the bottle to go with our evening meal and Shena and I drank a toast to his continued good health and prosperity.
And now we’d better hear from Jim Webster.
So here I am again with another blog tour. Not one book but three.
The first is another of the Port Naain Intelligencer collection. These stories are a bit like the Sherlock Holmes stories. You can read them in any order.
On the Mud. The Port Naain Intelligencer
When mages and their suppliers fall out, people tend to die. This becomes a problem when somebody dies before they manage to pass on the important artefact they had stolen. Now a lot of dangerous, violent or merely amoral people are searching, and Benor has got caught up in it all. There are times when you discover that being forced to rely upon a poet for back-up isn’t as reassuring as you might hope.
Then we have a Tallis Steelyard novella.
Tallis Steelyard and the Rustic Idyll
When he is asked to oversee the performance of the celebrated ‘Ten Speeches’, Tallis Steelyard realises that his unique gifts as a poet have finally been recognised. He may now truly call himself the leading poet of his generation.
Then the past comes back to haunt him, and his immediate future involves too much time in the saddle, being asked to die in a blue silk dress, blackmail and the abuse of unregulated intoxicants. All this is set in delightful countryside as he is invited to be poet in residence at a lichen festival.
And finally, for the first time in print we proudly present
Maljie, the episodic memoirs of a lady.
In his own well-chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.
All a mere 99p each