Sexy Science Fiction

What makes a book sexy?  This was the question put to the “Sexy Science Fiction” panel on Friday night on the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Literature track.  The answers were varied, honest, and sometimes blunt enough to only have been offered on a late-night panel such as this one.  “Ten o’clock is Dragon*Con After Dark,” noted author Jean Marie Ward with a laugh.  “The costumes get skimpier and the talk gets much more ribald.”

For author Diane Whiteside, sexy meant that there had to be a strong sense of “Wheee!” to the story, or it just wasn’t happening for her.

“All a sex scene is is a dialog scene with body language,” according to bestselling author Diana Gabaldon.  “You can do anything with a sex scene that you can do with a dialog scene.”

For author Susan Griffith, the answer was a little more difficult, if only because the panelist sitting next to her was her husband, Clay.  “Basically, it’s chemistry to me.  If there’s something, it doesn’t just have to be physical–it could be anything–but the character has got to [elicit] some sort of emotional response from me.”

Clay had a somewhat differing view.  “Men and women tend to like different things.  For men, typically, a sex scene is porn.  [Susan] taught me that’s not acceptable, either in personal life or in polite fiction.  There has to be character interaction; the sex has to mean something.  That doesn’t mean it can’t happen fast, but it still has to mean something to those characters, and it has to have repercussions.”

“I want to see some frustration first,” said author Gail Z. Martin.  “Some mixed signals, longings, some sense that this is never going to happen and then it does.  For me, that anticipation makes the payoff so much better when it finally happens, both as a writer and as a reader.  Just getting some, right off the bat, okay that’s nice for you, but it doesn’t do much for the story.”

Jean Marie Ward put it succinctly: “You need to hear the sizzle, smell the steak, and then get the meal.”

Moderator Gary Mitchell next moved the topic into the deeper waters of what is currently a very hot market: gay fiction.  Not surprisingly, the panelists were eager to tackle the topic, and were amazingly well informed on the subject.

According to one publisher she spoke to, said Gail Martin, about 80% of their readers of male-on-male fiction are females, as are the vast majority of the writers.  One of the theories about that, she went on, is that women like to read m/m fiction because it’s less competitive.  “It’s great that the two guys are in love with each other, have the hots for each other, but you’re not competing, even as a reader, with the female love interest, so there isn’t another girl in there you have to measure yourself up to.”

Clay Griffith offered what he said his wife Susan’s theory was.  “Women like man-on-man action because they like to see, [for] one, men expressing some freaking emotion, whereas men can’t write a man expressing emotion because he’s afraid that they’ll be construed as gay, and they want to see some male bonding–not in a literal sense, although they may want to see that, too,” he added with a grin.  “Look back at old books, old movies.  Men weren’t afraid to befriend one another, sometimes in a physical way, they were much more touchy, they were much more emotional towards one another, they would act like brothers even if they weren’t, and women want to see men act that way.”  Several good examples of that type of male camaraderie were mentioned, which of course included the perennial favorite, Star Trek.

“Do you think that in modern times it’s that the studios and the executives and the producers, the money men, are afraid of the male characters coming across gay?” asked Gary Mitchell.

“Absolutely,” was the response.

“I think the people over 45 are way more afraid of it than the people under 25,” said Gail Martin.  Her two teenage sons, she says, have friends that are “out” from middle school on.  “This is just the world, and they’re looking at the adults going, what is the problem here?”

“Look at anime,” said Clay Griffith.  “Anime does a really good job with male bonding, male friendships, sometimes even semi-sexual relationships between men, and they do a good job of it.”

Bringing the topic back around to the subject of the panel, Gail Martin made an excellent point.  “We find a comfort zone and a way to extend our comfort zone through fiction, because just like science fiction and fantasy have always been a way to experience an alternative reality, to put ourselves in someone else’s skin, someone else’s shoes, someone else’s tentacles, I think that we’re doing the same thing by trying out different lifestyles and different activities that maybe are beyond what we’ve experienced in real life but maybe would like to learn more about.”

“Speaking as a biologist,” said Diana Gabaldon, “human beings are hard-wired to be interested in sex.  Totally.  All the time.  People will watch anybody having sex no matter what they look like.  And sex sells, everybody know this.  In this culture, it has now become much more acceptable to have open sex, or fairly graphic sex, in books which 25 years ago you just couldn’t have done … it would have been considered pornography and you wouldn’t have gotten published.”

Asked whether any of them felt pressured to write sex scenes in their books by their editors, publishers, or even their readers, the panelists all were emphatic that the worst thing a writer can do is try to write towards an audience, as opposed to trying to tell the story that’s in their head.  “You’ve got to write to the characters,” said Susan Griffith.  “When those scenes happen, it should be an event, it should be monumental.  It just shouldn’t be in there because you have to have the three allotted [sex scenes].”

“Whether you’ve got sex in the story is all dependent upon the story you want to tell,” summed up Jean Marie Ward, “and the circumstances of that story.”

Author of the article

When not buried in other worlds by reading about them, Lisa Guilfoil enjoys writing about them, taking great pleasure in tormenting any character foolish enough to pop out of her mind.  She lives in New York with her husband and dog, who both know enough not to bother her when the voices start talking.

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