Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reflection on YA hypothetical: Sex in Books

Review DONE, peanut butter toast and coffee on it's way, and it's a very pleasant Saturday morning out there. The kitchen and bathroom have been bleached into pristine condition and the BF is slumbering, soon to emerge with a well-rested roar. What's not to like about today?

On Thursday night I attended the "So you want to be a YA writer?" hypothetical. It was great fun--the panel was lively and informative, and the MC guided with a firm hand but kept the conversation light.

The night went something like this: a hypothetical query letter is sent by Roy Goodman-Beckett (the name is constructed from the names of the three authors on the panel, James Roy, Alison Goodman and Bernard Beckett) to an editor and all on the panel have to react to developments along the way: changing the character, changing the audience, the word length, the inclusion of a sex scene and so on.

Working in the publishing industry has given me a lot of insight into the realities of publishing. (At one point I thought the editor from Penguin was going to say he read EVERY word of EVERY manuscript that turned up in his slush pile, at which point I would have to accuse him of lying through his teeth. But under some gentle questioning from the MC he conceded that you can tell if you like the MS after only five pages. In my experience, sometimes it's five sentences.) Also, as I've been researching query letters and so on, I'm afraid all in all I didn't hear a great deal that I didn't know already, but gosh it was fun!

The most interesting conversation in my opinion was about the sex scene. "Go figure!" I hear you say. But bear with me. Beckett is whole-heartedly in favour of sex in books, especially in YA books. His reasoning was that there is sex everywhere, but it's a plastic, impersonal, almost non-human version of sex: porn, music videos, advertising etc. The good thing about sex in books is there is actual people in books, and the sex can be realistic. The complexities and awkwardnesses can be portrayed, as well as the wonder and beauty of it. If you think about it, reading a sex scene through the mind and sensations of a character is probably the closest thing to having sex yourself. There might be men out there who would disagree and say nothing compares to a visual--as psychologists attest, men are more stimulated by visuals than the written word, and vice-versa for women. I'm willing to admit this could be the case, which may explain the Mills & Boon/Internet porn dichotomy, but I will never concede that commercial porn is a realistic representation of sex. (Here I would like to go off on the "Is porn intrinsically degrading?" tangent. But I will stay on topic!)

Beckett then lamented it was near impossible to write good sex as the sexual vocabulary has been stolen from us. All words to do with sex and genitals have been hijacked as cusses or into porn, or sound like something from a sanitised 1950s marital relations pamphlet. How true! I'm lamenting as I write this.

Who does do it well, especially for teenagers? Two books I read in high school, The Divine Wind by Gary Disher and Cross My Heart by Maureen McCarthy had healthy, enthusiastic, well-written sex in them. It wasn't exactly hot stuff, but then again how embarrassing to be sitting in English class and getting aroused. If I remember correctly, both authors avoided all mention of the bits and pieces involved, but gave a good sense of (what I now know as) real sex. Disher described a particular scene that has stayed affectionately in my mind, of the characters sheepishly washing their sheets together the morning after.

Who else does this well? Can you? And would you include a sex scene in a YA book? (Personally, I'm all about painfully drawn-out sexual tension, and am dubious as to whether consummation would work in the book I'm currently working on, but I'm not idealogically opposed to it.)


  1. I wish I could have gone!
    I can't really think of any novels off the top of my head... drawn out sexual tension only makes me think about the Twilight saga, unfortunately.
    In my writing...
    In my second book, it's eluded to as happening before the novel begins (it's necessary to the plot for obvious reasons). There's an almost sex scene most of the way through the novel. It's based mostly around emotion rather than description. I recently received this back from a publisher, and they rejected it but gave me an entire page of feedback. A lot of elements in the novel were mentioned, but the sex was not.

    In my third book (this isn't a series, it's just the order I wrote them, and I'm never 100% on the titles), it is left unsaid but you know it happened I write contemporary YA fiction in a weird, semi-literary (almost wrote semi-literate there) way, where people have frequent flashbacks, lots of witty dialogue and most characters are not entirely sane. It makes it easy to leave bits out, and claim that I'm being 'arty' when someone questions whether I actually have any writing ability (it hasn't happened yet, but it will. I know it). That novel is mostly a love story (and if it ever gets published, I get the feeling they'll classify it as romance, though it's distinctly not), and I felt it was necessary to character development.

    I did a follow up to my other blog here: and linked to this post.

  2. One other thing: do you have a copy of Loathing Lola by William Kostakis?
    I'm having a competition on my blog to win one of two copies (personally signed), and no one has entered, so that guarantees definite winning if you do.
    It closes tomorrow. Here's the link:

  3. Loathing Lola doesn't have sex in it (there are a lot of references though). I probably should have emailed you that rather than commenting here, because it is somewhat irrelevant.

  4. Did Judy Blume actually ever have sex in her books (or her characters, even)? I seem to be remember them being very much the risque library items at my primary school.

  5. Ooh, yes indeedy! You're thinking of Forever, a 1970s book that is fondly remembered by many girls as the one in which the protagonist's first lover calls his appendage Ralph. It's a superb book that divided librarians then (and now) as it portrays pre-marital teen sex and with not one but TWO boys. It's highly thoughtful and realistic and I cherish it as one of the most important and sensible books for girls. Current editions feature a forward from Bloom saying if she'd written the novel now she would have had her characters using condoms, but that was before scary STDs and the pill was fine by itself. If I have a daughter I will give it to her at fourteen.

  6. Ah, excellent. So sex in YA novels isn't such a new idea. I read some of those girls-only Blume books myself (Just As Long As We're Together; Here's To You, Rachel Robinson etc.) I never read Forever, though. Maybe I should check it out now haha.

  7. I haven't read either of those books, but now I'd like to -- thanks!