Thursday 19 July 2012

Does a book NEED sex to sell?

What makes a book a good book, a seller? Are the two things the same? Is a best-selling book necessarily a good book? These are the questions that ever indie author would like answered. Unfortunately it is unanswerable.
             The thing is, every reader is different, every writer has a different story to tell. How that writer tells the story is up to him/her. For me a good book is one that has a story I can relate to. It is one where language is used to its fullest extent. Not necessarily complex language but carefully crafted words and sentences. I don’t like reading the same phrases over and over again. I don’t like getting bogged down in too many facts. I like my fiction to be that, fiction. I’m happy to read any genre as long as the story is good. I can be transported back in time with an historical novel. I can be sent into space or the future. I can be a spy or a lover, an adventurer or an ordinary person living a life with a story to tell. As long as the words are good I don’t care.
             I went through the phase of giving every character an action to accompany speech, a toss of the head, hair tucked behind an ear, the raised eyebrow. Fortunately I got through that phase before I got published. That’s not to say that sometimes a character doesn’t do something to enforce what is going on, but it is not all the time. My characters still laugh and smile, shrug or wink, such things are part of life, but it is only mentioned if it is important. The rest of the time the reader can make up their own reactions to what is going on.
             Following the success of a certain book this summer I caught an author on Channel 4 news the other night putting forward the argument that the great classics of our literature should be sexed up to make them more appealing to readers. WRONG! In the interests of accuracy and research I should call up the programme on whatever ‘watch again’ system Channel 4 has and check the names of those taking part in the interview – but I write fiction, I don’t do a great deal of research! Suffice is to say they had a rather enthusiastic female writer of indeterminate age, long black, wavy hair, saying that we shouldn’t be afraid to write about sex, and a rather dry, balding, grey-haired older professor of English Literature for the ‘leave it alone’ camp. I felt it was a pity that the professor wasn’t young, handsome and more passionate about the books he was defending, but maybe there are no such young professors about.
             A few examples of what could be added were included in the discussion and frankly, maybe because of the time the interview went out, I did not find them particularly sexy at all, and definitely not erotic.
             So do we need to sex up Jane Austin? Personally I think not. People read the classics for the style, the wit, the story and the craftsmanship. They can be led to believe things and fill in any gaps in their own imagination. These stories are already sexy in their own ways, else the TV companies and film studios would not be falling over themselves to put them on screen. 
             Who does it benefit to make these stories more raunchy? Certainly not the authors who are all long dead and gone, so it would be the publishers and anyone commissioned to write the extra scenes. All they will be doing is cashing in on the name and the title. If there is really a need for such a thing then let the author take the story and re-write it under their own name or pen name, with a different title and different character names; then wait and see if it is successful.
             So on to the very first question asked – does a book need to have sex in it, and when does that sex move into the erotic category? All my books have sex scenes. I write about life and sex is part of life, to deny it would be to cut a chunk out of a character’s personality. But I usually write about the build-up to sex and when the actual act takes place the bedroom door is discreetly closed and we re-join the characters later. Having said that I don’t know if those introductions are classed as mildly sexy or erotic. Is it erotic for Kianda to become aroused at the smell of Hannah, or for Mark to lick the sugar from his girlfriend’s fingers after eating doughnuts, or for Tony to massage his girlfriend with baby oil?   
             As writers we need to consider who our readers are and who we want to reach. It is not true that young people do not appreciate the classics. Maybe more read Twilight than Dickens but that does not mean we have to put vampires and werewolves in Dickens any more than we have to delve into the relationships between Bill Sykes and Nancy.
             Sex in books is not new.  Even before D H Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there were references and hints. And it is those hints that make the work more appealing, giving the reader a chance to participate in the story by using their own imagination if they want the characters to go further than what is written on the page. Whilst listening to this author spouting excitedly about how sex should be in everything, I couldn’t help wondering if she had never heard of Harold Robins, Wilbur Smith, Lesley Charterise and any number of authors who wrote raunchy and sexy books without being placed in the erotic category. Oh, and not to forget Chaucer.
             Yes, lots of people want to read sexy stories, but just putting sex into Jane Eyre will not make it any more popular or a more enjoyable read.
             Finally, do you know which is the most profitable and prolific publishing house? Mills and Boon. And they are very particular about what can and can’t go into their stories.

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