What is the difference between pornography and erotica? Intimacy.
When you read a really good book, you are off into another world. An intimate world. Fiction provides a degree of intimacy rarely found in real life. Where else can you read another person’s mind, discover his conscious and unconscious motives? Humans are story tellers. Everyone has a story to tell because everyone uses language to share visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile and kinesthetic memories. Everyone listens to a good story.
Everyone listens to or reads a good story. Tension makes a good story.
Now, here’s the kicker: believable tension with identifiable characters in authentic situations— no matter how imaginary—creates unforgettable stories, Think back to a favorite novel you read as a child, one that transported you and showed you new information about human nature.
Mine was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” When I was ten or eleven my mother saw me reading it and said, “Oh no, you don’t want to read that!” She took the book away, but I found it under her bed so continued reading behind her back. That book taught me about sex. No one else did, and it was a gentle teaching. Perhaps that’s why I approve of sex scenes in fiction and one of three reasons why I write them now. Here comes the other two:
Everyone has sexual feelings. How each person lives his sexual feelings is idiosyncratic. No two people have identical attitudes toward sex, male myths to the contrary. An explicit scene in a novel can be highly effective for characterization and theme. Memorable characters in literature, and life, for that matter, often confuse love and lust. He or she believes he is in love with someone who is ultimately wrong for him, or her. This confusion provides underlying tensions that enhance the plot.
Identifiable characters are created with just enough specific information such as speech inflection, body language and dialogue to make you say, “I knew a guy like that. His father was a bear.” Or, “She shouldn’t be so uptight around men. Though I would be, too, if I’d grown up with that mother.” Put these identifiable characters in an authentic, albeit imaginary, situation, and you have an unforgettable story.
As readers glimpsing the thoughts and feelings of a well-rounded character, we learn about ourselves in the privacy of our own chairs. We identify with the lead characters and think, “Oh yeah!” Shakespeare’s characters are enduring because he gave them contradictions. To this day we can watch Mercutio exploding and recognize his feeling, or Hamlet struggling with his conscience because he didn’t know who or what to believe.
Characters make a story for me. I have fun creating my characters with weird addictions. I see them clearly and make up their idiosyncrasies, their “hot buttons” and their behavior in bed. I call these characters “The Dear Departed” and mourn their deaths before I can create a new main character.
You don’t have to be a man to write sex scenes from a male point of view, nor a woman to describe a woman’s feelings. We’re all androgynous to some extent. But, the type of fiction you are reading, or writing, determines the purpose of an explicit sex scene. The scene in a literary novel reveals character and theme. In a romance novel it’s held off until the very last to keep the tension working. Several scenes in the detective genre may be interspersed throughout to maintain a separate tension.
I have a good friend who loves history. In lieu of writing a dissertation for her doctorate degree she began writing historical romances. She published several and loved the historical research required. She did not like writing the final obligatory sex scene. After she published her first novel, she simply used the same sex scene at the end of all her novels by just changing the characters’ names. This leads us back to my original question: what’s the difference between erotica and pornography?
A pornographic novel contains pages of happy sex. An erotic novel contains pages of longing for sex. A literary novel has pages with both happy and unhappy sex. Yes, there is such a thing as bad sex that is otherwise legal.
Porn and erotica have their places in works by Nabokov, James Joyce, Tom Robbins, Philip Roth, Ann Tyler and many more, including me. The best sex scenes in literature may be discomfiting by making us recognize impulses we may have that are destructive to ourselves and others. They may direct us away from rage by showing us our humanity and by forgiving it. And, they can help us laugh at ourselves, too, a saving grace.
The vicarious pleasures we get from a good book satisfy all kinds of urges, but best, they give us that delicious sense of true intimacy. Read, write, and enjoy that.
Evelyn Cole, MA, MFA