Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This I Will Not Do…and Why

As a fiction writer, I tell stories using elements of real life—at least as I see it. And, no matter how we try to disguise it and/or enter into a character’s POV to do so, in the end, that’s what we do as writers…paint a picture of a world as we see it. Sometimes that world is angry; sometimes that world is unhappy; sometimes that world is difficult to spend much time in. Some of us write works that are unrelentingly harsh, bitter, nihilistic, or otherwise despairing—at least ostensibly in an effort to get a handle on what we’re all up against.
On the other hand, many of us, especially those of us brought up through the ranks of romantic fiction, write stories in which good triumphs, love conquers, and people can live happily ever after.
That, too, is reality.
People do find illumination at the ends of tunnels. People do find love in this life, even lifelong, enduring love. People do go through trials…but many people do triumph over them; far more people triumph, or at least cope successfully, than succumb to despair (or there’d be way fewer of us).
I fall into this “happy face” category of writer, both by natural temperament and by choice. If given two alternatives, I will pick the more positive one. If given a glass, I will tend to see it as half-full. And if given the choice of what words to put on the page—which is always my choice—I will put words that are wholesome, clean, and positive.
Words that will shed light, not cast darkness.
Words that reflect who I am as a Catholic Christian and the choices I make because of who I am.
Therefore, by definition, some things will never be in my books: vulgar, obscene language, soul-searing (unredeemed) depravity for its own sake, and juicy depictions of monsters, multi-legged creepy things, or unrequited gore…plus one additional thing that, I have come to realize, must constitute my particular line in the sand: My books will have no—count ‘em, no—depictions of sex on the page.
Now, those of you who know me know that, as a rule, I dislike erotic literature. I don’t even like things that aren’t called erotica but instead are classified as “hot”, “sensual,” or “racy” books. As a rule, the very few I’ve looked at over the years were thinly disguised porn with a loosely constituted pretense at a plot. The reason for the book was sex, period; it was the ultimate hypocrisy to call it anything else. So in a way, this news won’t be “news” to any of you out there.
But you may wonder if I’m not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, if it’s necessary to make such a blanket, public pronouncement…or if I’ll change my mind someday and have to eat the “ultimate hypocrisy” words myself.
In answer to the second question? Nope.
How can I be so sure?
Many of us who write sex scenes in books do it despite ourselves. We tell ourselves it’s the only way we can write “realistically,” we tell ourselves the development of a relationship would “logically” go to this point, and that we owe it to our readers to show them that, just as we show them the other aspects of the push-pull that is a good conflict.
But many of our reasons why “it” has to be there, in the end, are based in shame and guilt. In some cases, our consciences bother us about writing the stuff; in others, the “eeww” factor creeps in, and we just don’t feel comfortable writing about something so private and close to the bone.
Our culture, ever solicitous, is more than ready to help us “get over” these “problems”; several years ago, the RWR even had a long, detailed article about “how to get in the mood” to write a sex scene—containing ingredients that were identical to the kinds of things you’d do if you were planning a seduction.
 In the end, many writers were seduced. Some of them went unwillingly, but they “bit the bullet” and “did what they had to do.” And ever in the wings were the veteran authors to encourage them, ladies who could write “hot” without blinking an eyelash, once they’d “gotten used to it.”
Now, look back over those last couple of paragraphs, and tell me what the difference is between getting “ready” to write, or “used to” writing, a sex scene…and the rationalizations we give ourselves before and after any other sin. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Not much difference, is there?
Shouldn’t come as a surprise, since my faith tells me in no uncertain terms that even reading sex scenes/erotica/”hot” stuff (much less writing them!) is an occasion of sin.
To many people, that sounds repressive. It sounds like the Church “has a problem with sex”—or that I do. Neither is true. If anything, the Church treasures human beings’ sexuality more than our culture does, and thus, She doesn’t want us cheapening it by reducing it to a spectator sport. The Church, in the end, is also only reinforcing the natural common sense and natural law we all have at our cores; the fact is, something in us recoils, even if only very slightly, at this stuff.
That’s why it’s so often referred to as “naughty,” with a wink and a smile. Only there’s nothing to wink and smile about. It’s referred to as “wrong” because it is. Many of us are just dancing as fast as we can around that uncomfortable fact.
What the culture doesn’t tell us is that we’re supposed to feel uneasy writing this stuff on the page. We’re supposed to feel ashamed of taking other people’s clothes off and watching them have sex. Human beings, even nonreligious ones, are wired this way. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have to take courses and read articles about how to stuff our feelings, neutralize our guilt, and “get over” our shame. But the fact is, in most locales, it’s still considered a crime to do in person what we’re encouraging people to do in books.
“But it’s fiction,” you may cry. “It’s pretend. It’s not like these are real people!”
Oh? But what do we all aspire to in our fiction, if not to write real people?
The brain can’t tell the difference. That’s why pornography works so powerfully on one’s chemistry. That’s why it can be so addictive…because your brain doesn’t know the difference between a vividly written, well-crafted picture of two (or more) imaginary people having sex, and hiding behind motel room walls with a peephole. It has the same effect on you…and that effect’s not a good one.
To its credit, the romance industry has done its best to try to differentiate between “pornography” and “romance,” between “softcore” and a “relationship story.” But one look in any dictionary reveals their spin is just so much Swiss cheese reasoning:
Pornography: 1. the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement. 2. material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement.
That’s not a Church document. That’s Webster’s.
And it’s a specially hypocritical irony that an industry which unhesitatingly tells its members to get good dictionaries, and use them, doesn’t point them in that same direction when “romance” gets called “softcore porn.” Instead, the romance industry reinvents words, redefines them, and brags that women who read their books “have more sex.” That’s considered such a worthy end in and of itself that once again, with the proverbial wink and a smile, only “rightwing repressed religious nuts” would dare to have a problem with it.
Some people would maintain that the problem isn’t sex on the page; it’s sex between unmarried characters. That sex scenes, in their proper moral context, are perfectly fine. Even Christian authors will say, “My characters are married, so the sex is OK. Why shouldn’t I show that on the page?”
Well, let’s look back at the definition of pornography again. Does it say anything about whether the people are married? If it does, I don’t see it…and so I fail to see how putting rings on your characters makes it any more “okay” to write something on the page “intended to cause sexual excitement” that it does if they happen to not have tied the knot yet.
And please, let’s call this spade a spade and admit that’s what we’re doing. There are a hundred ways to show “character development” without having to be between the sheets to do it. A writer who wants to avoid leading others into impurity will choose one of those alternates, not play the game of “How much can I get away with.” In a way, it’s identical to using foul language: if you have to resort to a sex scene to put some excitement into your book, you’re falling back on the crutch of a lazy writer.
Married or not, the sex act is still supposed to be private. It’s still supposed to be an intimate encounter. It’s still supposed to be something that other people aren’t allowed to watch. Merely because the characters you write “doing it” aren’t living in sin doesn’t change any of those facts. It merely gives you a loophole, another rationale, and one that—if you’re not careful—can “sound good” even to the most moral of us.
Don’t be fooled.
Pornography is still pornography, and my faith has always forbidden me to engage in it. I’ve flirted with that line, I’ve been tempted to cross it at times, and part of me knows in her heart of hearts that if I wanted to make a living writing “dirty books,” as one author so frankly put it, I could do so. I certainly have enough talent to write those kinds of things just as vividly as I write anything else.
And many of the writers who succumb to this pressure are fine, talented storytellers; they’ve just been hoodwinked. They’ve been told somewhere in the submission process that “We need more sensuality in this book,” or “We need the characters to consummate this relationship on the page,” or the like…or else the book won’t sell. The author weighs her options, really wants to sell, knows other publishers will likely demand the same thing of her…and gives in.
 Once again, it’s a decision made by fear. And we all know how wise those decisions are.
Bottom line, my writing belongs to the Lord, just as the rest of me does. So if I’m going to claim any kind of legitimate Catholicism here, the very least I can do is obey the Commandments—not to mention the basic natural law that’s part of me anyway.
I don’t want to have to stand before Jesus at the end of my life and try to explain to Him why, with greed aforethought or out of a misguided fear of “never selling anything,” I sold out so thoroughly on obeying Him. I don’t want to have to explain to Him why I put something on my pages that not only was sinful in itself, but may well have led countless others into sin. That’s a conversation I don’t want any part of.
So, bottom line, it’s just plain easier on my eternity to do things this way.
It’s not an easy stance to take here and now. It won’t make selling my books easier to the great majority of publishers. But if I have to choose between Him and them…it’s no contest.
I’m not going to quote Martin Luther very often on a Catholic blog(!), but in this case, no one could say it better: “God help me, I can do no other.”


Donna Alice said...

Excellent! Having just come from an encounter with exactly what you were talking about, I have to agree 100 percent. I got hoodwinked into judging a contest and realized too late that the entries were indeed rather risque. At that point, when I knew I couldn't get out of judging (long story), I knew I'd have to open my mouth and say what I felt. Don't know what the writers will think of me, but I couldn't let their "love" scenes pass by without saying something about the characters who chose to do it outside of marriage. (And I agree totally that it doesn't belong in the books even IF the charcters are married. It's private.)

What I think shocked me was that after I'd maanged to get all the entries judged, I found out that the guidelines to that contest state there must be at least one consummated love scene BEFORE marriage. MUST! I sure find it sad that this is the state of romance books.

Even though I felt awful about judging the books, it gave me a chance to have my say and to pray for the writers--that they'd be directed to a better genre.

Deb said...

Eww! Donna, at least you have the consolation of keeping your integrity intact.

I've judged RWA contests also. Some of the entries appalled me. On one memorable (?) entry I scored it and then wrote in my comments that anyone who would sleep with a man she'd just met, knowing nothing about him, in this age of viruses and incurable misery, should have her head examined. I may have used the term "TSTL." I don't remember, but I think I explained why that put me out of sympathy with the main characters.

In better news, one very able author whom Janny & know e-mailed me lately and asked about Christian publishing houses--she'd recently given her life to Christ and had decided she must write for Him. I'm still doing the Snoopy Dance at odd times over this one.