Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Big Love Sci-Fi Part I - Sex Without Borders

I'd been thinking about the relationship between Sex and Romance for a couple of weeks before Heather Massey invited me to participate in "Parallel Universe 2011."

-----HEATHER MASSEY-------

Greetings from The Galaxy Express! Once again, it’s time for Parallel Universe, and I would love to have you aboard for my biggest science fiction romance event of the summer.

Parallel Universe 2011 will be the virtual SFR gathering for those unable to attend the Romance Writers of America’s 31th Annual National Conference. From Monday, June 28 until Saturday, July 2, The Galaxy Express will feature a series of guest posts from a variety of authors. Therefore, I’m inviting you to submit a post for it.

The theme of this year’s Parallel Universe is the craft of writing science fiction romance.

-------END QUOTE----------

So I wrote her a "short" entry titled

What's Wrong With So Much Pounding Sex?

Galaxy Express URL is

http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/  for the top of the site.

The Parallel Universe posting begins June 28, with a post in the morning and another one in the afternoon.  At this writing I'm not sure when my post will go up, but you'll probably want to read whatever's up there.

And Heather wrote back something very interesting.


Your second to last paragraph reminded me of something I read in the latest Entertainment Weekly. A writer there reviewed Mieville's Embassytown and described it as "Big Idea Sci-Fi." That made me wonder what SFR was--"Big Love Sci-Fi"?

------ END QUOTE -----------

Yes, Heather admits she was a fan of the HBO series "Big Love."  

Hence the title of this series on the way SFR and PNR currently handles graphic sex, how it was handled, maybe how it will be handled in the future -- and how all that very abstract philosophical ruminating relates directly to the writing craft techniques Heather's Parallel Universe postings highlight.

SIDEBAR: Watch your world for odd "coincidences" because they might not be all so random.  For more on how random chance might not be random see my series on Tarot (hopefully soon to be released as e-books)
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/03/pausing-for-you-to-catch-up-with-me_30.html  is an index to my posts on Tarot. 

As I'm sure someone on the Galaxy Express Parallel Universe series will point out, random coincidence has a place in novel plotting but it's very difficult to use properly.  We'll have to study that in depth at some point, but meanwhile check out this neat calculator that makes a "cloud" of author's names.  When you put "Jacqueline Lichtenberg" at the center, Mieville shows up on the right periphery!  Or at least he did while I was writing this post.

Most Romance readers, historically, don't read backlist, or at least they haven't until recently.

Here is a review of one of my novels, Dushau, on the Galaxy Express, by a reader who is finding treasures in backlist e-Books:

I found the comments to that post especially interesting.  

The publishing industry still believes modern readers of current novels won't read older novels.  

Romance and Science Fiction/Fantasy genre publishers put a book out on the shelves for a couple of weeks and then trash it or abandon it.  Stores don't restock these titles unless they're published at the "top of the list" (i.e. that in the publisher's catalog, that book is listed first, then stores stock it, and if it sells, they reorder.  If it's not listed as the #1 title of the month, it does not get restocked when the 3 or 5 copies on the shelf sell. )

Amazon has changed that.  Titles stay available sometimes for a couple of years or much more. But still I've found recently published Romance titles simply unavailable at Amazon after a few years.

So when a publisher is no longer "supporting" a title, the frustrated author and especially her fans, have no way to get the book. 

In the science fiction venue, used books sell and resell, and there's a huge collector's market.

So Romance and other genre writers who have some best selling titles, and a list of awards to their names, started retrieving the rights to old titles and re-issuing them in e-book on Kindle, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, etc etc.

Right on the heels of this several groups of writers got together on Facebook and Yahoo Groups and began communicating.

Out of that, Backlist e-Books was founded as a group of mass market and hardcover writers with backlist books they are posting and promoting themselves. 

See the list of writers who are doing their own backlist titles here

I've pointed you to this Group here previously, and I'm tracking the significance of this trend as it develops.

"Backlist" means titles that have either gone out of print or been remaindered and forgotten.  They aren't available from publisher's warehouses anymore, so stores and online outlets don't stock them.  Used book dealers and E-bay might, or might not.

Now these books are at your fingertips on Kindle and so on, and they are very reasonably priced, too.

And a whole new world is emerging, driven by "marketing."

Reading these old titles is often (if the writer didn't update the text when re-issuing their own book) like watching old movies.

It's a glimpse into how the world worked before cell phones, texting, the web, social networking.

The change in how we live is significant, and so reading such titles is extremely educational.  It's especially illuminating for younger people because the entire social attitude toward sexuality has changed.

There is a stark if not sharp dividing line in how sexuality is presented in Romance.

In one decade, the sex scenes (if there were any at all) were all handled in "go to black." 

"Go to black" is the camera direction in screenwriting for inserting a black screen -- i.e. you know it's happening, but you don't see it.

In Romance genre, very often THE END was the point where they first kiss, and that kiss is chaste and tentative by today's standards.

Physical sexuality was implied, but you didn't see it.  If you didn't know, nobody was going to instruct you in print or on screen.

These two fiction delivery channels have developed in parallel.

We see bloody violence on screen that would never have been accepted by audiences before a certain decade.

It's not that bloody violence or graphic sex wasn't "permitted," but that it wouldn't sell because people didn't want it.  Nobody ever thought to prohibit such depictions in "art" because there was no market for it, at least not a mass market.  

If they did want it, they went to side-venues, not major theaters or printed novels.  (yeah, porn shops but such things were not spoken of in polite company)

As pornography pushed into larger markets, more obvious public places, a public out-cry caused laws to be made trying to get that trash out of view of the children.  Times Square used to be a place where you'd take the kids and let them roam around by themselves -- nobody had to chase the porn shops away because there weren't any.  The generation in charge of things didn't want private things shown in public.  That generation died off, and things changed. 

What would have been considered porn in those days is now available on WalMart's book shelves and video section.

"Sex sells" was the touchstone of publishing, theater, and film even in the 1940's. 1930's - well, forever actually.

It isn't that sexuality wasn't there in early Romance novels.  Readers of those novels got just as much of a charge out of reading without explicit sex scenes as you do with them.

But society as a whole kept a border line between what we do and say in public and what we do and say in private.  And privacy was private, not spoken of or depicted in public.

Today the entire concept of "privacy" is melting away, if it's not gone completely. Today women wearing dresses instead of tight pants must subject themselves to a stranger's hands sliding over private parts just for the privilege of traveling to see a grandchild.  There was a time when anyone suggesting such a thing would have been lynched. 

I'm not taking a political position here, but pointing out a cultural shift in BORDER, or perhaps a melting of the concept "border" between private and public.

Today candidates must "disclose" private financial information.  Simply maintaining an "identity" to do business, online or offline, you must disclose information about yourself that was once considered inside the borders of privacy. Just filling out an application for a job requires disclosure of very private information and you have no idea whose eyes will see it. 

Our current culture is speeding toward a situation where there is no such thing as "private" -- and government considers anything you want to keep private as something you are keeping secret from those who have authority over you in order to protect others from you.

Running parallel to these developments in our general society, there has been the trend toward ever more explicit sex scenes in Romance, Paranormal Romance (PNR) or Fantasy Romance, and even Science Fiction Romance and Science Fiction itself.

Today a typical PNR starts with a sex scene, usually violent and erotic.

Don't consider whether this is "good" or "bad" or a sign of moral corruption or anything like that. You'll just get too angry to think about what this all means, and you won't get to learn the writing technique involved here.  

You might want to spend some time thinking about whether the art leads society or follows it.  Or both. 

But do think about how the art in the mass market genre fields reflects society as a whole. 

You as a writer can't change this Romance market back by writing Romances that have no sex scenes. Publishers won't buy them, and if you self-publish them, you won't sell very many.

There's a thriving (and growing) side-market in Christian Romance that is much more chaste. You might sell some there, but if you're not writing with the specific faith angle, that venue won't publish your novel.

There are a number of (very good) Erotic Romance publishers online doing mostly e-book editions -- and that extreme erotica market is growing fast, too.

Those are the two ends of this Romance-spectrum market, but most readers are found in the middle.

The "Big Love" Romance, PNR or SFR, novel that will get the kinds of celebratory reviews that Mieville's Embassytown is garnering has to appeal to that central audience.  So it has to depict the world the reader perceives around her/himself -- a world where there's no PRIVACY BORDER anymore, a world where the moment you meet someone who turns you on, you have sex with them.

There's a much-cited rule of thumb that defines where a girl stands with her self-esteem -- "No sex until the third date."

It's a little like "I don't drink until after 5PM." 

Such rules beg to be broken in fiction, of course. And they lead to this whole controversy over what exactly constitutes a date, what counts as something that gets you closer to being allowed to have sex without loss of self-esteem? 

The question of how much of your privacy you give up to a stranger leads to the questions what constitutes a stranger, and how do you define privacy?

Think about that.  Is there anything left that our society acknowledges is PRIVATE? And is it on the chopping block?

Why do you think teenagers get into such trouble on Facebook?

Where are the borders in our world now?

The social borders are a writer's main source material for conflict, which is the essence of story.

There's a lot more to be said on the topic of BIG LOVE SCI-FI, exploring the sacred and the profane, the body and soul, the heart and mind, the normal and the paranormal, the private and the secret.

It's all about the mystery of life which is the substance of art.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Fascinating, as usual. At least one reservation, though: I have not seen that the "typical PNR" starts with a sex scene. Judging from the novels I've read, that sort of opening is rather rare in paranormal romance. It isn't even all that common in erotic romance (such as produced by Ellora's Cave, one of my publishers). There have been discussions among erotic romance authors about how early the first sex scene should appear, and the prevailing consensus seems to be that sex in the first scene without a very good rationale turns off many readers. They expect at least some familiarity with the characters first and some indication of emotional involvement between the potential lovers.

  2. Margaret: I absolutely agree that the e-book market is forging way beyond and ahead of print.

    However, this last year I've read a plethora of (forgettable and reviewable both) PNR's or Fantasies that start with hot-heavy sex scene.

    In fact, if you recall, FOREVER KNIGHT (and other TV shows of the era) likewise started with sex scenes or if not actual intercourse, then some sort of sexy-presentation.

    (Forever Knight wasn't PNR? hmmm?)

    It's still extemely common from Manhattan publishers -- I can hope it goes away because I prefer that rationale first!

    Also, I consider "starts with a sex scene" if there's actual sex in the first 8,000 words or so, the first chapter. If Chapter One ends in a sex scene, the whole beginning has to be the setup for it, and the only way to do that is in TELL rather than SHOW.

    Ultimately, the marketplace will determine which is better.

    Did you notice Laurell K. Hamilton's book #20 HIT LIST in the Anita Blake series has only one sex scene and it's the exact MIDDLE of the book!

    The trend is shifting. Maybe my "borders" concept here is actually also out there!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Oh, I meant literally "starts," i.e., they are having intercourse or in the midst of foreplay at the very opening of the book.

    "Did you notice Laurell K. Hamilton's book #20 HIT LIST in the Anita Blake series has only one sex scene and it's the exact MIDDLE of the book!"

    Really? Then maybe I should read HIT LIST. I have mostly given up on her (even though I write some erotic romance myself). The only one of her recent works I've read is an Anita Blake novella for the Kindle, back to Anita's zombie-raising roots. Funny, in the early books I got tired of all the violence and wished she would get sensually involved with Jean-Claude. A few books after that happened, I began to feel "enough already." I'm not sure whether it's mainly the multiple partners (whom I started being unable to keep track of) that turned me off or just the feeling that there wasn't enough plot in proportion to the pages devoted to the sex.