Friday, December 11, 2009

Rambling Ponderings on Authenticity

Sometime back, somewhere in my Internet travels, I read a comment by an aspiring author that said something like:
"Because I'm a virgin I've been worried that my sex scenes won't be very good, but your comments have given me back my confidence!"
I admit, my first reaction upon reading that was to think, yeah right, those scenes are going to suck bad if she's never even experienced sex herself.

Then I pondered my very bitchy cynical reaction.

I'm all for authors having the freedom to write about experiences they've never had -- occupations, places, people, etc. If all authors only wrote what they themselves had directly experienced, the book world would be a hell of a lot less diverse than it is. I want to read about firefighters and treasure hunters and lawyers, and most authors have never, and will never, hold one of these jobs. I want to read books set in Alaska and New York City and 18th century London, and I don't particularly care if the author hasn't ever lived in that place, in that time, as long as the setting feels authentic to me as the reader.

But here's the thing: Even if an author researches her butt off, she's still likely to get some of the details wrong. There are just some things that you don't know until you experience it firsthand -- and you don't know what you don't know -- so it's almost inevitable that an author will get something wrong. It may be a minor thing, or it may be a major thing, but either way, if it's a subject that you, as the reader, knows very well, the inauthenticity of it is going to pull you out of the story.

Then again, the majority of readers won't have a clue that the author got something wrong, nor will they care. Because, like authors, most readers haven't had firsthand experience with all the occupations and places featured in books. I've never been a firefighter or treasure hunter or lawyer; I've never been to Alaska or New York City or 18th century London. So the only time this issue arises for us readers is when the book we pick up happens to be one of those featuring something we are intimately familiar with. Otherwise we remain happily clueless.

As I see it, the big problem facing the virgin writer above is that the overwhelming majority of her readers have experienced sex, and they're going to know if she gets it wrong.

But, wait. It's not like Romance Novel Sex is completely realistic in the first place, is it? We have Magically Orgasming heroines and Expert Sex God heroes, and romance couples never get sand in uncomfortable places after sex on the beach. There's no awkwardness or pain or messy bodily fluids or not-so-sexy noises. It's a perfect, rose-colored view of sex, and much of it ain't exactly realistic, although I do think the realism has improved over the years.

So, if the writer in question relies on the conventions of the genre, will her sex scenes read authentically to readers?

Part of me thinks she could fake it, but the bigger part of me thinks the scenes will feel "off" in some way. Why? Because, as a reader who started reading romances long before having sex, I know that I didn't really "get it" until I experienced it. Sure, I understood the basic mechanics from sex-ed classes, and I'd read a gazillion romance novel sex scenes, but it was all still rather hazy and indistinct. It didn't click until I did it. Hell, it didn't fully click until I'd done it a lot more than once.

TMI? Anyway, moving on...

What about female m/m authors? The m/m romance and m/m erotic romance genres are rapidly growing, and it seems like most of the authors and readers are heterosexual women. Do these authors' m/m sex scenes read inauthentically given that they've never experienced m/m sex, let alone what it's like to be a gay man? As I'm not a gay man, I don't really know. But that's exactly my point: If most of their readers are straight women, they're not going to know either, will they? Which means that most readers aren't going to be bitching afterward about how the author "got it all wrong." And hell hath no fury like ticked off readers.

Which brings me back to my main conclusion: That the biggest problem the virgin writer is facing is the fact that she's relying on books, research, and her imagination, whereas most of her audience will have firsthand, intimate experience with the subject at hand. Even with Romance Novel Sex conventions on her side, she's fighting an uphill battle to convince readers of the realism of her sex scenes.

Thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Do you think authors can ever write a truly authentic experience they've never had?

For further reading on the subject of writing and authenticity from a reader's perspective, check out Lynn Spencer's post All in a Day's Work, and Rike Horstmann's Familiar Territory.


Kristie (J) said...

Oddly enough I'm like this with a lot of sports romance books. With a husband and two sons I watched a lot of sports through the years and learned quite a bit about them - specially baseball and hockey. If I see something wrong, I will write that author right off my list. This happened with Dierdre Martin. I quite enjoyed her first book, but then in the second, she had the hero of the first book come back as the first year coach of an NHL team the very next year. This just would not happen. Not even Wayne Gretzky could go from player one year to head coach the very next year. So I haven't been able to read a book by her since.
There was an author who wrote a baseball book - can't remember who now - but she had her hero having thrown quite a number of no-hitters. This doesn't happen much either. And while I couldn't say for sure as the team was in the National League and I don't follow the National League nearly as much as the American League, but in Jill Shalvis latest book, the hero was throwing a no hitter into the 7th or 8th inning when he was pulled. I don't think you pull a pitcher who has a no hitter going - but again I'm not 100% sure so I gave her a pass on that fact.
None of this has anything to do with sex scenes though does it?

Katie Mack said...

I usually don't go so far as to write the author off my list, but it all depends on how big/annoying the mistake is. For example, I recently read a novella where the hero is supposed to be a deputy chief of police, but he kept using the terms theft, burglary, and robbery as synonyms to refer to the same crime. Uh, no. Those are absolutely NOT the same, and any police officer would damn well know the difference and use the appropriate term. If it had happened once or twice, I could have ignored it, but it happened all throughout the story and it drove me nuts. It was clear that the author hadn't done the 5 minutes of research necessary to learn the penal code definitions of those crimes. Which means I'll never read another romantic suspense story by her.