On Romance (and Sex) in Fiction
Feb 22, 2018
With another Valentine’s Day come and gone, I’ve been thinking about romance (and sex) and its (their) depiction in literary fiction. It seems to me that the literary community is both fascinated by and perhaps a little embarrassed about romance and sex in fiction—I know I am. In the MFA fiction workshop, we are reading The Best American Short Stories 2017, and a friend and classmate has recently gone through most of the collection, noting whether each story features, or is even mostly about, sex. I won’t mention this person’s name, as our cultural embarrassment about sex suggests that he might prefer I not, but I would like him to know how much of a kick I got out of seeing the word “sex” written next to nearly every short story listed in the table of contents. I believe he said he’s read eighteen of the twenty stories, and so far eleven of them bear the “sex” label next to their titles. Sex, it turns out, is clearly a topic of literary interest, but also, I think, literary anxiety—at least within the realm of fiction.
As a woman writer, I have a distinct fear of writing about sex (and romance). I worry attention to such topics will make my writing seem frivolous or silly. In my weaker, less feminist moments, I worry writing about relationships will come off as “girly,” as if girl-like behavior is both easily defined and something to be avoided at all costs. In a world with the phrase “Chick Lit,” this strikes me as a reasonable fear. In a 2013 Huffington Post blog entry, “Do We Know ‘Chick Lit’ When We See It?” Claire Fallon argues that there is, indeed, a distinction between literary fiction about relationships and Chick Lit, namely that literary fiction is, well, literary. Specifically, she says that commercial fiction writers’ “aims differ from those of literary fiction authors, who provide fiction that is stylistically and thematically ambitious, challenging to the reader and often darker and more honest about the human condition.” While I think literary fiction is a nebulous, baggage-laden term, I’m generally inclined to agree with Fallon’s argument that some fiction is intended solely to entertain while other fiction carries loftier goals, and that most of what’s referred to as Chick Lit falls into the former category. Nonetheless, I still find many writers’ and readers’ unique disdain for Chick Lit notable. Yes, it’s a “commercial” genre, but so are many male-dominated genres. I’ve never heard of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series given a similarly dismissive moniker. Our collective sneering at Chick Lit could lead even the most inarguably literary woman writer to forgo depictions of love and sex so as to avoid the Chick Lit label. Whether we want to admit it or not, in mainstream culture, a cultural object’s association with women lowers the status of that cultural object. Media enjoyed primarily by women—or perceived to be enjoyed primarily by women—is considered embarrassing. And somehow, despite a prevailing heteronormativity that views relationships as heterosexual by default—and therefore requiring both a man and woman—writing about relationships is perceived as far more interesting to women than to men, and therefore a little shameful.
Consistent with Fallon’s description of literary fiction as “often darker,” much of the fiction I read focuses on these darker aspects of relationships. When sex is depicted, it’s bad sex. Romance is troubled romance. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Stories need conflict. A failing relationship is a great way to create this conflict. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder how much of the emphasis on bad romance—Lady Gaga pun very much intended—stems from fear, fear of being “girly” in particular. To be fair, most of my favorite novels and short stories feature a less than cheery view of relationships. Most, though not all of them, end unhappily. A bad relationship is perfectly valid fictional material; it’s just not the only valid type of material.
I am a huge fan, and perhaps even an evangelist, for the novel Hood, authored by Emma Donoghue, the writer of the novel Room, as well as the screenplay for its 2015 film adaptation. Hood is sad, and the relationship at its center is complex. The narrative follows Penelope O’Grady, or Pen, a lesbian living in 1990s Ireland as she struggles with the death of her female partner and the ways in which this loss is complicated by Pen’s at least semi-closeted status, as well as the closeted nature of the relationship. Hood is also surprisingly funny, moving, and, yes, sexual. And the sex here is good! Like, really good—and really explicit. Depicted through a series of flashbacks, these sexual reminiscences provide Pen with positive, living memories of the partner she’s lost. On her website, Emma Donoghue writes, “To explain why this is the most sexually explicit of my books, I can only say that to resist death it seemed necessary both to conjure up the beloved’s lost body in all its vividness and to show that for the survivor, life—at the level of every muscle, every cell—goes on.” I love Hood for so many reasons, one of them being its unapologetic sexuality. For me, Hood provides a model for how to write about romance (and sex) without fear, how to cast aside anxieties about coming across as unserious, smarmy, or “girly.” My wish for writers of all genders is that they be afforded the space to write about whatever they want—be it sex, romance, or something else entirely—and that they do so fearlessly and unapologetically.