If you wrote a steamy sex scene, would you be more upset if your kids or your parents read it? The correct answer is, of course, both.
That was one of the questions lobbed at four female authors appearing on an Aug. 26 panel called, provocatively, “Let’s Talk About Sex.” It was one of a dozen author salons at the Oshman Family JCC’s first Litquake event, which brought some 2,000 lovers of the written word to an afternoon of readings, panel discussions and book buying in Palo Alto.
I was there to take part in a panel on food writing. Immediately afterward, in the same room, came the sex panel. (Shouldn’t they have happened in reverse order?)
Speaking were two women who write erotica, and two women who write literary novels that include sex scenes. They all claimed it’s about the story, not the sex (that’s why men read Playboy, too).
“Sex has to serve the story,” insisted Marianna Cherry, the editor of “Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2012.” “If it doesn’t, it’s not sexy to me.”
Ellen Sussman, author most recently of “French Lessons,” said literary novelists too often avoid describing their characters having sex. “What happens in the bedroom matters to my characters,” she said. “I can’t shy away from it.”
Still, she continued, there’s a big difference between writing a sex scene as part of a work of literature, and writing erotica. “I don’t write to titillate,” she said.
It’s not easy to write about sex. First, there are all those intimate body parts that have to be named without sounding too clinical or, as Sussman put it, “too goofy.”
And then there’s the challenge of keeping your loved ones — and co-workers — from reading it.
Rachel Kramer Bussel, a popular writer and editor of erotica who moderated the panel, says about half the writers she works with use pseudonyms for just that reason.
That may work for the odd dalliance, but not for best-selling authors like Sussman and fellow panelist Liz Rosner (“The Speed of Light” and “Blue Nude”).
Eight years ago, Sussman’s daughter — then a high school sophomore — was so eager to avoid the sex scenes in her mom’s 2004 novel, “On a Night Like This,” she asked her teacher to read it first and dog-ear the offending pages, so she’d know what to skip.
Sussman was lucky that time. But when she wrote a piece about having sex with her husband, she “came to regret it,” she told the audience.
Then there was Rosner’s tale about her dad’s reaction after he read “Gravity,” her collection of 50 semiautobiographical poems. He told another daughter he was “upset,” and when Rosner heard that, she was sure it was because of one poem written from the viewpoint of her teenage self where, in a fit of adolescent anger, she calls her dad a Nazi.
But no — it turned out that he was upset by the sex.
“It was actually worse for me to write about sex than to call him a Nazi,” Rosner said, with a chuckle. “That’s the ‘Jewish’ aspect of my writing.”
Sussman said that to her, Judaism “gives permission to question, to push boundaries, to come at things from the outside.” That includes writing about sex. “Some people say it’s taboo, but ‘taboo’ isn’t something that stops me in my tracks, and I think that’s particularly Jewish.”
One point of interest: All these panelists were women. Aren’t men writing about sex? According to a recent article in the New York Times, not as much as they used to — at least not the way Hemingway, Mailer or even Isaac Bashevis Singer did.
“Erotica is largely a female genre today,” Kramer Bussel said.
And it’s an increasingly lucrative one. The top three books on the New York Times’ best-seller list this week are the “Fifty Shades” trilogy, erotica about a submissive woman and her dominating lover — penned by a woman.
Sussman sees an upside to that, saying “it opens doors that needed to be opened, and maybe it’s up to women to do that.”
Rosner, however, finds it “really disturbing” that such books topped the charts the same week the Republican convention was talking about taking away women’s right to choose.
Me, I haven’t read the trilogy. I hear it’s badly written.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.