Is Less More?
I was reading some commentary on Facebook detailing people’s preference as readers and writers in respect of love scenes in novels, In this case romance novels. Do we like raw, flesh-toned intimacy with all the bells and whistles or do we prefer the subtler approach – the ‘less is more’ approach?
This was underlined for me by a TV show called Insight and which tackled the ‘Dating Over Sixty’ issue. Many of the panel and audience listed sex as a necessity and I was surprised. It made me question the ‘less is more standard’ in some books, not least my own.
When I wrote my six historical fiction novels, there were very occasional love scenes, but somehow the need to make them explicit paled in view of the plot. In Guillaume, book two of The Triptych Chronicle, there’s one small half flesh-toned paragraph. Nothing more…
In Gisborne: Book of Pawns – it was this simple:
As the moon passed across the heavens outside, the trees made intricate designs on the walls of the chamber and still we were silent, our breathing the only sign we were alive and aware. His fingers traced ancient patterns down to the well at the base of my spine and I tried to decipher them as if they were runes that spelled my future. Vaguely I remembered his Irish knife and his love of the Irish ballad and it all fitted together around me so that I stretched with languid ease as he slid over me.
They say the lovers’ knot has an unbroken shape in Ireland, that it simply winds in and out, over and under in perpetuity, and that is forever how I remember the intertwining shape of this night of nights as Guy of Gisborne and I, Ysabel of Moncrieff, made love.’
Likewise in the award-winning historical fantasy, A Thousand Glass Flowers, the intimacy between the main protagonists was illustrated very simply in one paragraph:
Later, with no attempt at coyness, she lay pliant as he began to ease off her clothes. She chided herself faintly for profligate and immoral behaviour but the better part of her enjoyed every gratuitous second as touch skimmed her body and she wondered if she were being wrapped in the delicate strands of a gossamer web. He took her gently and she flew once again along the byways of the stratosphere, neither he nor she speaking, until the end when he said one word, ‘Lalita.’
It is perhaps different in romance novels and of course, there’s a definite difference in Erotica. But the conversations made me think back to my life as a reader – when did I first find sex in novels? I suspect it may have been in the Angelique books, set in the time of Louis Quatorze.
I may have been fifteen or sixteen. I read Jilly Cooper – definitely there! But because my genres of choice were historical fiction, historical fantasy and what is now contemporary women’s fiction, I found (and still find) the authors were choosing to avoid it altogether or else to handle it with a light and clever hand.
I’ve never read the Fifty Shades books, nor seen the films – I have no desire to. I’ve read Gabaldon and seen the early TV series of Outlander. I’m not a prude, despite my name. But I know what I like and I like to use my imagination. I don’t want entrée, main course, dessert, coffee and chocolates all served at once.
Last week, I watched an Indian movie, an historical epic called Jodhaa Akbar about the relationship between the Muslim Mughal emperor and his Hindi empress and the establishment of the Mughal empire.
Romance was implied.
I wondered later if this was because of the Hindi and Muslim audiences that would have watched the movie. At any rate, the only intimate love scene was handled with complete subtlety. Not once were clothes shed (except for a veil). The lovers barely touched, hands sliding off hands, faces close but barely a kiss. It was filled with provocation but it was also tactful and respectful. It fired the imagination in so many ways.
It’s how I would prefer to read sex. It’s definitely how I’d love to write it. But what does a 21st Century readership want? Do men want different approaches to women? How important is overt sex to the development of relationships between characters?
What do you think?
Tell me if you’re brave enough!
Angelique novels. Wow that brought back memories of reading under the covers by torch light at boarding school.
Less is best, in my opinion.
I remember reading the warning about avoiding having a laundry basket list of discarded clothing.
I wish you well with your non historical, but your subject is a bit close to home for me right now.
Angelique! I used to feel so risque. Actually I’d love to read them again, just to compare with the hist.fict we read now.
Oh Caro, the subject of the contemp-fiction must be raw, I’m so sorry…kindest regards.
Less is more. I haven’t read 50 shades either, not my cup of tea. I don’t think it’s necessary to be too graphic and explicit. I prefer the subtle approach.
Subtlety is everything, Libby. In addition, I always remember Coco Chanel underlining less is more. She always said that before going out, one should check in the mirror and remove anything that doesn’t add to ‘the look’. The same could apply to loved-up sex scenes in novels, couldn’t it?
For me less is more- subtle please
Exactly Jean. I think you might be talking my language. I’d love to know what men think though and indeed more women.
Everyone’s sexual experience is unique. Implication allows the reader to remember their own experiences rather than another’s. Much better that way whether I am writing or reading.
Thank you, Katherine for such a simple explanation. I like readers being given the opportunity to remember, to expand on their own experience. In its own way, it’s opening a very wide door…
It depends entirely on the genre. I write YA, sweet romance and saucy romance. In saucy romance it’s explicit, but the company I write for has guidelines; no sex for the sake of it (it has to be part of the plot) and quality is more important than quantity. In Wish Matched, the hero and heroine don’t even meet until the last couple of chapters, but still, it is classed as a saucy romance. It’s not so much the graphic sex as the mindset and tone. I’ve been told I write lovely non-embarrassing love scenes. Maybe that’s because my characters have a sense of humour and I make things realistic rather than ideal.
Indeed, Sally – I can’t imagine erotica in YA.
And of course, readers are given the opportunity to ‘opt out’ now with various indicators of steam. But I think what I wanted to know was what readers wanted in order to enhance their reading experience, and what writers were prepared to give in order for that enhancement to begin. As a reader, I love using my imagination. As a writer? Only if the plot needs it – as you say.
I’m going to buck the trend here, Prue. I read the GoT series and for anyone who hasn’t there is detailed graphic sex scenes, and to be totally honest I did enjoy reading them, I thought they gave the characters a depth and shading not seen in the less is more novels. Martin explores different relationships in the series and I have noticed abuse directed to him on the web, for it, so I thought it was a brave choice, and one i’m following in an hist fic book I’m writing. (Wolf of Rome, Prue.) After much deliberation I’ve added some very graphic scenes for several reasons.
First being, that in ancient Rome it was common place, they obviously had none of the Victorian morals that are alive today, and sex was considered just another pleasure to be enjoyed. I haven’t seen a main stream hist fic novel with it in so I thought why not?
Second, because of this sexual freedom of the time I feel it benefits the reader to immerse themselves in the period and it’s culture.
Third, using current standards I can paint a villain with far more bile from the reader ‘s perspective. (I’ve gone less is more here in one scene, ironically, because of the boundaries of decency, i.e., an old senator, and one of my main antagonist’s, is shown receiving the gift of a young potential bed slave, a girl of about 12 or 13. I implied the dire situation she was in, and then of course she’s rescued from his clutches by one of my protagonist’s in the nick of time. It’s not a sex scene, but because there are a few in the book, and very graphic, it lends a certain threat and horror to the scene in my opinion.
Fourth and finally, as we are being honest here, I actually enjoyed writing them!
All that being said, no-one’s seen the scenes yet, so they could just as easily be changed or modified, but I do personally think they give the book a lift in many ways. Once it’s finished I’ll read it through completely and decide if they stay or go. I think I’m 70/30 for them staying though, there’s only about five or six scenes, so not awash with them, but they certainly fall in the erotic bracket. (at least I hope they do!)
Hurrah Paul! A male view! Thank you!
I do understand what you say about the essence of Roman life and the ability to exaggerate an antagonist like your senior senator. And of course, many of us write about times and cultures where the mores were completely different. To make our timeframes acceptable, we can’t really whitewash, can we? But I think the key is how much do the scenes advance the plot? If they don’t, do they risk being gratuitous.
As a reader, I don’t find the need for gratuitous anything.
It’s probably why I lost interest in Outlander…
I shall look forward to Wolf of Rome to see what you decide because the little I’ve read so far, via your sidestory for Inkslingers, is absolutely marvellous!
It might be a while Prue, I’m having great fun with that old rascal, Red Mort at the moment, and turning his short into a novel. No sex scenes here, no swearing either, unless “useless goat turd” is deemed swearing! The old fella has sprung to life and the story is writing itself!
I’m glad. I thought Red Mort had HUGE potential! Another book to look forward to.
Brought up on the classics of child literature, the Greek tragedies, Dickens, Hardy, and Austen at a young age, I soon graduated to Tom Jones, Forever Amber et al and yes, every Angelique book published. In modern terms Angelique is tame compared to the top listed historical romance books. Where once a few blushes might arise from reading a racy scene, the explicit scenes in most HR’s is hard erotica. I write comparatively tame love scenes, and they are indeed love scenes, not merely sex at the trot, and there have been people who read and said such was gross, and yet those same people had read Fifty Shades and posted glowing reviews.. There really is a huge divide between Hist Fic and Hist Romance these days. Fifty Shades, albeit it was mild BDSM, it wasn’t the least bit romantic as other books have been, such as Anne Rice’s Exit to Eden, and that was a fab read.. I read G’s Outlander and the minute the hero slapped the heroine the book was dead in the water. There is no doubt Steamy novels sell better than straight romantic themes at Amazon. But, as in the past, one has to look at how Lady Chat’s Lover (the banned book) stormed the bookstores when it was finally released, and I still laugh at refs to John Thomas! Books are a personal choice item, and I think characters sell themselves in Hist Fic and Hist R, regardless of whether they get down and dirty or not. One can always skip a love scene if it’s a disturbing factor, but it is a natural consequence of love and romance and why deprive characters if they want to indulge? Are we writing to please a specific audience or the wider world of liberated readers? .
I’ve been looking forward to your views, Francine and thank you for joining in.
I was surprised to see you say HR is borderline hard erotica! Has the genre changed so much? I find your books so finessed, not at all hardcore – as you say LOVE scenes, not mere sex.
But yes, you are right. One can easily escape the erotic scene if one wants, in just the same way that one can skip violence. By shuffling the pages along quite quickly. 😉
Your final comment is thought provoking. Do we write to please a niche readership or to appease a wider liberated audience? I write scenes to move a narrative along, but also to add value to a reader’s experience. Whether it’s explicit or implied is ultimately up to me, the author, I suppose.
I am definitely in the “less is more” camp. A big part of that choice is the fact that, like you, I prefer to use my imagination. It’s no coincidence that I also prefer movies without a lot of graphic sex. When I was in my teens and twenties, I read my share of sexy novels (The Flame and The Flower springs to mind, among others) and enjoyed them. However, many current novels seem to come from the “more is more” side, and graphic sex is put in whether it’s relevant to the story or not. One can enjoy a healthy sex life without wanting to read about (or watch) someone else’s. Frankly, I tend to get bored when the sex overwhelms the story.
I think you make a good point – about a story being overwhelmed. Whether it’s sex, violence or anything else, why swamp a story when it can be enhanced with subtlety?
My own views are showing, aren’t they!
Thank you for your succinct comment, Lauren.