Sex & Violence is one of the strongest debuts of the year. This powerful contemporary novel deals with 17-year-old Evan’s painful recovery from a traumatic event, as well as his struggles to overcome his crippling sense of guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and grief.
Evan isn’t your typical YA protagonist, and in fact he’s a pretty unlikeable character when we first meet him. He’s an arrogant, hormonally-driven boy who makes no bones about his lack of interest in developing relationships with the girls he’s sleeping with, and yet the author manages to make us connect with him in a natural and intrinsic way before we’ve even begun to understand him.
Evan’s narrative voice is raw, real, and touched with occasional humor, and I appreciated how well-developed the characters were. The story portrays teen sexuality, both male and female, in a realistic and varied way, and it’s particularly interesting to see the consequences that come from objectifying other human beings. I’d strongly recommend this book for mature YA readers who seek books that deal with serious subjects in a non-self-pitying way, especially those who appreciate moral ambiguity and realism in their stories.
We’re also pleased to be kicking off the official Sex & Violence blog tour today–the author’s here to talk about her approach to sex and violence in books, both as a writer and as a reader, and her conviction that there’s a strong similarity in potraying the two. Her post certainly made me think about why certain scenes work for me and some don’t, whether they’re explicit or merely suggested.
Writing Sex / Writing Violence
by Carrie Mesrobian
Recently, I was talking about book titles to Andrew Karre, my editor on my debut novel Sex & Violence. He was talking me off the wall about the title of my next book and he said this, “Remember, there’s not a lot of written sex and violence in Sex & Violence.”
Which is true. (Though there are scenes of sex and scenes of violence; the book isn’t false advertising in its title.) But this conversation made me think about the different approaches involved in writing about sex and violence.
In the case of Evan Carter, the main character in Sex & Violence, we see him in sexual situations with girls many times, though not every situation is presented fully in a scene. Sometimes, the sex is summarized and sometimes it fades to black. Similarly, there are violent situations in the story that are shown in full detail while others are not. Sometimes this was because I didn’t think the story requires more detail. Sometimes, as in the cases of some violent events, it was because I personally couldn’t stomach writing them.
Throughout the book, Evan contends with sex or violence – whether he’s passive or active, a victim or a perpetrator, because he cannot think of one without the other. Beyond Evan’s situation, though, I’ve found that both kinds of content have a lot in common when it comes to our response as readers.
So, here are some points to consider when reading sexual or violent scenes in a story:
Point #1: In terms of choreography, writing sex scenes and writing violent scenes, or fight scenes, are amazingly similar. You’ve got two bodies, multiple parts, and intentions that may or may not be aligned. There’s awkwardness and failure, sound and texture, movement and stillness, and a cinematic need on the part of the reader to SEE. Because we don’t see sex out on the sidewalk; we don’t encounter real violence there that often, either. Writers are tempted to summarize or make the scene blurry and chaotic – which it might very well be – but readers will want some details. To hear whispering lips on an earlobe, the whip-slap of a palm against skin. To see blood spit out on the dirt and eyes opening in shock, to feel knuckles splitting against ribs and hair tickling a bare shoulder. Readers want to watch, but they also want to participate. Being merely told that something was sexy or that something really it hurt knocks us out of the story. Which leads me to the second point…
Point #2: Sometimes what we don’t see is more powerful than what we are shown. This statement is often used as an excuse to write sex out of YA books, which drives me crazy. If anyone needs to see what sex might look like, for real and not in porn, it’s young adults. What I’m saying here, though, instead of FADE-TO-BLACK/NO ONE WANTS TO SEE THE DIRTY SEX, is that writers must make difficult decisions about why a sexual scene or violent scene is being deployed.
For example, do we want to see sex between two people who aren’t supposed to be together? Does seeing sex in a scene make it clearer to the reader why these people don’t work as a couple? Or are we confused and now empathizing with someone we shouldn’t be? This accounts for so much fodder in the fandom world, where readers who feel led on will write their own version to remedy what they see as a mistake.
Similarly, there is the problem of making violent scene seem joyful and alive, full of juicy adjectives and loving attention. Sometimes writers slather violent scenes with the same gusto they would with any other scene, not realizing the impact it will have on a reader’s view of the characters involved.
A writer repels and attracts readers with scenes of violence and sex; if a writer doesn’t contemplate this carefully, she can inadvertently make a character into a monster or romanticize a pairing she never intended to develop. The other potential problem with deploying sexual or violent content in this unthoughtful way can result in the reader not caring whether your characters gets the girl or best the villain. Instead of getting swoony, they will feel gross; instead of cheering your heroine/hero to victory, they will wish them death and injury. A good story doesn’t get reckless with either sex or violence – being gratuitous about either is a sin many readers will not forgive.
Point #3. Sex & violence as clichés. A lot of writing featuring sex favors certain words and movements/gestures. (I once made a list of such words here.) But sex is an activity that everyone tries to make their own. Everyone does weird things. You probably do weird things! And believe me, we’re all interested in those weird things. Porn may appear to reveal all, but nothing could be less real than people being paid to sexually perform.
Similarly, violence we see in television and movies is so fake. We’re supposed to believe that anyone can take multiple punches and still be standing. In boxing, there is something known as “the glass jaw.” It means that despite a fighter’s muscles and training, he or she cannot take a hit and remain standing. Since most of us are not trained pugilists, it’s safe to assume that we will not be able to take many multiple blows.
Violence and sex are not, then, the extended, lavish, panoramically-viewed events that we see and read about. When a writer includes the right details, despite the length of the scene, it can be twice as potent and memorable.
When we are reading a sex scene or a fight scene, and we find ourselves bored or unable to suspend our disbelief, it’s often because the writer has deployed worn clichés or tropes instead of attuning themselves to the characters and how they’d behave in either a sexual or violent situation. A lot of writers feel that sex is private and personal, so they assume they can glide over that aspect in the lives of their characters and coast along on easy clichés. But love scenes and battle scenes are perennial reader favorites; readers are WAITING for both to occur, anticipating and hoping and cheering along with the story for both events to happen. When they do, it is intensely disappointing to discover that what was surely going to be epic and unusual turns out to be a repackaging of something we’ve already seen over and over.
Thanks to the author and Carolrhoda Lab, we are offering our readers the chance to win an autographed copy of this amazing book.
All you need to do is leave a comment below and fill out the Rafflecopter form, though additional entries may be earned by tweeting about the contest, sharing it on Facebook, etc.
Open internationally to readers aged 18 and older, or 13 and older with parental permission. Please see entry form for complete details. Good luck!
About the Author
Carrie Mesrobian has worked as a teacher in both public and private schools and teaches teenagers about writing at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.
Her debut YA novel Sex & Violence is published by Carolrhoda LAB and available now. Her next book comes out in October 2014.
Sex & Violence Blog Tour Schedule
Our thanks to Carrie Mesrobian for joining us at The Midnight Garden today!