Thoughts on Writing Accidental Erotica

I might be in trouble. Today I got a letter from an author I respect. I had asked him to consider endorsing my upcoming novel The Opposite of Art. He wrote to say he couldn’t do it. There is, in his opinion, too much “sex stuff” which would offend his readers.

Uh oh.

It’s true this is something of a crossover novel, my first attempt to dip a toe in the general fiction waters, but even so I would never write an erotic scene on purpose.

Could it be I’ve done that accidentally?

Could I be that out of touch?

Usually in this column the idea is for me to offer you advice, but this month is different. This month, I’m the one who’s flummoxed.

Befuddled.

Discombobulated.

And here’s why:

There’s no sex scene in The Opposite of Art.

To the best of my recollection, the only places in the novel where having sex is mentioned is in conversations about a woman’s breakup with the protagonist. She leaves him because of her conviction that their premarital sex is wrong. Conversations about that, it seems to me, are a good thing.

Right?

In the interest of full disclosure, there is a scene where the protagonist thinks about this woman’s body, but he thinks of it as a painter would, using terms an artist might use, landscape terms (hills, valleys), not as a lover would, using sexual terms.

He thinks of her as a painter might think of how to paint a nude because he’s, you know, a painter. Also, that scene is intended to say something about the artist in the early going, about how he thinks about all the people in his life, so it really is there for a good reason; it’s not gratuitous.

And it seems to me the language in Song of Solomon is much more suggestive than that scene. Any reader who finds such a scene titillating would probably object to nudes in paintings at the Louvre.

But of course my friend is right to think there are such readers.

Just as even the sight of a woman’s ankle can be titillating if you’re Amish, or a fundamentalist Muslim, or an ultra-orthodox Jew, there are also evangelical readers (a fringe element among us I hope, but very vocal, as fringe elements tend to be) who also think of sex and the human body as something that should not be spoken of, written of, heard or seen.

And now, a brief aside having nothing to do with writing fiction:

Such people always say their attitude is based on respect for the female body.

But it seems to me people who take offense at merely observing (or reading about) the human form are living out of balance. Ironically, their point of view leads to much the same mistake as some pornographers who claim to appreciate the female body while actually objectifying it.
Question: who is more reduced to object status: a Playboy centerfold, or a woman in a burqa?
Answer: it’s a distinction without much of a difference.

And now, back to writing.

I hate that term “edgy fiction,” don’t you? I’ve certainly never thought of my own work that way. But here I am, up against it, possibly. Or possibly not. All I know for sure is this: I respect the author who warned me, and many of his readers are also my readers, so here I am, wondering if The Opposite of Art will have trouble in the Christian market.

The novel’s coming out in September. So why not just wait and see?
Well, it’s always fun to watch a train wreck in slow motion, and if this book is going to kill my career anyway, I might as well help folks have fun. Also, while it’s way too late to stop the presses, it occurred to me that we could have a teachable moment here, (for you, if not for me), a classic example of an author misjudging his readership.
The only question is, which author has misjudged the readers: me, or the author who wrote to warn me?
To get to an answer, it does no good for us to talk in theory. We need actual examples, because one person’s “edgy” is another person’s “mainstream.” So with apologies in advance to anyone offended by what follows, here are some excerpts from The Opposite of Art which I suspect my friend has in mind.
Scene One: a painter and model, former lovers, in the painter’s studio. The painter says . . .

“Well, as long as you’re here, how about taking off your clothes so I can paint?”

“I told you I’m not going to do that anymore.”

He tried to hide the disappointment. Over the last few months, Suzanna had become his favorite model. He had painted her so often he already knew how he’d have her pose this time. Naked on the bed she’d lie almost on her belly, her left leg and left arm straight down, her right arm cocked underneath her chin, and her right leg bent so that her ankle lay upon her calf. He imagined how the open window’s draft would raise goose bumps to cast tiny shadows in the oblique bedside light, her brown curvatures assuming surrealistic forms, a mountain range, a field of dunes. His eyes would roam across the shapes and masses as they would across a landscape, the slightly upraised shoulder as one peak, the buttocks as two others, the graceful spine curving between them like a hanging valley. The play of light would impose intriguing shades upon her dark skin. Shadows within shadows. Something beckoning, that same elusive quality he had almost seen within the streaks of black across the bricks.

“Please, baby,” he said. “I really want to paint you tonight.”

“That’s not all you want to do to me.”

He smiled. “Well, that too. But first I want to paint.”

“Only if I leave my clothes on.”

He sighed. “Oh, all right.”

Scene Two: the same characters later on, breaking up because she has begun to view sex differently . . .

She touched his arm with the back of her fingers, lightly, and then removed her hand. “I can’t stay.”

He felt his jaw set with a sudden rush of anger. Turning, he strode out of the bedroom into the little sitting room. He leaned against the white enameled kitchenette and lit a Marlboro, knowing that annoyed her almost as much as marijuana. She followed him, stopping in the middle of the sitting room, one foot on the edge of the tarp beneath his easel.

“Please don’t be mad,” she said.

He took a deep drag on the Marlboro and stared at the ceiling. “I’m not mad.”

“Of course you are.”

Still looking away from her heartbreakingly beautiful face, he exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Whatever you say.”

“It’s not that I don’t love you.”

“Who said anything about love?”

“Danny, please.”

The tremor in her voice broke through his resolve. He looked at her and immediately regretted it. It was hard to be angry when she stared at him all doe-eyed, but still, he had his pride. “I just don’t get you. Sex is beautiful.”

“It’s not about the sex. That’s just the way it comes out between us.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not that hard to understand. I love you, Danny. I fell really hard for you. But I lost myself.”

“Lost yourself?” Flicking the cigarette butt into the kitchenette sink he said, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Making love and not being married . . . it isn’t who I am.”

“Oh, I see. It’s not you. So who was that other chick?”

“I’m just trying to—”

“Seriously, who was she? I’d like to know, because she seemed like she was having a great time, and I’d like to get her back in here.”

“Please, I—”

“I remember a couple of weeks ago she was over on the bed screaming, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ and I sure got the impression she meant every word.”

“It’s not that we weren’t—”

“In fact, I remember a few times when she couldn’t seem to get enough.”

She stared at him with those eyes which were the only thing he had ever doubted he could capture on canvas, and he basked in her beauty, and he longed to get down on his knees and worship her, beg her to reconsider everything, just be with him without conditions, but he knew it wouldn’t work. Something in him fought all that.

End of Scenes

Obviously this is tame stuff for a general fiction readership who are accustomed to constant barrages of F-bombs and clinical descriptions of sex acts, but if you’re reading this blog, then chances are you’re either a Christian fiction writer or a fan of Christian fiction. That means you fit the demographic profile my friend is worried about.

So what do you think? Is this too much for the Christian fiction market?
And if it is too much, should it be too much?
And why?

Or why not?
Go ahead: have at it.
And don’t mind me while I lie here on the tracks.
Athol Dickson is a novelist, teacher, and publisher of the DailyCristo website. His novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.