The Art of Literary Sex

“The explicit treatment of sexual acts,” writes David Lodge in The Art of Fiction, “is certainly another challenge to the novelist’s artistry—how to avoid reiterating the language of pornography, how to defamiliarize the inherently limited repertoire of sexual acts—but not one that I propose to tackle in this book.” Lodge was in the process of tackling “Implication,” one of his fifty chapter topics, all of which he considered relevant to the craft of literary fiction. The omission suggests that any “explicit treatment of sexual act” is not truly “literary.”

Sex, I have to imagine, hasn’t changed much since the early 1990s, but the state of fiction has. The once lowly elements of genre fiction have merged with the once rarified world of literary fiction, resulting in mash-ups of taste and style that Lodge couldn’t (or at least didn’t) imagine a quarter century ago. Although pornography arguably remains the most lowly of the lowly, its repertoire of tropes are familiar to literary and genre authors alike. Consider a passage from Adrienne Bell’s 2013 The Wedding Trap:

She stood in the doorway behind him, wearing only her bra and panties. Pink silk clung to her dramatic curves. Alex’s mouth watered. She was the tastiest thing he’d even seen, full and ripe and ready to be slowly savored.

He went back to his kisses, wrapping his arms around her, reveling in the softness of her skin. With deft fingers, he unhooked her bra. He had to stand back to let it drift down to the floor. Her breasts were perfect. Full and round and begging to be kissed. Even in the wet warmth of the bathroom her nipples were hard and tight. He bent his head down and drew one into his mouth, twirling the hard nub with his tongue. Her head fell back against the doorjamb, and he was treated to the gorgeous sound of her pleasure-drenched moans.

Dear God, he couldn’t remember his cock ever being so hard in his life, and he didn’t even have her pants off yet. He needed to rectify that. Now. He made his way down her belly, leaving a trail of kisses behind. He bent down on his knees before her, and hooked his fingers under the elastic of her panties. With aching slowness he dragged them over her pale skin, exposing her pussy.

She was trembling. He glanced up to see if it was anticipation or anxiety over being naked that had her shaking. A mixture of both, he decided. It was alright. He knew a way to take her mind off her fears.

He wrapped his fingers around her left leg and draped it over his shoulder. She was beautiful. Every inch of her. Every part. He kissed her again, his tongue moving slowly between her lips.

She tasted every bit as sweet as he’d imagined. He turned slow circles around her clit until her little moans were breathy and more urgent. Her hands curled into his shoulders, pressing him forward. She didn’t mind asking for more of what she wanted. And he was only too happy to comply.

Her legs started to shudder. He pressed his hands against her body to hold her upright. Her shaking became more intense, her moans more urgent, until he felt her break and loosen against him. Only then did he stop and rise to his feet.

He didn’t waste any time stripping off the rest of his clothes, and discarded them in a pile on the bathroom tile. He settled into the tub first. She followed, sitting down on his lap. Her legs nestled against his side. She slowly descended, taking him all the way in one stroke.

Damn, she felt good. Soft and wet and everything that he’d ever wanted. Her legs were still shaky, and she moved slowly. He wouldn’t have it any other way. He was going to savor her. Every stroke. Every heartbeat. Every breath.

He wrapped his hands around her neck and kissed her. He didn’t break the kiss. Not once. Not as the warm water surrounding their moving bodies sloshed over the side of the tub. Not as the pleasure of her body sliding against him grew until he felt as though he would lose himself entirely in her. And when he did finally break, he clutched her to him as if she were the source of everything he ever needed.

The Wedding Trap is a Harlequin Blaze title, “Harlequin’s sexiest romance series.” Unlike its sibling Harlequin Desire, whose “sexual language is euphemistic and romantic, not explicit,” Blaze features the “highest level of sensuality among Harlequin series.” The website, however, warns prospective authors from submitting “erotica,” because there’s “more to these books than simply sex.”

That may true, but at the moment we just want the sex. My literariness meter rested limply on its merely-genre setting during the whole passage. The first paragraph even stirred some zombie and/or werewolf confusion—is Alex’s mouth literally watering? I don’t think that’s a human sex response. Otherwise it’s fair to call the scene formulaic: full round breasts, trail of kisses, every inch beautiful, take in one stroke. Bell even paraphrases the Blaze submission guidelines: “She knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to go and get it.” The passage appears at 73% on my laptop reader—an apparent hot spot in Blaze formula writing. When I downloaded Vivian Arend’s Rocky Mountain Heat and Kendra Little’s Bedding the Billionaire, I found similar scenes at 73% and 70%, respectively.

This is not to say the scene isn’t necessarily erotic, just that eroticism isn’t a subcategory of literariness. To borrow a lit-crit euphemism, the pleasures here are paraliterary. Though, to be fair, Alex’s orgasm is arguably character-revealing, allowing Bell to deliver on “the Harlequin promise of one hero, one heroine and an implied committed relationship at the end.” A sex-for-the-sake-of-sex scene wouldn’t detail his source-of-all-needs clutching. But is that enough to make the ejaculation “literary”?

When it comes to highbrow sex, Jane Smiley is my go-to author. Here’s the highest level of sensuality reached in her 2003 Good Faith:

Felicity turned toward me and, without waking up, I thought, put her hand on my cock, which instantly hardened. She smiled, though she didn’t open her eyes, and rolled over and presented her beautiful round buttocks to me, and I entered her at once, and her hand went immediately between her legs and she stroked herself while I grasped her hipbones and pulled myself more deeply insider her. In the twilight, I could see her buttocks press against me and then taper gracefully into the contours of her back muscles, which fanned into her shoulders. That was what I looked at while I felt her vaginal muscles pulsating around my cock, which was moving into and out of her. Here’s what it was: The perfect relaxation of our whole bodies had concentrated at this one amazing spot and come together, and the effect then reversed itself, and the electricity of that spot gathered and spread out through the rest in hot waves and finally emerged in sound—the sound of Felicity singing out and me groaning, and then Felicity laughing and saying, “Oh, Joey, feel my hair. This is so amazing that my hair is getting hot.” We sighed simultaneously.

Okay, similarities first: Smiley and Bell prefer “cock,” either “hard” or “hardened,” before diverging at “pussy” and “vaginal muscles.” Both scenes are also told from a male perspective, Smiley’s in first person, Bell’s in focalized third. A women’s pleasure must be intuited by the “sound” she emits. Bell’s passage clocks in at 556 words. Smiley’s is only 200, but if size matters, turn a couple of pages and Felicity and her narrator are at it again (“with a much grander passion than I’d expected”), for a combined word count in the same range.

Since Smiley and Bell give their readers a full-frontal gaze into their bedrooms and bathtubs, Lodge’s “Implications” do not apply. Twenty-first-century sex isn’t taboo, so the challenge instead is representing it—or them. A sex act isn’t an act; it’s a sequence of acts. The art of Implication is simpler when one sensory detail can mask the critical moment. If an author did describe every thrust and moan, the effect would be neither literary nor paraliterary, just stunningly repetitive. Of course sex is stunningly repetitive, so this is a point where reality and realism part ways. Unlike actual sex, a sex scene requires condensed time. Smiley’s 2007 Ten Days in the Hills offer some near exceptions, but even her longest, multi-page sex scene takes less time to read than its characters would need to perform it. Sex zips time forward through some form of summarization. Again, Bell and Smiley aren’t so different: “the pleasure of her body sliding against him grew” vs. “the electricity of that spot gathered and spread out.” Smiley’s electricity works better for me, but the two phrases follow the same principle, collapsing multiple actions into a single verb: “grew” and “spread.”

Honestly, if the first half of Smiley’s passage had showed up in The Wedding Trap, I wouldn’t have paused over its literary splendor. It avoids most but not all clichéd phrasing (“beautiful round buttocks,” really?). Perhaps erotic effects require closer allegiance to the convention end of the spectrum? Felicity “singing out” is more inventive than “pleasure-drenched moans,” but it’s her odd “feel my hair” moment that begins to lift Smiley’s scene for me, and, even more, the narrator’s much odder forty-eight-word orgasm analysis beginning with the wonderfully clunky preamble: “Here’s what it was.” That’s not a sex-for-sex-sake detail—which is my working definition of genre sex, aka erotica, aka pornography. The detail isn’t entirely erotic, because, while perhaps intellectually stimulating, the winding sentence replaces the which-body-part-doing-what-where narration. Arousal and thinking about arousal use different kinds of brain ink. Paraliterary sex would keep Bell’s reader in her narrator’s penis, not his brain. Sometimes literary sex stays grounded in fleshy parts too, but it can also indulge in flights of disembodied fancy.

Smiley’s electricity is modest, but it encapsulates literary fiction’s favorite sexual position: figurative language. It’s a high-risk pleasure, and when it fails it can fail spectacularly. Fortunately, the UK’s Literary Review is there panting at the keyhole, ready to slap offending authors with a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. The journal has been handing them out like condoms since 1993, and while their stated “intention is not to humiliate,” the editors do “hope to draw attention to, and hopefully discourage, poorly written, redundant or crude passages of a sexual nature in fiction.” That’s as close as the journal gets to explaining its annual selection, even though that criteria describes three very different categories. As mentioned, sex is inherently redundant, and redundant prose, while perhaps high in verisimilitude, isn’t a great idea. It’s also uncommon. The Bad Sex winners aren’t purpling their sheets with repetition. “Crude” is too circular to be of much use either. I admit my literary sensibilities flinch at Smiley’s and Bell’s shared “cock,” but “dick” wouldn’t be any better—is “penis” too clinical for erotic plausibility? An overly polite anatomical rendering would be “poorly written” in a different sense, and then it would still be “crude” if “crude” defines the subject matter anyway.

When I read through the Literary Review’s winners and runner-ups, I don’t see crudeness; I see similes:

Sweat pooled in the ridge of my back as I moved like a tide determined to crash against
those ancient rocks. (Simon Van Booy)

[He] puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a
single drop. (Rachel Johnson)

he starts to steer her enjoyment like a ship towards its home port, to the deepest
anchorage, right to the core of her pleasure. (Amos Oz)

like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed
himself into her. (Rowan Somerville)

It’s not bad sex; it’s bad metaphors:

These sorts of gyrations and five-sense choreographies, with variations on Ed’s main
themes, played out episodically . . . (David Guterson)

At last, she could no longer control the world around her, her five senses seemed to break free
and she wasn’t strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of
lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth,
the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast golden
light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy. (Paulo Coelho)

Instead of looking away, literary sex can blur its gaze by mixing immediate sensations with remotely non-literal details. Porn, in contrast, is always focused on the here and now. Van Dine’s rules for detective fiction translate remarkably well: “no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations. . . . They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion.” The “problem” differs, as do the methods of analysis, but the single-mindedness is the same.

I could quote passages from Penthouse Letters, but then redundancy really would be an issue. Trust me when I say they’re not primarily about their language. Or rather, their language aims to be transparent, a means of transporting a reader to the imagined event, erasing the fact of the page with an illusion of an all-absorbing dream. Even Bell’s focalized asides, “Dear God” and “Damn, she felt good,” are too interruptive, too character-focused, to be purely pornographic. Zombie implications aside, “She was the tastiest thing he’d even seen, full and ripe and ready to be slowly savored” is the sort of metaphorical dalliance a Van Dine pornographer would delete. The sentence might still be poorly written, but according to the Literary Review, that places Bell in fantastic company.

I don’t know if the editors would consider James Joyce “crude,” but the U.S. Post Office declared his writing “obscene” and confiscated issues of The Little Review serializing Ulysses in 1920. The publishers were fined, copies burnt, and the novel banned as “the work of a disorganized mind.” I would argue pornography is highly organized, but the issue was masturbation. Mild by Harlequin Blaze standards, the “obscene” scene features Joyce’s hero ogling a seventeen-year-old who obligingly lifts her skirts for him:

His hands and face were working and a tremor went over her. She leaned back far to look up where the fireworks were and she caught her knee in her hands so as not to fall back looking up and there was no one to see only him and her when she revealed all her graceful beautifully shaped legs like that, supply soft and delicately rounded, and she seemed to hear the panting of his heart, his hoarse breathing . . .

The fireworks are both literal and figurative, as is the apparent orgasm:

And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lively! O so soft, sweet, soft!

That’s probably literary fiction’s first simultaneous climax. No actual genitalia, but the bursting candle rocket is pretty damn phallic as it ejaculates onto the crowd, and all the ecstatic O’s are just as vaginal.

I took a senior seminar on Joyce as an undergrad, and my professor credited the paragraph for coining the now clichéd sex-as-fireworks metaphor. Maybe that’s why, when the novel was tried again in 1933, Judge Woolsey found the scene vomit-worthy rather than erotic: “whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” Like Smiley, Joyce has us thinking about arousal rather than actually experiencing it. An appeals judge agreed: the novel “has not the effect of promoting lust. Accordingly it does not fall within the statute, even though it justly may offend many.” So by failing to achieve pornography’s main purpose, the scene defaults into literariness.

Joyce also flunks Harlequin’s “implied committed relationship” criterion, though the chapter is a stylistic riff on the Harlequins of the period. The hero is carrying a copy of Sweets of Sin home to his wife, and its florid prose leaks into Joyce’s own language.

As for undies they were Gerty’s chief care and who that knows the fluttering hopes and fears of sweet seventeen (though Gerty would never see seventeen again) can find it in his heart to blame her? She had four dinky sets, with awfully pretty stitchery, three garments and nighties extra, and each set slotted with different coloured ribbons, rosepink, pale blue, mauve and peagreen and she aired them herself and blued them when they came home from the wash and ironed them and she had a brickbat to keep the iron on because she wouldn’t trust those washerwomen as far as she’d see them scorching the things.

These would be the undies revealed to the masturbating hero during the fireworks, detailed here with parodic specificity. Though that lingering gaze is prurient, it wasn’t “obscene” in a legal sense, and so not what drove the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to court in 1920. That’s a literary tightrope, one that pulp fiction used to walk weekly.

Harlequin Blaze prefers the adjective “juicy” now, but early the twentieth-century genre was “saucy.” The pulp magazine Saucy Stories began publishing its mouth-watering “novelettes” in 1916, just two years after Margaret Anderson founded The Little Review. Joyce’s undies appeared in the March 1919 issue. When May Freud Dickenson’s “Love in the Jungle” opened the May issue of Saucy, her heroine invites a similar gaze:

When Rhoda was dressed she glanced into the long mirror and she knew that never in her life had she looked more attractive; her face was vivid with color, her blue eyes unnaturally bright. If only Goring could see her now perhaps he might have loved her. Once he had seen her in the blue kimono, with her hair down . . .

No climatic fireworks, but Dickenson’s concluding sentence offers its own figurative bright spots:

In the deepening twilight a thousand fireflies flitted in the shrubbery like tiny dancing stars, a crescent moon swung fairly in the violent sky, as, hidden by the roses, Goring kissed her again.

What else are those rose petals hiding? Thinking about the legal ramifications of arousal, the Saucy editors are careful not to reveal too much.

Though pulp standards would get spicier by the 1930s, soft-core stayed pretty damn soft, avoiding sex scenes with comic quaintness: “An hour later, Ellen left Raythorne’s cabin.” Lars Anderson’s Ellen Patrick, aka the Domino Lady, flunks the Harlequin “one hero, one heroine” rule, allowing her multiple if only implied sex partners. Readers, however, now took in a fuller version of Joyce’s under-the-skirts view:

A nightgown of sheerest, green silk was but scant concealment for her gorgeous figure. A chastely-rounded body and a slender waist served to accentuate the seductive softness of her hips and sloping contours of her slim thighs, while skin like the bloom on a peach glowed rosily in the reflected sunlight.

And of course there are still plenty of undies:

With a feeling of naughtiness, she slipped into a pair of black-lace panties. Then, sheerest hose for her shapely legs, black velvet slippers for the dainty feet.

It’s not all that surprising to me that Lars Anderson is an untraceable pseudonym.

The first Domino Lady story premiered in Saucy Romantic Adventures in 1936, the same year as the first British edition of Ulysses. Prior to the 1933 Court of Appeals decision, no U.S. or U.K. publisher would touch the novel. D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s 1934 Tropic of Cancer show the increasing willingness of literary authors to bite into juicy topics. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Edith Wharton died in 1937; none of her published novels include sex scenes, but an unfinished manuscript, begun while Joyce was setting off anatomically quaint fireworks in the pages of The Little Review, is as open-eyed as Bell:

With panting breath she wound her caress deeper and deeper into the firm, thick folds, till at length the member, thrusting her lips open, held her gasping, as if at its mercy; then, in a trice, it was withdrawn, her knees were pressed apart, and she saw it before her, above her, like a crimson flash, and at last, sinking backward into new abysses of bliss, felt it descend on her, press open the secret gates, and plunge into the deepest depths of her thirsting body….

Definitely not Age of Innocence. The complete passage also winds out an extended flower metaphor with vaginal “petals,” a clitoral “bud,” and an orgasmic “bloom”—though even the “secret gates” and “abysses of bliss” work better than Henry Miller’s figurative confusion in his later Sexus:

My prick was still firm. It hung obedient on her wet lips, as though receiving the   sacrament from a lascivious angel. She came again, like an accordion collapsing in a bag   of milk.

Wouldn’t the vaginal lips be receiving the sacrament not giving it? And since when does milk come in bags, and, most importantly, who the hell put an accordion doing inside one? The simile may tip Miller to the opposite end of the invention-convention spectrum from Bell, but that doesn’t mean the writing is better, let alone “good.”

Miller though is not “utterly without redeeming social importance,” the low literary bar raised (or lowered really) in 1957 to distinguish obscenity from works such as Allan Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Justice William Brennan also distinguished sex from obscenity, which appeals only to “prurient interest,” which is anything with “a tendency to excite lustful thoughts.” If I understand the semi-circular logic, sex scenes that do have a lust-exciting tendency are obscene. Fortunately, James Joyce helped too, because the 1933 Ulysses ruling established that a book must be judged as a whole—not just on its juicy bits, whether mouth-watering or not. And so the Supreme Court gave the whole of Tropic of Cancer a passing grade in 1964.

It was a landmark case, one triggered by the first paperback edition and the fear of it gushing across the nation like a lascivious bag of angel milk. Paperbacks were still a relatively new phenomenon. Penguin Books published the first in England in 1935, and Pocket Books the first in the United States four years later. They were printed on the same grade paper as pulp magazines, but they weren’t confined to newsstands or even to bookstores. They were both cheap—pulps cost a dime, the pulp-paperbacks a quarter—but the new book format mixed literary and genre authors for the first time. Mickey Spillane and William Faulkner shared the same cigar store and lunch counter racks. As paperback publishers expanded in the 1940s—Avon, Dell, Bantam, Signet—pulp fiction magazines dwindled, their “saucy” covers transferred to the new market. The ancient copy of 1984 I read in high school shows a surprising amount of cleavage—the reason Orwell was one of the best-selling authors of the early 50s, even though the novel’s actual sex scenes avoid both body parts and metaphors:

He pressed her down upon the grass, among the fallen bluebells. This time there was no difficulty. Presently the rising and falling of their breasts slowed to normal speed, and in a sort of pleasant helplessness they fell apart.

That’s much more specific than the Saucy adventures of the Domino Lady, and yet all of Smiley’s and Bell’s scenes would fit inside the time-collapsing word “presently.” Paperbacks made both of those scenes possible by shifting public expectations for what a novel, literary or otherwise, might include. Hardback publishers happily adapted, putting pressure on the courts to follow the public’s best-seller tastes too.

In 1966, the year I was born, the Supreme Court swapped “importance” for “value,” declaring that even if prurient and offensive as a whole, a book would also have to be “utterly without redeeming social value.” And that’s pretty much where literary sex has wallowed for forty years. Porn is now so widespread, Nicholson Baker declared the twenty-first century a “post-pornographic era.” My wife teaches his short story about Lovecraftian potatoes in her Gothic course, so Baker makes my list of literary genre authors on multiple counts. Born the year Ginsberg was declared legally not obscene, Baker is one of the few literary authors plumbing the depths of erotica, beginning with the best-selling Vox in 1992—same year as Lodge’s The Art of Ficiton—and continuing with The Fermata two years later, and recently culminating in the 2011 House of Holes about a magical sex fantasy theme park. A former writer of technical manuals, Baker rarely dips into the petaled abysses of metaphor. His sex scenes are very much of the what-goes-where variety, which does not prevent Charles McGrath from likening him to Updike and Nabakov, declaring Baker “one of the most beautiful, original and ingenious prose stylists to have come along in decades.” Here’s an example from The Fermata:

“Oh, fuck me good, Kev! Fill my fucking fanny!” Sylvie shouted, looking in Marian’s eyes and then down at her toy-filled fuckholes. “Harder! Oh, yes! Fuck me real good, darling! SHOOT THAT HOT DICK UP MY FANNY-HOLE! OH! OH!”

Not exactly Harlequin material. Baker explained to McGrath in the New York Times Magazine that he “wanted to avoid the flavor of arty erotica,” and I’d say he succeeds. He shrugs off my character-revealing dictum too: “It’s not like I’m plumbing the depth of each person’s soul.” As far as lust-promoting tendencies, Baker excites even himself: “There’s nothing like writing a sex scene . . . It’s a turn-on. No question. It’s self-seductive.” And yet he claims his “smut” holds “literary value” too, though, like the Supreme Court, he doesn’t really define the term. To be fair, his other novels feature scenes in which characters buy shoelaces and bottle feed infants, and his nonfiction about libraries failing to preserve cultural heritage won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001.

Sex is in fiction is neither innately good nor bad, neither “genre” nor “literary.” It’s just a trope. If it were a trope exclusive to erotica, its presence would define a story’s genre every time—though not its literariness. Literary smut sounds more oxymoronic to me than literary zombies or literary superheroes or any other binary-breaking mash-up, but it’s no different. This may sound improbable, but in fiction no activity—fishing, figure skating, fornicating—is intrinsically more or less interesting than any other. It’s not “what” an author writes about; it’s “how.”

Reviewing my own fiction, I see I’m a bit of a prude, or perhaps a tease. The first short story I ever published, “The Best and Worst Sex Scenes of All Time,” includes no sex, just a conversation about films. The story later dilated into an as-of-yet-unpublished novel, in which I do find one 168-word depiction of actual sex:

When her hand lowers to my stomach, something electrical sputters in my gut and then my groin. She knows I am awake, but she moves slowly, the sheet sliding in increments, before she crawls on top of me. Her skin, even her thighs seem chilled, then I wince as though scalded, the moisture unexpected, something accidentally spilled. She grasps my hands, pins me, as her body rises and falls, impaling herself until her breath grows heavy and I begin to whimper. In movies, men are silent, machine-like, their pleasure controlled. I grab her hips and hold her, my back arched.

She does not move until I retract my fingers, then she settles onto my chest, her mouth near my ear. Neither of us speaks. I grow smaller inside her, and her legs straighten and slide against mine, but she does not move off me. Her fingers worry a crop of hairs on my chest, and I notice both my hands smoothing the base of her spine, counting vertebrae.

I wrote that before reading Good Faith, so the electricity isn’t Smiley’s; it’s just a garden variety cliché. As far as other figurative language, the “scalded” isn’t bad, even the simile-disguising “as though,” and while “impaling” is a bit much, it does link into a larger chapter motif. The verbs “rises and falls” collapses the repetition, and the aside about movies masks most of the real-time with a standard look-away trick, not from modesty but boredom. I play a pronoun sleight-of-hand too, referring to the narrator’s penis as himself, “I,” same as Smiley’s “I entered her” and Bell’s “taking him all the way.” I avoid their “cock,” Miller’s “prick,” and any other named or described genitalia, letting the surrounding body parts do all the work. Is it erotic? Not for me.

I, thankfully, receive few sex scenes in my creative writing courses, but when I do, I evaluate them the same way I evaluate any other: is the scene vividly rendered? Does it serve the larger story? A yes to both is my short definition of “good,” which is my definition of “literary,” whether in genre fiction or not. One of my students recently workshopped a story about a sexbot, the nuts and bolts of its behavior brilliantly if cringingly detailed. She could have written an emotionally similar story about a human prostitute, but the sci-fi angle opens a range of opportunities and challenges. So does “the explicit treatment of sexual acts.”

Chris Gavaler teaches creative writing at Washington and Lee University; his short fiction appears in three dozen national journals, including New England Review, Prairie Schooner, and Hudson Review; and his novels Pretend I’m Not Here (2002) and School for Tricksters (2011) were published by HarperCollins and Southern Methodist University, respectively. His scholarly book On the Origin of Superheroes is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press this fall.

Submit a comment