Writing About Sex

This article is adapted from a version which first appeared on the Comely Bank Publishing website in 2017.

(Image: Creative Commons)

Two things are already possible: either you’ve clicked away in disgust, or you’re about to read avidly!

Sometimes it seems that a modern novel isn’t complete without a sex scene, sometimes quite a few. Writers seem to feel pressured into including some quite graphic details, often with disastrous consequences. The physiology and mechanics of the act itself are rarely critical to the plot; the key feature is the nature of the relationship between the characters. Is it tender? Is it mutually consensual? Is it part of a permanent coupling or merely a one-night stand?

Personally, I think a good sex scene should have two key components. First, the reader should be able to relate to the event – a seventeen-orgasm bonk is just a joke. I think the scenes are actually sexier where the individuals are themselves more ordinary – an extension of the Brief Encounter idea, where the very ordinariness of the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard characters is what makes it work. The reader wants to relate to every part of the book. Athletic male six-packs and female catwalk figures don’t quite do it.

The second aspect of a good sex scene is that less is more. Alfred Hitchcock always maintained that the human mind was more afraid of what it could imagine than what it actually saw; I think the same applies to sex. Let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves – in any case, who are you, the author, to presume that you’re the expert?

Finally, two related questions for you, the reader, to ponder.

I’ve met authors who’ve passionately argued that a woman can’t possibly write from a male point of view, and vice versa. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. What I am slightly aware of – and this just my sense – is that it feels more acceptable for a woman to write explicitly about sex, including all the nuts and bolts, than it is for men. If so, I wonder if that’s a statement of society’s implicit greater sexualisation of women? One thing’s for sure: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award* is routinely won by male writers, sometimes even from an all-male short list.

Secondly, a woman I know has written a series of LGBT novels featuring the sexual awakening of a gay man and his relationships with others (as well as the non-physical relationships with women around him). The author is a happily married woman, and I have to assume that she has no personal experience herself.

I found my writing friend’s handling of the scenes to be both tender and appropriate – perhaps precisely because she had to leave so much to the reader’s imagination. Is it easier for straight writers to write LBGT fiction about the other gender?

*Don’t ignore this link – the writing is cringeworthy but the judges’ comments are hilarious.

Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide

2020 marked the publication of the first dip of my toes into the sea of non-fiction with the launch of Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, published by Dean Park Press, the new Comely Bank Publishing imprint.

There are lots of books about self-publishing, most of which cover some aspect or other, or perhaps a range of them. The Total Beginner’s Guide doesn’t mess about – it aims to cover everything: writing, editing, covers, typesetting, producing print and ebook copies, marketing, accounting and even dealing with bad bill payers.

The book doesn’t really try to tell you how to make a fortune. Instead, it aims to help you not lose one while still chasing your dream of writing a Booker Prizewinner.

The paperback is priced at £9.99, but the real steal here is the ebook, which is deliberately priced at just £0.99. Or at least it is if you look in the right place, which is on my author website at https://www.lawrie.info/buy-the-self-publishing-guide1.html. Buying from Amazon costs you 50 pence more, thank you very much, and by the way I receive just 23p from each Amazon sale, as opposed to “most of it” via my own website. (I use an ebook download service called Gumroad to sell my ebooks.)

Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, by Gordon Lawrie, Dean Park Press, 366pp, ISBN 978-1912365-13-5 from all good bookshops, online and from my own website using the link above.

Let Me Hear You, Please

Let Me Hear You, Please

This morning, my Twitter feed threw up a statement from Scottish Pen about Jenny Lindsay, a fine Scottish performance poet and regular performer at book festivals, Fringe events and so on. It seems that Ms Lindsay, who’s written several times on the subject of transgender rights and feminism, has been receiving online threats and abuse to the extent that the police have at times advised her not to go out alone. Her honest and relatively minor contribution to the debate (and I hope Jenny doesn’t take offence at that) also led to her losing a work contract.

I know Jenny a little. She’s also a Modern Studies teacher, a pretty good one at that, and she was a colleague in my department for a short while at Portobello High School. She’s open, not afraid to share her views, happy to engage in debate and she listens to others while doing so. But the thing that would strike you on meeting on Jenny for the first time is her warm, open, friendly smile. Some people bring a little light into the room with them whenever they enter, and Jenny is one of those. She is absolutely not someone who represents a threat.

Just a few days ago, Joanna Cherry was catching it from the social media trolls. Apparently, after Diane Abbott, she’s the MP who receives the second highest amount of online abuse. J. K. Rowling gets more than her share, too. Of course it’s no coincidence that all three are women: women, like people from ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, receive hugely disproportionate greater shares of abuse in our society generally.

As a man, what irritates me most about the trans/feminist debate is that I want to listen to it, I want to learn, I want to hear all views – and yet I’m prevented from doing so because those with carefully considered opinions on both sides are all too often frightened into silence. Each time I do get to hear something, though, my mind is genuinely opened up a little more.

Nor is it confined to the trans/feminist debate. Labour, SNP, Conservatives and now even the Greens have all been split in two by the venom of social media. We live in a society torn apart by Brexit and Scottish independence, to say nothing of our old familiar divisions of race, class, rich & poor, sectarianism, gender and the urban/rural divide. Our society’s inequalities are widening, not narrowing, and the pandemic will multiply those inequalities still further in the years to come.

And yet, instead of trying to find common causes, our newly-empowered groups on social media have sought to exacerbate those tensions with anonymised screams. It’s as though they believe that those who shout the loudest get the most. (Exactly the reverse is the case, of course. Large multinational corporations don’t join in Twitter debates.)

Insisting that you’re 100% right can even be entirely counterproductive. Jeremy Corbyn – or rather, his supporters, it wasn’t Jeremy’s fault, really – made the Labour Party so unelectable that now we have Boris Johnson and Brexit instead. I was a strong Remain supporter, but even I would recognise that our relationship with the EU needed review and I think a large majority would have agreed. There’s a demand for Scottish independence, but only a narrow majority favours it; nevertheless, I do believe there’s a consensus for some complete realignment of the union to ensure Scotland controls its own destiny. Grab what we can all agree on, and build from there.

It’s as though the entire world has forgotten the power of consensus: that seeking to join forces with those whom we disagree on some points actually achieves far more than closing our minds. If I listen to you, you’re more likely to listen to me. Perhaps we can find ways to take a step forward together. Somewhere down the line, more changes might be needed and we might disagree on those, but at least we can look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say that we achieved something before passing the baton on to them.

But we’re never going to achieve consensus, to make those forward steps, until we reach across to our enemies, the more reasonable ones at least. As Voltaire never actually said, “I might disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – which incidentally is the true definition of democracy, none of this “majority rule” stuff.

So not only do I stand with Jenny, I stand with those whose views I’d probably disagree with. At my age, they’re probably better off defending themselves rather than hoping I can be of much help in a street fight, but it’s the thought that counts.

Rights Come with Responsibilities

Rights Come with Responsibilities

Looking at the events on Capitol Hill on 6th January 2021 from the other side of the Pond.

Before I started writing, I was a Modern Studies teacher in an Edinburgh high school. For those who live outside Scotland, that means I taught Politics, a subject that it’s possible to teach at a surprisingly basic level to even the youngest children, and to exam at all levels, including university. Although the contexts obviously change over time, the syllabus always centres on a number of basic concepts – ‘power’, ‘representation’, ‘equality’ and so on.

A key concept is ‘Rights and Responsibilities’. It’s seen as one single entity, not two, so that students of all ages are expected to understand that with every right comes responsibilities. Even at the most basic levels, that understanding is tested in external examinations: candidates might be asked what responsibilities go with ‘the right to drive a car’ (e.g. drive safely/not too fast/not while drunk) or ‘the right to keep a pet’ (take care of it properly). Even the least able student understands that the right to vote comes with the responsibilities to use your vote wisely and to accept the result of elections; and that the right of freedom of speech comes with the responsibility not to offend or defame, and to accept that others might disagree.

When it came to elections, I used to spend quite a bit of time explaining to my students that the true miracle of democracy is not that everyone gets a say (although that’s true), but that in a democracy, the losers accept the result and don’t try to overthrow it. Most election results are actually quite close – even where there’s an apparent landslide victory, it’s usually a trick of the election system. In the UK in 2019, Boris Johnson didn’t even manage a majority of the vote at all, despite his commanding parliamentary majority. Yet the losing voters accepted it. In the US Presidential Elections of 2000 and 2016, it was the same story.

The reason why losers accept the result is twofold. First, most people don’t like violence, they just want to get on with their lives in peace. They can mutter in private about the government they don’t like, but their everyday lives aren’t that much affected by who runs the country until they get another chance to change things in four years’ time.

The second reason is that winners are expected to represent not only those who voted for them, but the entire electorate. A win by a small majority is not a mandate for a leader to do whatever he or she likes: that would be dictatorship. Obama clearly wanted to bring in greater gun controls and more healthcare protection during his term of office, but he was forced to water those plans down to take account of opposition views. All elected representatives in a democracy – Presidents and Prime Ministers, Senators, MPs, Mayors, councillors, all the way down to elected school governors – are expected to take account of everyone’s view, not just those who voted for them. It’s an unwritten contract that all elected politicians enter into with their electorate.

That contract has been broken on both sides of the Atlantic. Clearly, when the outgoing President is actively encouraging his supporters to rise up against the pillars of the state in order to overthrow the result of an election, he’s not respecting democracy, but neither has he done so in the preceding four years: all he wants is enough votes to win another term in office. Losers don’t count. We’ve not seen that before in the USA, and George W. Bush made an effort to be ‘Presidential’, in other words, speak for all of America. Whether you think he was successful or otherwise isn’t the point: Dubya was trying. Trump made no effort at all to be anything other than contemptuous of ‘losers’.

We have seen similar problems here in the UK. 52%-48% on a one-off Brexit vote was never a mandate to tear up 47 years of history; all it showed was that the UK was dissatisfied with the existing relationship with the EU. (Remainers like me need to acknowledge that there were problems, but that’s for another essay.) In Scotland, 45% of the electorate voting for independence in 2014 can’t be swept away as a footnote in history. Yet that’s what’s happening. Both in Brexit and the Scottish independence debate, there was an overwhelming argument for a further vote, yet the winners simply refused to allow it. They were scared of losing, of course.

Something has gone badly wrong with our understanding of ‘Rights and Responsibilities’ in large areas of western democracy. Why so many have lost sight of the concept of ‘Responsibility’ is hard to say: perhaps they were never taught Modern Studies, Politics, civics or their equivalent; perhaps they were taught poorly, by insufficiently-trained teachers; perhaps they just forgot what they ever learned; or perhaps they’re just not very bright. There’s some evidence that all four have played a part.

Arguably, though, the worst offenders are neither our educators nor our voters. Our worst offenders are those demagogue politicians who foster and foment the worst instincts in our society –  violence, racism, xenophobia, intolerance, lack of concern for the less fortunate, and many other evils – in order to grab power for themselves. For the most part, but not exclusively, the right seems to have cornered this market for themselves. It’s hard to see a Democrat calling for insurrection, and Nigel Farage specifically said before the Brexit referendum that he wouldn’t accept a 52/48 vote against him. So much for democracy.

We in the west are inclined to sneer at the subservient culture of citizens in many Far East countries, but people over there do seem to have a better grasp of responsibility to the greater community. Freedom of expression is never something to take for granted. Those who seek that right have to keep their side of the bargain, too.