Saturday, October 16, 2010

How Far Should Realism Go?

Mary Kole had a thought-provoking post and discussion in the comments on her blog at this week about sex in YA novels. I was especially interested in it for a couple of reasons: first, because the feedback that accompanied an agent's rejection of my full manuscript included the comment, "You can put sex in YA novels" (which I hadn't); and second, because I missed sex in my most recent read, Glenn Vernam's Pioneer Breed.  (Gosh, I hate to keep being critical of that book since I liked it so much when I was a kid....)

Before I explain the above remarks, let me clarify my thoughts on sex in novels.  Most of the time, I cringe when I read explicit scenes, because they seem to be handled in one of two ways.  There are those that are sort of clinical in their descriptions, and those just seem creepy - I feel like I'm some kind of peeping tom spying on people when I shouldn't be. There was a scene from A Northern Light that left me feeling that way. A couple of months later, I'm still repelled by that scene (and maybe that was Donnelly's intention, but that's what pops into my mind first when I think of that book, and I really wish that wasn't true). The second approach to sex scenes seems to be to use euphemisms for everything and to make everything seem so highly passionate. Honestly, I am more embarrassed reading those scenes than the first kind. I never made it completely through a category romance novel because I just felt ridiculous.

I'm not trying to say there shouldn't be any sex scenes in books, even YA books. But for me, those scenes ought to play a key part in the plot. A good example of a sex scene that was needed in a book comes from Alice in Love and War. Sure, Turnbull could have chosen to skip over that part and say "Alice gave herself to Robin," but seeing Alice's feelings as she does it is crucial to understanding why she acts the way she does later in the book. A sex scene that I think wasn't important at all to the plot was in Jellicoe Road, when the two main characters sleep together after going to try to find the girl's mother (sad - I can't remember her name). Readers know the two of them are attracted to each other, but having them have sex adds nothing to that subplot, in my humble opinion.  It's sort of like the author shrugged and said, "well, you know it would happen, so I'll stick it in there to be realistic." That's not a good enough justification for me.

That thought brings me back to Pioneer Breed. I've summarized the plot before, but to save you the trouble of hunting up those posts, here's a quick synopsis: 17-year-old Rance has been orphaned by Indians and is trying to live alone on his parents' farm. One day while he's out hunting, he finds a 15-year-old girl (Tenny) who has been orphaned by an Indian attack, and he takes her to his house, where he nurses her through illness and gives her a place to live during the harsh Oregon winter.  He realizes he's going to have to take her to town when spring comes, and he's concerned that people may treat her badly because she's been living alone with him all winter.  He ends up solving the problem by deciding to marry her, a decision that comes as a huge revelation to him.

Until he decides to marry Tenny, Rance has shown no sexual awareness of her at all, not even when he was doctoring her with poultices on her chest and back.  Granted, he tried to be decent about it, which I guess shows some awareness of her as a woman. But it's never framed in those terms; instead it is just an example of the decency any young man who had been raised right in the mid-nineteenth century would exercise.  But I'm pretty sure males were the same then as they are now and as they were when David spied Bathsheba bathing from his rooftop. I'm not saying I wanted lasciviousness to run rampant in Rance's thoughts throughout the book - not at all.  But realistically, there would have been some struggle in the mind of even a decent young man, especially as the two of them begin to enjoy each other's company so much and to feel so cozy in the cabin together.  In my humble opinion, the thought that he could marry Tenny and be with her in every way would have occurred to him much sooner, realistically. 

One of the points that kept coming up again and again in the blog post was that teens expect realism. As Mary said,

Truth and authenticity are important in all children’s books, but in YA especially. No matter what you do, make sure it rings true to real life.

Teens are masters at sniffing out things that don't ring true. And they tend to be unforgiving of anything they label as "phony." I think Vernam's book would get that label today, unfortunately. I don't believe it was his intention to be preachy; I think he was just writing a "clean" book, and that meant leaving sex out completely. My question is, can a book be "clean" and still realistically portray the sexuality that all human beings possess, in its great variety of expressions?

That's not just a rhetorical question. It's one I've struggled with in writing my own novel. As the agent noted, there were no explicit sex scenes in my book, even though the main characters are married and it would be morally OK.  Yet there are enough references to sex in the book - anything from feeling desire to "fading to black" just before the characters do the deed - to make me wonder if what I've written would be considered "clean." I hope so, but if not, I hope it is at least realistic.  Actually, I guess it's more important to me to be realistic than to be squeaky "clean."

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