Strunk, White and Sex

I dug out a long abandoned short story with the idea of reviving and finishing it and got a lot of writing done. So here are some writing links:

The Financial Times discusses style guides and what does and does not constitute good writing.

I agree that the uncritical veneration of The Elements of Style on the one hand and Hemingway on the other has done a lot of harm particularly to American literature. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing like Hemingway – and I am fully aware that my own issues with Hemingway are largely due to an incompetent English teacher in 11th grade – as long as everybody realizes that the pared down Hemingway style is not all there is.

As for The Elements of Style a.k.a. Strunk and White, I will never understand why that book enjoys such an enduring popularity in the US, since it useless and sometimes downright incorrect as a grammar book and only of limited usefulness as a style guide. Never mind that there are much better grammar books and much better style guides available. Yet a whole lot of particularly American hang-ups about writing (“Thou shalt not use passive voice”, “Thou shalt not use adverbs”) can directly be traced to this book.

Strunk and White also poses a problem to ESL teachers, because the curriculum demands that I teach the passive voice and the use of adverbs to my ESL students in 7th or 8th grade. However, because both passive forms and adverbs are somewhat stigmatized in actual discourse in the US and UK, I always have to add the caveat, “Don’t overuse those forms, when writing in English, because that is considered bad style.” Never mind that many of the grammar exercises the students are supposed to do illustrate all too clearly, why Strunk and White were not entirely wrong in cautioning about the overuse of passive forms and adverbs, because a lot of those exercise result in terrible prose. Of course, those exercises are also useful in illustrating why overusing the passive voice or adverbs is a bad thing. And by the way, unlike Strunk and White and those influenced by their book, my 7th and 8th graders know exactly what passive voice is.

In other news, Marissa Day has a nice post about the problems of writing sex scenes over at the Book View Café.

For the first several years of writing, I avoided sex scenes altogether, because I usually found them gratuitous and embarrassing to write. I also skimmed sex scenes in books I was reading, because again they were often gratuitous, written as if someone had read a “Write sex scenes 101” book and just entered the names of the protagonists and very rarely even remotely erotic. My motto was, “I prefer doing it to reading about it.”

But as fate would have it, I stumbled into erotica writing, when I wrote a somewhat kinky short story, submitted it to a magazine on a whim and had it accepted with the request to send more. So started my brief erotica writing career. I wrote a couple of mildly erotic short stories, wrote my first explicit sex scene (and worried whether five pages of sex were too much) and discovered to my own surprise that I was pretty good at writing something I didn’t even like reading. I also stopped skimming and started paying more attention to the sex scenes in the novels I was reading to learn what worked for me and what didn’t.

In the end, my erotica writing career fizzled out, because I ran out of scenarios as well as euphemistic and vaguely historically accurate terms for various bodyparts. I also found out that accidentally arousing yourself with your own writing is terribly annoying.

However, in the bargain I learned how to write sex scenes without being embarrassed. I also applied my new found skills to my regular fiction and figured out that the sort of sex scenes I like best, both as a reader and a writer, are those that belong uniquely to those particular characters and that don’t omit the occasionally embarrassing and funny aspects of sex. Interestingly enough, with those sex scenes arousal doesn’t get in the way of writing, because I wasn’t writing sexual fantasies but an intimate encounter that belonged only to those particular people.

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8 Responses to Strunk, White and Sex

  1. Estara says:

    Okay this:

    I also found out that accidentally arousing yourself with your own writing is terribly annoying.

    was my first laugh-out-loud moment of the day, so thanks for that ^^.

    I do hope you know there are ways of dealing with that, should not amenable male be handy 😉

    I agree, the most memorable romance sex scenes are ones that could only be between that particular pairing, because they are part of their personality and because they give us even more insight into the characters themselves.

    • Cora says:

      Always glad to supply a laugh. And don’t worry, I just recently assured a 13-year-old student that taking matters in one’s own hands is perfectly normal. It’s still not what you want to spend your writing time on.

      And yes, sex scenes are character moments. A lot of writers forget that in favour of spectacle.

  2. "I also found out that accidentally arousing yourself with your own writing is terribly annoying."

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  4. A story about a writer chronically aroused by writing certain scenes could be very amusing.

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