Sex and the Teenaged Reader
It’s time to revisit the topic of sensual scenes in fiction, but not for the usual “one of my readers is offended by graphic sex in my books” reason. A few days ago, I received a sincere and thoughtful email from a woman who recently discovered my books and is really enjoying them. She wishes she could share them with her thirteen-year-old daughter who, as an advanced reader, wants to move on to adult books. The emailer thinks my books, with their themes of mothers and daughters, would be great for her own daughter — except for the occasional explicit sex scene, something that makes her daughter extremely uncomfortable. The writer wishes I would “soften” those scenes and makes a persuasive argument that doing so would open my books up to a whole new generation. She made it clear that as an adult, she has no problem with the scenes.
Here is, in part, how I responded to my reader:
I really appreciate your taking the time to write, and I’m so glad you’re enjoying my books. I had to chuckle over your concern, though, because my more recent books, such as the three you’ve read, are not nearly as sexually explicit as my early books.
My books are definitely written for an adult audience, however I’ve found that most moms seem to pick age 14 to allow their daughters to start reading me. To me, 14 seems about a year too young. I allowed my own stepdaughter to read my books when she just turned fifteen and she had no problem with them at all then (even if I squirmed as she read them!).
Here is the rule I’ve set for myself with regard to writing sexual scenes: I won’t write a gratuitous sex scene any more than I would write a gratuitous violent scene. However, sex and sensuality are such an important part of my characters’ lives, and if the scene will help with character development or advance the story, I’ll write it. For example, with CeeCee, her lack of an orgasm with Tim seemed important to mention, because it showed her insecurity with him, her sense of not measuring up and her fear of losing him to a more experienced woman. Also, when she finally had a sexual relationship with Jack and was orgasmic with him, it provided a contrast and showed a more comfortable, loving and mature relationship.
I always take into account my readers’ concerns as I write. For example, my current books have far less “cussing” in them than my earlier books because I listened to reader feedback. But when it’s warranted, I allow my characters to be who they really are. I appreciate a reasoned sort of email like yours, unlike the absolutely rabid, almost threatening sort I receive sometimes. So rest assured your words will be with me as I write my current work in progress. (Warning: I’m afraid you will simply freak out when you read the sequel to Before the Storm! It’s written in part from the point of view of a very angry, hormonal 17 year old boy who is pretty graphic in both words and deeds. I cringed myself as I wrote about him, but he is a true, honest character.)
So, thank you again, _______. It sounds like you have an amazing daughter who will be able to enjoy my books in a couple of years. They’ll still be there waiting for her.”
So now, dear blog readers, what are your thoughts on this subject?
As a teacher, when I allow my students to choose their own books, they must have a parent signature…it is up to the parent what they read. However, I do think 14 is too young to read sexually explicit books…That being said, your recent books do not fall into that catagory…in my opinion…your recent books-should be fine for 15 year olds…Before the Storm…14…I do know that my students 9-12 read anything they want…
Let’s face it, THE SCARLET LETTER, a classic, is pretty “explicit” if one “imagines” what is going on…
On another subject-tense…I am under the weather this weekend (the Z pack is helping) and reading several memoirs…that present tense is driving me nuts…esp. when the author jumps from past to present to past to recent past…drives me nuts…no real form in one of the memoirs although I liked the story abut a girl who became pregnant in 1965–not married–how she was shunned…she is about my age, and what she went through-unbelievable…WITHOUT A MAP…Also…the one IF I AM MISSING OR DEAD…
There must be some type of form in a book to let the reader know when something is happening…if I have to take the time to determine the year…the time…I am lost…
I read that obscene music can be purchased in a “censored” version. When will publishers help authors to reach more than one audience with the same story?
By removing even the mildest scenes in order to reach more readers, the author wins and so does the house. When the reader is ready, s/he can graduate to the true adult version. And guess what? S/he is already a fan.
Makes good sense to me.
As a bookseller, I run into this issue quite often with parents buying books for teens, as well as people buying books for elderly people who don’t want anything too graphic.
I understand the concerns (although, unfortunately, there are a number of teens who could probably give adults a few pointers…), and it is sometimes difficult to find a middle ground. With the teens, I generally suggest they stick with books in the ‘young adult’ section…yet there are even books in that section that some parents deem too graphic. Suggesting acceptable books for older adults is even more difficult since they are aimed towards an older audience.
I think it would be difficult for an author who writes for mature adults to ‘soften’ or delete certain scenes which could totally alter a character and plot.
Brenda, hope you’re starting to feel better by now. I think your policy of having parents sign off on the books their kids read makes good sense. I hear you about the present tense. I think I’m sticking with past tense in my work-in-progress.
NS, I love your idea of having two versions of the same book for different age groups, but I’m afraid it will never happen. Publishers don’t tend to be that practical! By the way, I visited your website and love this quote on your home page: “This page isn’t the spawn of a midlife crisis. It is the result of the stark realization that no matter how old we are, tomorrow may arrive without us in it.” Love it!
Denise, I hadn’t thought about the elderly folks who might want to avoid graphic books as well. Interesting. I bet you’re a super bookseller. 🙂
Diane, it’s funny because most of the customers looking for ‘clean’ novels for older people are daughters-in-law trying to find books for their mothers-in-law. Lol
Other than Christian fiction, two authors I usually recommend are Jan Karon and Jennifer Chiaveri’s quilt book novels, even though I’ve never read them (they look clean…lol). If you or your readers here know of any others, I’d be happy for the recommendations.
N S, there is a biography I enjoyed titled “Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter” written by Adeline Yen Mah that was published in a much simpler, milder form for the young adults. The young adult version is titled “Chinese Cinderella.” I recommend the young adult version quite often to girls who need to read a biography for school. I have often wished there were more of these types of books available for younger folks.
I think Diane’s books and Barbara Delinsky’s books are great…I don’t think they are sexually explicit, and as an older woman, I can usually skip anything that bothers in other books…
I think your stories, Diane, are necessary…If you have Andy cursing in the next book-well…let’s face it…I hear it every day with teenagers…doesn’t make it right-but that is life…
Now if I pick up a book that has the F word every other line…I don’t read it…
Brenda, it’s not Andy who’s the curser in the sequel–it’s Keith. The sequel is about 40% his story.
Denise, I read FALLING LEAVES for my bookclub. Very interesting book, and I didn’t realize there was a young adult version. Fascinating.
Diane, “Falling Leaves” reminded me of a Chinese “Mommy Dearest.” Lol!
I haven’t commented for awhile since I’ve been 1 step away from the hospital…went to the dr this a.m. and my white count that fights infections finally, finally went up and this is the 1st day I’ve felt better in a week…have lost 13 pounds…anyway, you don’t want to know anymore believe me. Diane, I am never offended by your writing…you tell it like it is. I suspected Keith was the one talking rough in the next book and I can’t picture his language any other way…that’s who he is. My mother is 88 and nothing bothers her in writing…if she doesn’t like it, she puts it down. I’m home writing this and am out from the office the rest of the week. Stay well everyone.
Margo, I’m so sorry you’ve been ill, and so glad you’re doing better. I knew something was wrong when you didn’t comment first thing Monday morning. We miss you when you’re not here! Get well soon.
Margo-I have been worried a little…but I know you have my emails…Have also been under the weather-getting back to normal today after one week–antiobiotics kicked in-couldn’t miss work…but am dragging…next week NYC for a long weekend, so I have to get well… On another note, I thought it would be Andy cursing in frustration…
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Great point and very interesting food for thought. I’m not sure I have any clients I can replicate this with, but will bear in mind for the future. Regards