I was fifteen years old when I read a book that changed the course of my life. Not only did it reaffirm my desire to be a professional writer, it helped me determine the type of writer I wanted to be.
It is science fiction of a most unusual kind.
It wasn’t set in the future, there was no direct indication of science or technology, and the people in it fucked quite a bit. In other words, it was a lot like real life. This confounded my expectations of what a science fiction novel was supposed to be. Delany had that effect on me as a budding writer: rules be damned!
As an adolescent, I was naturally quite interested in sex. I’d never read it in literature before. (Despite what Delany himself would later assert. I have and will always, consider his seminal work literature, rather than para-literature). The book was very informative.
The first publisher of Dhalgren famously—and bravely—defended his decision to publish by stating that some of the sexual content was new to him as well. Delany doesn’t pull back from describing what is going on in any way. His descriptions are graphic and detailed.
Explicit Sex in Speculative Fiction is Rare
I wasn’t to learn until later, but he was far more detailed than I would ever encounter in mainstream fiction anywhere. Also, it was—and still is—almost unheard of for science fiction to have graphic depictions of sex in it.
The effect of this flagrant defiance of convention was two-fold. First, of the dozens of reviews of the book that came out in the weeks following its début, only one was positive. Second, it sold over 750,000 copies in 18 months and went on to sell over a million; making it the best selling science fiction novel of all time. Dhalgren was first published in 1974. As of this writing (Spring, 2020) that record still holds.
Note the difference betwixt review and demand.
The critics made very little noise about the sex; for the most part concentrating on perceived shortcomings in comprehensibility; the presence of sex where it didn’t belong (in a scifi novel) being one example.
The sex had only a marginal impact on sales. The reason is that only thirty-five out of almost nine hundred pages of the book deal with sex and the sex itself is described clinically, not erotically, another distinction that flew over my head as a teen. Those who loved the book, myself among them, did so for other, better reasons.
Why Sex in Fiction Causes Pearl Clutching
The real issue is very similar to one that the motion picture industry has wrestled with. Can you put graphic sex in a ‘serious’ movie without it becoming pornography? A few brave directors have done this in art films, but this nascent trend has almost dropped out of sight again.
Stronger than the stigma attached to these films or to the filmmakers was that endured by actors who on all cases had actual sex on film. They struggled to be considered serious actors afterward.
When it comes to putting actual sex in movies, another serious barrier is casting. Actors who are married or otherwise in sexually exclusive relationships would likely be skittish about such roles.
But I digress.
Fiction doesn’t have as serious a problem, but the prudish attitude of some—including many in the publishing industry, unfortunately—does mean that, by putting all that nasty, dirty, perverted, evil stuff in your fiction, you might have a harder time getting published. Not much harder these days, but still…
As an aside, Delany wrote a book that was extensively pornographic, called Hogg, at the same time he wrote Dhalgren. It did not find a publisher until 2006.
It’s the attitude that informs these divisions (that sex doesn’t belong in ‘nice’ fiction) that needs to be fought. In real life, when people fall in love/lust, they’ll very likely fuck at the first opportunity. That the writer concerned with writing believable characters should keep the reader on the other side of the metaphorical bedroom door out of some sense of decency is ridiculous.
If your characters get horny, let them fuck. Tell us what it looks, sounds, feels, smells and tastes like. Show us how they feel. Your readers deserve no less than the most sensually intense experience you can give them.
This is as true for sex as it is for everything else your characters experience.