Saturday, June 17, 2017
Readers' perceptions are forces that cannot be stopped. I wrote last week about some of those perceptions in the realm of sex and sexuality—perceptions of sexual imagery where none exists, unintended inferences of sexualization, judgments of ethicality based on characters' sexuality, and political interpretations of depictions of sex and sexuality.
Stopped, no, but those perceptions can be guided. Last week I also wrote about some of the steps I take to guide readers' sexual perceptions toward my creative vision. It's definitely more of an art than a science—with all of the entailing imprecision and contextual subjectivities—to respect and uphold the reader's intrinsic right to think for themselves and make their own interpretations, but to also better-convey my vision by guiding readers away from thoughtlessly stereotypical perceptions.
And there's something else I can do: I can avoid the unconsidered introduction of my own sexual biases into my writing. I have an edge on most people: I'm sexually mature, sexually egalitarian, and self-aware in general. I don't run into many of the problems that so many others get hung up on: I don't see penises in everything vaguely cylinder-shaped. I don't look down on people for being in touch with their sexuality. And I don't perceive the universe through the concept of sexuality (a practice that leads to the bizarre sexualization of practically everything).
But I have my weaknesses. In particular I have a strong sexual drive and awareness, which makes me prone to sexualization: not of animals or inanimate objects, but (adult) human females. This in turn leads me to have a strong male gaze. When it comes to my writing, I realized years ago that my physical descriptions of female characters were much more frequent and sexualized than my descriptions of male ones.
We deserve a world were our collective sexualities and attitudes on sexuality don't end up screwing people. I'm also sex-positive, and am a big proponent of a world that makes space in the public awareness for people's sexuality. So, simultaneously, I fully understand the problems of the male gaze but am not ashamed of having one. It's not the male gaze itself that's a problem, but that the male gaze exerts disruptive and unbalancing power in society because of its treatment as a default. I can and do embrace my sexual gaze, as you will see shortly, but it's very important to me that I neutralize its harmful powers by adapting my writing to guide my readers' resulting sexual perceptions.
That brings me to today's topic:
The Sex Quota in My Writing
When I speak of the "sex quota" in my writing, here's what I mean: In both the length and frequency of sexual descriptions (or inferably sexual descriptions) in my writing, for whatever amount I do it with female characters I resolved to do it slightly more often and slightly earlier with male characters.
As far as I could tell, this was one of only three ethical choices available, the other two being to reduce my female sexual descriptions to parity with that of male characters, or to come clean with the reader that my story has a pronounced male gaze that I choose not to compensate for. Neither of those alternatives was acceptable to me. And, so, this is how I've done it for years: If I'm sexualizing females, I'm sexualizing males too—earlier and oftener.
Galavar the Nude
This is why Galavar is nude at the end of the Prelude, the only instance of explicit nudity in the whole book (though it can be inferred that nudity is present in the background in numerous other instances as a consequence of the battle). While rationalized in-story as Sourros removing Galavar's filthy armor to clean it (and because it is unnecessary for the mindwashing), the true purpose of this detail is to create the precedent of nudity in The Curious Tale right from the start, as these books are going to feature quite a lot of it. (I don't know about you, but personally I find the modern world's taboo on nudity quite dishonest and unsustainable.)
(For this same reason, nudity—or in this case near-nudity—is also conspicuously present early in The Great Galavar, where Galavar is wearing what is basically a thong for the Summer Spring Relay.)
It's important that Galavar is the flagbearer and vanguard of visible nudity in The Curious Tale. As the most central male character in the entire story, there can be no assertion that I've swept the matter under the rug by expressing it through third-tier characters or acts of tokenism. Galavar nude at the climax of the book: you can't miss it. And this is only the first of many instances of male nudity to come, with Galavar and others. The female nudity will happen too, but it will not happen alone.
It's also important that these early instances of nudity are non-sexualized, aside from the intrinsically sexual character of the body. Just as bodies are more than their sexuality, so is nudity more than just a sexual expression. Body positivity, animism, reverence, athleticism, and sensuality are each important to me, and invite or sometimes outright require extensive nudity. This broadening of the contexts of nudity swings around and ends up reinforcing themes of sexual positivity. How? Well, consider that, were it a female character in Galavar's place, the word that many people would come to is "tasteful" nudity. When nudity is inherently sexualized and society uses the male gaze by default, a lot of preachy misogyny ensues. By subverting sexualized female nudity with non-sexualized male nudity, I'm establishing a humanistic, egalitarian baseline to help recalibrate the views of readers whose understanding of sex is likely to be at least a little bit warped by our sexually prejudiced society and our biological predilections toward sexism. Many if not most of the instances of future nudity I would like to depict in The Curious Tale aren't intended to be sexual either. There're just there to celebrate our physical forms.
Sexualized Language in the Prelude
Another example of my sexual quota at work in the Prelude (and elsewhere) lies in my careful use of language.
Consider what to me is perhaps the most sensual and sexual body part: the hips. In my mind, I have a generic notion of "male human adult" and "female human adult." On the female version of this generic human form, there's virtually no body part that doesn't have a sexual aspect, and the hips are the pinnacle of the inexorable sexualization of my perception, because my reaction is so powerful.
Female hips are not mentioned anywhere in the Prelude; they are mentioned three times for males. Extremely subtle, yet intensely deliberate.
Here's an example of what I mean. Here is an excerpt from Silence's introduction to the Prelude:
Benzan couldn't discern if she was facing toward or away, but he imagined she was looking out into the evening, whose faerie light surrounded her form. She was tall and substantial, strong in the shoulders and full-fleshed, but slender in waist and jaw, and so even heavier than she looked.
The first thing he truly noticed about her, the detail he would remember, was how she moved. Silence was indeed facing away from them, for now she stirred at the sound of her name. At first, her head dipped slowly to the left, until he could make out the profile of her face and the twilit glint of her left eye above the cheek. Then her shoulders began to follow. They built up energy, pivoting slowly leftward, coiling her spine, picking up speed, until at once her whole body swung around as she pulled herself a pace toward them on her left leg. Her right side snapped into place beside her left, and she faced them outright, and was still again. It was Silence who had moved, but to Benzan it was he who had been drawn closer.
Now consider the first draft of that introduction that I ever wrote:
The first thing Benzan noticed about her, the detail he would remember, was how she moved. At first her head dipped slowly to the left and downward, until he could almost make out her eye above the cheek. She held that posture for just a moment, as her shoulders followed her crown. They built up power, pivoting slowly left, coiling her spine, picking up speed, until at once her hips spun around with ferocity and she faced them outright, even though her feet hadn't left the floor. Then he felt her gaze upon him.
I wasn't sure that this example would work before checking the old draft version, but I know myself and I expected that Silence's hips would have featured in my description, because they definitely appear in my personal mental image of that moment. That image of Silence standing in twilit silhouette and turning around to face the others is one of the most important moments in the story—not because of the plot, but because it is a distillation of who she is, and that includes, but is certainly not limited to, her sexuality. Sure enough, the original draft mentions her hips.
There are several reasons why I downplayed Silence's sexuality here; it's more than just guiding reader perceptions in matters of sex and upholding my sex quota. The most important reason is that it isn't actually a sexual moment in the story—something which is evident even in the original draft. It's a sexual character, but not a sexual moment.
To honor my artistic vision of that supremely powerful image, I did provide enough descriptive paint for the reader, with their own imagination, to construct the truth. For instance, as far as Silence's midsection goes, I don't mention her hips but I do insinuate their presence by mentioning that she is "full-fleshed" but has a slender waist. I did what I could to get the truth across while minimizing my own overt sexualization of her. I know there are some who will infer a comparatively narrow waist as sexual, but it's the best I could do without lying about what I saw, and, perhaps just as importantly, the final description was particularly honest to me with regard to my sex quota, by avoiding mention of body parts like hips and thighs, which I find more sexually arousing than waists.
Speaking of thighs: The same pattern applies throughout the Prelude for similar words: Chest appears five times for males and twice for females. Breast only appears once, at the beginning, when Rennem strikes Galavar "full in the breast," because even though I am not a breast-focused person I know I am in a small minority. The words thigh and bottom, both particularly sexual to me, are not mentioned at all. Again, all of this is deliberate.
The word flesh, also highly sexual to me, is the exception, mentioned nine times in the Prelude, three of which are specifically referring to Silence's body. I did that because it was necessary, and I justified it because I know it isn't as powerfully sexual a word to others on average as it is to me.
Also, "flesh" in my lexicon isn't merely sexual. It is a humanistic concept, bigger than just a euphemism for sexuality. It's quite an important idea to me, a metonymic metaphor for what it means to exist as a corporeal being. The other six instances of flesh in the story illustrate what I mean; they're quite colorful:
Even the Fortress of Galadrim, itself, denied the Hero any advantage, twisting strangely as though wrought of a dream's air, while concealing snares that to flesh proved all too real.
In this grand passageway there should have been room for the three of them to go abreast, but for all the corpses they went in file instead, Benzan in the middle, and at times they had to slow down from their jog simply to navigate all the ruined flesh.
Gregor stepped deftly around the nexus of urgent flesh and joined Galavar's trio to make a quartet, and without delay Galavar began leading them away, out toward the periphery of the market.
Galavar cast out his will from his fleshly body, and into the Great Engine, with the consciousness of God suffusing him, so that he might not lose his way.
Yet it was incorporeal, fleshless, possessing no physical form at all. This was what it was to dwell within the sentient, sapient will of another person.
One of the three instances of flesh as it pertains to Silence isn't sexual either:
With his outspread left hand he touched her back, between the shoulder blades, pressing his palm gently into her flesh, feeling the bones beneath.
Anyhow, to get back on the point of sexualized language, and its deliberately restricted presence in the Prelude: I can't stress enough that I do not consider the excision of sexuality to be an artistic goal of mine. Quite the contrary! But the quota says that I can't begin there, especially with female characters.
Intended Sexualizations in the Prelude
A quota typically involves absolute quantities—100 airplanes; 4,000 dollars—but mine is strictly relative as described above. I never intended or desired to allot a given number of instances of this and that. However, there's nothing to stop me from going back after the fact and counting up the instances out of curiosity. As it turns out, in the published version of the Prelude there are in fact only four images that were distinctly sexual to me as I wrote them and were allowed to remain in as intended sexualizations:
The first instance was not intended to be sexual in the erotic sense, and is probably the least noticeable of the four: Moments before his defeat, Rennem thinks to himself: Davoranj lay on its back, and Galavar's vengeance would be terrible. This is a rape allusion. It is a short-form crystallization of why Rennem did what he did, and what he thinks of Galavar and the Galan cause. It was also a proof-of-concept to myself—I debated putting it into the book—as to how far I was willing to go to uphold my mantra of "The reader can plausibly root for any characters in the story they want." I'm averse to using my narratorial seat to put characters that I'm rooting for on the far side of the ethical event horizon, but I'm willing to let the characters themselves do it. In Rennem's eyes, Galavar was irredeemable.
The second instance of sexuality in the Prelude was intentional only in its retention; in its creation it was completely unintentional: When Galavar and Diva hug, then draw apart, strings of human entrails hang between their filthy armors "like melted cheese." I didn't intend for that to be a sexual image when I began writing it, but it immediately struck me as a subversive one—bizarrely, I should concede; I suppose it has to do with the fact that bodies get messy during sex in a vaguely similar way. Anyhow, I decided to keep it as an opportunistic metaphor for the militaristic realities of Gala, and because I found the surprise sexualization fascinating. Also, like with the word flesh, I knew that many people would not make a sexual inference here. Because guiding reader perceptions is the key goal of the sex quota, the variable of how many people will infer sexuality makes a big difference in whether I am willing to include something in the story.
The third instance was unavoidable: Silence's introduction, as described above, the description of her physical form as she stands before the evening twilight. This is the most sensual and sexual description of anyone in the Prelude, partly because I don't do traditional physical description introductions to characters very often, and partly because, to me, she is the most sensual and sexual character in the book.
The fourth instance also concerns Silence and occupies two different parts of the text, but is considered as one occurrence: Unlike the third instance, this one was completely avoidable and ended up being the only sexual indulgence I took in the entire Prelude: During the prison cakes scene, Silence is observed to be eating with "naked greed." Then, toward the end of the book, when roasted meat arrives and the others are eating but Silence isn't because she's upset, the narrator—the disembodied narrator; me—mentions that "over the years she had fleshed out handsomely." (There's that word again.) I figured these isolated descriptions of ravenous eating and fleshiness—the only such occurrences in the book—would be a good opportunity to subtly remind the reader that Silence isn't thin, which is important to the story in several ways. (She isn't especially fat either; but she is by no means thin.) As well as setting up key character traits, this also served my purpose of using my storytelling for body positivity, and fat acceptance in particular. But, more than anything else, I just wanted to do it. Here's an instance of a force that is somewhat antipodal to that of the sex quota: In this case I felt it wouldn't be honest with the reader if I didn't convey my own impression of Silence's beauty at least once in the Prelude, because there will certainly be more of that in the future and I don't want to be one of those authors who holds something back unsustainably, leading to reader disappointment when the tenor of the books changes farther down the line. I do have a sexual gaze—there's no getting around that and I wouldn't want to try.
The Everything Gaze
You may have deduced something by now: I am not as good at, nor as motivated in, writing sexual depictions of male characters. My sex quota is an artifice, designed to serve the purpose of sexual egalitarianism that is so important to me, but I can't just snap my fingers and become bi- or pansexual. I can't turn my sexual gaze onto males. Yet the quota says I have to cook up some juicy male descriptions or sexual activities or other sexualizations if I want to do the same with female characters.
Consider this simple point of data: When writing this article, I could not remember if there are any sexual depictions of male characters in the Prelude. It seemed like the sort of thing I would have done at least once, to balance out the fact that I did it with Silence or simply to help lay foundations, but I couldn't remember. To check this I would have had to reread the entire Prelude to check, which unfortunately I didn't have the time for when I wrote this. Suffice it to say, even if there are any instances present, they would have existed solely for counterbalance. I have scant passion for depicting male sexuality.
You can see the problem here. How do I do it? How do I uphold the quota on the male side?
As it turns out, this is a much more general problem, and it faces all writers who cater to their readers to any extent. Writers often find themselves having to write things they aren't passionate about because, for whatever reason, the readers need it. In entertainment this kind of thing is a given, but in art we don't often acknowledge it. Yet it's here. It's a part of the job.
To get around the passionlessness problem, there are a number of ways I bring myself to sexualize males in my fiction:
First, I can use myself as a template. Other males don't turn me on, but I can turn myself on fairly easily. This ability, which indicates autosexuality, doesn't exist on the hetero/homo spectrum. It's the counterpart to hetero-, bi-, pan-, or homosexuality, simply a manifestation of one's ability to inhabit their own sexuality and experience sexual attraction from their own point of view rather than just through the focus on their partner. Almost everybody who isn't asexual is autosexual to some degree. I can look at or touch my hands, my thighs, my belly, my fat, my beard, and project any resulting images or feelings of arousal onto the sexualization of a male character in my fiction.
Second, I can run the sexualization of males on the page through my sexualization of females mentally. I remember the way Afiach looks desirously at a male at the story's end in Mate of Song. To be fair to myself, that wasn't entirely artificial of me; it really did seem appropriate for Afiach to experience that desire in that moment. I could taste her passion. In contrast, I also gave her a thing for beards, which was completely artificial (except inasmuch as I like my own beard) and gave me the opportunity to seize upon the male beard as a focus point for describing male sexuality and write several beard-centric sexualized descriptions in the course of the story. But the key here is that you'll notice that both Afiach's feeling of desire and her thing for beards aren't motivated by any sexual relish of mine for male characters; they're operating through the sexuality of a female character: Afiach. On the pages of Mate of Song you'll find descriptions of male bodies at these junctures, but my own mind in setting up these descriptions is much more focused on the bard's own sexuality. She's actually graysexual, but she's still a female, and so, albeit to a diminished degree, I do still sexualize her in my own perception. That's how it goes with a sexual gaze: When I write male characters desiring female ones, I personally am more interested in the female ones. And when I write female characters desiring male ones, I again am more interested in the female ones. Through discipline and genius, I use this flaw of bias to my benefit in service of the quota.
Third, often in my Curious Tale sexualizations I draw upon my awareness of the ancient Greek idealization of athleticism and proportion—for male and female characters alike, but especially for males. In particular I have taken male thighs as a strong focus point for describing male sexuality. Male thighs do not get enough praise in our present-day culture! I'm certain this is an aberration, and that social tastes will revert to the norm relatively soon. Male shoulders chests are too stereotypical, so I tend to avoid those, but male hips are fair game. So are buttocks—another Greek specialty. Galavar gets some descriptions along these lines in the course of the published portion of The Great Galavar, especially from Javelin, who is attracted to him, and there will be more of that later on in the story.
Fourth, emulation. I don't do it often, but I have on occasion written a scene with a female sexualization, and then changed the character's sex to male but kept as much of the description as possible intact.
Fifth, fat. I'm an adipophile, which exists outside of sex. So when it comes to fat males, the fat body parts readily lend themselves to description, as with female characters.
But the sixth method is by far the most important of them all: roleplaying. Like an entertainer doing their act...I'm not incapable of pretending to be, speak for, or live as something I'm not. I find great utility in looking at the motivations of the characters themselves when it comes to creating convincing displays of male sexualization. I hinted at this above in mentioning Afiach's plausible feeling of attraction at the end of Mate of Song. Well, there's a lot more of that! In the existing and planned portions of After The Hero, Chapter 1, I've made sure to think about opportunities for sexualizations of many of the male characters, including sandship captain Salish Pyail; the City Guard leaders Aroen, Farothar, and Yoshtar; proto-Resistance figures Iyus and Tayden; and others—through the characters who are attracted to them. Sometimes these attracted characters are purely theoretical—"If Aroen had a wife..." and so forth. Having other characters (even theoretical characters) to serve as point-of-view characters to sexualize male characters is effective. It is also important, because I find that saddling the disembodied narrator with this stuff is gratuitous and cheap when my only purpose is to serve the quota. So I often avoid that and instead try to organically create more occasions in the story where a character (female or otherwise) will have cause to think about a male character in sexual terms.
It's necessary, too. Female sexuality is quite present in Chapter 1. You may remember the story of Celithemis and Spade. And that's just the beginning.
Sexuality is important to the peoples of Relance, just as it is important to humans here on Earth. I want to have the credibility to depict sexuality in depth. I know I possess the intrinsic credibility, but I want readers to get an impression of credibility, since this is the currency by which I'll be able to convey my artistic vision in these matters, and I have to do that mostly on their terms—my methods, but their terms. I want to be able to depict sexual relationships; I want to be able to do sexual descriptions; I want to fulfill my hope of illustrating a world with a much healthier attitude toward nudity than ours has. So I've been working on these things all these years, and from the audience's point of view I made sure to get started right out of the gate and right at the top of the bill, laying the foundations in the Prelude (and with The Great Galavar (and with Mate of Song too, which you wouldn't know since you haven't read it)). The first book of After The Hero will continue laying foundations while also beginning to erect overlying structures that make use of said credibility.
This is the cause that my sex quota serves. Hopefully you have found it insightful and enjoyable to learn about. But if nothing else, I suppose you understand a little better today why it takes me so long to write fiction. There's so much that goes in to absolutely everything!
A few final points:
First, I intend to show relatively little onscreen sexual congress, and virtually no hardcore graphical descriptions of sex, anywhere in The Curious Tale. I don't actually enjoy reading that kind of stuff, so I'm not going to write it. I don't like writing about penises and vulvas and flowing juices. I'm very much a softcore kind of person. I love graphic, vivid descriptions of the surroundings of sex: beauty, arousal, desire, fondling, sweating, grinding, jiggling, riding. But any farther and, for me, it ruins the fun. So, if this article had gotten you worried that The Curious Tale is going to be one big porn-fest, rest assured it won't.
Second, I'm aware how milquetoast this must seem to some people. I know that there is a certain sentiment among some artists, and among some of the public more generally, to eschew all anticipatory writing and just "don't think about it so hard" or "do what you want." I get that, and I hope you'll take me at my word when I say that, to a greater extent than I think many writers do, I actually do do what I want. Sex is a special case because of how it warps things, but even here I am moderate in the concessions I make for the sake of shepherding the thoughts of the readers. You also have to remember that, to the extent creating certain reader outcomes is my goal, adapting the internal lore is a legitimate tactic.
(On a related note, I am more severe in my internal censorship than is readily apparent, especially when you consider that I don't like writing hardcore sex. There's a lot I don't say. Yet I think it's for the best that my creative intentions for my writing remain separate from, and tamer than, my personal sexual fantasies. I'm pretty sure many authors would say the same: We writers ship our own characters, just like the rest of you.)
Third, since this is a catch-all section where I can say almost anything, I suppose this is as good a time as any to note that, similar to my aversion to writing about explicit sex acts, I don't actually enjoy sexual innuendos. I don't think they're funny, interesting, or stimulating, and they're rarely clever. I'm happy to play along today for the sake of good fun, but I really could be perfectly content if I never read another dick reference. I seem to be the only male in the Observable Universe who feels this way.
Fourth, there is of course the question of whether my descriptions of male sexuality can be both passionless and convincing. Some would say no; some would say that such things cannot be faked and that even to try is a form of misappropriation. I don't agree; I'm well aware of just how fake or personally uninterested artists and performers can be in their material despite being hugely effective and winning great praise. But I'll grant that there's room for debate. You'll get to judge my effectiveness when you read my stories.
That's all for this week. Join me next week when I talk about my love of wordplay in The Curious Tale.
Until then, may you find your own bridge between creative vision and successful communication.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!