Reviewing fictional sex

As a reviewer I will always try to be fair in my critiques but what I write is still personal opinion. I can say what aspects of a book I enjoyed or disliked but these are feelings: enjoyment, dislike. They are a reaction that I have had to the prose, coming to it armed with the baggage of my own unique life experiences.

Part of this baggage is a strong antipathy towards sex scenes. Digressions into sex are too often voyeuristic rather than key to plot development. If sex does drive a character’s actions then I would see that is a weakness which could be more effectively portrayed by suggestion rather than detail.

In films I am turned off by those soft lit, naked romps where sheets are artfully twisted to hide male body parts whilst showing female curves being slowly caressed. I watch awkwardly and wish we could get on with the story. Don’t get me wrong, when Mr Darcy emerged from the lake in his wet shirt and encountered Lizzie in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice I was as taken by this portrayal of a new, more gentle aspect of his character as the next woman (and some men of course). I still regret that the series ended with a public kiss. Even at a wedding such behaviour struck me as inappropriate for the characters depicted.

In my own writing I have been criticised for rarely describing the outward appearance of my protagonists preferring to allow the reader to form their own mental image. I view how a character acts as more important than how they look. When I am reading a book I do not wish one character to be linked to another because of satisfying sex but rather because they make each other laugh, or admire each other’s talents or intellects. I want them to be interesting people rather than sex toys.

If one character is drawn to another by outward beauty the attraction is shallow, if by sex it is selfish. I realise that I am bringing my real life prejudices into my book preferences, but I struggle to get behind or empathise with a ‘good’ character when they display what I see as feeble tendencies.

Since the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey (which I have not read) it has become obvious that there are plenty of people who enjoy reading about sex. I therefore face a quandary each time I am turned off a book by a sex scene. I do not wish to decry the tale because of a personal dislike that others may not share, yet what is the point of a review if it is not honest?

Book reviews are written as an aid for other readers. To be useful, I cannot allow my personal prejudices to entirely colour my judgement. It is important to step back, to look critically at the quality and style of writing, coherence of character development and plot, at how compelling the story is. Once all of these have been considered though it is generally expected that a personal view will be shared. Perhaps I need to include a caveat when reviewing certain books. Perhaps that is what this is.

Random musings: Burqas and bikinis

The idea of wearing a burqa holds certain attractions. Until I am able to purchase an invisibility cloak it offers the chance to hide away from the judgemental eyes of other people. What I don’t like about this garment is the repression that it represents. It is worn because men say that it is required, because a woman’s body tempts a man to sin simply by being on display. It absolves these men of their most basic responsibility: self control.

Those who try to claim that a girl in a skimpy outfit is asking for sex are speaking the same language as those who insist on women covering themselves from head to toe in a black or blue tent. I don’t buy this argument. Any individual should be able to display themselves as they wish without fear of attack, physical or verbal. An attack is always the fault of the attacker, never the victim.

I like to read diversely. Fiction is such a fabulous way to learn about different ways of thinking. I do not tend to seek out books featuring sexually diverse characters or those with varied skin colours because I already see these people as just like me. Skin tone is of as little significance as the colour of clothes. I eat meat but have friends who are vegetarian, am heterosexual but have friends who are gay or bi. Personal preferences are not my concern, unless there is an element of coercion. I do not wish anyone to tell me how to live my life.

What I do like to read about is characters whose day to day lives are coloured by expectations that are foreign to me, whose actions are ruled by cultural differences, acceptance of which I find hard to comprehend.

I will actively seek out a book that will enable me to better understand the issues faced by a child raised in a traditional Pakistani family, or who is expected to adhere to rules laid down by a religious organisation to which their family has always subscribed. Whilst I may wonder at the way these people think, I can learn more about why traditions have developed and see benefits beside the many flaws. I can broaden my understanding and challenge my thinking; see oppressors as people who, perhaps, have never known that it can be beneficial to act in another way. I may not agree with their choices, but I can gain a better understanding of why they behave as they do.

I find it much harder to empathise with those who have been raised with the ability and freedom to decide for themselves, yet who consider it vital that they always present an outward appearance that is acceptable to those around, such as women whose main aim in life seems to be to achieve a bikini body, big hair and smooth skin.

I tend to avoid books where the heroine must be beautiful and has her life enhanced by a handsome hero who will take care of her every need. Why does she have to be beautiful to find love? Why can she not look after herself? I am not against relationships, I have after all been married for more than twenty years and value my husband’s place in my life highly. He is not, however, responsible for my happiness, that is down to me and me alone.

I support the campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks┬ábecause I recognise that there are too many people who think it is fine to have only pale skinned, heteronormative, cisgendered, able bodied protagonists. In young people’s literature especially, a more realistic physical, sexual and cultural mix matters. All children should be able to see themselves as the hero in at least some of the books that they read.

Still though, I am uncomfortable reading books that contain characters who match a huge section of the society in which I live, those who feel it is desirable to look like Ken or Barbie. I do not understand why so many fear wrinkles and grey hair, why they feel unable to don a bikini because of the very natural shape of their stomach following childbirth or because their legs are dimpled by their love of cake. I find it sad that some men are now swallowing the marketing hype and feel a need to build muscle or moisturise skin. I cannot comprehend this way of thinking.

My hankering after invisibility indicates that I am not immune to other’s judgements. I may struggle to understand why so many think so much about outward appearance, but I am affected by the knowledge that how I look generates negative comment. My antipathy and therefore avoidance of books where the young and beautiful win some mythical happy ever after may well be feeding my prejudices. If I am to gain empathy and understanding then I need to step beyond my view that these books are damaging because they sell an impossible to achieve lie, and try to better understand why they are so popular.

I decided to review a book titled ‘Diary of a Diva‘ because I expected it to be an amusing if superficial account of life from the point of view of a beautiful, media type person who moved in the sorts of circles that are anathema to me. Having read it I suspect that I wished to pat my prejudices on the head and feel quietly superior. I couldn’t have been more wrong and I feel ashamed.

I judged this book by its cover, the author by her looks and career, something that I call others out on doing all the time. This searingly honest account was as much of an eye opener as any of my chosen, foreign based reads. I had wrapped up ‘media type people’ as a vain, homogeneous mass to look down upon. It would seem that I still have a long way to go in dealing with my negative responses towards those who think differently to me. The protagonist of this non fiction book had many admirable qualities to which I should aspire.

I will wear neither burqa nor bikini because that is my choice. I will however continue to try to read more widely. The author of ‘Diary of a Diva’ was able to see and acknowledge her flaws which she then worked to improve. In reading her book I have uncovered a fair few of my own. I will try to do better.

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