Sex, Booze & Pushing Boundaries

The characters in my new psychological thriller, THE NEIGHBOR, drink a lot. And I mean a lot. How much drinking is too much in a novel? Is it a case that you’ll know it when you see it. The same goes with sex in a crime novel. Can there be too  much of it?

When it comes to pushing boundaries, the writer of crime fiction must be weary of going too far. Gratuitous sex or violence can often take away from the plot and leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Considering that the majority of readers are women, finding this line can be tricky.

John Cheever and John Updike featured many alcoholics in their stories, as did Raymond Carver. Their books were primarily literary fiction and so they could get away with it. Stieg Larson had many graphic scenes in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, but I felt it worked in the context of his plot. Graphic sexual content also depends on the novel’s genre. It worked in FIFTY SHADES OF GREY because the book fell into the category of erotic romance. Women accepted the sexuality in this book because the main characters loved one another—meaning the sex was not gratuitous.

Are there lines in crime writing that cannot be crossed? I suppose that’s up to the individual reader, but for me, as a writer, there are definitely lines that can’t be crossed. Rape and pedophile are two examples. I remember reading a book once that rather abruptly included one of these scenes. It offended and repelled me as a reader and I couldn’t finish it. Maybe there are writers who could pull this off, but I would never include graphic scenes of these kinds of acts. I think a writer can allude to it in their fiction, because this after all is a reality of criminal enterprises, and the crux of man crime stories, but they should never detail the acts.

Otherwise, I encourage writers to push boundaries. Gratuitous of anything for the sake of shock value always plays second fiddle to emotional profundity. Yes, people are alcoholics, but showing too much of it will turn people off.

Now let me leave with you with some levity. Here’s an excerpt from a finalist for the 2017 Bad Sex Writing award.

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet

“He puts his hands on Bianca’s shoulders and slips off her low-cut top. Suddenly inspired, he whispers into her ear, as if to himself: ‘I desire the landscape that is enveloped in this woman, a landscape I do not know but that I can feel, and until I have unfolded that landscape, I will not be happy …’

Bianca shivers with pleasure. Simon whispers to her with an authority that he has never felt before: ‘Let’s construct an assemblage.”


About joesouza

I am a writer of crime novels
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2 Responses to Sex, Booze & Pushing Boundaries

  1. Joe, Great post! I totally agree.
    You nail it when you say writers have to be able to pull it off — if they can’t, it can be so off-putting they’ve lost a reader for life.
    One of my characters drinks quite a bit and a reader asked me after my second book when his alcoholism “would be addressed.” I don’t know if he’s an alcoholic or not — he has a lot of other things to deal with. But I’m a big advocate of allowing characters certain behavior without it becoming a public service announcement or getting preachy as long as it fits in with the bigger picture.
    I also think writers should try to push the boundaries as far as voice and other types of content go. If they’re confident with what they’re saying, they shouldn’t feel hampered in a way that makes their books generic or formulaic, or make their characters conform to what people think is acceptable. Real life isn’t like that, books shouldn’t be either.
    As far as sex goes, I’m reminded of a time my youngest sister read “Summer,” by Edith Wharton when she was a teenager. One of the characters became pregnant and my sister said, “I keep going back and re-reading, but I can’t find where she had sex!” I think if the sex is important to the plot, it should be there, but we don’t need all the body parts doing the things they do to get the point across, since readers have such varying degrees of what works for them. Subtle, like Edith Wharton, only us instead.
    SPOILER: One boundary I’ll never cross (besides the obvious ones) is killing an animal. It’s funny, the readers of my current manuscript seemed to be as upset about the protagonist’s dog disappearing as they are about one of the main characters disappearing.

  2. harper1852 says:

    I want to know why so many women liked 50 Shades of Gray. It was poorly written. A Harlequin novel on Rohypnol. I’m a hopeless romantic as in Jane Austen/Mr. Darcey. The S&M scene turns me off.

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