Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best of 2012 (aka "Oh, How You Loved the Inessential Penis")

Since it's the last week before Christmas and everyone is running scared (*cough cough* I mean, super busy) we'll continue the character development series in January. Instead, for a bit of fun and nostalgia, I thought it was time to revisit the best of the year here at Seeking the Write Life. So this week we're turning back the clocks on our favorite posts as voted by you (courtesy of the total views).

And so, without further ado, I give you the third ranking post of the year, YA FICTION AND THE INESSENTIAL PENIS (May, 2012):

If you haven't had the distinct pleasure of reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, I won't ruin it for you with spoilers, but if you're any kind of fantasy lover (urban or not), I'd highly recommend it.

And now I'll tell you something I learned about writing sex for young adults by reading this wonderful book.

First, a quote.

The Wishmonger's voice was so deep it seemed almost the shadow of sound: a dark sonance that lurked in the lowest register of hearing. "I don't know many rules to live by," he'd said. "But here's one. It's simple. Don't put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles -- drug or tattoo -- and... no inessential penises, either."

"Inessential penises?" Karou had repeated... "Is there any such thing as an essential one?"

"When an essential one comes along, you'll know," he'd replied...

Trust me, it's both funny and thought-provoking in context.

I'm not here to start a morality debate. But having recently finished this book and entered the Rumination Phase of enjoying the story, I found it interesting to see the author taking this advice not only into the story proper, but into the story's construction.

You see, I read a lot of YA fiction. Some good, some not, some meh. One pattern I've discovered is that YA authors have a habit of choosing sides when it comes to sex. Either we're really quite open  -- at times almost graphic -- about it all, or we artfully allow the scene to fade to black before things go there.

We also like to swing for the fences in the emotional realms of sexual encounters -- either allowing the characters casual, inconsequential interactions, or creating a great deal of angst and negative pay-off.

Neither approach is wrong in my opinion. But Ms. Taylor has managed the sexual encounters in her story in a way which I really enjoyed: a character who understands sex and sexual desire (as much as a teenager realistically can), but whose thoughts and actions on the subject sit somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. And whose story is depicted similarly.

You see, the protagonist is not a virgin and the reader is given a clear idea of her experience (and inexperience). However, she narrates the backstory with just enough detail to make the encounter realistic without coloring it in shades of judgement to one side or the other.

The protagonist has both enjoyed sex and been hurt by it. But she doesn't shy away from her sexuality. Sex isn't something she's taken off the table. It's just something she's considering using with caution. (The hero has also been sexually active).

In my opinion, Ms. Taylor has achieved something rare to see in this day and age: simultaneous honesty about sex and sexual desire, without swinging to pure description (which can at times encroach on fantasy or gratification, as opposed to realistic characterization).

There were several examples, but I think this is the best:

...Sometimes he'd felt her pulse spike with jagged dreams; other times she'd murmured and reached for him, waking as she drew him against her and then, silkily, into her.

That's the extent of the mental image, but it's quite... er... comprehensive. No?

So today I just want to applaud this author's ability to be real and true to an aspect of life many teenagers have a lot of questions about, while not shying away from the potentially damaging consequences of these relationships at the same time.

She's also managed to depict sexual encounters in a way that is very comprehensive, without being graphic.

In my opinion, Laini Taylor has struck a true balance. Something I hope to emulate in my books.

Your Turn: Have you read a YA book which you felt approached sexual relationships particularly skillfully, or uniquely? What worked well? What didn't?


  1. Unfortunately, I hadn't read too many YA books with sex in them. But in the few cases I have, the protagonist both have good things and bad things happen to them.

    One notable case is Across the Universe. It's heavily implies that the protagonist, Amy, loses her virginity before the story. On the spaceship she's on, there are drug-induced "seasons" that happen on-scene but are never described graphically. However, three men spring a rape attempt on her right after. She's pretty shaken in the scene after, although later events sort of wipe the effects clean.

    I'm thinking of writing a whole blog post on the matter. From what I have seen, there are four camps: the edgy books that have a good amount of edgy sex, the medium books that talk about sex but never gets graphic if it does happen, the books that implies it but usually play coy around the subject, and the ones that are basically like "sex? What's that?".

    The fourth camp is a strange camp. Because if you're going to have a steamy romance, at least have the protagonist at least think about the whole topic at least once, even in passing. Teenagers are usually quite intrigued by the entire subject, and pretending it doesn't exist is usually...jarring.

  2. *applauds*

    You nailed it (awful pun intended).

    The last time I read a YA book and thought the sex was handled really, really well was Melina Marchetta's 'The Piper's Son'. That book is about a boy who recently started a relationship with the girl he's liked for a long time, but tragedy strikes his family and he starts screwing up his whole life - including his relationship with her. It was interesting because the protagonist, Tom, knows that he treated this girl badly after they had sex. Sure, there were mitigating circumstances... but essentially, he screwed them up. Big time. What was interesting was that a good portion of the book is Tom stubbornly refusing to think back to *that* night when they were together. Eventually, of course, he is forced to remember what happened...

    What I liked was the fact that all that thinking and remembering about that one crucial event was told from the guy's perspective. Even more, it was told from the perspective of the guy who emotionally hurt the girl and screwed up. It was very different, handled beautifully and realistically. Was very powerful to read such a raw, honest young male protagonist have such remorse about what transpired, coupled with hope that he hasn't ruined any chances with this girl irrevocably.

    1. Oooo, that sounds good. I might check it out!

      PS - the pun made me laugh.

    2. The Pun made me LOL. I got a funny look from my boyfriend. :)

    3. Nailed?

      From the words of the "wise" Rihanna: "You hit me like that!"


  3. I completely agree. Another instance that I saw it handled well is the Shiver trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater. It's sort of the artfully fade to black, but...I don't know. I just thought she did it really well.

    1. Yes, I thought she was very tasteful, though I'm not sure it was terribly realistic!

  4. Another instance on the slightly 'hotter and heavier' end of the scale was ‘Blood and Chocolate’ by Annette Curtis-Klause. She never crosses the line into 'too much' or inappropriate, but it was the first YA book I read when I thought "woah!". She writes more 'sensual' than 'sexual', and that makes all the difference.

  5. I agree re: Daughter of Smoke and Bone. It was both surprising and inspiring to see a character be so frank about her experiences (for good or ill), a character who felt realistically aware of her own knowledgeable and experience.
    (Even if she felt herself a little disproportionately knowledgeable compared to her limited experienced, as we so often feel as teens -- "been there, done that.") I like that Karou was experienced sexually without being overly confident in her sexuality. It made her seem so normal, as she was neither innocent virgin or femme fatale. She was just a girl.

    I'm excited to see what happens in the sequel...

    1. "Normal". Yes, you're right. She felt like a real teenager to me in those moments. As Danielle said above, you've 'nailed it'.


  6. Just stumbled across this post now. I loved that book, but I remember cringing at the word "silkily." It's now on my word aversion list. Just a personal thing, but ugh. Right up there with "womb" and "ointment." Agreed on all other points, though! The "inessential penises" was the moment that made me want to keep reading. :)