Sex in the Fantasy Genre

May 22, 2016

If you’re a regular here on the site, you know that I’m a big fan of the fantasy genre. My novel Rogue: Time Out Of Mind is currently being published on Juke Pop Serials, and I’ve been reading Tolkien since I was five years old. Since falling in love with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I’ve gone on to read Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore, Robert Jordan, and many others. I talked here on the site a few weeks ago about my opinions regarding the quality of the writing of some of those authors. Terry Brooks is an interesting case. He’s best known for his Shannara series, which spans some two dozen books and recently spawned the Chronicles of Shannara series on MTV (I tried giving it a chance but it was clearly intended for a teen audience, and I couldn’t get into it). I first read a Terry Brooks novel, The Druid of Shannara, when I got it for fifty cents at a book sale at my local library. I’d never heard of Brooks, but the book looked interesting, and I was impressed with the quality of the writing. The characters were well developed, the language was clear and concise, and I found it easy to become invested in the story. But there was something that I noticed with Brooks’ writing that I thought bears mentioning, or, I should say, there’s a lack of something. There’s no sex scenes. In fact, there’s hardly even any reference to the sexual act. It’s like it doesn’t exist; in this world of elves and ogres and trolls and every manner of fantastical creature, bumping uglies, which happens every day here on the “real world” is glaringly absent.

Now, I’m not saying that as a criticism, necessarily. Look at Tolkien. It’s the same. There’s absolutely no sex, nor even, it feels like, the possibility of any sex, in The Hobbit or the Rings trilogy. Aragorn and Arwen love each other, presumably, but to hear Tolkien tell it, they probably express that love with a hearty handshake. It’s like that for several other fantasy writers too. Robert Jordan doesn’t really have any sex scenes in the Wheel of Time books. At least R.A. Salvatore hints clearly at sexual attraction occasionally in his writing, even if it’s just to speak about, in passing, the swell of some buxom bar maid’s chest.

So, why should that matter? Am I just sex obsessed, or are those fantasy books that don’t mention sex automatically inferior in some ways to those that do? Well, that’s certainly a matter of opinion, but here’s one thing that I’ve noticed. There is one author that doesn’t shy away from graphic sex scenes in the fantasy genre, and you know who that is? George R.R. Martin, writer of the Game of Thrones series, the most popular fantasy series, bar none, in the past two decades. I hardly need talk about the widespread popularity of those books. The HBO series has routinely scored the highest ratings for a scripted TV show in television history. I’ve both read the books and watched the show, and there’s nudity and sex galore, on the screen, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the pages. I mean, a major plot thread that opens the first novel involves the Lannister twins being involved in an incestuous relationship, and it’s not just hinted at. We have it described in graphic detail, and while some people would never admit to wanting to read about such scandals, would never admit to desiring such crude imagery, I have no problem saying that I like reading about graphic sex in fantasy…or in other genres as well. I’m not saying I want my literature to be inherently pornographic, because then we’re just talking about erotica, and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, what I look for, ideally, is titillation that is not gratuitous. It can be a fine line, but I admire authors that don’t mind hunting for it. It spices things up. It’s better to have it than not to have it.

I think Tolkien is the greatest fantasy author ever, or at least that I’ve ever read, and he accomplished the high drama that he was looking for in his fiction without sex. It is therefore possible to separate one from the other. But the second greatest fantasy writer I’ve ever read is probably George R.R. Martin, so we also know that it’s possible to be salacious and it doesn’t hurt your writing at all. So, ultimately, here’s where I land on this thing. I like fantasy worlds where the characters lust after one another, because that’s what people do in real life, and fantasy with a touch of reality makes writing in this genre more compelling. Yes, we’re reading about lands where there are inhuman creatures and fantastical monsters, but that doesn’t mean a character’s motivation should be unrecognizable, and lust is a near-universal human trait. It’s nice to see it talked about and expressed on the printed page, because in my mind, it means that the author is treating his or her reader like an adult, who is capable of reading about grown-up situations. That doesn’t seem to be the case so much with someone like Terry Brooks and his Shannara series, where, like Tolkien, there’s this sort of sanitized fantasy…no sex, violence without that much gore, and no profanity. It’s still fun reading, still fulfilling reading. But it doesn’t pack quite the same wallop as Game of Thrones, because Martin is a writer who understands that a lot of the social misfits who read his books are sexually repressed little horn dogs who want to hear descriptions of unrepressed carnality. So yes, different fantasy strokes for different folks. But I have to say I’ve never thought less of a fantasy writer who wanted to spice up their writing by spelling out what their characters wanted to do to each other, other than gaze wistfully into each others’ eyes.

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