I’m taking a short story class out at OU this fall. It’s the one I mentioned in the English department, where the professor claimed fantasy and science fiction stories don’t feature complex, compelling characters.
Bah. That still makes me angry. I’m going to get myself in trouble in that class if I’m not careful.
Still, setting that issue aside, it’s already been an incredibly valuable class. We started off the first week by reading and reviewing three published short stories. That gave us a chance to practice providing feedback and developing discussion through the class’s internet forum, and it gave the professor an opportunity to tell us what kind of discussion he found productive and what kind he didn’t.
And while we were reading and discussing those short stories, half the class was also hard at work writing short stories of their own. By the start of the second week of class, those stories were posted on the website, and we were all required to read, review, and discuss them.
It’s interesting seeing what people get up to when there aren’t dragons and laser guns cluttering up the scenery. For the most part, they get up to precisely the same things. The death scenes just aren’t as exciting.
But there are certainly death scenes! Mainstream fiction is grim. In that first week:
- We saw an innocent family (including women and young children) ruthlessly and senselessly gunned down by escaped convicts.
- We saw a bunch of miserable WWII-era workers at an explosives factory in Britain watch the new guy show up and die of a heart attack.
- And we saw a teenage veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder come back from Afghanistan or Iraq, watch his destitute mother get evicted, and make his own plans to senselessly murder his family (including women and young children).
And…well, we all took our cues from that. In week two:
- We saw a grown man watch helplessly as his father killed himself with unhealthy habits.
- We saw a young woman sabotage her life and a pretty happy-seeming relationship with reckless spending and alcoholism, and then she tried to solve her problems by robbing her father and grandmother.
- And we saw a girl with a traumatic past and trust issues open herself up to a new relationship with a seemingly perfect man…and find him to be a neglectful drunk with no regard for her at all.
Now we’re at the end of our third week, and the second half of the class has submitted their short stories (and I’m included in that set). And I have to say, we’re keeping the tradition alive.
But I want to talk briefly about something we saw in that last story from week two. The girl’s perfect new man is healthy and handsome and self-confident and rich. He’s also chaste. That works out perfectly for the reticent protagonist. (A little too perfectly, really.) Then, two-thirds of the way through the story, just as we’re easing into the climax….
Well, they get together and ease into a climax. It’s explicit. It’s not dirty. The whole point of the scene is how healthy and natural it is for the two of them, so the author took pains to paint it that way. But that didn’t stop her painting it in high resolution.
I don’t read a lot of sex scenes. I know blinked in surprise when I realized that was where the narrative was headed. I’m pretty sure I squirmed in my seat, and tried hard not to think about the fact that I know the person who wrote it. I got past it, fell back into the conflict of the story, and went on editing.
When we’d all gotten around to reading it, we carried on the mandatory discussion on our class forum. We spent most of a week talking about it before anyone even mentioned the sex scene. At last, on the last day of open discussion, one of my classmates (another dude) piped up:
I’ll risk sounding like the pervert of the class, but I’m going to go ahead and admit it. The sex scene was the most convincing piece of narration in the entire story for me and because of that, it was one of my favorite moments.
I had to admire his courage for coming out and saying that. More importantly, I had to agree with his points. The purpose of this discussion is to provide criticism and feedback so we can all get better at writing (which is something I happen to believe in), and he was spot on. In terms of storytelling, the sex scene was the best writing in the whole piece.
So I went ahead and chimed in, too:
Yeah, I have to agree with that last point. I really don’t enjoy reading sex scenes, but that was probably my favorite scene in the story for all the reasons you listed.
Nobody else replied at all. (The author’s not allowed to.) So that was the end of the conversation. I wish it hadn’t been. I wanted to hear what everyone else thought. But, also, I worried how people would respond to my own comment. Lacking a spoken response, I was just left guessing.
And, of course, I made up some horrible guesses. I imagined everyone judging me. I read and reread my own comment, trying to think how it would be interpreted. And the bit that bothered me most was there in the middle, “I really don’t enjoy reading sex scenes.” In this semester packed with the dreadful miserableness of the human condition, I complained about the sex scene.
I laughed when it struck me: The first commenter worried he’d sound like a pervert for his post. I only replied to agree with him, and ended up worried I’d sound like a prude.