|"I'm beautiful, I'm literary, please don't hurt me."|
First, I want to own up to the fact that I have not always followed this piece of writerly advice and I still don't. But I think I've come to understand the rationale behind it a little better, and I have killed my fair share of darlings more recently, and shifted others.
I'm concerned with the 'literariness' of my writing. I care a great deal about the poetics of my work. I spend time frantically trying to avoid the many cliches to which it is so easy to resort when writing erotica. When I write sex scenes, I obsess about approaching them from at least a slightly fresher angle than most of the erotica I've read. I don't believe my reader needs to be given a blow-by-blow description of intercourse, and I have a deep faith that language itself can evoke eroticism, and that you can brew metaphors that become new sites of eroticism for your reader.
But pride comes before the fall. I'm going to sound utterly arrogant when I say that I have forged erotic imagery that felt like it shone on the page, that made me think, 'wow, you're a fucking good writer'. The problem is that a lot of readers thought so too.
How can that be bad?
Well, it can. Because the moment you've forced a reader to look away from the story and think, 'fuck, what a brilliant writer I'm reading, how poetic, how eloquent!' is the moment you just kicked them out of the story. You've just interfered with your reader's engagement with the fictional world in order to show off. It's literary narcissism and it means you're more concerned with literary bukkake than telling a good story.
Let me give you a brilliant example of a darling that sorely required execution. It's from Rowan Sommerville's "The Shape of Her."
"He grasped the side of her hips, pushed her away and pulled her to him with a slap. Again and again with more force and velocity. Tine pressed her face deeper into the cushion grunting into the foam at each thrust.After being awarded the Bad Sex Award for this passage, Sommerville defended himself by saying it was a literary allusion, an homage to Vladimir Nabokov, who had been an avid amateur butterfly collector.
The wet friction of her, tight around him, the sight of her open, stretched around him, the cleft of her body, it tore a climax out of him with a final lunge. Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."
At this point, I hope you're saying 'who gives a fuck about your literary allusions?' because you have every right to. Readers deserve better than literary in-jokes and canonical masturbation. The last line is both literary and fucking awful. If you were anywhere near being aroused by the passage, that line killed your mind erection stone dead, unless you happen to be one of the very few entomology fetishists out there.
Admittedly, I've never written anything quite so eloquent or out of place as that. But I once described an orgasm thusly:
"I can feel my orgasm long before it arrives, a plane in the distance and my body the control tower. The landing lights in my belly light up to guide it in. Gary's cock has grown huge inside me and there's a pleasant dull pain each time he thrusts upwards."Oh, good god, what possessed me? Landing lights? Control tower? What was I thinking? And yet, at the time, I thought it was a wonderful metaphor. It just felt so 'right'.
Another problematic darling is the encapsulating and eminently quotable line. Rather than kill it, consider shifting it to either the beginning of the story, chapter or scene, or the end of one of those. It probably is a great line but if you impress your reader so deeply with your pithy, perfectly worded brilliance, same deal. You impress the reader with your linguistic abilities, but you interrupt their relationship with the story.
And this is not about you or how brilliant you are; it's about the story. So, when it comes to your edits, read through your piece and find those lines, phrases or passages which make you want to give yourself a manly, Hemmingway-style pat on the back. Ask yourself who is truly served by that line or phrase. Is it serving the story or your own writerly ego?