In Defense of PWPs
I've always tripped over the PWP label, although not for the reasons
you might think. I like sex in my fic, as both reader and writer, if it's provocative, complex and relevant. But that's the same criteria by which I evaluate all narrative. No, the label irritates me, like some prickly hair shirt, because it's often used to impose a false binary between plot and sex, uncritically privileging the former. We're supposed to assume the inate superiority of sexless stories. After all, how could poor sex possibly compete with the revered sir Plot?
The answer is simple: it shouldn't have to. Sex and plot are unfairly polarized,which becomes apparent when we consider even a basic definition of the latter. And I think we should: too often discussions of plot limit its vague perimeters; instead, personal taste and bias masquerade as legitimate critique. I'd like to return to the basics here and briefly examine this broad and elusive term before examining the implications for PWP.
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines it as "The plan, design, scheme, or pattern of events in a play, poem or work of fiction; and, further, the organization of incident and character in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or reader. In the space/time continuum of plot the continual question operates in three tenses: Why did that happen? Why is this happening? What is going to happen next--and why?" (To which may be added: And is anything going to happen?)"
The co-editors of the Longman Introduction to Fiction add, in their definition of theterm, "To have a plot, a story does not need an intense, sustained conflict...Although a highly dramatic story may tend to assume a clearly recognizable structure, manycontemporary writers avoid it, considering it too contrived or arbitrary."
Plot, as these sample definitions show, is a rubric that can subsume an infinite number of stories, and is certainly applicable to ones focusing on sexual relationships, since it promises all and nothing. It's about connections and patterns, structure and development, elements to be found in a so-called PWP, and not simply on a literal level, as in "Will X come within ten minutes of hardsucking, or twenty?' A sex-heavy story that asks only that question, or similar ones,would certainly warrant criticism. But so would any fiction posing only a single question of its readers.
A sex scene is no different than any other action scene: if it's one-dimensional, it's uninteresting. Writers who can carry off dialogue, characterization and description in non-sexual scenes can certainly do it when nudity's involved. After all, what's the difference? Sex merely provides authors with another grid on which to lay their other narrative skills. To plot them, as it were.
A good writer will ensure that sex isn't just fuck-by-numbers, but a legitimate means to explore character or other respectable literary actions. So the failing, then, isn't with the genre. It's with the execution. That is, a narrative emphasis on sex doesn't necessarily preclude the essential elements of plot. A crappy story is a crappy story, and fiction that divorces itself from sex can and often does choke on its own inadequacy, where the only question the reader's asking is, "When will this bloody thing end?" The deployment of conventional plot (maybe) guarantees a structure narrative, a linear progression from A-Z. It does not dictate development, which is the heart not of plot, but of good writing.
Rather than rejecting so-called PWPs, we need to convince writers and readers that sex is a valid tool for expressing character, developing action, fostering tension. Afterall, sex itself is hardly unliterary. Great writers have used it often and well, from Sophocles to Chaucer to Rushdie to Atwood. Its presence in a story, even its dominance of a narrative, doesn't automatically invalidate that story.
I've read a number of sex-heavy narratives in various fandoms, and have found the essential elements not only of plot, but of powerful story-telling. Often the strongest of these are not labeled PWPs, arguably because the derogatory connotations would limit the fic's appeal, although, in a technical sense, the definition applies.
Sex doesn't ruin a story. Bad writing does. Let's not confuse the two.