Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What's Love Got To Do With It?

By Lisabet Sarai

Sally and Harry live on opposite coasts. Although they work in the same field, they've never met. At the conclusion of a professional conference both have attended, Sally discovers her plane home has been canceled, so she decides to stay another night in the luxurious conference hotel. Harry resides only an hour's drive away, but after the intensive socializing of the conference, he's disinclined to go back to his lonely bachelor apartment.

Nursing a beer in the hotel bar, Harry can't help but notice the unusual woman sitting by herself at a corner table. He introduces himself and offers to buy her a drink. Before long they're chatting as if they'd been friends for years. Sally is charmed by Harry's chocolate-brown eyes and infectious laugh. Harry finds his companion's outspoken intelligence as much a turn-on as her voluptuous figure. Conversation gradually morphs into flirtation and then into outright groping. They adjourn to Sally's room and have the most incredibly pleasurable, mind-blowing sex in either's experience. Waking the next morning, entwined in each other's arms, they make slow, sensuous love. Sally gives Harry her business card before rushing off to catch her plane.

Ending A: Harry returns to work, but he can't get Sally out of his mind. He calls and she tells him that he's been in her thoughts, too. Harry doesn't believe in love at first sight, but he can't argue with his heart, which tells him that Sally is as close to a soul mate as he's ever going to find. He takes a leave of absence from his job, books a flight to her city, and shows up at her door at 2 AM, begging her to let him into her life. Sally's joy at seeing him overwhelms her irritation at being rudely awakened. She drags him into her bedroom, where they have loud, passionate sex. As Harry is coming, he blurts out a proposal of marriage.

Ending B: Harry returns to work. His whole world seems brighter whenever he remembers his time with Sally. He thinks about calling her, but is leery of invading her privacy. As time goes on, his memory of her face fades, but he masturbates to the recollection of her uninhibited screams as she climaxed around his cock. A year later he attends the same conference and notices a note with his name on the message board. It turns out to be an invitation to Sally's room.

Either of these synopses might describe a story I'd written. I believe that I could make either outcome plausible, sexy, and emotionally satisfying. In my view, A and B describe parallel universes. You never know how a chance encounter will play out.

In the eyes of many publishers, though - not to mention readers - A and B are far from equivalent. In the first resolution, Harry loves Sally and we presume that his feelings are reciprocated. No matter how often, how enthusiastically, and how explicitly the characters shag, the fact that there's love involved somehow raises the tale to a higher plane. Story A is not a story about sex - it's about love.

Story B, some might argue, focuses more on appetite. Clearly Harry-B feels affection and concern for Sally-B - more, perhaps, than Harry-A, who barges into her life and drags her out of bed in order to declare his love. Both Harry-B and Sally-B appear to be content allowing their encounter to stand on its own, as one of those incandescent, magical connections that sex sometimes creates - although Sally-B seems inclined to try for a repeat performance. In story B, though, Love doesn't enter into the equation, at least not overtly. Story B is erotica - or in the eyes of some, just plain smut.

The two versions of the tale might feature an equal number of moans, shudders, licks, sucks, cocks and climaxes. Nevertheless, Story A will be viewed as more worthy and more socially acceptable than Story B - just because of the L-word.

If you go to All Romance Ebooks/Omni Lit (http://www.allromanceebooks.com), you find a list of categories in the left sidebar. One category is "Erotica". Click on that link. You'll find yourself at a page that tells explains you must log in before you can see any books in that category.

On the other hand, you'll also see categories like "GBLT", "Multiple Partners" and "BDSM". Out of curiosity, I chose the latter. This time there were lots of books listed, some of which appear to include fairly intense kink. But that's okay, apparently, because the individuals involved love each other and are in a committed relationship.

I'm sorry, but this just doesn't make sense to me. Does love in some miraculous way sanctify and sanitize the sex? Don't get me wrong. Love is a wonderful thing. I'll agree that sexual experiences are frequently both more intense and more satisfying with a partner (or partners) whom you love. However, the division between erotic romance (where sexual partners declare their love) and erotica (where they don't necessarily mention the L-word) strikes me as artificial. And the difference in status is just plain unfair.

My first novel, Raw Silk, was written and originally marketed as erotica, by the late lamented Black Lace. It features a woman exploring her sexuality with three different men - plus a woman or two - trying to understand just what she really wants. The conclusion happens to fit romance conventions - sort of - in that Kate chooses the Master who has recognized and cultivated her desire for submission over her long-time lover from America or the charming, sexually-omnivorous Thai prince who's been wooing her. However, the sexual variety in the book, not to mention the transgressive nature of many of its scenes, qualifies it as erotica, at least in my perspective.

When the book went out of print, I resold it Total-E-Bound, where it has been reborn as erotic romance. Aside from some edits of vocabulary and punctuation, the book didn't change. (Of course, by that time, Black Lace had re-branded its books as romance as well.)

I had the same experience with my second novel Incognito, which presents an even wider range of sexual scenarios. Yes, there's a burgeoning romance in Incognito, but it's set against a backdrop of sex with strangers, ménage and swinging, BDSM, age play and pseudo-incest, lesbianism, homosexuality, cross dressing, exhibitionism... well, you get the picture. Yet by some strange quirk, Love makes it all okay.

These days I deliberately choose to write erotic romance stories - at least sometimes - and I've had reasonable success publishing them (though not necessarily selling them!) I'm something of a romantic at heart anyway. I have to be honest, though, and admit that I prefer the greater freedom that comes with writing stories that will be labeled as erotica. Even though they don't sell as well. Even though admitting that my characters don't always fall in love will result in my books being hidden away behind the digital equivalent of a brown paper wrapper.

Ironically, my erotica tends to be less physical and more emotionally nuanced that much of the explicit erotic romance I encounter. Even when writing romance, I sometimes find myself struggling to deliver the detailed, explicit sex scenes that seem to be popular with today's romance readers. Go figure.

I entered my user name and password at ARe, just to see what showed up in their erotica category. It's an incredibly mixed bag. Porn-like titles such as Open Your Legs for My Family and Caught in a Werewolf Gangbang mingle with romancey titles like Keep Me Safe and Trust in Me. I noticed books by erotica authors I know and respect, as well as books where the blurb made it clear that the authors could use some serious editing help.

Oh, and there were over 9000 entries. This made it pretty difficult to see whether my books showed up there. Somebody must be reading all these books, though. Certainly there are a good number of people writing them.

Erotic romance readers have some pretty weird notions about erotica. They seem to believe that sexually explicit fiction, without love, is basically trash - without plot, character development, style or suspense. I've read dismissive, somewhat insulting blog comments evincing the opinion that, if there's no love involved, it's "just porn".

Sigh. As if writing porn were something anyone could do - with skill, at least.

Sometimes I feel like shaking them. "What's love got to do with it?" I'd say. "Not every sexual experience ends happily. Not every happy sexual experience results in an ever-after. Don't you get bored knowing ahead of time how your stories end?"

They don't seem to get bored, any more than the folks who purchased Open Your Legs for My Family will be bored when they get hold of Bend Over for My Family.

Maybe, as usual, I'm just asking for too much.

11 comments:

  1. I was hoping that after the PayPal retreat, All Romance would have undone that arbitrary segregation and the log-in nonsense. But I see that the links from my website to AR do indeed lead to "you must be logged in" pages—so I'll just remove those links and stick to directing people to sites where they don't have to jump through hoops. The items in question, by the way, are two non-romance erotic novels in which the protagonists are very explicitly in love. So in a sense, the discrimination isn't only against erotica without love—they're also discriminating against erotica without a classic romance plot structure. Thank goodness for the gatekeepers who protect innocent readers from books without a classic romance plot structure!

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  3. Ending B is actually the one that made me perk up and say, "Hey, please write that story!" Maybe that's a message?

    Excellent points here, Lisabet. I think the expectations of erotic romance go beyond the ending, as you suggest with your mention of the importance of explicit physicality over intellectual nuance. Although I do find creating a believable and realistic emotional arc is harder than plotting a sexual attraction/encounter. But that doesn't necessarily make it erotic romance either. Too much uncomfortable realism also detracts for fans of the genre perhaps?

    In any case, thanks for a thought-provoking post!

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  4. "Does love in some miraculous way sanctify and sanitize the sex"

    To be really honest, I can't even get there. Love sanctifies love. Great sex sanctifies sex.

    And if I wanted something sanitized, I'd read an academic paper.

    The biggest problem for me is that A is creepy. Anyone throwing proposals of marriage around after a 3rd fuck is seriously frightening, in my books. But then, I don't read romance.

    That's not to say I don't like love in my fiction. Nor that I don't write love in my stories, because for me, the evidence of love is in the long-term way people treat each other, not in the utterances of post coital bliss.

    I like fiction I can trust. Whether it is erotic, or not. I like a story world that is ordered in ways I recognize as being vaguely realistic and probably. Otherwise, I can't suspend disbelief.

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  5. I agree with both Donna and Remittance Girl, B is the scenario that works for me. It's much more believable and A is, if not creepy, then ludicrous.

    That's not to say that I don't occasionally enjoy a good romance, but I write erotica because I find it both more realistic, in many ways and just plain hotter. But then, that's me.

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  6. Greetings, everyone! Thanks for dropping by!

    Jeremy - I'm royally annoyed with ARe. Lately I've been giving gift certificates to their store as prizes, rather than Amazon, because they've been so supportive of Coming Together. But this silliness may make me change my mind.

    Donna, RG, and D.L. - I'll wager that the majority of romance readers wouldn't bat an eye over Ending A (or things even less plausible). They seem to adore that sort of adoring desperation.

    Donna, I agree with your point about realistic emotions being harder than realistic sex, though I hadn't thought about it before. Still, there's something compelling - even to me - about the notion of instant connection that underlies Love At First Sight.

    Anyway - whatever one thinks about love and HEA, it's just plain unjust to discriminate against fiction based on its presence or absence.

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  7. One more vote for scenario B. It brings more tension, and mystery, to the growth of the characters' fondness for each other.

    This post resonates with me now. I have a short novel that I have been shopping. It has an HFN ending, but there is a sort of question mark to what will happen with the protags. The relationship between them is rocky, and their sexual development reflects this. I like these kinds of stories; they are more real in my mind's eye. But I've submitted a couple times, and gotten some warm responses, but passing on the book. I know the book isn't truly a romance, and this is limiting where I can go.

    Your observation on All Romance is fascinating. It makes no sense at all that the introduction of more direct romantic theme makes the sex more acceptable. Actually, when thinking it through, it does make sense, when considering our social mindset, and this makes a rather sad statement.

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  8. Can't say I don't write the romance side of things after reading your post, however I find myself more confused now than ever before on the entire topic of erotica.

    Maybe, it's just me but sex without some type of emotional draw just doesn't make sense really. Oh, I like ending B better too, but I see the same emotional draw there as might have been overboard in ending A. Sometimes being part after that first encounter of any kind can draw people together in ways unheard of normally.

    Is it love really in that first sexual encounter or something more on a primal level really, more about passion and possibly some type of physical or mental attraction even? If sex without love is erotica, I guess I do write a lot of this too in my stuff at times.

    The ARe site is wild. I had never been there until now. I don't understand it either about logging in to view certain things when others are open. Openness means freedom in my head too, but they do publish a lot of books, however badly written or unusual at times, it seems. At least the stories are out there and the authors can hone their craft. I still think it is bad that they make you log in for stuff.

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  9. Hi, Craig,

    Where have you been submitting?

    There definitely seems to be gap in publishing - between definite romance on the one hand and all-holds-barred smut on the other.

    From what I've read, emotional complexity is one of the hallmarks of your writing style. Your characters always seem very real. I've never thought that this could be a liability!

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  10. Hello, Damian,

    "Maybe, it's just me but sex without some type of emotional draw just doesn't make sense really."

    Oh, I agree. In fact that's why I deliberately made it clear in my little thought experiment that the attraction between Harry and Sally wasn't just a shallow physical thing.

    "If sex without love is erotica,,," I think this is the misconception that's afflicting ARe and many of my readers. Or let me flip it - erotica is not necessarily sex without love - but love is not a requirement.

    My third novel, Ruby's Rules, was rejected by my romance publisher even though it's mostly about the growing relationship between the two main characters. I think the rejection was due to the fact that 1) the protagonists also have sex with other characters and 2) there's a subplot lesbian relationship as well as the primary relationship. So it's got sex and love - but it's not viewed as romance.

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  11. Okay, I think I owe romance readers a bit of an apology. I put scenario A on my website and asked readers what they thought of it. Was it sexy? Was it romantic? Would they like to read it?

    In general the response was positive but many commented on the abruptness of Harry's proposal as being unrealistic, uninteresting (because there was no prior conflict) or even creepy.

    Many readers suggested that there needed to be more obstacles to the couple getting together. One person suggested that Sally should end up getting pregnant (Yikes!)

    However, I got lots of encouragement to write the story... In all fairness, I wrote the blog post with the slant that I was considering it. And being the honest individual I am, I may have to follow through!

    If you want to read the comments, go to

    http://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com/2012/03/i-want-your-opinion-and-im-willing-to.html

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