Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In Defense of Romance

By Lisabet Sarai


As erotic romance becomes increasingly popular, I've noticed a trend among authors of erotica to denigrate the genre. ER panders to readers who aren't comfortable with “real” erotica, some argue, sanitizing sex by requiring that the individuals doing the nasty be “in love”. ER is tame and conservative, according to others, not to mention stereotyped. True creativity isn't possible within the rigid constraints of the genre. ER reinforces traditional cultural mores which favor monogamous, committed relationships, especially those in which the woman is subservient to the man, the social critics complain. The happy endings required by romance just aren't realistic, runs another popular objection, and they make romance too predictable.

Recently a well-known erotica author reviewed one of my novels on Goodreads. She commented that she would have given it five stars, but she dropped her rating to four because the book was too “romancey”. This is for a novel in which the heroine is boffing three different men, as well as a spare woman or two...!

There's a kernel of truth in all of the arguments above. I've read blog posts by authors of erotic romance who loudly protest that what they write is distinct from “erotica” (or “porn”) because they're focusing on characters and relationships instead of “just sex”. It may be that these individuals have never encountered well-crafted erotica, but the stridency of their tone suggests a level of fear or repulsion associated with sexuality. (Or maybe they're just afraid of the social stigma attached to being overtly sexual.)

Some erotic romance is indeed tame and conventional, by my standards at least, focusing as it does on vanilla sex initiated mostly by the male. On the other hand, some folks enjoy vanilla erotica, too. And yes, I get annoyed with romances where marriage seems to be the ultimate goal in life, but these days there are plenty of ER stories where matrimony is never mentioned.

Predictability is a huge challenge for a romance author. In some ways, the HEA or HFN required makes crafting a romance more difficult than producing a tale construed as erotica, which is free to end ambiguously or even badly for the characters. Romance readers know, at some level, that everything will work out. It takes consummate skill to create narrative conflicts so compelling that readers will wonder just how a happy ending could be possible. It's tough, but it can be done. Erastes' M/M romance Standish sticks in my mind as a tour de force in this regard. Twenty pages from the end, I couldn't imagine how the protagonists could ever reconcile, yet when they did, I found the resolution completely believable.

A lot of the romance I read is boring – poorly crafted, with amateurish language, hackneyed premises, cardboard characters and implausible or sometimes non-existent plots. However, there's plenty of awful erotica out there, too. Those of us who hang out at ERWA don't tend to see it as much, but spend a little while browsing the self-styled “erotica” on Amazon if you don't believe me. The explosion of e-publishing and self-publishing has resulted in a flood of terrible books in pretty much every genre. There are probably more of them labeled romance than anything else, simply because romance is the single most popular category of books.

I write for both audiences. Based on comments I've seen on the ERWA Writers list, I think some erotica authors harbor some serious misconceptions about erotic romance.

Romance has changed – a lot. For a great discussion of romance then versus now, check out Sheila Claydon's recent post at Beyond Romance (http://lisabetsarai.blogspot.com/2013/07/metrosexy.html). No longer are heroines wimpy and helpless, just waiting to be saved by the big, blustery alpha male. They're not shy or reluctant about sex anymore, either, worried about preserving their virginity or hankering to make a good marriage. The more realistic HFN (happy for now) is a perfectly acceptable alternative to happily ever after.

Today's erotic romance celebrates sexual pleasure every bit as enthusiastically as erotica, and includes many of the same activities – oral sex, anal sex, group sex, exhibitionism and voyeurism, sex toys, bondage, discipline, whipping, spanking, piercing, branding, knife play. You'll find casual sex in romance too, though the participants usually end up in a more enduring relationship as opposed to simply going their own satisfied ways afterward. And of course, these days romance doesn't have to be straight. Gay ménage is very popular, as is bisexual (M/M/F) ménage. The market for lesbian romance appears to be smaller, but still energetic and loyal.

Am I trying to argue that there's no difference between erotica and erotic romance? Of course not. However, the dividing line isn't sharply defined either. Several of my own novels, originally written as erotica, are now being sold as erotic romance. Indeed the erotica versus erotic romance dichotomy may be more a question of different target markets than clearly different content (at least in the aggregate).

Meanwhile, I believe that the popularity of romance has benefits for erotica. Erotic romance has helped readers become comfortable with stories about sex and has aroused their curiosity about more extreme or novel activities. Of course the publication of FSOG has accelerated this trend, but the drift in readers from pure erotic romance toward erotica has been going on for quite a while.

Erotica sales lag romance, but they've still grown phenomenally since the advent of ebooks. I think we're seeing significant spillover. When romance readers want a bit “more” - more extremes of emotion, more breaking of taboos, more surprises – they turn to erotica.

Some of you may be shaking your heads right now. You're wondering if an alien has slipped into the skin formerly occupied by Lisabet Sarai, because this post seems to contradict things I've written previously. It's true that in the past I have lamented the co-opting of erotica by erotic romance. It does bother me that publishers like Cleis, who previously focused on exceptional literary erotica, now targets the romance reading community with many of their titles. Black Lace flipped years ago, from “erotica by women, for women” to erotic romance. Eighty percent of new publishers who want erotic content also specify that they want a relationship and at least a happy for now resolution.

I'm starting to become a bit more comfortable with this development, however. Publishing is a business. The erotic romance audience is many times larger than the audience for “pure” erotica. It makes sense from a financial perspective to give those readers what they want. I'd much rather have readers introduced to explicit romance via the quality writing in a Cleis anthology than through some of the alternatives. And Cleis does still field calls for books with no romance elements required.

Some members of our community believe that the ascent of erotic romance is a dangerous development for erotica – that it is the essence of erotica to explore the edgy, uncomfortable aspects of sexuality that might send romance readers screaming and that romance is blunting those edges. I know I'm going to get some flak for this column from Remittance Girl and Donna George Storey, for instance. Look, though, at what these authors are doing in response to the romance boom. They're starting their own presses to publish more transgressive stories. They're self-publishing tales that don't end happily. And they're finding readers – perhaps not millions, but more, I contend, than they would have if erotic romance were less popular.

Which brings me to a final theory as to why erotica authors tend to diss romance. We're jealous. Heck, I admit that I'm jealous, and I actually publish erotic romance, though my books are apparently too far from the mainstream to sell zillions of copies. We resent the fact that our worthy literary endeavors remain obscure while sloppily written, derivative romance sells. We rail against the fact that the number of people who want to read happy endings far exceeds those with broader preferences.

That's not the fault of the romance genre. And I think we need to get over it, because bitterness and envy don't necessarily foster creativity.


20 comments:

  1. Lisabet, I've been calling my books contemporary erotic romance because I don't want anyone to read them expecting euphemisms. But by your definition, my books are vanilla, since one woman and one man are the focus. Since good sex is the glue that binds any 2 or more people together, I can't write a romance without showing how good it is for both of them.

    There are no alpha-hole heroes, nor TSTL heroines. But even my own brother told me I'm "hopelessly vanilla". So I don't give him free copies of my books anymore, lest I bore him.

    But how else should I label books with graphic sex scenes other than erotic romance? This is a serious question for me. Anything that both of the participants enjoys is included in my books, but there is a HEA.

    I live in a predominantly religious town where I have to use a pen name because if anyone living here read what I write I'd have crosses burning on my front lawn (and I used to lead a Girl Scout troop!) But I'm too boring to be edgy. So what do I call my books?

    And FYI, I labor in obscurity as so many of us do. I'm still waiting for the new flavor of the month to change from BDSM to "strong female meets hot male, they have mind-blowing sex, he decides she's 'the one', and spends the rest of the book convincing her." Alas, not happening.

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    1. Fiona, I really related to your comment because I also have been accused of being vanilla because most of my work involves a committed heterosexual couple. In some ways, that's the most radical erotic fiction you can write ;-). However, stepping back, pretty much any kind of sexually explicit fiction is denigrated in some way or another. It's too this or not enough that, whether we're talking "shocking" sex (seriously, is there anything new?) or the conformity to genre rules. What we have to keep doing is writing what we care about and our books will find readers. Or if the money-making stories don't come naturally and you care, study up on the formula and try our best, just as anyone else does to make money in work that isn't instinctive to them.

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    2. Fiona - I believe that your "strong female meets hot male..." story line is still the dominant one in romance. And I agree with Donna, it is becoming pretty radical NOT to include spanking in your stories.

      I get really annoyed because I was writing BDSM more than a decade ago - not because it was fashionable or shocking (most of my BDSM is the opposite of shocking) but because it moved me personally. Nobody paid any attention...!

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  2. Hey Lisabet, great post. I don't disagree with anything you said, but your post did get me thinking that there's no reason sexually explicit writing HAS to fall into any particular category. In mainstream fiction, we have stories that entertain but end up reconfirming certain values and stories that try to challenge assumptions, but somehow the addition of sex makes everyone want more rules! With, perhaps, the exception of a rare time in the 1960s and 1970s, the confirming flavor has always been more popular and lucrative than the (ultimately) less predictable, less comforting approach.

    Besides, like poetry, the restrictions of a genre can sometimes be very challenging to write and satisfying to read. I know your work has added a lot to erotic romance.

    As I mentioned above, I've been accused of being vanilla for focusing on couples and usually celebrating good sex within a relationship. So in effect, I'm as much of an erotic romance writer as anyone!

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    1. Donna, I'd love to say "screw the genres, forget the rules". In fact I played with that concept in my latest novel Rajasthani Moon. It deliberately piles on aspects of as many genres as I could think of: steam punk, BDSM, menage, paranormal, Rubenesque, Bollywood... I just got my first substantive review. The reviewer liked it, but she found it confusing, because I kept violating her expectations!

      I really enjoy pushing things as far as I can go within the ER envelope - not sexually, necessarily, but by flaunting the conventions.

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  3. Remittance Girl is HOT I wanna romance her

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    1. It's not effective if you don't leave your name, honey.

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  4. This is a great post, Lisabet. You make a very strong point that great creativity within literary constraints is not only possible, but a masterful literary challenge that can lead to marvelous work.

    You're not going to get any flack from me. But I must tell you that I started BBP (with a few other erotica authors), not to circumvent the publishing demand for erotic romance, but to circumvent the no-go subject matter of regular erotica publishers. We do, in fact, publish some works that follow romance conventions.

    I agree that the explosion of popularity of erotic romance in the last decade has given readers a greater comfort level with explicit sex in text and I think that has benefited everyone who wants to include more realistic portrayals of sex in fiction of any kind.

    I'd love to cop to being envious of the economic success of ER, but that simply isn't the case. My 'bitterness' is over the homogenization of tastes and expectations in readers. And it extends to a lot of other mediums too. Economics has always driven culture, and there have always been content producers who jumped on the 'me too' wagon. But up until relatively recently, the business practice of 'bucking the trend' was also a viable business model. This is no longer the case.

    Although I will readily agree that there are some very well written, extremely creative examples of erotic romance, but they are far from the majority. The vast majority of it models a rigid, insipid and unrealistic model of human relations. And I believe the ubiquity of it is slowly but surely training an enormous number of readers to a very narrow tolerance of representation.

    Added to this, the computational systems by which searches are performed and alternate titles are suggested to readers on places like Amazon reinforces and perpetuates this homogenization.

    Both current models of business practice and structures of online search push any given reader towards sameness. I think this is, culturally, a rather frightening problem. It doesn't broaden horizons for readers. It does the exact opposite.

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    1. I wholeheartedly agree with your comments about homogenization, especially the way that digital media and commerce amplify that effect. "You liked this? Here, try some more!"

      It's actually funny. I often visit Amazon to get buy links for authors I host as guests on my blog. So now Amazon offers me suggestions regarding their books, and others like them - even though I've never read them.

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  5. Hi Lisabet!

    I don't have that much to add, I mosty come here to listen and learn. Other than yours and RG's I haven't read that much that comes close to erotic or romance, although I did read a lot of romance novels when I was a kid without realizing that was what I was reading.

    In the end its a business. We write what the story fairy gives us and try to fit it in. In the end we read what we would love to read if someone else had written it.

    Garce

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    1. Thanks, Garce,

      When I started writing for publication, I had no concept of genres whatsoever.

      Ah, sweet innocence!

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  7. Hi Lisabet,
    Great blog, very interesting, and you have clarified Erotica and Erotic Romance for me. I used to always get the two mixed up. Some of my books that I call historical romance may well be historical erotic romance.

    Regards

    Margaret

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    1. Hello, Margaret,

      Thanks for dropping by. I honestly don't think there is a hard and fast definition. Anyway, we have to write what moves us, never mind the labels or the rules.

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  8. i always enjoy your writing, Lisabet. i don't really care what it's labelled as. for me, the label matters less than the author's name. if i have enjoyed a book by a particular author, i will seek out further work by that author. this has caused me to read noir, fantasy, romance, even a graphic novel or two. genre labels, in my opinion, are necessary for marketers & publishers, but are not important to me as a reader. i have no loyalty to one particular genre over another. i'm a slut. i'll read anything ;) (well anything good at least)...

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  9. I think readers have their own definition of erotic and erotic romance, and even plain romance. What's wild to one might seem tame to another. I'm thinking hard of calling my next series just romance, because when I say erotic romance many folks equate it with BDSM or M/M, the two popular sub genres right now. Times change so fast, though. Who knows what will be in vogue next year?

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    1. Hi, Naomi,

      Nice to see you at ERWA!

      You're right, the labels are interpreted differently depending on both the reader and the publisher. However, I don't think you should try to keep up with what is "in vogue". Write what moves you. Then create a blurb that communicates the degree of explicitness, and let the readers decide.

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