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April 1st, 2009

12:18 PM

Yet another blog post about erotic romance

The recent discussion at Dear Author about RWA's exclusion of erotic romance from its hollowed halls does bring up an interesting topic: how do you define erotic romance? We have historical erotic romance, fantasy erotic romance, contemporary romance... do we judge them all together side by side? And then there is another matter brought up: what makes an erotic romance such? For example, Lora Leigh started out writing for Ellora's Cave, but I hesitate to consider her Breed books for her current publisher "erotic" because they are nowhere near the spice level of her Ellora's Cave books. Same with Sara McCarty, Anya Bast, and other authors whose dead tree books are nowhere as "hot" as their electronic offerings.

The definition of "erotic romance", I suspect, will also differ from romance community to romance community. For example, the more conservative folks at All About Romance will probably consider Stephanie Laurens' books as an erotic romance because most of them have not or will not touch or will not admit to touching an Ellora's Cave book, judging from their "EEEEK!" to anything revolving the rear end.  Dear Author folks will have a more "adventurous" perception of what erotic romance is. I bet the folks who patronize sites devoted to erotica/erotic fiction will have an even more "adventurous" perception - Ellora's Cave books probably make them yawn.

So how do we define "erotic romance"? By the amount and nature of sex acts contained within? I suppose we can produce our calculator and start keeping count of the number of words allocated to sex scenes and then set a minimum number for a book to meet in order to be considered erotic romance. But this is such a dry and clinical method, I'd let the accounting types out there tackle this matter. Just mentioning this makes me feel sleepy already, heh.

As for the nature of sex scenes, this is quite a touchy subject, since it allows people to judge sexual behavior and label them into what is "romantic" and what isn't. Still, it does seem for now that anal sex, BDSM lite, polyamory, and in some quarters, gay sex are automatically equated to erotic romance. Is this the right way to determine what makes an erotic romance? It's probably the easiest way, I suppose, but it's not one I am comfortable with as I feel this method invites some people to consider certain sex acts as "not romantic" and use that as a platform to judge people who enjoy reading such stuff. But "erotic" is such a subjective word. I've found, personally, Liquid Silver Books' "Sterling Silver" line, which is supposed to be a less explicit imprint, to be so far more erotic than their Molten Silver line because I find it more erotic when certain sex acts are left to the imagination and feelings come into play alongside the sexual mechanics. To me, such stories are erotic. But they don't fall into the category of "erotic romance".

I suppose we have no choice but to settle for the simple "anal sex, etc = erotic romance" definition or "more than X number of words are devoted to sex scenes = erotic romance" unless someone can come up with something better?

But even if we use sex acts as a parameter to determine what makes or makes not an erotic romance, where does that leave certain sex acts that are not arbitarily determined by the powers that be as romantic? For example, where does that leave a romance where the couple have a fetish for golden showers and let everything go, er, WHEEE!!!! during the happy moments? Even if the couple is in love, will this be considered erotica instead of erotic romance because of the kink present in the sex scenes? I have seen the same people defending erotic romance sometimes act in moral outrage when presented with actually perfectly acceptable kink in certain people, like golden showers, shaving of one's body bits, cream pies and other creative ways to finish a sex act, and such. (I also find it amusing that some female MM authors will go YUCKS! GROSS! at the idea of two gay men getting it on in a dirty toilet cubicle or against a back alley wall when these particular scenarios are pretty much  stereotypical set-ups in gay erotic fiction. But that is a topic for another day - the differences between erotic MM stuff written by straight females versus that written by gay men.) 

While I can't say I personally enjoy reading some of these more "alternative", let's just say, kind of sexual behavior, I don't think it is my right to condemn these acts as "unromantic" or assume that the practitioners must be deviants of some kind. But at the same time, I wonder whether, if erotic romance is ever established as a category for the award, we will have to find a way to accommodate the less mainstream kind of erotic romance.

And then we have MM erotic fiction. (There are some FF ones too, I suppose, but... oh, who am I kidding? "GLBT" is just a nice politically correct way for the publisher to say, "Look, gals, we have MM stories, woo-hoo!") Will they compete in the same category as MF erotic fiction? Also, anything MFM seems to be considered hot reads even if the sex scenes aren't explicit, so do we put them in the same category as MF erotic romances as well? Many mainstream romance readers and reviewers will act as if they are treated with a scene of a puppy being torn apart if they come across two guys holding hands, much less kissing or more, so do we then have to put warning stickers on the books being sent to the judges of the competition? "Warning: anal sex on pages 44, 168, and 334!" "Caution: boys rimming each other on page 55!" "Caution: the heroine initiates oral sex on page 183!" Will we get remarks from judges like, "Yucks! The heroine swallows! This isn't romance, this is Satanic trash!" or "I love my anal sex scenes, but this is so gross because the men are having sex on the floor of an adult theater. Think of the germs! The discarded popcorns! This is not romance, this is trash! The author must be a MAN in order to write such unromantic MM scenes!" or "I can't believe that hero actually reaches out to touch the big fat dong of the man standing in the urinal next to his! SEX IN A MEN'S ROOM IN A TRUCKER'S PIT STOP IS DISGUSTING! NO REAL MEN WOULD EVER DO SUCH A THING! I thought I'd be reading romance, not... this!"

So much complication, so many logistics to work out, and so many delicate souls in the romance reading community whose sensibilities must be taken care of. If the RWA wants to have erotic romance as a category, it has a lot of work to do. Perhaps it will be easier to take baby steps and try... say, legitimization African-American romances in its own category first?

19 comment(s).

Posted by Nonny:

One of my favorite books is often lauded as highly sexual and erotic; The Black Jewels trilogy by Anne Bishop. There's... um. Only one major sex scene in the trilogy between the hero and heroine, in the last book, although I think there's maybe 2 others. None of them are very explicit compared to even, say, Piers Anthony.

Yet, I hear over and over and over about how erotic the books are. And they are -- because the author is amazing at sexual tension. That, I find more erotic than a lot of the uber-explicit books that leave nothing to the imagination.

There are certain personality traits seen in heroes that other readers find erotic, but personally, I can't stand the alpha crap. When the hero needs to dominate the woman, and I don't mean sexually, that's a total turn-off for me. Yet, I'll see other people talk about how hot and erotic the hero is. It's really a lot of "YMMV" when it comes to what's erotica, and that makes it somewhat difficult to categorize.

I don't even want to think of the brouhaha that would come up over an African American romance category. I'm all for the idea, but I think it'd be a RaceFail 09 all over again.
April 1st, 2009 @ 2:39 PM

Posted by Shirley:

Truth be told, though writing is subjective, I think what qualifies as erotic romance 'should' be easy to define.

Regardless of what type of sexuality, sexual pairings, or sex acts are involved, an erotic romance should be a romance (people[regardless number] falling in love to a HFN or HEA ending) where the sexual aspects of the characters relationship are frankly written and where the purpose of said acts are to move the plot/relationship forward.

In other words, it should show a relationship between consenting adults where the sex is highlighted and essential as a matter of bringing the characters together and/or developing plot and moving the story to its HFN/HEA ending.
April 1st, 2009 @ 3:00 PM

Posted by Mrs G:

Shirley, I agree with you, but I also think it will be very hard to agree on what a "HFN/HEA" ending. Some readers, for example, find it hard to believe that a HEA is possible in a romance featuring 3 or more people in a relationship. Some would even argue that romance should be between 2 people only. There are other readers who are turned off by the idea of a couple who are in love but also enjoy bringing in occasional lovers for some threesome/swinging fun.

Let's not even start with the degree of eroticism that readers can agree on. Some would call Harlequin Blaze erotic, others would yawn and call them tame. Some would call Ellora's Cave tame and prefer even harder stuff published by edgier epublishers that don't register among romance readers in general. Other readers will settle for calling books by Stephanie Laurens and Nicole Jordan erotic romance while some would go, "Oh please. Those are so tame!"

It's not just sex, it's... I don't know, something else? Whatever that is, I do know it's easier to know when a book is MEANT to be an erotic romance judging from its imprint (Aphrodisia, Heat, Red, etc).
April 1st, 2009 @ 3:16 PM

Posted by Teddypig:


If only writers of M/M actually did this!

I might be more lenient in my reviews knowing they had actually done some fucking research and figured out what most gay porn written by gay men actually contains and had populated their story with those characters and scenes. Where do you think The Village People got their gig from?

Instead I continue to read the trials and tribulations of yet another rich lawyer ceo... white guy in a suit and his sexual hangups. YAWN
April 1st, 2009 @ 9:14 PM

Posted by Teddypig:

I heard Fluffy Bunny Reviews does not do Gay Romance because there nothing sweet or romantic about two men in love.
April 1st, 2009 @ 9:44 PM

Posted by Mrs G:

Fluffy Bunnies love everything, Teddy.
April 1st, 2009 @ 9:48 PM

Posted by meh:

Why would AA romance get it's own category? I don't think separating it would go further to de-legitimizing it than otherwise.

"Frank" is totally unnecessary to erotic - that would be an "explicit" "graphic" "physical" or "sexual" romance -- and I'm sure classification as such of their books would send many current erotic romance writers into a tizzy. Such graphic/explicit/sexual/physical romances may or may not be erotic, depending on the reader. And that's the crux of it. "Erotic" is highly subjective. Some freaks get all orgasmic baking bread in their kitchen, finding the kneading to be highly erotic. The most erotic romance in any given year as determined by the largest vote of readers may not be graphic/frank. Defining it according to the frequency of sex acts or specific terms used in the book is a disservice to the writers and readers.
April 1st, 2009 @ 10:19 PM

Posted by Mrs G:

Yes, yes, disservice and delegitimization. So you are saying we uphold the status quo, meh?
April 1st, 2009 @ 10:32 PM

Posted by meh:

Re: AA - I feel like that is a marketing issue that AA writers, publishers and readers should be working on. Making AA a "genre" smacks too much of stereotyping for my tastes. How about a great story of whatever genre that has an AA protagonist. And why "African-AMERICAN" - the AA tag itself isn't very accurate--there are more people of african descent around the world than just those in America--they all have their own interesting stories.

On the other hand, having a "Best Black Romance" of the year category or "Best Romance Featuring a Black Protagonist" or similar might get people to read at least that book as best of the best and they might find that, holy heck, it's a lot like non-Black romances. But I still think that making it something like a genre further segregates it.

Perhaps it's just a feeling on my part that genre fiction is a step-child to literature and books primarily marketed according to genre seldom transcend that status. Having an AA RWA category would seem to assign it to a genre - but different people will feel, well, differently, and all that matters in the end is how many people you can get to agree to a particular proposition, not whether the winning proposition is right or wrong.

As for erotica, I hate to see that turned into a genre as well. If we're really talking as consumers about where can we find the books that have their primary selling points being explicit depictions of sex, I'd prefer any of the alternative names I put out. Sex writing is OK! Stroke material wrapped in a romance is OK! It's fun. It's brain candy. It's not per se erotica in my own personal definition. My definition requires emotional and intellectual depth and may not include any actual sex act occuring. (Bread kneading optional.)

Non sequiter, since you're here. I'm confused, were you implying that it's okay to make fun of Jane Goody in light of and specific to her dying/death?
April 1st, 2009 @ 11:27 PM

Posted by Mrs G:

About Jane Goody, from what I see, people aren't making fun of her as much as they are mocking the hypocrisy of the media that celebrated her as the new Princess Diana. As for me, who knows, if I live in England and were subjected to constant headlines of Jane's last wish, dying wish, et cetera every other week, I may just be tempted to make fun of her too.
April 1st, 2009 @ 11:35 PM

Posted by Louise van Hine:

I think the elephant in the room on defining erotic romance with respect to erotica has more to do with the RWA resisting mightily in attempts to allow GLBTQ stories into its fold and keeping it ghettoized. But that's my two cents.
April 2nd, 2009 @ 7:01 AM

Posted by Angela:

Making AA a "genre" smacks too much of stereotyping for my tastes. How about a great story of whatever genre that has an AA protagonist. And why "African-AMERICAN" - the AA tag itself isn't very accurate--there are more people of african descent around the world than just those in America--they all have their own interesting stories.

Trouble is meh, the actual separation of and specific imprints for AA fiction of all stripes and colors makes it a default "genre." The AA tag may not seem accurate, but the tag refers to books that somewhat share a specific set of cultural norms common within the African-American community (meaning, black people who descended from the Africans, Europeans and Native Americans who met up during the colonization of North America).

As for a "Best Black romance" award, that's a pretty dicey subject for me. On the one hand, I think there should be an AA category in the RITAs/GH because the general membership resists acknowledging how AA romance is treated by the industry and consumers. A few longtime writers of "AA" romance don't enter the RITAs--and I don't even know if there are a lot of black RWA members--because their books kept getting shut out because AA romance is considered inferior. At least if there is a separate category, the RWA will be acknowledging that AA romance exists!

On the other hand an AA romance award does exist--the EMMA Awards given at the Romance Slam Jam, a conference devoted specifically to AA romance. Because I see the EMMAs as the NAACP Awards and the RITAs as the SAG Awards, why should AA romance authors be separated when they write ROMANCE? But we can go back and forth on the issue, which I don't feel there is a solution since the segregation is entrenched in American cultural assumptions, comfort levels of both black and non-black readers, etc.

I am truly curious about the inclusion of GLBT romance. From the names and titles reviewed online, most M/M romance is written by women for women.
April 2nd, 2009 @ 9:59 AM

Posted by Mrs G:

I am truly curious about the inclusion of GLBT romance. From the names and titles reviewed online, most M/M romance is written by women for women.

This may just be the case, really, as, apart from the handful of folks who claim to be gay male authors, most of the authors who write those stories are women and most of the readers are women as well. A friend of mine, an outsider to the scene, often pointed out that it would be most amusing to have a RWA "GLBT charter" thingy only to have the membership to comprise 99.9% straight women who happen to write MM stories!
April 2nd, 2009 @ 10:42 AM

Posted by Treva harte:

I'm kind of snickering at claim to be gay male authors thing. I don't tell the reading public what the gender, sexual orientation or writing abilities of LI authors are. Readers will have to judge for themselves. But I'm imagining the faces of the gay male authors I know and thinking about how they might their claims. And, you know, they probably would be more than happy to do so with the right incentive.
April 2nd, 2009 @ 8:57 PM

Posted by Treva harte:

Crap. More caffeine. Add the correct words to the previous post as needed. I'm already tired of editing today.
April 2nd, 2009 @ 8:58 PM

Posted by emily:

If it is erotica and it is romance, it is erotic romance.
April 3rd, 2009 @ 4:34 AM

Posted by Selah March:

My understanding of how an EroRom RITA/GH category would work is that the author decides where to submit her entry. If she wants it to be judged as erotic, she subs it there. This would allow the judges uncomfy with erotic elements to opt out of the category.

In other words, if the author calls her work erotic, it goes in the erotic category, no debate over "what's erotic?" necessary.

The gay romance thing is another jar of cookies entirely and would possibly require yet another category, as there are gay romances that aren't erotic (not many). I think we're a long, long way from that, though. Our country can't even get it together to give gay partners the right to marry. I don't see the RWA leading the charge for equality anytime soon.

As for reality in gay romance, I like nothing better than a nice, juicy hummer in a filthy back alley after midnight. For my characters, I mean. Ahem.
April 4th, 2009 @ 9:25 AM

Posted by Lynne Connolly:

I'm with Ciar on this. And so in a way is Ellora's Cave, which has dropped its ratings in favor of specific warnings (ie mention of m/m action and so on with the blurb) because one woman's hot is another woman's turnoff, and the heat level isn't always where they draw the line.

As for erotic romance - got to be a romance, ie the story of a developing committed romantic relationship which ends with said commitment. Erotic means there is a lot of sex, described graphically, which has an important part in the way the relationship develops. Phew. Not doing that again.

I'm in the position of transitioning from Ellora's Cave to mainstream publishers, and I did it with a manuscript written at what I'd consider a medium erotic level. But I was asked if I'd mind toning it down a bit. But the choice was left up to me. My guess is that for a print book to break even it needs a lot more readers instead of the specific audience which will make a success of an EC book.

But in the end, I dunno really. I just write. As a reader, I love the hotte, but it has to be meaningful and include emotion, and there are one or two things that put me off. I'm not into the anal, for instance (and I suspect many other mothers wouldn't be, either - not because of the children but because of what pregnancy does to you). Wince.
April 6th, 2009 @ 9:53 PM

Posted by cinnamon purr:

I tend to agree with Ciar Cullen when she said, "One person's erotica will be another's porn and yet another's spicy romance."
I read horror as well as romance, but I've yet to see the hair-splitting debates go on in those forums like you see among romance readers and authors. There's sometimes lively discussions about the differences or lack of differences between things like gothic, speculative, urban and techno horror. But nothing comes close to the argument about what erotic romance is. And believe me, the horror writers and readers do take notice and find it all rather silly.
April 14th, 2009 @ 1:17 PM