Just Because It’s Got the Name, Doesn’t Mean It’s the Same
It seems only yesterday we were reading about various “traditionalist” attacks on Erotic Romance. Remember the graphical standards debacle? Or how about the accusations that GBLT and polyamorous Romance weren’t real Romance? But the intervening years have shown that Erotic Romance is not only a viable subgenre, but is, in fact, as much real Romance as any other “respectable” subgenre. Oh, I know not everyone is thrilled with some of the more explicit directions the genre has taken, but the Romance community and genre is large enough that the diversity can be pretty easily accommodated.
One of the reasons I think Erotic Romance has faced so much controversy is the way it can sometimes blur into straight erotica or even pornography – that is, away from the emotional journey of lovers and into the sexual odysseys we generally associate with pure erotic narrative. And indeed, depending on how a reader connects to a book in question, arguments about how to label specific works are not uncommon. Yet structurally speaking, the boundaries of Erotic Romance are clear, or at least as clear as the formal boundaries for Romance are. A love story, a strong focus on the development of the love relationship, a happy resolution for the lovers. That Erotic Romance may articulate the development of the characters and their journey to love primarily through sex does not make Erotic Romance any less romantic or any weaker as generic Romance, nor does it mean Erotic Romance authors can’t really push the envelope.
What does weaken Erotic Romance, in my opinion, is knowingly or negligently placing works that are not Romance into its categorical space in order to take advantage of the bounty that hotter Romance appears to represent to authors and publishers alike. And what I mean by “negligently” is without knowing or making any effort to know and understand the Romance genre, and without any apparent desire to work within its extremely generous formalistic boundaries. Because, seriously, it’s not that exclusive to demand that the term “Romance” characterize books that focus on a love relationship and a happy resolution in that relationship. There’s a lot of space in that definition for innovative, envelope-pushing, provocative, fresh, challenging fiction. But anyone wanting to write genre Romance is probably going to have to do more than read the definition as it’s posted on the Romance Wiki or on the RWA website. Because not everyone is going to have the kind of luck Gene from the new season of Top Chef had when he created a classic Indian dish without knowing anything about Indian cooking. Most of us have to understand the rules before we know how to break them effectively.
So to answer the question before it’s asked, yes, this post is partially a response to the ongoing Ravenous Romance discussion. And no, I don’t know for sure that the books they end up publishing are going to be erotica or porn dressed up as Romance, regardless of what anyone associated with the publisher might say. But this is not the first time we’ve seen the erotica as Romance problem arise, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And since I’ve been reading more and more Erotic Romance (as a natural consequence of the market’s expansion), I’ve become pretty emphatic about believing that there is a clear distinction between erotic Romance as a subgenre of Romance, and that the distinction lies in the focus on love and emotional growth within the story. Further, I think it is damn difficult to write really awesome Erotic Romance, to imbue a lot of sexual content with equally prevalent emotional impact, and to mirror that intensity with potently written sex. Writing emotionally powerful Romance is difficult enough, but using sex as a vehicle to communicate that power sets an even higher bar, in my opinion, because catalyzing that ecstatic combination in the reader of sexual arousal and empathetic connection with the story is a multi-layered challenge.
Yes, I know there are books categorized as Erotic Romance that have and will continue to provoke debate – that they’re straight erotic or pornography, that they’re too tame, that they’re sexist, that they’re badly written, etc. etc. Also, each reader has a different sensibility around sexual explicitness – what is really out there to one reader will read as positively conventional to another. And we are well aware that the lure of Romance’s substantial market share can create the illusion that it’s easy to write or sell Romance to the hungry masses of Romance readers. There are many things that will continue to complicate our discussion of the relationship between Erotic Romance, erotica, and pornography. And on the surface, "Erotic Romance is merely erotica with a happy ending’ arguments may appear to be more sex positive (especially when they capitalize on the sector of Romance readers who prefer more conventional genre books). But in reality, I don’t think erotica is more sex-positive, because what is more sex positive than offering readers an experience of incredibly hot sex and happiness for the people having it? That doesn’t mean I think Erotic Romance is more sex positive than erotica, either; it just means that I don’t think Romance is or should be a “respectability cover” for erotica or pornography.
Although I think some people believe that it is, and I wonder if the marketing of erotica as Erotic Romance is a product of this belief, as incredibly insulting as it is (to erotic and romantic work). Some of it is just plain profiteering, I’m sure, as publishers and authors marvel over the market share Romance commands. And the profound genre loyalty of Romance readers, I believe, means that we have a built-in trust toward books that are labeled Romance. So we buy and if we are disappointed, we most often simply move on. But we remain loyal to the Romance label, a label that, in the entire field of genre labeling, does not enjoy a great deal of mainstream respect. Which means that if a publisher is labeling its books Romance, it’s aiming specifically at a Romance readership, not aiming for widespread literary respect. We saw this with Aphrodisia and with Juno’s Paranormal Romance line, and now with Ravenous Romance. And I have to say that Ravenous Romance’s intentions regarding the Romance readership are about as clear as mud to me right now. Are they selling porn, as one author insists? Are they selling erotica, as their TwittErotica contest (not to mention various comments by related parties) suggests? Or are they selling what their publishing name advertises?
Because when I pick up a book labeled Erotic Romance, that’s exactly what I want: hot sex and loving happiness for the people having it. I want to know that I will be taken on a journey in which the emotional relationship between the characters will largely be communicated through their sexual experiences. I want to be turned on from head to toe, to put it bluntly, and at the end of the book I want to know I’ve just read a love story. If I want another experience as a reader, I will turn to another genre, whether that is literary fiction, SF/F, erotica, mystery, or autobiography. There is enough room for everyone in the literary market, just not necessarily in Romance.