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Love and Lust

Up until this weekend I was one of those readers who didn't really care that I couldn't articulate the difference between erotica and erotically charged Romance. "I know it when I see it–? was good enough for me. Then I read Emma Holly's newest release Fairyville and had one of those DUH! moments –" you know, where something crystallizes so clearly you can't believe you didn't see it before.

lust.jpgHolly's books have always appealed to me, and one of their surprises is that the books marketed as erotica always seem much more good natured and light hearted than her historical and steam punk Romances. The characters in her erotica may have issues, but they always take such good care of their partners in bed. There is always an incredible sense of respect and concern and safety in the sexuality, so that as the sex scenes begin to pile up it never feels gratuitous to me. The characters are obviously having lots of fun; they show concern for each other's well-being and happiness, and everyone usually gets a relatively happy ending. In fact, despite the relatively non-traditional happy endings for the protagonists — polyamory a common solution –" even her erotica feels somewhat romantic in nature, as characters seem well on their way toward a healthy and happy relationship.

Fairyville is explicitly romantic in that sense: Magnus and Zoe, and Bryan and Alex — the two distinct if intermingled couples of the book –" all seem firmly committed to each other. Zoe and Magus, especially, share a love that clearly transcends their profound physical attraction. Which is the kind of thing we often expect in Romance. And in Holly's more straightforward Romance, there is a guaranteed happy ending for the lovers, and even a pretty healthy dose of erotic expression. I remember reading Beyond Seduction pretty early in my Romance reading days and being surprised (although not unpleasantly so, lol) at the extent, explicitness, and earthiness of the book's sexual content. And yet when I read a book like Courting Midnight, one of my all-time favorite Holly books, it doesn't matter that Gillian and Aimery go at it like minks (not that I really want to know how minks 'go at it'), I read that book much more obviously as Romance than the romantic “Fairyville”.

Until I read “Fairyville,” I never really internalized the idea that in erotica the character development occurred and is communicated through sex (yes, I can be very dense). That just seemed like a flimsy excuse when saying publicly that you want to read a book just because it turns you on might be a wee bit uncomfortable. Now, though, when I think of, say, Megan Hart's Dirty, I think I understand the difference between that book and, say, Jo Goodman's If His Kiss is Wicked. In the Goodman book, the physical intimacy the characters share isn't necessarily the product of love, but it is fundamentally an emotional expression as much as a physical exchange. And the sexual bond between the characters grows stronger and deeper as they each move forward on their own emotional journey. Emma and Restell have the best sex, the most passionate, mind-blowing, unbelievably hot sex, after they finally declare their love for one another. So while the sex and the emotion are interconnected, the sexual openness and power tends to follow the emotional growth of the characters.

By contrast, in “Dirty” or “Fairyville”, the sexual interactions of the characters precede emotional growth, and in books where emotional growth is a real part of the story, sex most often catalyzes big emotional epiphanies and changes. Dirty's Elle, for example, begins the book completely unwilling to open herself up emotionally to a man. She craves both the release and the shame of anonymous sex, and only after a good deal of sexual exploration and openness with Dan does she begin to experience any emotional evolution. Dan knows that the way to keep Elle is by keeping her engaged sexually, and he continues to push her for greater and greater physical intimacy until she begins to crack open emotionally. For Elle, and for her relationship with Dan, sex comes before emotional growth, and, in fact, facilitates that growth. It is the same for the characters in “Fairyville”, especially Alex, who undergoes the most powerful emotional transformation in the book.

Although Alex is relatively successful, both in his career and with his sexual conquests, he is not emotionally healed from wounds he sustained when he was younger. Sexually voracious and adventurous, Alex is much easier to engage physically than emotionally, and the two people in his life for whom he has strong feelings –" business partner Bryan and high school girlfriend Zoe –" are caught in the emotional dysfunction that is Alex's inner life. Bryan pines for Alex, and Zoe has never completely moved past him, and it takes a great deal of sexual engagement among all of them before the emotional threads of their interconnected lives begin to untangle and settle into a more coherent pattern. There is something about the trust exchanged, the physical intimacy allowed, and the care taken that opens the emotional channels between these characters, allowing old wounds to heal and new bonds for form.

What's most interesting to me about comparing straight Romance to the type of erotica that, say, Emma Holly and Megan Hart write is that there's a romantic quality to it that, I think, might drive some of the difficulty in carving out a clear difference (i.e. it's the typical distinction without difference). Not that I think erotica has to contain an emotional element, but I wonder if the distinction between erotica and what we popularly call pornography is the absence or presence of a discernable emotional component. That's much less clear to me and really is a tangent, though.

As for erotica and Romance, though, at least for the moment I seem to have arrived at a place where I have a sense of the difference –" for myself at least. Except now I'm trying to figure out where I'd categorize Pam Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation or Shelly Laurenston's Pack series. Maybe it doesn't matter thought. I guess it depends on whether one focuses on where a book ends up or how it gets there. Does Romance, for example, have to keep the emotional growth primary to the physical exploration? I don't get the sense that there's much conflict in designating erotica, but that for Romance this might well become a critical question.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

27 Comments

  1. Ann Bruce
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 08:16:52

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Now, I’m going to show my traditional side, so be prepared.

    I love Emma Holly’s books, but I consider her contemporaries to be romantic erotica, not erotic romance. The distinction for me lies in that her characters usually engage in threesomes–and in some cases that completes the relationship circle.

    The SO and I discussed this topic, and it comes down to both of us are too selfish to ever go down the path. Frankly, he gets a little jealous when I smile a little too brightly at waiters. Neither of us is willing to share the other.

    What it comes down to is I believe romance is between two people, be it M/F, F/F, or M/M. Romance isn’t: “Honey, I love you so much that I want to you have sex with this other person.”

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  2. Jane
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 08:27:08

    I think one problem I have with erotica is that the sex seems almost clinical, almost cold. I had no emotional reaction to Dirty (although this seemed out of step with many others). I read an erotica volume from Avon Red: These are my confessions and most of the sex seemed quite dispassionate.

    When a story relies on sex to advance the emotional expression, it is not something that is done easily. I.e., Joey Hill’s Natural Law seemed to me to be more erotica than erotic romance as Violet used Mac’s own sexual predilection for submission in a way to create emotional change but that book was very powerful emotionally while I don’t see it in many other erotica books.

    Emma Holly’s Menage is often held to be one of the top erotica books for the romance reader. While I found it enjoyable, I didn’t find it to be terribly moving, emotionally. For me, it is not enough to be titillated. I also want to be affected emotionally.

    Erotica often has me looking from the edges of the book instead of being immersed in the story. It’s easy to put down and even easier to forget.

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  3. RfP
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 08:35:28

    I agree that the line is commonly drawn between “sex” and “sex with character development”, as you describe:

    • “in erotica the character development occurred and is communicated through sex…”
    • “Not that I think erotica has to contain an emotional element, but I wonder if the distinction between erotica and what we popularly call pornography is the absence or presence of a discernable emotional component.”
    • “Does Romance… have to keep the emotional growth primary to the physical exploration?”

    However, I’m not sure the line has to be drawn there. In fact I think one reason it so often can be drawn there is that the authors miss a huge opportunity in writing the sex. In my ideal novel of any genre, sex scenes would always be written as character and/or plot development. Jennifer Crusie said it so well:

    “If you look at scenes with sexual content as highly emotional scenes in which both characters have a lot at stake and during which they are probably both physically and emotionally vulnerable, naked even, then those scenes become great opportunities for moving story and developing character and they're fascinating to write. If they're just scenes with sex in them, you're making yourself and the reader voyeurs, peeping in on two people who are connecting physically”

    For an example that’s neither erotic romance nor erotica, I’ll quote myself from SBs last week:

    [In] Steve Almond's short story collection My Life in Heavy Metal… at his best he's pungent, emotional, and freaking hilarious. He uses sex as character development–I wish a couple of his stories could be compulsory reading for romance authors!

    For a lesson in using voice and meticulous plotting to make a well-used romance plotline fresh, I highly recommend his short story Geek Player, Love Slayer. It's not available online, but my review links to another good one, How To Love a Republican.

    These are short stories–if there’s much sex, there isn’t room for anything else. But it’s utterly clear that the point isn’t to titillate; it’s to explore character. Sometimes Almond has his people “explore character” ;) within a classic romance structure (as in Geek Player, Love Slayer), sometimes not.

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  4. Keishon
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 09:00:47

    Forgive me as I am not very articulate when it comes to differentiating between erotica and romance – don’t care to either. I inherently know the difference when I read it. What I prefer to read is a monogamous relationship that has a physical relationship that brings the characters closer together. Like Jane said, I don’t care for books that just set out to titillate – I need character depth and emotion and without that the sex means nothing to me, absolutely nothing. Also, and this may be going in a different direction but I appreciate authors who can write steamy without it being so freaking clinical and several paragraphs long. I do skip love scenes that are several paragraphs long. For me, it is the talent of an author to convey character, emotion and depth in one sentence rather than four. Now I must go read. I’m behind. Great topic, Jan.

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  5. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 09:58:10

    What an interesting topic, Jan. I think this is sometimes the difference between romances and erotic romances (as opposed to pure erotica, with no romance, which I think is just sex for sex’s sake — like for example, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy).

    But I don’t think it is always the difference. If you take for example books like Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel or Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation, both of which I would classify as romances rather than erotic romances, there is quite a bit of character development in those books that takes place through the sex. And where would you classify a book like Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, a forerunner of the erotic romance, or Linda Howard’s After the Night? There is quite a lot of sex in those books, and the development of the relationships is done through a lot of it, but they were not billed as erotic romances when they came out and I don’t see readers complaining about that.

    I agree with RfP that writers who don’t use the sex scenes to develop character are missing an opportunity. But I would put it this way — any scene, be it a sex scene or not, should develop character or move the story forward or (best of all) do both at the same time. Any scene that doesn’t do that is wasting time for the reader. Writers (if it’s not too presumptuous of me to say so) need to think about that while they are writing.

    So for me, the key difference between romance and erotic romance is not whether or not the sex develops characterization but simply the proportion of sex in the story. However, with a higher proportion of sex in the story, it becomes even more important that those sex scenes develop character, because there’s not as much room in the rest of the book to do that with as there is in a book with fewer sex scenes.

    I think the difference between romance and pure erotica (as opposed to erotic romance) is that in the former the sex scenes serve the story and in the latter the story is there to serve (set up) the sex scenes.

    As to the difference between erotica and porn, I think that is just very subjective — we accept and embrace the first, while rejecting the second as more dirty than seductive. Which is another way of saying that the first manages to get past our inhibitions better than the second.

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  6. romblogreader
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 10:13:35

    I’ve noticed that often, in comments and posts by people who take issue with character development/lack of emotional connection to the story with regards to erotica and erotic romance, there will be statements like “I do skip love scenes that are several paragraphs long.” (totally not singling you out Keishon, you’re just the most recent comment I’ve seen w/ something like that). And I have this suspicion that that may be where some of the disconnect occurs.

    Like the original poster said above (and as I understand it) in erotica and erotic romance like Emma Holly’s, a whole lot (if not most) of the character development and emotional development happens *in bed* (or, you know, wherever else they happen to go at it.) While my tolerance for explicit sex in erotica/romance/etc is relatively high, I understand that for some people, once a sex scene gets to a certain length or level of explicitness or frequency for some people, they’re going to tend to skim or shy away or skip ahead to the next non-sex scene. Or, quite possibly, be made uncomfortable enough by the level of explicitness (or the fact that the sex scene goes on for page) that they’re not going to be reading closely (or not going to be able to see beyond c0ck or p*ssy or other explicit sexual content).

    So, if the reader skims through those scenes, or so thrown by the explicitness component of those scenes, they’re quite possibly missing the character/emotional stuff that is shown during and *through* the way in which these characters come together sexually. In well written erotica and erotic romance, the sex very often *isn’t* used (just) to bring the characters closer together or show that they’re moving to a new level of emotional closeness or to cement their bond or what have you. It can do that and in most “spicy romance” there doesn’t seem to be much of a change in the function of the sex scenes, just their explicitness.

    In erotica and erotic romance, though, the way in which the characters have sex can fulfill a wide variety of character development and plot functions, not just “show the hero and heroine are progressing toward a love relationship”. Which isn’t to say it can’t fulfill that function as well (and in erotic romance’s sake, that’s where they’re ultimately heading) but it doesn’t have to.

    I suspect (and I’m sure this isn’t true for everyone) that for some people regularly left cold by erotica/erotic romance, that there comes a point where they hit an explicit sex scene (often very early in the book, before the characters know each other, let alone love each other), see that it’s not a love scene, not fulfilling the usual romance function and/or see a level of sexual frankness that they find off putting and go “oh god, more mindless boinking” and skip ahead.

    Then, when they get to then end (or put down) the book, and complain about a lack of emotional connection… well, that could very well be that the author did just write a mindless boink-fest with no emotional connection or romance. Or, it could be that by skipping or being unwilling or too uncomfortable reading explicit sex scenes (or reading them closely enough and seeing the story function that boinking serves, beyond “hotness” and “expression of love between hero and heroine”) they’ve only read half the book, and not the half where all the character stuff is.

    I don’t mean this to be a “you don’t get it” or “you’re not reading it right” kind of thing, because everyone’s got their own limits with sex, and it’s a very personal, very deeply rooted line for most people. But in (well written) erotica and erotic romance, like Emma Holly’s, the way in which that blow job goes down (heh) is often as instrumental in the character development/plot as any conversation or non-sex scene. Usually more so. So if you’re reading one of these books, and you come to a two page blow job, and your first reaction is, “oh god, a two page blow job, more mindless sex, WTF” and you skip forward to the next part where there aren’t any erections, you very well might have skipped a major turning point for the characters, their romance, their relationship, etc.

    If you can’t accept (or aren’t interested in reading about) the many, many other functions besides getting off and expressing love that sex can fulfill, and if you’d prefer to let the hero and heroine keep that activity off screen, for the most part, and read about the development of their relationship outside the bedroom and let the bedroom be where that relationship gets fulfilled… maybe erotica and erotic romance aren’t for you, and that’s perfectly okay. Most romance out there fits that bill.

    But in well written erotica and erotic romance (and yeah, there’s a *whole lot* of substandard E and ER out there, but then again there’s a whole lot of substandard Romance out there as well) the sex scene can fulfill just about any function, storywise (just like any non-sex scene can), and in an erotic romance, that function is in the service of a story that ultimately, has a HEA. And if you come across that eight page love scene in erotica or erotic romance, and you either skim it or flip a switch that says, “okay, time for the loveless boinking” and only see it for its smut/arousal factor, there’s a possibility you’re skipping over the very thing that you later complain is missing from the book – character development and emotional connection.

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  7. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 10:14:21

    I’m a bit confused here, because I’m not sure about the terminology being used in this post.

    Passionate Ink (the erotic romance chapter of RWA) distinguish between erotica and erotic romance:

    Erotica: stories written about the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals. Emotion and character growth are important facets of a true erotic story. However, erotica is NOT designed to show the development of a romantic relationship, although it's not prohibited if the author chooses to explore romance. Happily Ever Afters are NOT an intrinsic part of erotica, though they can be included.

    Erotic Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn't be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance.

    So what’s being discussed in the original post seems to me to apply to both erotica and erotic romances, but probably not to what Passionate Ink calls “Sexy Romance”:

    Sexy Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex. The sex is not an inherent part of the story, character growth, or relationship development, and it could easily be removed or “toned down� without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT as this is basically a standard romance with hotter sex.

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  8. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 10:29:21

    Laura, but if you go with Passionate Ink’s defintion of Sexy Romance, where would you put books like Mary Balogh’s traditional regencies, where so often the story, relationship and character did develop through sex? You could not easily remove the sex from those books, yet no one would call them “erotic romance” — they were trads for goodness sake.

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  9. romblogreader
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 10:34:30

    Janine, why couldn’t you call them “erotic romance”? Just because the term wasn’t coined yet or in common usage at the time doesn’t mean it couldn’t be used retroactively. I don’t know enough about traditional regencies to know what makes them “traditional regencies”, but if story, relationship and character develops through the sex, and you couldn’t remove the sex without damaging/changing the story, it seems to me you could put them in that category (if you’re sorting stuff into romance and erotic romance).

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  10. RfP
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:01:11

    I understand the Passionate Ink definitions of erotica and erotic romance, but I’m utterly confused by their “sexy romance” category.

    (1) Why would those defining “sexy romance” want to require that sex be detached from character development?

    (2) By these definitions, “sexy romance” in which the sex isn’t about character sounds less romantic than the definition of erotic romance.

    Janine, I think it’s a strength of some Balogh novels that the sex is critical to the story. It doesn’t make sense to call them a “romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex”. But I wouldn’t call it erotic romance.

    I’d say the same of Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold–it deserves a lot of respect for integrating sex into the characters and relationship. I wouldn’t call it erotic romance either, though it appears to fit the Passionate Ink definition so perhaps I should rethink that. Most importantly in my mind, it’s one of the most character-driven romances I’ve read–the sex (and all the action) are driven by fleshing out the central characters.

    It’s always the the best-integrated books that I struggle to classify. That’s part of my definition of “transcending genre”–writing a complex character with real flaws, exploring a relationship through sex (rather than using sex to titillate or as a cop-out from writing emotion), exploring a relationship through layered dialogue rather than tropes.

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  11. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:13:37

    Romblogreader, I personally wouldn’t put Balogh’s books into the “erotic romance” category, because although they are absolutely essential to the story in books like say, A Precious Jewel, The Notorious Rake or A Christmas Promise, these sex scenes are very brief and not always arousing at all. If you take for example the first sex scene in A Precious Jewel, it’s a scene between a prostitute (the heroine) and her customer (the hero) in which he tells her that all he wants her to do is lie still and she agrees to do so. The sex that follows takes up all of six sentences. I think that if you were to package the book as erotic romance and sell it to readers who are looking for an erotic romance, they would be disappointed, not because it isn’t a good book, but because it isn’t what readers expect from an erotic romance.

    Regarding the traditional regency subgenre, I am not an expert on the subject either, but my sense is that among the characteristics that define the genre, including of course the regency setting, the smaller number of pages in the books, and the often formal language, is subtlety when it comes to sexual content. Many traditional regencies contain no sex at all, and although Mary Balogh was a groundbreaker in that her books did contain some sex, it is nevertheless less sexual content than you would typically find in today’s average single title romance, I think.

    And yet, I dare you to take the sex out of her books and try to make those books work without it. Balogh (especially in her regencies) is simply a master of not wasting a single scene.

    Ditto a book like Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation. Although it contains more sex than the Balogh trads I’ve read, I still wouldn’t classify it as erotic romance.

    For that matter, I can think of literary fiction novels which contain sex that is essential to the story, or classics in which the sex is crucial (Madame Bovary anyone?) , and I’m certain that Jan, a big SF reader, can come up with some SF titles where some alien sex takes place that develops character and moves the story forward, and yet, we don’t necessarily classify all those books as erotic. Therefore it doesn’t seem to me that this should be the only test with romance, either.

    A better test to use in addition (I think) is whether readers would feel cheated if those books were marketed as erotic, or whether they would feel they had gotten what they paid for. And I would postulate that this has more to do with the proportion and explicitness of sex in the book than with whether the sex develops characters or moves the story forward , though it is always, always (again in my opinion) a good idea to have the sex develop the characters and move the story forward.

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  12. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:16:03

    where would you put books like Mary Balogh's traditional regencies, where so often the story, relationship and character did develop through sex? You could not easily remove the sex from those books, yet no one would call them “erotic romanceâ€? -’ they were trads for goodness sake.

    I haven’t read many of Balogh’s novels, and none of her trads (they’re not exactly easy to get hold of in the UK) but I’ve always had the impression that they were pretty unusual trads, precisely because of the way that Balogh included sex. As Romblogreader suggests, maybe some of them could be defined as erotic romance retrospectively. I suppose it would depend on whether the sex is just something that begins the relationship (e.g. in The Precious Pearl the hero has sex with the heroine, then feels guilt and that sets the plot in motion but the hero and heroine then don’t have sex again until after they’ve interacted a lot in other ways), in which case they wouldn’t be erotic romances, or whether the relationship develops primarily through sexual interactions, in which case they probably could be classified as erotic romances.

    I understand the Passionate Ink definitions of erotica and erotic romance, but I'm utterly confused by their “sexy romance� category.

    (1) Why would those defining “sexy romance� want to require that sex be detached from character development?

    I suspect that this particular definition is a little defensive, and therefore negative in tone, about “sexy romances”. I think the erotic romance authors do have a problem differentiating their novels from “sexy romances” because some people would just skim through both types of novels counting the sex scenes and wouldn’t see the difference between them. So I think this particular definition, written from the perspective of an erotic romance author, is stressing that what makes the sex scenes different in an erotic romance is how the characters communicate primarily through sex. Unfortunately, in the process of doing that, the definition does, in my opinion, slip into denigrating “sexy romances”.

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  13. Ann Bruce
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:36:09

    Huh, my post from this morning didn’t show up.

    Anyway…

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Now, I’m going to show my traditional side, so be prepared.

    I love Emma Holly’s books, but I consider her contemporaries to be romantic erotica, not erotic romance. The distinction for me lies in that her characters usually engage in threesomes–and in some cases that completes the relationship circle.

    The SO and I discussed this topic, and it comes down to both of us are too selfish to ever go down the path. Frankly, he gets a little jealous when I smile a little too brightly at waiters. Neither of us is willing to share the other.

    What it comes down to is I believe romance is between two people, be it M/F, F/F, or M/M. Romance isn’t: “Honey, I love you so much that I want to you have sex with this other person.”

    When I finish a book, I want to believe the main characters have a long future together. With threesomes that end with the threesome in tact, I always wonder what’ll happen if they decide to have kids.

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  14. Charlene Teglia
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:55:46

    I’m a member of PI and I disagree with the definition of sexy romance quoted. It’s not fair to say that a sexy romance contains gratuitous sex scenes; if they weren’t necessary, then the author or editor probably would have cut them. Every scene in a book should serve the book. I have two sexy romances out, and I can’t imagine cutting the sex scenes from either book.

    Interesting discussion.

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  15. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 11:57:42

    Janine, I think it's a strength of some Balogh novels that the sex is critical to the story. It doesn't make sense to call them a “romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex�. But I wouldn't call it erotic romance.

    Exactly, RfP. I’m in complete agreement with you. And as to the definition of “sexy romance,” as well. I don’t see any advantage go divorcing sex from character development.

    And Laura, I honestly don’t think that a book like A Precious Jewel could or should be classified as erotic romance, though it would be easier to surgically separate conjoined twins than to take the sex scenes out of that book and make it work without them. It’s been a long time since I read it, but I believe it’s about a 50/50 division between the sexual interactions and the other interactions as to how that relationship develops.

    This brings us to another question, which has been asked before. Who defines a genre or subgenre? Is it organizations like RWA and Passionate Ink when they come up with definitions, or is it authors when they write the books that push at genre boundaries or stay within them, or is it publishers when they decide how to market the books, or is it readers when they decide what to purchase? IMO it’s probably a combination of all of these, and not just one source.

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  16. RfP
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:12:16

    A better test to use… (I think) is whether readers would feel cheated if those books were marketed as erotic, or whether they would feel they had gotten what they paid for.

    That says it for me. Categories are primarily for convenience in marketing and shelving (convenience for both seller and buyer… and apparently for author organizations). I have some favorite stories that are great examples of a particular category, and some favorites that don’t fit into a single category.

    We can talk about categories in the abstract, but definitions tend to fall apart for many specific books. Whether Jan, Ann Bruce, and I would give any single Emma Holly book the same label depends on criteria that are individual and sometimes immeasurable. Laura Vivanco talks about the theory that there are 26 “stories” different people find compelling about love. Under that theory, we could look at two books by the same author, one invoking the knight/princess story and the other the sacrifice-for-love story. The difference in what gets called “erotic” could simply be which of those stories each of us prefers.

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  17. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:23:19

    Jane: I think individual reactions to erotic content is very personal. I was one of the readers who had a very strong emotional attachment to Dirty, which is why it figured so prominently in my post. Just because something is called erotica doesn’t mean it will read as personally erotic to every reader. And like Romance, the net for erotica is very wide. I’ve read some Victorian erotica, for example, that absolutely leaves me cold and seems very clinical and totally over the top (and very male in its perspective). Not emotionally or physically engaging for me. But thanks for mentioning Hill’s Natural Law, which I should have remembered to include in my post, because it does a great job of illustrating what I was trying to say: that erotica (although I see it as more erotic Romance — more on that later in my comments) uses sex as the *primary* means of emotional development for the characters, rather than the other way around (emotional growth primary and sex secondary). It’s only in his sexual submission, as you point out, that Mac breaks through emotionally. Could that have happened another way? Probably, but not in the fictional world Hill creates, IMO.

    RfP: I’m not trying to draw the line as one between sex as character development or not; I see it (right now, at least) as a primary – secondary line. That in erotica, sex is the *primary* route to character growth, and in Romance traditional, emotional development of the characters is the *primary* route to character growth. Not that there’s not overlap or numerous examples of books that huddle near the differentiating line, just that the way I’m coming to distinguish erotica for myself is in how primary the sex is in determining, facilitating, actuating, etc. the majority of character/relationship growth in the book. I read your review of Almond’s book on your blog and have been meaning to pick it up to see how I think it fits with my own evolving labeling scheme. In any case, it sounds like a fascinating book!

    Keishon: I also get very turned off by erotic content that registers to me as meant only to titillate — Bertrice Small and Thea Devine fall into this category for me, at least in their recent work that I’ve read (e.g. the stories in the Captivated and Fascinated anthologies). And sadly, I think too many authors use sex as a proxy for something that *isn’t* character development and isn’t hot, either. Honestly, I find probably the majority of sex scenes I read, especially in Romance and erotic Romance, disappointing in their execution, their erotic nature, and their contribution to the overall story. But I see that as more about individual books than about generic categories.

    Janine: I used to measure the difference by how much sex there was, but I don’t anymore, because I feel that there’s no lack of books out there that have been purposely sexed up to be marketed as erotic Romance. And I’m not sure whether I think that sex scenes should serve a specific character purpose all the time in erotica — sometimes I think they can simply be arousing, although, as I said to Jane, that’s a pretty personal judgment. Also, not every reader wants that kind of experience. I don’t get into those clinical, extensive sex scenes generally; in fact, I remember counting the pages in one of the Shannon McKenna books because the sex scene went on for like more than 20 pages or something. Now I have liked several McKenna books, but at the point where I was counting pages, I was definitely disconnected! So whatever she was trying to accomplish there didn’t register for me. Again, as I said to RfP, I think it’s a primary/secondary thing vis a vis the sex/character development dynamic that guides my own definitional thinking these days. So for me, Balogh is straight Romance, an author like McKenna erotic Romance (or maybe erotic Romantic Suspense), and Holly’s trade books erotica. I think Balogh uses sex to promote character development extremely deftly, but I don’t think it’s the primary means to either the romantic relationship or the main character’s ultimate catharsis, whereas in Holly’s trades, I think it is (and in Hill’s Natural Law, too, and Dirty, as well).

    romblogreader: Thank you so much for your comments; you articulated much better what I was stumbling toward in my post — namely that all sorts of character development is communicated primarily through sex in erotica. What has been interesting to me, as a reader, is how blended erotica has become with certain Romance staples, which I think *has* made it difficult to make clear distinctions sometimes. And perhaps it’s led to a somewhat skewed view of erotica among those of us who are more native to Romance reading. But also, I do think that it’s a difficult thing to write a great sex scene, which includes writing a sex scene that functions NOT as a proxy for character development, but as a facilitator or example of that development. But authors in Romance and erotica can be equally guilty of writing proxy sex instead of sex that tells part of the story. I agree with you, though, that automatically skipping sex scenes might result in the loss of significant story line.

    Laura: Unfortunately, those Passionate Ink definitions have always created more confusion for me than clarity. Also, meaning no disrespect to RWA, I’m not sure they’re my go-to place for a definition of erotica. And that sexy Romance category?????????? Yeah, perhaps a bit defensive and maybe revealing of a certain anxiety around erotic content that makes the definitions even more skewed toward a Romance reader’s view of erotica. OTOH, though, I do think the erotica definition captures the same general sense I have — that the sex functions as the primary mode of expressing or facilitating character growth. Where things get tougher for me is in the erotic Romance and sexy Romance distinction — well, even the integrity of those categories is a little tough for me, for the reasons you and others have pointed out, namely that of “gratuitous sex” in so-called sexy Romance. What prompted my own post was a lingering confusion stemming from the debate over erotica/erotic Romance that occurred here when Jane reviewed Dirty. And I still don’t think I have it totally lined up, but for me, at least, I feel like I’m more resolved than I was on the difference.

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  18. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:31:15

    Ann: for some reason, now both of your posts have shown up — perhaps you got caught in the spam trap. Anyway, “romantic erotica” is, I think, a good way to characterize Holly’s trade paperbacks, even though I’m loathe to come up with yet another category, lol. I wrote a review of Fairyville, which will post later sometime, but what always works for me in Holly’s erotica is the fondness and respect I feel she has for her characters and their well-being. I don’t find m/m or menage action a big turn on, and there’s a lot of it in Fairyville, but because it *is* so important to developing the character growth, it doesn’t really matter that I don’t find it personally erotic. Which is another thing I’ve been pondering in this: how does the difference between erotica and what we find personally erotic play into how people read and label these books. Because I do think reader arousal plays a role, too, in erotica. But like character development, I don’t think it has to be there for any given reader. But do readers feel that erotica has to be personally erotic? I wonder about that.

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  19. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:38:02

    Charlene: I very much agree with this statement:

    Every scene in a book should serve the book.

    I may not be able to tell the difference between Icelandic sheep and horses, lol, but I do think that everything contained in a book should serve some purpose. What that purpose is, IMO, is up for debate. For example, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing a scene that is aimed primarily at turning the reader on if that’s one part of what an author is trying to do. Where I personally get turned off is when I feel there’s *nothing* beyond that AND the sex isn’t even hot IMO. I don’t need every sex scene to reveal or solidify some great truth about the characters or advance plot. Sometimes I think a good erotic scene can help ease the emotional tension a book creates in its characters and the reader, for example. I don’t like page filler sex, though — or at least I find what I read of it to be uninspired page filler sex, so that turns me off doubly. But I think sex can serve numerous purposes, both in Romance and erotica, not all of them singularly purposeful.

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  20. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:53:28

    We can talk about categories in the abstract, but definitions tend to fall apart for many specific books.

    Okay, I fixed the post stamp — my fault for making Jane post my pieces.

    I think it’s still valuable to talk about categories, though, for reasons beyond marketing and shelving — if only because it creates a conversation around something that I think can divide us artificially as a readers community. I’m not a reader who personally needs to know what genre any book I’m reading comes from, but, like I said, I do think there’s a substantive difference between how Holly’s trade paperbacks develop character and story and how her mm paperbacks do. I’d like to do a little more thinking about what it means that her characters all get a good approximation of an HEA in both types of writing, even though the characters in her erotica often get more of a non-traditional HEA. I’m especially interested in figuring out whether that less traditional HEA requires an erotica-based approach or not (my instinct is no, but I’d like to tease it out a bit). And I wonder if a lot of the anxiety that seems to hover around the polyamory question in Romance, for example, isn’t driven by certain perceptions of erotica that aren’t particularly inclusive. Like that erotica is lesser, somehow, because it places sex and sexuality in a more primary position. In the same way that some people dismiss Romance based on a few stereotypes they find off-putting for whatever reason.

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  21. RfP
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:56:36

    I read your review of Almond's book on your blog and have been meaning to pick it up to see how I think it fits with my own evolving labeling scheme. In any case, it sounds like a fascinating book!

    I’ve read a bit more of his work, and I keep meaning to post a bit on what it is I think he’s doing, or where he fits in with chick lit/romance/women’s fiction/relationship lit/sexy reads. Three or four of the Metal stories make great counterexamples for so many easy assumptions about who writes in those genres, for whom, how it “should” be done, and when does it cease to fit those genres. Now this has jogged my memory, I’ll try to post some of that in a couple days.

    how does the difference between erotica and what we find personally erotic play into how people read and label these books.

    This is something I neglected in my example of how we all might classify Holly. There are many books that don’t turn me on, but that I would classify as having erotic content. It’s like thinking someone’s attractive versus feeling attraction. However, not everyone separates personal reaction from classification. I see others argue that something’s “not hot” (implicitly meaning “not hot to me”) so it’s not romance, it’s erotica or porn.

    I’m curious to read your Fairyville review, because I have variable responses to Holly–she’s all over the map from general fiction with sex through erotic romance to erotica. I’ve been less engaged by some of her better-crafted worlds (the Beyond books, the Demon books) because they squeeze out the relationship development that I like in her other books; but when she goes too far toward 24/7 sex, that too loses the relationship oomph. However, when she nails it, she really nails it.

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  22. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 14:03:46

    Janine: I used to measure the difference by how much sex there was, but I don't anymore, because I feel that there's no lack of books out there that have been purposely sexed up to be marketed as erotic Romance.

    I’m confused, Janet. Are you saying you don’t consider those sexed up books erotic romance? Or that you do?

    And I'm not sure whether I think that sex scenes should serve a specific character purpose all the time in erotica -’ sometimes I think they can simply be arousing, although, as I said to Jane, that's a pretty personal judgment. Also, not every reader wants that kind of experience. I don't get into those clinical, extensive sex scenes generally; in fact, I remember counting the pages in one of the Shannon McKenna books because the sex scene went on for like more than 20 pages or something. Now I have liked several McKenna books, but at the point where I was counting pages, I was definitely disconnected! So whatever she was trying to accomplish there didn't register for me.

    I’m not sure if you are suggesting here sex scenes that serve a specific character purpose are clinical and extensive, or if that’s not what you are saying at all. But if it is, I disagree, because, at least in my subjective experience, a scene (whether sexual or not) is far less likely to feel clinical or extensive to me if there is something psychological at work there; in other words, if there is character development. I am much more likely to be engaged in the scene if there is something going on with the characters at more than just the surface level.

    I agree with your statement that sometimes sex can just be arousing in erotica, but that is where I separate erotica from erotic romance. In erotic romance, I think the relationship or characters need to be developed in every scene, whether it’s sex or not. In erotica where there is no romance, sure, the sex can just be arousing. There doesn’t necessarily need to be no character development at all (although it can be great when there is some). Because then we are just reading for prurient reasons.

    Again, as I said to RfP, I think it's a primary/secondary thing vis a vis the sex/character development dynamic that guides my own definitional thinking these days.

    I think I understand what you are saying much better now that you have added this clarification here in the comment section, and I’m also closer to agreeing with you. It is certainly true of good erotic romance that it develops the relationship and the characters primarily through the sex, though I think we have all read weaker erotic romances that did not accomplish that so well.

    So for me, Balogh is straight Romance, an author like McKenna erotic Romance (or maybe erotic Romantic Suspense), and Holly's trade books erotica.

    I haven’t read Holly’s trade books, and have only read one book by McKenna, so I’m at a disadvantage. However, the McKenna book did not succeed with me precisely because it sometimes seemed that the plot and characters were there to serve the sex rather than the other way around. If I’m reading pure erotica then I don’t mind that in the least, but when I pick up something that is billed as a romance, even an erotic romance, or a novel, even an erotic novel, I want the sex to serve the characterization and the story. Hart’s Dirty and Broken did that quite well for me, though I did feel that the sex in Dirty got repetitive at times (but I did not feel that way about Broken).

    I think Balogh uses sex to promote character development extremely deftly, but I don't think it's the primary means to either the romantic relationship or the main character's ultimate catharsis, whereas in Holly's trades, I think it is (and in Hill's Natural Law, too, and Dirty, as well).

    What about Broken, then, where most of the sex that develops Joe and Sadie’s relationship is in Sadie’s imagination and Joe’s stories rather than actual physical sex between Joe and Sadie? What about To Have and to Hold, where there is quite a lot of emotional catharsis through sex? What about Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation? How would you classify those books?

    I don't think there's anything wrong with writing a scene that is aimed primarily at turning the reader on if that's one part of what an author is trying to do. Where I personally get turned off is when I feel there's *nothing* beyond that AND the sex isn't even hot IMO. I don't need every sex scene to reveal or solidify some great truth about the characters or advance plot.

    I don’t need great truths to be revealed or solidified, but I do think the sex needs to change the relationship or show something about the characters, even if that something is only a small truth. In novels, scenes that don’t do that leave me unengaged and uninvolved.

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  23. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 15:02:41

    There are many books that don't turn me on, but that I would classify as having erotic content. It's like thinking someone's attractive versus feeling attraction. However, not everyone separates personal reaction from classification. I see others argue that something's “not hot� (implicitly meaning “not hot to me�) so it's not romance, it's erotica or porn.

    One of my biggest frustrations in Romance reviewing — and I’m talking about formal reviewing, here, not merely reader commentary — is the failing of books because they’re not “romantic” to the reviewer. While I have conceded the point that the reader’s emotional response to the romance plays a role in the reviewing process, IMO it should share at least equally with craft considerations, including storytelling, continuity, character development, voice, originality, etc.

    re. Holly, Demon’s Daughter, her original Demon book, is probably my second favorite to Courting Midnight, her first upyr book. I loved the pseudo steam-punk setting of DD and really want her to write more books in that same community. As for CM, the descriptions of how Gillian takes her animal familiar, a hawk, are some of my very favorite in all of Romance. It has been interesting watching Holly’s writing evolve, because while I think a number of her most recent books (including DD, btw) feel rushed to me, they still manage to entertain me for the most part. Her erotica is a bit more hit and miss for me, although I’ve enjoyed her last three books pretty well, with Fairyville being my favorite of her erotica offerings. It was cute in the least sickening sense of that word.

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  24. Janet
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 15:43:39

    I'm confused, Janet. Are you saying you don't consider those sexed up books erotic romance? Or that you do?

    I’d have to make a book by book evaluation, I guess. All I’m trying to say (I think) is that for me the generic differences relate to how the sex functions rather than how much of it there is, especially because I think sex has become somewhat of a marketing tactic in the Romance genre.

    I'm not sure if you are suggesting here sex scenes that serve a specific character purpose are clinical and extensive, or if that's not what you are saying at all.

    I’m just making a bunch of different points chained together related to the vagaries of my own personal responses.

    I agree with your statement that sometimes sex can just be arousing in erotica, but that is where I separate erotica from erotic romance. In erotic romance, I think the relationship or characters need to be developed in every scene, whether it's sex or not. In erotica where there is no romance, sure, the sex can just be arousing. There doesn't necessarily need to be no character development at all (although it can be great when there is some). Because then we are just reading for prurient reasons.

    I think it may come down to how each of us defines how each scene contributes to the whole of a book, Janine. For me, I can completely accept a sex scene in a Romance that has no greater purpose than to provide a “release” for both reader and characters from previous emotional tension or heavy character and relationship development. And perhaps that scene still serves the relationship development somehow, although not in a direct way. One of the things I really enjoyed about Charlene Teglia’s Wild Wild West (which has a similar feel, IMO, to Holly’s work) is the way that the characters sometimes just seem to be having a great time together physically, which makes me happy for them, as well, even though nothing deep seems to be happening on the surface (there’s a paradox for you). And I would definitely consider her book erotic Romance.

    re. McKenna’s books, my interest has dropped off in her full length novels. Her short stories, IMO, are her real strength. One story in particular, about a biker, did a great job, IMO, of deconstructing the myth of the mysterious alpha male (i.e. the danger we ignore in that fantasy). And I loved the way she constructed Seth’s consciousness in her first book Behind Closed Doors. But I don’t always think she’s successful in updating or riffing on some of the old Romance stereotypes, so, yes, sometimes her books just don’t work for me at all. Lately I’ve felt that she’s been moving toward a pattern of brutalization of her female characters, which has really, really disturbed me and made me wary of continuing with more of her books.

    What about Broken, then, where most of the sex that develops Joe and Sadie's relationship is in Sadie's imagination and Joe's stories rather than actual physical sex between Joe and Sadie? What about To Have and to Hold, where there is quite a lot of emotional catharsis through sex? What about Rosenthal's The Slightest Provocation? How would you classify those books?

    To me, THATH is Romance straight, TSP is erotic Romance, and Broken erotica or even romantic erotica (I’m stealing Ann Bruce’s term here, because I think it’s really good for a book like Broken). I think that Gaffney still places the emotional development of Rachel and Sebastian as primary to the sex, even though there is significant interplay. Rosenthal’s novel, IMO, is self-conscious in producing the opposite dynamic — especially in the way she creates the lovers reunited theme and consciously creates the early couple as sexually but not emotionally compatible. The same way their relationship transforms from primarily sexual to primarily emotional is also, IMO, how the book proceeds, moving very strongly into Romance in the second half. And Broken I see as erotica, even more so than Dirty, I think, because of the way it ends. It doesn’t matter to me that the sex takes place primarily in Sadie’s imagination, since it’s most definitely represented graphically on the pages of the book for the reader to read. What’s interesting, IMO, about Broken, though, is the relationship between Sadie and her husband, which is not really a romance, or even romantic, but does seem to create a romantic tension in the book that introduces elements of genre Romance into the book. And the way it offers closure for Elle’s story, too, also adds a Romance-y element. But it still seems to me that Sadie’s development as a character, as well as Joe’s, is still very much grounded in the sexual content of the book and the way each of them are either portrayed in and/or experience those fantasies. I thought it was clever, for example, the way Hart contrasts the Joe of the stories with the Joe who comes to Sadie’s house that one night late in the book. Although I think Broken breaks down late in the novel, I think we learn a great deal about Joe through his sexual self (and that Joe learns about himself that way, too).

    I do think the sex needs to change the relationship or show something about the characters, even if that something is only a small truth. In novels, scenes that don't do that leave me unengaged and uninvolved.

    I think I may see a difference between a scene or two that doesn’t make an obvious contribution to the plot or characterization or relationship and completely meaningless and/or gratuitous scenes. But I haven’t thought enough about it to articulate the difference.

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  25. Janine
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 17:31:34

    I'd have to make a book by book evaluation, I guess. All I'm trying to say (I think) is that for me the generic differences relate to how the sex functions rather than how much of it there is, especially because I think sex has become somewhat of a marketing tactic in the Romance genre.

    Interesting. I agree that it’s a marketing tatic, but isn’t the creation of subgenres (including erotic romance) also in part a marketing tactic? It seems to me from the reading I’ve done in these genres that publishers separate out some of these genres that we’ve been discussing here today by the proportion, amount, explicitness and type of sex in the story. By type I mean the different sexual acts that might be included or excluded. For example I don’t think we would find a threesome in a “sexy romance.” But we might find some in “erotic romance” and certainly there are many to be found in “erotica.”

    While I do try to define these genres in my head to some extent, I also allow my definitions of them to remain fluid since genres are liable to expand and contract with buying and publishing trends.

    I think it may come down to how each of us defines how each scene contributes to the whole of a book, Janine.

    Yes, it probably does.

    For me, I can completely accept a sex scene in a Romance that has no greater purpose than to provide a “release� for both reader and characters from previous emotional tension or heavy character and relationship development. And perhaps that scene still serves the relationship development somehow, although not in a direct way. One of the things I really enjoyed about Charlene Teglia's Wild Wild West (which has a similar feel, IMO, to Holly's work) is the way that the characters sometimes just seem to be having a great time together physically, which makes me happy for them, as well, even though nothing deep seems to be happening on the surface (there's a paradox for you). And I would definitely consider her book erotic Romance.

    Oh, you know, I absolutely do consider characters having a great time together physically part of relationship development! Because I think mutual physical pleasure is a kind of bonding. So maybe where the distinction comes in for me is whether I feel that “great time” as an emotional response on the part of the characters and in myself as a reader (I haven’t read Teglia yet but I do for example feel that in some of Susan Johnson’s earlier romances), or whether I don’t feel it, and only see the author telling me they had a great time.

    To me, THATH is Romance straight, TSP is erotic Romance, and Broken erotica or even romantic erotica (I'm stealing Ann Bruce's term here, because I think it's really good for a book like Broken).

    I don’t think I could categorize them as easily as you do. To me they all fall into an in-between realm.

    Broken I see as erotica, even more so than Dirty, I think, because of the way it ends.

    I agree that Broken is less like a romance than Dirty, but I don’t agree that it’s erotica. Yes, Sadie and Joe’s characters and relationship develop through the sexual stories, but what about Adam’s character? Broken is labeled as an “erotic novel” rather than “erotica” and I think that is a better label (if I have to put a label on it at all). Erotica (rather than erotic romance) to me is primarily focused on sex, and I feel that Broken was about a lot more than just sex. Hart used sex as a vehicle to tell her story, but it was a story about the different ways of being broken, and about broken relationships as well.

    Incidentally, I’ve revised my grade for Broken up, because the book has really stayed with me emotionally, because I remember it better than so many books I read earlier this year, and because I think it really was fresh and original and clever. It’s not a perfect book but at this point I do feel I would need chocolate to get over someone taking it from my library, LOL.

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  26. RfP
    Sep 11, 2007 @ 22:28:57

    I don't think there's anything wrong with writing a scene that is aimed primarily at turning the reader on…. Where I personally get turned off is when I feel there's *nothing* beyond that AND the sex isn't even hot IMO.

    Yes–so, riffing on the Crusie quote, it doesn’t mean you can’t write a voyeuristic sex scene or even a scene in which someone is dehumanized by whatever’s going on in the room. But you can write it to tell the reader something about the people participating (not just “Ew! They’re THAT kind of people!”), or add a new angle to the plot.

    re. McKenna's books, my interest has dropped off…. I loved the way she constructed Seth's consciousness in her first book Behind Closed Doors…. Lately I've felt that she's been moving toward a pattern of brutalization of her female characters

    Agree on all fronts. I just finished Edge of Midnight, and I’m not going to bother reviewing it. The series started off really fresh and strong, but the last three-ish books seem to have slid into a pattern that both bores and squicks me. The first two or three felt boundary-pushing and showed individuals working out their own often-uncomfortable sexual mores within a romance. The newer books have lost that and become, IMO, simply erotica heightened by violence.

    That series’ evolution has been making me think about my views on porn/erotica/romance. The more I perceive the sex and the male/female dynamic to be routinized or commidified (instead of being about and necessary to particular characters), the more squicked I get about it. So something can be sexy to the point of gory, but if I see it as part of the characterization/narrative, I’ll see it as challenging conventions through individuality; if I see it as mindless repetition of a titillating scene, I start to see it as reinforcing stereotypes in a more pornographic fashion.

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  27. Exchange your wife girlfriend » Thoughts on HanaKimi drama
    Sep 28, 2007 @ 01:14:20

    [...] Up until this weekend I was one of those readers who didnt really care that I couldnt articulate the difference between erotica and erotically charged Romance. I know it when I see it was good enough for me. Then I read Emma Hollys newest release Fairyville and had one of those DUH! source: Love and Lust [...]

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