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Why I Now Hate Erotic Romance

Note from Jane:  The following is a post from Lazaraspaste, a former reviewer at Dear Author.   This was an interesting and thoughtprovoking post she put on her personal blog and I asked permission to repost it here at Dear Author.

In the history of American Arts and Letters there have been many persons convinced of their own ability to write. Since they speak the language, they are certain that they can wield a pen and produce a story, transferring the errant imagination into a book. Writing, in this view, is considered an extension—albeit a skilled extension—of the human capacity for speech and not, as with music or painting, an art which requires such paltry and mythical substances such as genius. Talent is reduced to a mere function of the desire to write with no pause to consider whether or not one should write. Thus, thwarted liberal arts majors have often dreamt of the day (retirement, perhaps?) when they would be able to finally sit down and write the Great American Novel, only to discover that such a novel neither exists (at least in the singular) nor is so easy to produce as they once thought.

But at least these men and women, for all their naiveté, understand that writing is a craft, something one must work at and something one must have time to do. Their dream of writing the Great American Novel stems from a desire to produce art. It is a worthwhile and lofty desire. Those who wish to write literature at least value the English language in all its unruly glory and recognize that it takes time to craft a novel. One would not suppose this to be the case for certain writers of erotic romance who seem to be under the mistaken impression that merely putting periods after words constitutes narrative progression and that the development of a love story can be totally reduced to declarations of “I love you” around a mouthful of cock. Based upon this sloppy and ugly use of language, I can only suspect their desire is less about art and more about cashing in on a lucrative publishing trend.

I did not always loathe erotic romance with this level of contempt or even at all, but persistent crimes against narrative have taught me not just cynicism, but hatred. There are, of course, exceptions. There are always exceptions. But if the ability to speak the English language has convinced some that it is easy to write it, then erotic romance is a genre that suffers the additional handicap of people thinking that just because they have fucked, that they can write convincingly about fucking. Let me be very clear: It Does Not. The overwhelming amount of badly written, narratively perfunctory, ethically problematic drivel being produced under the heading of “erotic romance” is as numberless as the sands of the Sahara. If I were a writer of erotic romance, I would be enraged by the crapulence daily glutting my genre and obscuring my own work.

In case you are wondering, the book that inspired this post was Food for the Gods by Camille Anthony. There is nothing exceptionally wrong with this book. I mean, there weren’t bull-shifters in it (Loving Scarlett which Jane did for a rom fail a long while back) or anything. No. The book was generic and that was precisely its problem. It exhibited tendencies (negligently deployed) I keep coming across whenever I try to explore the erotic romance genre. Tendencies that I find both troubling and persistent. It is true that there are other authors who use these tendencies with a higher level of skill, but the tendencies themselves are what I find problematic. However, I think these tendencies are the result of some unexamined premises upon which many erotic romance novels are founded. I will outline them as follows:

The Premises of Erotic Romance

 

  • Pleasure is good.
  • Repulsion or disgust is bad because it is not pleasure.
  • That which is good, is also moral. Pleasure is good, therefore pleasure indicates the moral.
  • That which is bad, is also immoral. Repulsion or disgust is bad, therefore it indicates the immoral
  • To find pleasure is to consent.
  • To find repulsion is to not consent.
  • Consent is to have pleasure.
  • Non-consent is to have repulsion or disgust.
  • Non-consent is bad because it is not pleasure
  • Good people have good sex, i.e. moral sex, because their pleasure is consensual (pleasurable to all parties) which is good.
  • Bad people have bad sex, i.e. immoral sex because their pleasure is non-consensual (repulsive to one or more party, this can be the reader) which is bad.
  • All sexual pleasure is good because it is pleasurable.
  • Love is good. Sex is good. Therefore, love is sex.
  • Sex is also love. Unless it is bad, i.e. not pleasurable which is to be repulsive. Then it is not love.

 

If these sound like the psychotic ramblings of a sociopathic philosopher to you, then you’ve probably spotted something troubling in this list.

The problem is that erotic romance often asserts itself as something other than pornography. It claims not to just be erotic, but romantic. The romance part ought to indicate that it is doing more with sex and sexuality than merely recounting various bits of fucking for the reader’s titillation. Otherwise, why call it romance? Why not just be pornography? So often there is neither an explanation nor a distinction of the differences between sex and love. The name of the genre itself points to the idea that such a distinction between sex (erotic) and love (romance) exists, and offers itself up as a genre that—unlike pure erotica or pure romance—will focus on both sex (erotic!) and love (romance!). But again and again I see erotic romance translating the romance part into premature ejaculations of love, usually right after some gang bang, or into the protagonists marrying. Love, then, is merely reduced to a byproduct of sex much like santorum or babies.

The elision between sex and love is further made problematic when erotic romance introduces a villain. Villains in erotic romance are also having sex, but they are having bad sex. We know this because they are the villains. Bad people have bad sex. Yet, the sex the villains have is rendered in the same titillating language as the sex the heroes have. We only know it is bad sex because it structured around some taboo that we are meant to find repulsive, whether it be incest or non-consent or torture. The good sex and the bad sex are determined neither by the quality of the sex nor by the ethics of the sex, but merely by who is having it, the villain or the hero. This is how we get such fine and beloved characters as Ye Olde Homosexual Villain and Ye Olde BDSM Villain. By equating the lack of sexual attraction or the presence of sexual repulsion with immorality, erotic romance defines the good with that which gives pleasure and the bad with that which give disgust regardless of the particulars. As such, when readers (like myself) encounter a scene in which a father and daughter are having sex we are repulsed by the violation of the incest taboo but then confused by the fact that other than that taboo being present and the participants being the villains there is no other indication that this sex is wrong because it is written in the same tonality and mood as every other sex scene. As in the axioms above, non-consent is only bad when it produces repulsion. When it produces attraction, then it is not bad. No means no only when it is uttered to the villain. If it is uttered to the hero, it means yes.

Let me be clear: what I find troubling is the shallowness of these depictions, the sheer uncompromising superficiality of the sexual ethics displayed by stultifying bad prose. I so often find that erotic romance is reductive to the point of total erasure, and sex positive to the point of naive positivism. It imagines a fantasy world in which distinctions between ethical sexual conduct and unethical sexual conduct are no more complex than whether or not arousal results.

I’m not suggesting that these problems are not present in romance as a whole or erotica as a whole, because they are. But erotic romance spotlights these problems in a way neither romance nor erotica does because of its hybridity. Because it is hybrid, it is easier to see where the genre fails as a romance and as a piece of erotica. The concentration on sex, like sex itself, exposes things that might otherwise remain hidden by a plot development or a characterization whose focus is not solely on sex. If what propels the story forward is a mystery plot, and not the next sex scene, then it is easier to hide the problematic equations between heroism and pleasure, and villainy and repulsion. Because erotic romance makes claims on the romance genre, I expect it to ask some question about the nature of love. What is love? What is sex? How are they distinct concepts? But it does not do this. More and more, it merely equates them. It has done this to such a degree, that romance now also posits the same idea. That intense sexual pleasure is the sign and the only sign for love. That love is sex.

Allowing me to break it down using the examples from Food for the Gods.

The plot of Food for the Gods is a bit like Hamlet in that there is an evil uncle who has poisoned his brother in order to become king. The similarities between the two end in the haphazard violence of the rest of the story which is basically: displaced Greek princess gets sacrificed to Poseidon in order to appease the angry god for the crimes of her people which include incest but more upsetting to the god, failing to worship him. The Kraken to which she is sacrificed turn out to be the triplet godling sons of Poseidon, who are both hot and hung and want to make Daphne their consort after they eat her, if you know what I mean.

Leaving aside the multitude of absurdities (Daphne keeps a journal whose entries comprise most of the exposition), the stilted, twitching prose, the incoherent plot arc, and the troubling insertion of a token POC character for no apparent reason whatsoever (Terena, the maid servant is black. A big deal is made of her skin color and her kinky hair in an appallingly fetishistic digression in one of Daphne’s journal entries), I will merely focus on the erotic aspects of the novel—if I may be so bold as to accord the term novel to this rambling mess of an erotic romance.

The triplet godlings who Daphne ends up falling in love with after a hand-job or three, are brothers. A statement so obvious and redundant that you are probably wondering why I am bothering to make it. But wait, all will be revealed. They are the heroes. The villains of the piece are the Princess Ordana and her father, King Meneos. Princess Ordana and the King are having a sexual relationship. Ordana is also a lesbian. So she is both incestuous and a lesbian, which is bad on account of the fact that she is the villain. How do I know this? Because the godlings, Porimus, Playdor, and Polyphemus are also involved in an incestuous relationship in which they all simultaneously fuck the same woman, but their incest is “good” incest. Possibly because they aren’t lesbians or possibly because we aren’t supposed to see it as incestuous since they are three from one egg?

To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, perhaps the reason that Ordana and her father are eeeeevil is because they are selfish, cruel and murderous. Except why isn’t that enough? Why then make them incestuous lovers? Moreover, why is their incest wrong but the incest of the Kraken brothers a-okay? Is it because the brothers are gods? Though I highly doubt that this book is positing some essential difference between divine morality and human morality which it is trying to explore through the theme of incest. I assume that this could not possibly be the case based on what I’ve read.

My only conclusion is that the incest between father and daughter (for which the daughter is blamed, by the way) is meant to titillate us as much as the incest between the brothers. I come to this conclusion based upon the fact that a sex scene between father and daughter breaks up the first and last half of the book. That means, as far a narrative progression goes, we get three major sex scenes before the denouement. The first between Daphne and the godlings, the second between Ordana and her father, and the last again with Daphne and the godlings. That means that they are narratively equal. The only clue that we have that the scene between Ordana and her father is wrong is that it they are villainous.

While I am using this example, similar plots abound. I’m sure you can think of one. Unethical sex is defined by the fact that it is the villains having the sex in both The Seduction of Miranda Prosper as well as in Elizabeth Amber’s Satyr series. I’ve seen it in other erotic romances as well. Alas, my memory does not serve. I cannot remember the titles and I haven’t got access to my ereader.

To equate “bad” sex with villainy without examining the actions, relations, and power structures involved is a disservice especially if you are asserting yourself as something other than porn. I’m defining pornography pretty basically as that whose primary purpose or only purpose is to cause sexual arousal. If you are only attempting to get people’s rocks off, then I suppose it doesn’t matter. It can be just a fantasy. But if you are asserting that you are a romance—a genre which has labored greatly under the misperception that it is merely “porn for women”—then you’d better have some other narrative purpose than masturbatory material.

Even when erotic romances don’t have the problem of defining unethical sex as that sex had by the villains, they still have the problem of positivism. By which I mean, the notion that knowledge can only be gleaned from empirical evidence, like the wetness of the vagina as proof of desire and desire as proof of love. In erotic romances where no villains exist, the conception of sexuality still proves troubling because it not only rarely bothers to explore interiority, but it asserts through the same concept of attraction and repulsion that it does not exist. Moreover, it asserts that the essential identity is only sexual identity rather than sexual identity making up a part of an individual’s total identity. Again, this proves troubling because it erases contradictions, smooths out complexities, and relies on a narrative in which the proof of love is sexual pleasure, and that sexual pleasure is proof of love.

My problem is not that erotic romance dramatizes interior experiences or emotional abstractions through physical bodies and encounters, but rather that over and over I seem to find novels and novellas that do this with little to no awareness as to the problems this presents both ethically and narratively. I have determined that they lack this awareness based upon the atrocious and bland prose styles; the ridiculous plots; the failure to distinguish in any meaningful way the sexual titillation of “bad” sex and “good” sex; the persistent failure to develop any interior landscape for the characters; superficial declarations of love; the refusal to deal in any meaningful way with what consent and non-consent actually mean; the failure to actually distinguish between love and sex; and more often than not, the failure to achieve even the most basic coherency and comprehensibility.

Erotic romance, you have become what romance is so often accused of being: the shallow outpourings of adolescent sexualities grafted onto the bodies of middle aged women who churn out the most asinine of prose. At best you are mediocre and pass away unremembered and un-mourned. At worst you are, quite literally, unreadable. But most often you are blindly offensive, naively asserting a concept of sex so simple, so sentimental, that it is positively sticky.

A fact that brings new meaning to the phrase, “sowing the seeds of their own destruction.”

Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

61 Comments

  1. Angela
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 06:43:17

    This is a really great article. I found myself nodding my head quite a bit while reading it, and I found it articulates a lot of problems I have with a lot erotic romance. More and more I find myself shying away from trying new authors in the genre – even much beloved authors – because I just can’t handle reading either badly written (with so little concept of the English language it makes me cringe) or badly plotted/characterized/etc romance. Even if the sex scenes are super-duper-smexy.

    I keep hoping to find more, because when it’s done right it’s a genre that I absolutely love.

    As an aside – that’s like the third good thing I’ve seen about that series by Alison Richardson. I’m definitely going to have to grab those.

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  2. Violetta Vane
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 08:47:53

    I’m a big fan of erotic romance. My two favorites right now are Cara McKenna and Charlotte Stein. I’d just like to point out:

    - homophobia and racism also abound in romance books with no or low sexual content
    - I hate incest and refuse to read anything with sexualized incest, but it’s also a common trope in books with low or no sexual content, going back to mythology
    - in fact, pretty much everything that erotic romance is critiqued for in this post is not unique to the genre.

    This entire section of the article I found very disturbing: “By which I mean, the notion that knowledge can only be gleaned from empirical evidence, like the wetness of the vagina as proof of desire and desire as proof of love.” This whole passage is implying that true “interiority”, psychological sophistication, high-mindedness is dependent on mocking and deprecating the female body. We’re dirty. We should be beings of pure mind, and never ever talk about our gross wet vaginas in connection to true love.

    Fuck that.

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  3. mari
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 08:58:07

    Interesting. I like how you emphasize that fucking (because that’s the approprite word in this context) is lazily used as a subsitute for any other kind of intimacy. As if nth degree of vaginal wetness indicates a little in love, or not so much in love.

    My only other comment is I have seen ostensible romance books (or books marketed as straight romance) with this kind of lazy writing. I just dnf’d two in a row. The h/h were fucking like bunnies with ADD by page 20 and the hero in both cases was convinced that She was the ONE based on a) explosiveness of orgasms and b) perpetual hard on.

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  4. Deljah
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 09:18:26

    Perhaps the author of the book you reference does not consider the three brothers to be incestuous b/c they are having sex with the woman (albeit at the same time), but not with each other directly? In that sense, perhaps it is a higher level menage? Or does the book say the brothers are incestuous? I wouldn’t have called them incestuous, but maybe the definition of it is broader than I thought.

    I wonder about sexual ethics in this age of “not judging someone else’s kink” and _____ *insert whatever activity* being okay as long as there is consent. What are sexual ethics outside of consent issues?

    Also, like many people, I can see the problem of equating arousal with consent. But sometimes in Romancelandia, it seems to me that arousal and orgasms outweigh consent, if not trump it outright, and if the hero “redeems” himself somehow, then instances of non-consent become mere plot points.

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  5. Pam Rosenthal (@PamRosenthal)
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 09:34:15

    “what is peculiar to modern societies, in fact is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.”

    This was Michel Foucault in 19-fuckin-78 for god’s sake. How long before we catch up with him? Thanks for trying to push us along, Angela.

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  6. reader
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 09:42:53

    Dead-on balls accurate.

    Thank you.

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  7. DB Cooper
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 09:59:52

    And this is why what I really want to write is smut. I must remember to remind myself this now and then…gotta stay honest. :)

    (As an aside reading DA has introduced the creep of new thoughts and new ways to examine my writing. I hope to its benefit… :D )

    Also, I know I’m going to open a can of worms with this, but there exists the old stereotype that “women (or some people) can’t detangle sex from love”. I daresay, even if we don’t believe this stereotype, we can probably pick out someone whom we fear falls into this pattern (a friend constantly falling in love with the next suitor, or god forbid our own children who are just starting to explore sexual relationships).

    Now given the “democratization” of recent changes in book publishing (its OK to self publish, its OK to add enough sex to turn it into erotic romance, its OK to talk BDSM and “other” previous unmentionables) is it almost expected that this “sex equals love” approach to erotic romance should come flying out of computers of those who see (or approach) love this way?

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  8. Ridley
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:07:06

    *screams* *pulls hair* *throws panties onstage*

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  9. Amber Belldene (@AmberBelldene)
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:16:33

    Thanks for this post. There are many insights here that I appreciate, but the one I expect to continue pondering is your analysis of the sexual activities of villains and its moral implications:

    “The elision between sex and love is further made problematic when erotic romance introduces a villain. Villains in erotic romance are also having sex, but they are having bad sex. We know this because they are the villains. Bad people have bad sex. Yet, the sex the villains have is rendered in the same titillating language as the sex the heroes have.”

    And I suspect this trend in Erotic Romance is related to the sudden fascination popular culture has with non-vanilla sex, while the tools to analyze sexual ethics (which you have elucidated in this post very well) are not yet widely familiar, perhaps even to some authors of erotic romance. We seem to be in a phase where “anything goes” as long as it doesn’t repulse us, and we need not ask why some things do and others don’t.

    I do hope authors with a more sophisticated grasp of the ethical issues you are raising might be a part of developing this popular awareness. As Ruthie Knox said so well on Wonkomance the other day, authors are making arguments when we write. I have not read Food for the Gods, but I know the genre and wonder if you might be observing what happens when authors forget about their argument (or don’t realize, or reject that its their responsibility).

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  10. Pam Rosenthal (@PamRosenthal)
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:23:12

    To DB Cooper:

    It’s ok, you know, to swing both ways (love as destiny, love as problem). It won’t make you rich as a writer (take it from me and Molly Weatherfield), but for us it’s the most honest way to go. Molly writes BDSM because she’s fascinated by the calculus (if you will) of it, the sexy disjuncts between fetish and feeling. Pam writes romance because she grew up in the 1950s and has lived the mythology. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Writing as well as you can is the only consolation.

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  11. Darlene Marshall
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:30:50

    What @Ridley said.

    Excellent, excellent essay. The erotic romance market is so heavily oversaturated with poorly written, problematic tripe that I’ve given up on reading it unless it’s an author I know and trust, like Emma Holly or Joey Hill or Alison Richardson.

    Thank you for sharing this. Regretfully, it’s unlikely to be read by the people who need to read it the most.

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  12. CG
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:32:39

    Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of everything is crap.

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  13. Deljah
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:35:27

    Is it incest if three brothers have sex with one woman at the same time, but not with each other directly? I would not have considered it to be so or realized that some people thought it was, before reading this article. Perhaps the author of the referenced book does not have that perspective either?

    I wonder about sexual ethics in this day of “not judging someone else’s kink” and “everything is okay as long as it’s consensual”. What are sexual ethics outside of issues of consent?

    I understand why many people would balk at equating arousal with consent, but it seems to me that in Romancelandia overall, arousal/orgasm outweigh consent, if not trump it outright. If arousal/orgasm can be achieved and the hero can also somehow “redeem” himself at any point following a non-consent scenario, then it seems to me that oftentimes, non-consent is ultimately just a plot point.

    (apologies if this is a duplicate post)

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  14. Ridley
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 10:56:05

    @CG: While that’s true, I don’t think that explains what Angela’s talking about.

    If I had to pinpoint one thing that could explain why erotic romance consistently fails me, I think I’d say that it’s a poorly defined genre. Is it just erotica with an HEA relationship? Is it romance with more sex? Is it romance with the same amount of sex, but with more four-letter words?

    I’ve found that when I finish reading a hot book that I enjoyed, I tag it either as erotica (if the hero’s/heroine’s sexual journey was the central theme) or as a romance (if the hero and heroine’s relationship was the focus.) If I thought it was stuck between the two, it gets tagged as erotic romance and written about ruefully (“if only it knew what story it was trying to tell” “could have cut half of the sex scenes and missed nothing”). Defining a genre by the quantity of sex scenes, rather than what kind of story said sex scenes are used to tell, pretty much sets it up to be pornographic. And I get my porn on Tumblr for free.

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  15. Isobel Carr
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 11:13:35

    @Ridley:

    [I]t’s a poorly defined genre. Is it just erotica with an HEA relationship? Is it romance with more sex? Is it romance with the same amount of sex, but with more four-letter words?

    Yes, this! And there’s no consensus among those who write it or read it. I’ve been slammed for writing smut. I’ve been slammed for failing to live up to a reviewer’s personal definition of ER (which was ménage required). But I can only try to live up to *my* own definition, which is that the sex has to be integral to the plot and the progression of the relationship.

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  16. Robin/Janet
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 11:25:54

    I’m uncomfortable with a number of aspects of this essay. I need to think some more about it before I comment at length, but a couple of things jumped out at me right away:

    But at least these men and women, for all their naiveté, understand that writing is a craft, something one must work at and something one must have time to do. Their dream of writing the Great American Novel stems from a desire to produce art. It is a worthwhile and lofty desire.

    Based upon this sloppy and ugly use of language, I can only suspect their desire is less about art and more about cashing in on a lucrative publishing trend.

    As much as I dislike the denigration of literary fiction within genre fiction communities, I also have issues with its fetishization. That said, my issue here is the assumptions you make about why people write and the ethical/moral implications I think your comments rely on here, especially in the context of the later argument you make re. ethicality in Ero Rom. Of course you are entitled to make these assumptions, but I think they undermine the actual arguments you are trying to make about the specific books of the genre.

    Also, it feels like there’s slippage between Erotic RomanCES and Erotic Romance as a genre. Sometimes you refer to romances, sometimes to the genre as its written, and sometimes to the whole of it, and my first read through had me feeling like you’d thrown an umbrella over the entirety of the category, even though I don’t think that’s what you intended (the title doesn’t help with that either, frankly).

    When I first started reading ER, I was surprised at how conventional so many of the books were that I had read. But I also feel like ER has suffered as an unfair target in Romance in ways that feel self-contradictory and counter-productive to me. I’m not suggesting that this post does that (I really appreciate that you perform analysis with an actual book), but I need to think more about it before I follow that train of thought further.

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  17. Gillyweed
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 11:51:49

    I haven’t had good luck with erotic romance, mainly for some of the reasons outlined in this post. The romance part often seems tacked-on and the writing can range from meh to bad.

    I do loooove Janine Ashbless, but I wouldn’t consider her work to be erotic romance — she is straight up erotica (although her stories often have romantic sub-plots). Damn, she is a good writer. As good as any “regular” fiction writer. Her world-building is phenomenal and her prose is downright lovely.

    My theory about villains having “bad” sex is that authors and readers do want to explore taboo themes. Perhaps it’s safer, somehow, to have the villain engage in the taboo act?

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  18. JL
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 12:04:54

    I, too, was nodding my head quite vigorously as I read. I do, however, think Robin/Janet has a point about erotic romances and erotic romance. Are Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changlings series (normally considered PNR) erotic romance? They are descriptive and hot but not what I consider erotic romance in terms of the genre. The plot, characterization, world-building, intimacy, and everything else is there. Is Molly O’Keefe considered erotic romance? I thought I saw them tagged that way, but again, plot, characters, intimacy, etc, is all there. Is it that the genre of erotic romance is simply where sex replaces intimacy? I have appreciated some erotica – Cara McKenna is amazing and uses sex as a way in to the characters’ intimacy and emotions. Beautiful stuff. But I don’t know if I’ve actually read anything properly within the erotic romance genre. Certainly, I’ve read terrible books with too much gross sex (I don’t mean this offensively about any type of sex, just gross in the way it is written since the writer doesn’t even try to show the beauty of it) combined with atrocious writing. That’s happening in many genres, though. I’m rambling terribly now. I guess to summarize, I’m wondering if there really is an erotic romance genre or if there is just an overabundance of craptastic writing about sex labelling itself as romance, wherein the authors are hoping to capitalize on the ‘so bad it’s good’ addictive factor that 50 Shades of Gray (which I’ve not even read) had.

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  19. MaryK
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 14:42:31

    @Ridley: @Isobel Carr: Yeah. It’s particularly bad, IMO when writers don’t know what they’re writing. I look at it from the ER-to-erotica perspective (rather than the romance-to-ER perspective) because I don’t like erotica and try to avoid it so I’m sensitive to genre labels. I see authors claiming to write erotica based on the amount of sex and use of four letter words. I think for some authors “erotica” is a nickname for ER, and it makes me wonder if they even know what erotica is.

    erotica (if the hero’s/heroine’s sexual journey was the central theme) or as a
    romance (if the hero and heroine’s relationship was the focus.)

    That’s pretty much it for me. If there’s a discussion about ER or erotica, and I wonder “but is there a romance?” something’s wrong.

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  20. Carolyne
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 15:38:26

    erotica (if the hero’s/heroine’s sexual journey was the central theme) or as a romance (if the hero and heroine’s relationship was the focus.) If I thought it was stuck between the two, it gets tagged as erotic romance and written about ruefully (“if only it knew what story it was trying to tell” “could have cut half of the sex scenes and missed nothing”)

    I wonder why this should be considered an either/or, and with a book that ends up including both being considered problematic. Not saying that’s an invalid assessment–I’m very interested in how people react to books that walk that line (or stagger off it), and am always glad to be warned away from a DNF-level book. But, given how both my own writing and my reading tastes spread across the spectrum, a book where both journeys blend is ideal. Real life sometimes happens that way.

    Is what I’m seeing that, if there’s a proper romance being told–an emotional relationship being built, with at least HFN–a book is not the “erotica” category? I’d want ER as a category so people who just don’t want the smut can avoid it, and people who want romance can have it with added smutting if they enjoy that.

    As for the “bad sex” discussion: I’m not completely on board with all the original points, but this does make me reexamine my thinking. I feel squicked at the idea of using villains that way unless there’s a strong point to it (that even the worst of villains can find comfort together; or that using sex as a weapon defines a villainous character but the same act is transformed by the heroic characters, etc.)

    That said, I generally can’t read stories that treat incest as A-OK (without convincing mythological or historical context, and even in that case I’d as soon it stay behind closed doors).

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  21. Sunita
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 15:49:26

    I think CG’s invocation of Sturgeon’s Law is apropos because I’m having trouble disentangling what is specific to erotic romance in this post and what is common to other genres of commercial fiction but takes a specific form in erotic romance. And given that only one book is examined in any detail (and there are only glancing references to one other book and one other author), the argument doesn’t begin to overcome the “generalizing from a sample of 1″ hurdle.

    Literary fiction writers frequently write for money. Commercial fiction writers frequently write for love. Motivation for filthy lucre (or literary greatness) isn’t the relevant distinction, so the first two paragraphs are completely unpersuasive.

    I have no trouble believing there is a lot of crap produced in the erotic romance subgenre. But that’s true of every genre. And erotic romance is certainly not the only subgenre that deals with hybridity challenges. SF Romance, YA romance, Romantic Suspense all have to do a balancing act, and you can certainly read passionate denunciations of inadequate worldbuilding in reviews of SF or fantasy-romance books. Granted, it’s not as exciting as talking about sex, but the logic of the argument isn’t that different.

    I don’t read a lot of erotic romance, I prefer my erotica and my romance separated (at least in m/f; in m/m I’m stuck reading a fair amount unless I want to limit myself to about 5 authors). I think this is in part because erotic romance is really hard to write well. The kinds of power relationships and sexual explorations that are the staple of good, thoughtful erotica are difficult to turn into a romantic, believable HEA.

    I’d love to see a post that talks about good erotic romance that doesn’t start and end with Alison Richardson and Cara McKenna. Maybe we need an “if you like” post that can accumulate crowdsourced suggestions.

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  22. Carolyne
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 15:56:43

    erotica (if the hero’s/heroine’s sexual journey was the central theme) or as a romance (if the hero and heroine’s relationship was the focus.) If I thought it was stuck between the two, it gets tagged as erotic romance and written about ruefully (“if only it knew what story it was trying to tell” “could have cut half of the sex scenes and missed nothing”)

    I wonder why this should be considered an either/or, and with a book that ends up including both being considered problematic. Not saying that’s an invalid assessment–I’m very interested in how people react to books that walk that line (or stagger off it), and am always glad to be warned away from a DNF-level book. But, given how both my own writing and my reading tastes spread across the spectrum, a book where both journeys blend is ideal. Real life sometimes happens that way.

    Is what I’m seeing that, if there’s a proper romance being told–an emotional relationship being built, with at least HFN–a book is not the “erotica” category? I’d look to ER as a category so people who just don’t want the smut can avoid it, and people who want romance can have it with added smutting if they enjoy that.

    As for the “bad sex” discussion: I’m not completely on board with all the original points, but this does make me reexamine my thinking. I feel squicked at the idea of using villains that way unless there’s a strong point to it (that even the worst of villains can find comfort together; or that using sex as a weapon defines a villainous character but the same act is transformed by the heroic characters, etc.)

    That said, I generally can’t read stories that treat incest as A-OK (without convincing mythological or historical context, and even in that case I’d as soon it stay behind closed doors).

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  23. Carolyne
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 15:59:47

    (I’m having trouble posting a comment today from two different computers, so I’m hoping I don’t end up with multiples of this.)

    erotica (if the hero’s/heroine’s sexual journey was the central theme) or as a romance (if the hero and heroine’s relationship was the focus.) If I thought it was stuck between the two, it gets tagged as erotic romance and written about ruefully (“if only it knew what story it was trying to tell” “could have cut half of the sex scenes and missed nothing”)

    I wonder why this should be considered an either/or, and with a book that ends up including both being considered problematic. Not saying that’s an invalid assessment–I’m very interested in how people react to books that walk that line (or stagger off it), and am always glad to be warned away from a DNF-level book. But, given how both my own writing and my reading tastes spread across the spectrum, a book where both journeys blend is ideal. Real life sometimes happens that way.

    Is what I’m seeing that, if there’s a proper romance being told–an emotional relationship being built, with at least HFN–a book is not the “erotica” category? I’d look to ER as a category so people who just don’t want the smut can avoid it, and people who want romance can have it with added smutting if they enjoy that.

    As for the “bad sex” discussion: I’m not completely on board with all the original points, but this does make me reexamine my thinking. I feel squicked at the idea of using villains that way unless there’s a strong point to it (that even the worst of villains can find comfort together; or that using sex as a weapon defines a villainous character but the same act is transformed by the heroic characters, etc.)

    That said, I generally can’t read stories that treat incest as A-OK (without convincing mythological or historical context, and even in that case I’d as soon it stay behind closed doors).

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  24. CG
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:04:46

    @Ridley: Passionate Ink, the RWA writer’s group for erotic romance defines it as: Romance in which erotic elements are integral to the plot and take the book beyond traditional romance boundaries. The erotic elements (in the context of any traditional or non-traditional romantic relationship) play a major part in plot and/or character development, and the end of the book is emotionally satisfying and optimistic. Are all erotic romances going to fall neatly within these guidelines, probably not, but that’s true for a lot of genres and sub-genres.

    I interpreted this piece as a generalized rant against the poor quality of Erotic Romance writing. My point about Sturgeon’s Law is that ER conforms to the same trends in quality as other genres. In fact, I would say that the list of bullet points outlined above occur just as frequently in non-ER as to ER, the only difference is how far open the bedroom door is. And “bad sex = villain” isn’t confined to romance, erotic or otherwise, it’s a pretty common shortcut in thrillers and mysteries as well.

    Just like with any other genre or sub-genre, how well Passionate Ink’s guidelines are achieved is up to the skill of the individual writer as well as the reader’s own preferences and internal biases. Are more erotic romance writer’s failing to write a compelling story as compared to their counterparts in other genres? Or is it that we have a harder time wading thru the 90% of crap out there to discover the remaining 10%. I think it’s a discoverability issue as there aren’t as many tools (mainstream reviews, blogs, word of mouth etc) for ER as there are for other more well respected genres.

    As an example, I’ve been wading thru a crapton of scifi trying to find authors and stories that work for me and “The overwhelming amount of badly written, narratively perfunctory, ethically problematic drivel being produced under the heading of… [Science Fiction] is as numberless as the sands of the Sahara”. But I’ve checked out some scifi blogs, the Nebula and Hugo Awards, asked for recs from the library, so I’m having a bit more luck.

    To be clear, it’s not that I don’t think we shouldn’t criticize poorly written books or problematic tropes. It’s just that when we generalize from a book to an entire genre without recognizing Sturgeon’s Law it can come across as literary snobbishness, and in turn, reader shaming.

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  25. Dhympna
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:17:34

    I have quite a few issues with this article, besides the gross generalizations. My main quibble is the evidence used–not only is the book in question from 2009 (a LOT has changed in this subgenre in the past 4 years) but it appears to be classified as straight up erotica now, not erotic rom.

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  26. lazaraspaste
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:19:25

    @Violetta Vane: This whole passage is implying that true “interiority”, psychological sophistication, high-mindedness is dependent on mocking and deprecating the female body. We’re dirty. We should be beings of pure mind, and never ever talk about our gross wet vaginas in connection to true love.

    No. That is not what that passage is saying. Not even a little bit.

    I am not sure where you are getting this idea that I think the female body should be mocked and deprecated. I realize my vituperative tone in this piece is not helping people read it with an eye for nuance. Still, I am definitely not arguing that we should be beings of pure mind and never talk about vagina. Or that we shouldn’t about the body in connection to love. My problem is with depicting the sexually aroused body as the ONLY evidence for the characters being in love excluding ANY AND ALL sense of interiority. I think this is just as problematic and extreme as denying the place of the body in love. I want to have both. I want the body AND the soul shown in the story otherwise I am incapable as reader of believing the characters are in love.

    Extending that idea, I’m not particularly fond of the idea that the body’s arousal is the TOTAL sign of consent and love. I can be aroused and not A) love the person who arouses me or B) be consenting to sex or C) be experiencing pleasure. Just because you can see someone is turned on DOESN’T mean you can know that they A) love you, B) consent, or are C) enjoying themselves. I need some other textual evidence as a reader. Like, what is this character thinking? What is this character feeling? Why is this different than when their ex-boyfriend/girlfriend shagged them?

    I’m not saying stories can’t just a be about sex, but if they are, then why is it a romance? That’s my question. I think sex and love are distinct, though overlapping, experiences/emotions/concepts and that those boundaries ought to be explored which is what the name erotic romance implies. Alas, not so much.

    @Pam Rosenthal (@PamRosenthal): Indeed! That is precisely what I am, vituperatively, trying to get at.

    @Robin/Janet: I’d hardly call it an essay. It was a rant, a vituperation born of sheer exasperation at the deluge of shitty writing (and it was shitty) that I was encountering while trying to explore this particular sub-genre. As such, I was painting with pretty broad strokes. This isn’t what I would call, one of my finer nuanced arguments. Thus, the umbrella terminology. Of course, part of that is that I’m not sure, now even a year after writing, WHAT erotic romance is. I think it is a hybrid genre, but what is it hybridizing? And what is the purpose? Some seem to be more erotic, and some more romantic, in so far as conventions are concerned. Certainly, there is plenty of bad writing abroad in ALL genres. My opener was more of a rhetorical trick than some firm argument I’m going to defend to death, in all honesty. However, I do think that certain genres suffer more from others from people thinking that it doesn’t require any craft. Romance is one of those, erotica another, and also poetry. Literary fiction, not as much. I don’t know why. Probably because it is ART and not COMMERCE (I don’t actually believe that distinction. I just think that’s how people react). Whereas romance, erotica, and poetry, there’s a sense that all you have to do is talk about love, sex, and feelings respectively. I’m just riffing here. I actually don’t know why.

    And indeed, ER, has suffered as a target. But part of the reason I think it has is because it is a hybrid, and hybrids when meshed not very well, tend to reveal the weaknesses of the things they are mashing up. Like Ligers or Glee songs.

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  27. Loosheesh
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:31:04

    @Dhympna: According to the Amazon page, the publish date for the ebook is July 2008 (and January 2009 for the paperback).

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  28. Lucy Woodhull
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:31:35

    It seems to me that Food For the Gods is being used here as an example, but the author has read many, many examples of ER as fodder for this post. So FFtG is not the only book being used as evidence.

    OP, you had me at santorum.

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  29. Dhympna
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:46:09

    @Loosheesh:

    Thanks, I missed that (which makes it even less persuasive). If you are going to use a source/piece of evidence as representative, then it should be a persuasive piece of evidence to prove your points, not one that undermines it.

    @Lucy Woodhull:
    Examples are evidence and as such they need to be persuasive. If you are only relying upon one source as evidence, it had better be representative, relevant, and persuasive (this book, by the way, is none of those things). If the examples are not, it renders the entire argument as problematic. If you are going to make broad generalizations, you need to cite multiple sources for evidence, not rely heavily upon one, like Food to buttress/support your claims.

    I too have read many, many, many examples of erotic romance and erotica.

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  30. J Allen Rathdrum
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:50:55

    OMG! There’s not a single conjunction in this whole article. Relax! You’re too tense about your writing. :-)

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  31. MaryK
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 16:54:39

    @Carolyne:

    Is what I’m seeing that, if there’s a proper romance being told–an emotional relationship being built, with at least HFN–a book is not the “erotica” category?

    That’s my opinion, generally speaking, if the romance relationship is the point of the story. In my own little world of genre classification, ER is a subgenre of Romance, and Erotica is its own stand-alone genre. To paraphrase @Ridley, It’s not about the quantity of sex scenes, rather it’s about what kind of story said sex scenes are used to tell.

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  32. reader
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 17:25:45

    @Dhympna:

    So go pick up any ten books from any of the small presses online currently selling erotic romance (or even regular romance.) The likelihood is that most (if not all) of them are as poorly and shallowly written and contain all the faults mentioned in this letter-of-opinion. They’re escapist, throwaway reading that “authors” can dash off in a matter of weeks and readers can plow through even faster.

    No rant, no matter how intelligent, will change things because the problems with romance that are mentioned in this post are things that the majority of readers are not discerning enough to notice. If readers were unhappy with the junk books, they’d stop purchasing, publishers would stop pushing writers to lickety-split produce them, and writers would have to slow down and craft a story instead of just tossing down a romance template, pumping it full of repetitive sex scenes, calling it a masterpiece after the second draft, and hustling it off to the quantity-over-quality pubs that dominate the market.

    We don’t NEED more examples to believe the truth in this post. We’ve been reading the examples now, day after day, for a very long time.

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  33. lazaraspaste
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 17:55:30

    Okay. I was trying to respond to everyone individually but my comment hasn’t shown up so I’ll just start over and respond generally for time’s sake.

    I wrote this over a year ago. At the time, I had just read a bunch of erotic romances, most of which were pretty disappointing. FFtG was just the last one and, admittedly, by far the worst. I have no idea what the others were because I cannot remember.

    So I wrote a rant. The intent was not to persuade, even though I put it up on my blog. Nobody really reads my blog. I don’t update it regularly. Or at all. I could have just written the thing, I guess, and not published it quasi-publicly, but the whole pleasure is having people to listen to your rant and nod like the choir. So I was engaged entirely in expressing my own reactions as a reader. It was, ironically, slightly masturbatory. Did I make grand, sweeping generalizations using no contractions in a vituperative and contemptuous tone and only one piece of evidence? Yes. Yes, I sure as hell did. But that’s kind of my style. And also, kind of the point of a rant. If I wrote this same piece today, I probably wouldn’t write it like that mostly because the anger and exasperation I felt are no longer in my visceral memory.

    However, I do think that under the lack of sufficient evidence and the off-putting and contemptuous tone, my past self made some decent points about ethical issues in depicting sex. For example, I’m still on board with past me when I said: “We know this because they are the villains. Bad people have bad sex. Yet, the sex the villains have is rendered in the same titillating language as the sex the heroes have. We only know it is bad sex because it structured around some taboo that we are meant to find repulsive, whether it be incest or non-consent or torture. The good sex and the bad sex are determined neither by the quality of the sex nor by the ethics of the sex, but merely by who is having it, the villain or the hero. This is how we get such fine and beloved characters as Ye Olde Homosexual Villain and Ye Olde BDSM Villain. By equating the lack of sexual attraction or the presence of sexual repulsion with immorality, erotic romance defines the good with that which gives pleasure and the bad with that which give disgust regardless of the particulars.”

    We could make this about romance generally. I’d be fine with that. I’m not married to this being just about erotic romance. I just think it shows up there more because the sex is there more. I’m interested in the equation between pleasure and the good, and repulsion and the bad. I’d like someone to say why that’s a thing. Why is villainy equated to sexual repulsion?

    I’m also wary of what I consider the erasure of any kind of distinction between love and sex, because 1) I think they are distinct and 2) I think that they are distinctly important parts of human experience. I also still agree with myself about this: “By which I mean, the notion that knowledge can only be gleaned from empirical evidence, like the wetness of the vagina as proof of desire and desire as proof of love. In erotic romances where no villains exist, the conception of sexuality still proves troubling because it not only rarely bothers to explore interiority, but it asserts through the same concept of attraction and repulsion that it does not exist. Moreover, it asserts that the essential identity is only sexual identity rather than sexual identity making up a part of an individual’s total identity. Again, this proves troubling because it erases contradictions, smooths out complexities, and relies on a narrative in which the proof of love is sexual pleasure, and that sexual pleasure is proof of love.”

    My problem is that arousal–either has a hard or wet–is depicted as the ONLY evidence of love and I don’t buy that. I don’t buy you can know the other person by reading their body alone. I don’t buy that sexual arousal is the proof positive of true love. I don’t buy that the lack of sexual arousal is proof of no love. I don’t buy that sexual pleasure is proof positive of consent. I don’t buy that sexual arousal is a sign of even, necessarily, the situation warranting arousal. If that’s the only thing in the story signifying love, then no. I was going to say, “That doesn’t work for me as a reader” but I don’t think that this is a matter of taste.

    The reason I got all mad to begin with is precisely because I DO think this is an ethical issue. And I DO think it is a narrative issue. And like a fool, I happen to care a great deal about both of those things. Reading a story that deftly deals with issues of power and consent and love and sacrifice, and has comedy and tragedy and can have a HEA and hot sex, that’s freaking the most amazing thing ever. But the dark side of that is that when it’s done badly, whether in erotic romance or YA romance or any other kind of romance–when everything gets reduced down to the simplest and most banal version of itself, then I just get really angry. Because I think it erases the VERY thing that makes romance both aestheticlly and ethically pleasing. I don’t know what that thing is, but I know when I’m being sold a bill of goods.

    I guess the other issue is plain old fashioned bad writing. Of which there is much out there. In ALL genres. Which could be to say that 90% of everything is crap, but even so . . . it rankles. And causes rants.

    So that was very long. And I do apologize.

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  34. Violetta Vane
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 17:59:31

    @lazaraspaste: So on one hand, you’re defending this as a rant with no nuance and poetic license to exaggerate, but we’re supposed to charitably read nuance into it. Alright then. Take the reference to icky bodies out, and there’s a very simple argument about bad writing, which is inherent in any genre, as other people have remarked.

    “I fell in love and my soul thrilled.”
    “I fell in love and my pussy got wet.”

    One isn’t typical of erotic romance. The other is. They’re both bad, cliched, utterly generic writing. Which one has more “interiority”? In my mind, neither do. But what I see in your argument that disturbs me so much is a conflation of “interiority” with “sophistication” and contrasting that to a strawman ER (or straw wet vagina). I find it disturbing and body shaming. We live in a world where women are regularly KILLED for expressing sexual bodily desire, talking about our bodies, revealing OR hiding our bodies, slut-shamed, made to think our bodies are dirty. Where women of color are simultaneously objectified and desexualized so that we’re abnormal freaks if we express any kind of sexual desire. This is not a mind-body split in an ideal platonic world, equal playing ground, where we we can easily find some happy medium. We’ve had it hammered into us that the female body is disgusting and language like this, where the ONLY mention of bodies is to mock (wet vagina, mouthful of cock) just reinforces that.

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  35. Joopdeloop
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 19:42:32

    I’m very glad DA posted this essay/rant AND for the comments that follow. The title is completely provocative. On the one hand, I’ve waded through enough dreck to feel sympathy for Lazaraspaste’s pain. And I’m intrigued by your arguments about villain sex and pleasure=great sex=love (though as folks above have pointed out, those things infest romances of all stripes.) Maybe this is why I really love the books where sex can be awkward and imperfect? (Courtney Milan’s Duchess War, J. Crusie’s Faking It are what spring to mind) On the other hand, I’m enjoying reading Violetta’s arguments affirming dirty. There’s clearly a fine art to showing and not just telling about lust and its curious relationship to love – I think lots of people cheat it – instalurve, fated mates, wet bits. I think Charlotte Stein, Cara McKenna, Megan Hart have been successful for me at this (at making fine art, I mean. they are not cheaters!)

    Ridley’s measuring stick for ER and erotica and fail is catchy but I’m curious to see it applied – pretty please for Sunita’s suggestion of a post on good ER or perhaps more examples and analysis of good and bad sex dynamics in across the romance genre (in my inattentive reading, I see ER as the creep of more and more smexy-times into romance as a whole, so why limit it to erotic romance? YMMV)

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  36. reader
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 20:08:57

    @Violetta Vane:

    No, what it reinforces is that all these books are SO body-focused, so focused on the physicality of the experience of falling in love, and so thoroughly leaving out the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of falling in love, that the books are shallow reflections of a complete experience, and thus are lacking in the romance sense–even if they’ve got the sex part of it fully covered.

    You’re trying too hard to read something evil in this post, when the evil is in the books, themselves, for making love all about two pretty bodies having perfect sex.

    If anything, you should be cheering this post on wholeheartedly, as it SUPPORTS seeing female characters and male as more than the sum of their body parts.

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  37. Lynn S.
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 20:28:45

    I’m not sure what you are arguing for or against. If this was simply a rant, then the letters of opinion section of Dear Author is a strange place to repost it. If you are arguing against the current state of the erotic romance genre, I think your choice of Food for the Gods is somewhat like targeting little swimmy fish in a barrel full of little swimmy fish produced by three, count ‘em three, demigods. I have a problem with the better-written, yet just as specious, examples that wear a mask of romance but underneath are nothing more than peddlers of porn. Genre classification has become more a marketing tool than anything else, and I think so much is labelled “erotic romance” because buyers are more comfortable with this soft-sell term.

    If the problem is with over sexualizing intimacy, while not as graphically present, this exists in all forms of fiction.

    The impression I have is more a frustration with the current “anyone with a keyboard” world of authorship, to which buyer beware is the most applicable advice. Not much hope to be offered unless computers rise up in revolt and refuse to produce the drivel; but do we want a world where computers interpret what constitutes drivel?

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  38. Dhympna
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 20:54:06

    @reader:

    Perhaps I was not clear–I read lots of erotic romance and erotica. I have probably read numerous books from most of the digital publishers (or romance and/or erotica) that exist. I have read shallow, poorly written novels/novellas, as well as real gems. But, this experience, is true of every genre. Just because an argument is “a rant” does not absolve it from providing persuasive evidence or avoiding gross, sweeping generalizations.

    I also agree with Sunita and Joopdeloop–perhaps a post about erotic rom faves/suggestions would be illuminating.

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  39. lazaraspaste
    Apr 30, 2013 @ 21:50:59

    @Violetta Vane: I don’t know how to respond to this because you are arguing with points I have never made. I am not arguing for the spirit over and above the body. I am not arguing for a platonic ideal. I have never said that bodies were icky. I don’t believe that bodies are icky. I also don’t believe that they are the sum all of our identities. Which I think I said, but probably got lost in my rant-y bits.

    I think you just don’t like the language I used or my tone. Which is fine. I am vituperative and offensive. I get it. And you are angry with me. Primarily, because I dealt facetiously and contemptuously with a genre you believe is liberating for women.

    And that is where we disagree. I am a reader of the genre. And as a reader of the genre and person living in the world today, I am perfectly aware of how women’s bodies and sexual expression are constantly being regulated. And if I am guilty of that, then you are guilty of trying to regulate my anger and my expression of it. I do not think that I have to express a wholesale approval of the erotic romance genre or to express my dislike in less angry and vitriolic, to be able to make valid points about the ethics of the sex it depicts–ethics of sex and sexuality that it highlights in ways romance and erotica do not. Or to think that this can perpetuates the very problems with conceptions of women’s sexuality that you have just pointed out.

    @Dhympna: Well, okay. I didn’t give enough evidence. But you haven’t actually engaged with anything I said. The three books I mentioned in this article, and a lot of other ones I’ve read–and I will pull up a list of titles from my files if you’d like to know what–have all had this problem of equating sexual pleasure with the good, and sexual repulsion with the bad. So let’s just talk about those. What’s up with that? Is that not what’s happening in these particular books? If that’s not standard for the genre, or if it is something you think is at work in romance and erotica too, then 1) why is it more obvious in erotic romance? Or is it? and 2) do you find that equation of pleasure=good and repulsion=bad problematic? Why or why not?

    Furthermore, what about this naive empiricism at work that imagines can you have total knowledge of the other by having access to and being able to read their body. Isn’t that troubling? Again, why or why not?

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  40. Faye
    May 01, 2013 @ 00:49:17

    @Violetta Vane:

    ““I fell in love and my soul thrilled.”
    “I fell in love and my pussy got wet.””

    Neither of these statements, in my opinion/interpretation, is the problem, or really captures the distinction at hand. I think pretty much everyone here will agree that both of those statements are positive, that they’re both situations we like to see/read. The issue is more:
    “My pussy got wet ergo I am in love and consenting and so this other person must be THE ONE,” which makes an awful lot of assumptions based on a natural physical reaction (my pussy gets wet thinking about situations that I would absolutely not consent to)
    as opposed to
    “My pussy got wet and that was awesome.”

    Which one is more supportive of women owning their sexuality and their pleasure? To me, the first one says “Women can’t enjoy sex unless it’s with their one (or two, or three) true love(s).” And I find that terribly sad and limiting.

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  41. Lori
    May 01, 2013 @ 12:19:09

    I find that I’m discouraged with the genre because it’s become about the cha-ching and not about the joy of writing a great book. And I’m just as guilty of that as any other writer most likely, but as a reader trying to find a book that doesn’t equate insta-lust as love and sexuality as love is damned hard to do.

    I follow/friend a lot of writers on Facebook and the number of authors willing to jump on any trend because it might pay out is shocking. People aren’t saying, “I love reading complex tales of longing based in alternate realities therefore I’m trying to write one” but rather, “My publisher said bondage sells so I’m writing a bondage book.”

    Writing is commerce for many writers and the payout matters more than the story. I really believe that about a lot of what I see people saying. And when I read authors talking about trying to have a new release every month or writing a book in four days, all I can think is that there’s no way that person concentrated on craft or story-telling.

    It’s discouraging.

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  42. Robin/Janet
    May 01, 2013 @ 14:52:35

    My problem is not that erotic romance dramatizes interior experiences or emotional abstractions through physical bodies and encounters, but rather that over and over I seem to find novels and novellas that do this with little to no awareness as to the problems this presents both ethically and narratively. I have determined that they lack this awareness based upon the atrocious and bland prose styles; the ridiculous plots; the failure to distinguish in any meaningful way the sexual titillation of “bad” sex and “good” sex; the persistent failure to develop any interior landscape for the characters; superficial declarations of love; the refusal to deal in any meaningful way with what consent and non-consent actually mean; the failure to actually distinguish between love and sex; and more often than not, the failure to achieve even the most basic coherency and comprehensibility.

    A lot of my experience with ER has been the exact opposite of the “ethicality” dilemma as you articulate it. That is, I’ve encountered quite a number of ER books that are problematic for me because they define “good” v. “bad” sex in moral or ethical ways.

    Take Robin Schone, for example, whose books are really part of the foundation of ER (I remember when her female masturbation scene was a huge shocker to readers not used to encountering that in the genre). Her villains are often pedophiles, and, more problematically, there is often a conflation of pedophilia and homosexuality in her books that’s incredibly troubling. As much as I appreciate and enjoy Pam Rosenthal (both the person and the writer), if I remember correctly, she pulled the homosexual villain card in Almost A Gentleman, too.

    Another issue I’ve had is ER books wrapping up in the nice little Romance HEA bow in ways that for me sometimes undercuts the edginess of the erotic aspects. For example, take Rosenthal again. Her story, A House East of Regent Street, which in so many ways is a really wonderful, provocative story celebrating female sexuality without shame, employs the first love = last love HEA in a way that for me really made the story fold back on itself, partially eclipsing what I loved most about it (pushing the boundaries of sex without shame and necessary commitment, etc.). Now for some readers, this was an incredibly romantic ending, and is perhaps much closer to ER as a definition than what I have in mind.

    And the issues of definition, as you point out, is a substantial difficulty of the sub genre. But while I agree with you that it can be incredibly frustrating to expect ER and get straight up erotica (like that Food of the Gods book), I do think there’s something to be said for flexibility in the definition, precisely because there is so much room to explore the connections between romantic love (as its configured in the Romance genre) and sex/sexuality. And I think reaching that balance is incredibly difficult. I remember when Berkley (I think it was Berkley) started re-issuing Emma Holly’s Black Lace titles, which had originally been labeled Erotica. They were re-issued as ER, and while that would normally piss me off, I think in Holly’s case the new label was fitting. And in part I thought that because for me Holly’s books are always deeply romantic, even as they’re highly sexual (and there’s always a good-naturedness to her writing that I find very appealing), but also because I think ER is a highly dynamic subgenre in terms of what qualifies and what doesn’t at any given moment in its evolution. At the same time, I have been extremely frustrated by the attempts of some publishers (coughRavenousRomancecough) to, IMO, essentially try to capitalize off Romance readers by selling Erotica as ER.

    I have always used the following definitions for myself:

    Pornography: the exploration of the physical body through sex
    Erotica: the exploration of the self through sex
    ER: the exploration of romantic relationships/love (self+other(s)) through sex

    But I think there’s always going to be some crossover among the categories, precisely because sex is at the center of each type of narrative, and the elements build on each other. And I am also thinking of books like Megan Hart’s Dirty, which was labeled Erotica, even though she wrote a kind of a sequel story in which Dan and Elle get married and plan a family like a so-called average suburban couple (not to mention the focus on them as a romantic couple in the book). Then there’s Joey Hill’s Natural Law, which is very much an erotic narrative, but is also a pretty strong love story. And yet I think it pushes very much in the direction of broadly defining pleasure and physical desire as goods in and of themselves, to be enjoyed precisely because they seem to stem from an “essential” drive.

    Now I know you’re not talking about ethicality (or morality, for that matter) in terms of limiting desire based on everything society perceives in a limited way as “natural” or “unnatural,” but at the same time I do think this topic invites a teasing out of what desire is, where it’s presumed to be located, how the history of women feeling encumbered by all sorts of social expectations to ignore the physical pleasures of uncommitted sexual experience shapes these narratives, etc. I forgot to pull my copy of Anti-Oedipus off the shelf this morning before I left the house, but reading your post yesterday I was reminded of the tensions between Deluze and Guattari and Foucault (and Lacan, etc.) in regard to the construction and operation of desire, as well as all the notion of “feminine consent” as it’s been constructed within patriarchal boundaries — and I think there’s a lot there to contemplate in regard to the problem of how a subgenre that is itself a hybrid between two genres that sometimes seem to have conflicting aims can exist and be defined.

    I also wonder if the kinds of excesses you point out in your essay aren’t a part of the evolution of ER, the pendulum swinging back and forth between more fundamental Romance tropes and more traditional characteristics of Erotic narratives more broadly — a tension that’s visible in, for example, the contrast between 50 Shades and Carrie’s Story, the latter being a much more IMO progressive and daring narrative, and yet not known to so many of the women who think that 50 is really on the edge. Which brings me back to that whole issue of ethicality, but in a different way, namely, the way in which women have been told for centuries that they do not, absolutely do not, have sexual fantasies like men do. When Nancy Friday was doing her groundbreaking research on rape fantasy, prominent psychiatrists were assuring her that there was just no such thing as a female sexual fantasy. And that sense of newness was replayed when 50 came out and the likes of Katie Roiphe seemed to be discovering the reality that women had sexual fantasies forty years after Friday’s first book on the subject (not to mention all the erotic writing produced by women for-freaking-ever).

    I find the issues of writing and craft less interesting, only because I think they’re endemic to writing as a whole (and my alternative premise regarding motivation for writing the Great American Novel may be a mite more cynical than yours), and also because I think good sex is really, really difficult to write, even for writers who excel as craftspeople in other ways. Still, I think the question of ethicality in regard to erotic writing is important; I just think (and I’m not suggesting you don’t, just following through on my thought) that it’s connected to a whole series of issues around the social construction of desire and consent, the ways in which those are themselves functions of certain socio-economic and political systems, and the extent to which female subjectivity has been constructed in relation to the body and to sexual desire in general. For example, what you describe in regard to interiority made me think of the way in which Romance uses certain types of shorthand to articulate emotional depth and the “rightness” of the romantic bond (which, in its extreme form, become the fated mate trope). Some of what you’re talking about may be genre shorthand, which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s not problematic, but as a couple of people have suggested, it might be interesting to look at a list of what people are liking in ER and comparing it to what they don’t like, to see how and where the differences present themselves.

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  43. Las
    May 01, 2013 @ 17:25:59

    My problem with ER is how little it differs from the rest of the genre in the way that most matters to me. Basically…@Faye:

    The issue is more:
    “My pussy got wet ergo I am in love and consenting and so this other person must be THE ONE,” which makes an awful lot of assumptions based on a natural physical reaction (my pussy gets wet thinking about situations that I would absolutely not consent to)
    as opposed to
    “My pussy got wet and that was awesome.”

    Wet pussy=true love is pretty much the rule in Romance, no matter how securely locked the bedroom door. That’s the opposite of what I was hoping for from erotic romance.

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  44. Sue T
    May 01, 2013 @ 19:35:53

    @Lori: I find that I’m discouraged with the genre because it’s become about the cha-ching and not about the joy of writing a great book.

    Hurrah! Exactly!

    Who cares about good writing? Throw in enough sex and readers are happy. Plot, what plot? As long as there’s sex, many (I didn’t say all) readers nowadays are golden and now we have bestsellers based on pushing buttons and not about great writing or a good book. That’s sad.

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  45. Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal)
    May 01, 2013 @ 20:02:45

    @Robin/Janet:

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  46. Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal)
    May 01, 2013 @ 20:16:03

    Appreciate and enjoy you as I do, Robin/Janet, you’re breaking my heart here, after I tried so hard not to fall into the evil homosexual trap in Almost a Gentleman.

    Because trust me, I brooded bigtime over Schone and swore not to do likewise. Do check out my chapter where David meets Lord Crashaw; my idea was that Crashaw goes away permitted to have m/m sex, he can even have rough sex, but he can’t have non-consensual sex based on class exploitation any more. Perhaps I tried too hard or protested too much; it’s hard to respect what Jayne Ann Krentz might call the enduring morality of romance and at the same time question that morality’s sureties, w/o your writing getting sort of sweaty. While as for AAG’s other nasty homosexual character (who’s also an anti-Semite), I tried to portray him as threatened by Phiz/Phoebe’s gender fluidity.

    Some time I’d like to write about the pretzels we tie ourselves in trying to make the genre as PC as we’d like it to be while also maintaining its populist clarity… Or making it as complex as we want it to be while also tracing a pleasing arc of satisfaction and fulfillment (qua “A House East of Regent Street”). See also Cecilia Grant’s thoughts on whether romance can actually be feminist if it insists on tying things up so neatly.

    More soon about other points at issue.

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  47. Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal)
    May 01, 2013 @ 20:31:26

    I’m confused, Angela. Although you talk about the quality of the writing at length, I’m not sure I get how you compare the quality of the sex writing in the good sex scenes (w/ good guys) vs bad sex scenes (w/ bad guys). Which kind of sex writing do you think actually reads sexy on the page? The “good sex” or the “bad sex”? Both, either or neither? You talk about good or bad writing, but you don’t differentiate them when running down your argument with reference Food for the Gods, or for that matter the Satyr series.

    As far as I can see, you’re saying that the erotic effect in instance kinds of sex writing is pretty much indistinguishable. But for me it would make a huge different to your argument if the sex worked (for the reader) in both, either, or neither case.

    Clarify, please. So I can spritz about writing, erotic writing, and doing both of them well.

    And meanwhile, just for fun, here’s one of my favorite quotes about writing technique, from the poet Frank O’Hara: But as for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.

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  48. Antonia T. Tiger
    May 02, 2013 @ 14:16:41

    I hope my writing is better than that.

    I don’t hide that my characters are sexually active, but I hope they’re better people than in the example described.

    To be honest, I can’t quite see how explicit sexual description makes the story any better. There’s so much baggage hung around sex, such as the rather arbitrary good/bad distinctions (of which you can see signs above), that it’s damnably hard to use it as a tool.

    I have some sympathy for the idea that consent matters more than the mechanical details. I’m pretty sure that we’re all rather more complicated than convention would suggest. But our reactions to the mechanical details are so personal that I feel uneasy about the whole idea of using them as part of telling a story. If I use explicit description as part of story, how will I get across in the scene the signals I want to use?

    I’m put in mind of the Kuleshov Effect.

  49. bordenl
    May 02, 2013 @ 22:18:36

    That was marvelous. (Via Making Light)

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  50. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity demands green growing things
    May 03, 2013 @ 02:07:11

    [...] One reader reveals why she’s come to hate erotic romance. [...]

  51. Story Development In Erotic Romance – ErosBlog: The Sex Blog
    May 03, 2013 @ 10:10:38

    [...] Why I Now Hate Erotic Romance [...]

  52. lazaraspaste
    May 04, 2013 @ 21:48:31

    @Robin/Janet:

    I think ethics are always present in the same ideology is always present, whether you would have it be there or not. To me the problem isn’t that ER lacks an ethics, but that it does have an ethics, just one that is often unexamined and unstated, conflicted and contrary. In part I think this is because of the two different genres being hybridized have their own aesthetics and ethics that are not necessarily always in harmony, but also it has to do with the fact that ER has an ideology of sex that I think gets taken for granted as being true or good. Not that this isn’t true of romance. Romance does the same thing with love. In my opinion, one of the things many ER novels posit is the liberating nature of sex and sexuality. That is, that sex itself is inherently freeing. Yet, I think the problem is that this isn’t actually true, nor more than even the most intense love leads to liberty (and I would ask of these both, liberty from what?) The best romances show how love has to work through obstacles in order to achieve a HEA. The ones that don’t work for people often involve two things: either we don’t actually feel that the h/h are in love or we don’t actually buy that their love has overcome the obstacles. Similarly, ER is more likely to work for me when the obstacle or problem is sexual in nature. If the obstacle or problem is NOT sexual in nature then I can never really believe that having sex is the solution. Oh we never talk and I just learned your name but that was amazing sex? Clearly, that will lead us to live HEA/stop the apocalypse/overcome social injustice. Nuh uh.

    Obstacles are the crux of the matter. They are where the ideologies and the ethics really show up. I have less of an issue with ER that doesn’t push boundaries–that aren’t subversive or ones that re-tread ground trope-wise–than ones that make unstated claims about the inherent Goodness of Pleasure and the inherent Villainy of Repulsion or certain kinds of sex without actually engaging with those as an ethics. Like, why include a villain at all? And why include a villain and depict sex scenes with the villain if you aren’t trying to make a delineation between good and bad sex? So my problem is less that some ER doesn’t delineate ethics than it is with the fact that I think it always already is delineating, its just pretending like it isn’t or doesn’t actually follow through with the logic it sets up.

    I’d also make this claim about Erotica and Pornography–that there is always already an implied ethics, just an unstated one. (And that’s why I don’t like straight dude porn).

    And yet I think it pushes very much in the direction of broadly defining pleasure and physical desire as goods in and of themselves, to be enjoyed precisely because they seem to stem from an “essential” drive.

    I guess this is my problem: I don’t think pleasure and desire are goods in and of themselves. I suppose, if I had to think about it, I don’t think anything is a good in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think sex, pleasure, and can be good, and I would not say they are inherently bad. But I think that goodness depends on how they are expressed, received, and play out. That is, pleasure is not independent of the world. I do not think this is an argument you are making, but I think that is a thing people desire. We desire for our desire, pleasure, goodness to be something we can separate from all the bad bits and its dark sides and its just not possible. And when it comes down to it, I find stories that take that POV not at all interesting, to say the least, and ideological problematic, at the most. To me, they are just as bad as books where pleasure is inherently bad or all those awful determinism novels that proliferated at the fin de siecle (and still to this day) where everything is foreclosed before it even gets started. That is, if nothing else, a really dull story.

    So I think FFtG was problematic precisely because it attempted to gloss what would have probably been better as just straight porn or erotica with a veneer of romance. It seemed to want to say something moral. Why? I have no idea, but god help me it did. I’d have rather it didn’t. I think it would have improved it. And this is why I think craft matters. Because to me, if you are writing something, a story, regardless of what that story’s purpose is–whether it is just an exploration of the body through sex, or of the self through sex, or death through sex, or sex through sex, or whatever–where one story fails and the other succeeds is not in its purpose, its ideology or its morality, but in its execution. To me, it is the care with which these ideas are expressed. Hell, porn is better with better on set lighting. Erotica and ER are better when the author has taken the care and the time to actually think about the plot, to excise the things that are probably extraneous to the purpose of the story, and so on. I agree that sex scenes are incredibly difficult to write. I wouldn’t want that job. But the sex scene isn’t isolated, it is constructed by the plot points around it. When I say I wish there was interiority, all I really am asking for is character development that supports the story, which could amount to something like, “Brad was there because he was dropping off a package” but if Brad just appears out of freaking nowhere that’s when I am going to get all angry. Also, when people start saying I love you when no emotional landscapes have been established prior that declaration. That’s just sloppy writing.

    Good writers can get away with stuff that bad writers just can’t. That’s why we love books we find ethically and ideologically problematic. For me, everything is in the execution. There are many, many ways to do that well. But there’s a couple of tried and true ways of doing that utterly craptacularly and for whatever reason, those are the ones in this genre I keep finding on my own searches.

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  53. lazaraspaste
    May 04, 2013 @ 22:21:51

    @Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal):

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. What is good sex writing? Is it just writing that turns on the reader? I think that can’t be the litmus because people’s sexual tastes differ and readers’ reactions will not be the same. Also, you can be turned on by something you find aesthetically terrible. So I think there are two kinds of good. 1) Does it turn me/the reader on? 2) Is it well-executed in terms of writing/grammar/aesthetics generally?

    Which reads sexy on the page? Both can (reader dependent). And maybe that’s where the problem begins. For example, the Satyr series was better written because it was more coherent overall and used language in a much more sophisticated and clear manner. FFtG was not well written. It was incoherent and sloppy. It felt like the author wrote it slightly drunk while riding a bus and then didn’t edit it. That said, I think the bad scenes are only bad because they have the baddies in them and not because they either can’t or don’t or shouldn’t turn people on. They aren’t necessarily badly written in terms of grammar, syntax, etc. Although, in the case of FFtG’s they were. But even a clumsily written sex scene can be a turn on.

    For me, the sex worked but that was the problem. You are right. It was that the scenes were indistinguishable. All the stories I mentioned seemed to be suggesting there is a distinction between moral and immoral sexual expression. But if that’s what they are saying, then why are the sex scenes in which “bad” or immoral sex is being depicted still so clearly meant to be turn ons? The purpose becomes indistinct. Are we meant to be turned on or repulsed by the villain’s sex scene? If turned on, then what is that saying about villainy? Do we need to identify what bad, as in abusive, sex looks like? Possibly. But if so, then doesn’t it need to be written to different purpose/effect than the sex scene in which we are meant to just be turned on? Or is it indistinguishable because pleasure is morally neutral? If that’s so, then why villainize certain kinds of sex? I don’t have answers to these questions. I think the easiest answer might not be to include a villain sex scene at all, but that doesn’t actually mitigate the other problem of directly equating pleasure with the Good or the Moral.

    I think good writers often fail in being fully able to address these ethically and ideological concerns, because how could they? So that’s not the issue for me. What frosts my cookies, is when I can tell by the writing that they didn’t care about telling the story well enough to give two seconds thought to what this might mean beyond the sex scene as a turn on.

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  54. Robin/Janet
    May 05, 2013 @ 13:33:36

    @Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal): You know, I haven’t read the book since it released, I don’t think, so my experience might be different now, as that was more than five years ago. Also, my reading was certainly influenced by other things I was reading at the time, including Schone.

    I think it’s incredibly, incredibly difficult in genre Romance to have gay villains without at least hitting that line between “there are evil people in the world of all sexual orientations, and these guys are actually bad for other reasons” and “the fact that homosexuality is mixed in with these other bad things is problematic.” I absolutely would say that your characterizations of both men you refer to in your comment are more, shall we say, layered, than many others I could point to.

    I think, honestly, that one of the reasons I had an issue was that the bar was just set so high for me with that book. It was so incredibly daring to me to see you constructing a character who was really passing, and who was really enjoying the challenges and freedoms of being a man, in a way that challenged social rules and cultural conventions. Then, to have David so sexually attracted to a character he thought was male — I loved, loved, loved that.

    Yet it ended too quickly for me, and while I understand that so much of that is the constraints of genre (you have to get them engaged in the romance, after all), I think once that happened, there was a real tension in the novel between Romance conventions and your own testing of those conventions. And I think the Romance conventions ultimately won. Which is not to say that I think it’s a bad book or that there’s anything wrong with those conventions winning out in genre Romance. It’s just that I was so elated at how hard you were pushing at those boundaries, and how smart you were doing it, that the fall seemed harder somehow.

    This is one of the reasons I recommend Carrie’s Story to people who have read 50 and don’t know anything about ER or E or BDSM. In Molly Weatherfield, you can play and play and play and play, and push as hard as you want on all of these cultural assumptions about sex and sexuality (and most especially female desire) without having to rein it in at the end. For some reason, I think what I see you trying to do works better for me there. But like I said, it’s been a while since I’ve read the book (and I notice it’s in Kindle right now for a great price, for anyone who hasn’t read it).

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  55. Doctor Science
    May 05, 2013 @ 19:56:53

    @lazaraspaste:

    I’m reading this very interesting discussion as a reader whose romance/erotica reading is almost all in the form of fanfiction. I find it quite remarkable that I don’t really understand what you-all are talking about: I feel as though there are unstated parameters all over the place.

    For instance, you say:

    So I think there are two kinds of good. 1) Does it turn me/the reader on? 2) Is it well-executed in terms of writing/grammar/aesthetics generally?

    This is surprising to me, because I expected there to be a 3) Does the sex scene advance the characterization, does it show how these particular people have sex together? Is sexuality a reflection of character?

    And, for extra credit, a 4) Does the sex scene advance the *plot*? Do we the readers and the characters themselves learn something in having sex, does it *change* them, is the story different because of how they have sex? That is, is the sex scene necessary to the story, such that fade-to-black wouldn’t do?

    Now, fanfiction is definitely under the heel of Sturgeon’s Law, so I don’t *expect* most of it to pass the test of “good”. But when it is *really* good, in the top 1%, it certainly aims to have the sex scenes advance the characterization and even the plot, while being hot and well-written. There’s plenty that doesn’t, of course, but I can’t imagine dismissing the whole genre as failed endeavour just because it’s Sturgeon-compliant.

    I’m not sure if you’re saying that what’s marketed as “Erotic Romance” isn’t even attempting to have sex as part of characterization and maybe plot, or that they’re universally bad at it — or if you’re talking about something else altogether, especially when you talk about ethics, orgasm, and consent.

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  56. Robin/Janet
    May 05, 2013 @ 22:24:28

    @lazaraspaste:

    I think ethics are always present in the same ideology is always present, whether you would have it be there or not. To me the problem isn’t that ER lacks an ethics, but that it does have an ethics, just one that is often unexamined and unstated, conflicted and contrary

    Because ethics are shared norms, I think they’re sort of a function of ideology. However, I think there are more than one ethical system operating in ER. I agree with you that there are a lot of books published that are not written with an awareness of the ethical dimensions of the characterization, plot, and themes. But I see this as a problem with every genre and subgenre, including a lot of those books struggling for status as the GAN. Sometimes that can make for a great novel, and sometimes it can make for a mess, and some of that — but not all — depends on the reader.

    I guess this is my problem: I don’t think pleasure and desire are goods in and of themselves. I suppose, if I had to think about it, I don’t think anything is a good in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think sex, pleasure, and can be good, and I would not say they are inherently bad. But I think that goodness depends on how they are expressed, received, and play out.

    So what are you hoping to see in ER — ethically speaking — that you’re not seeing? Because, like I said, some of the books I’ve read that were pubbed around the same time as FFtG have pretty strong ethical and moral subtexts, some of which are imported from the Romance genre.

    I think the easiest answer might not be to include a villain sex scene at all, but that doesn’t actually mitigate the other problem of directly equating pleasure with the Good or the Moral.

    I tend to view ethics as a question of right or wrong, and morality as a question of good or bad, so that’s likely shaping some of my issues here. But I think I’m getting stuck on the question of whether you’re attaching the ethics to the craftsmanship or to what ends up on page. Or both. I feel like so much of what you’re arguing boils down to good v bad writing (for you) that I almost feel that where I don’t so much have an issue with pleasure as an essential good, for you good craft is its own essential good, which in turn articulates certain ethics that somehow spring from the artistic integrity of solid craftsmanship.

    But that may be coming from the fact that I’m not completely clear about the ethics you’re looking for in ER. I think because I’ve felt so frustrated by the societal limits placed on women’s sexual pleasure, I appreciate it when ER can challenge some of those limits, and perhaps do so in ways that straight Romance cannot (by channeling some of the romantic discovery through the sex and the sexual discovery). Which is not the same thing as what you’re criticizing in FFtG, but I also think straight Erotica has been held to different narrative standards, historically speaking (eg it tends to be episodic and not so thematically coherent or consistent). Do you think that’s part of the issue, or is it something else for you that crossed through both Erotica and ER?

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  57. Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal)
    May 06, 2013 @ 02:23:17

    @lazaraspaste

    A wouldbe romance writer I once knew wrote actual crap porn for money — awful stuff that just repeated dirty words and named body parts a lot. So evidently people actually do pay for this and maybe actually even get off on it. But then, people also get off on all those erotic romance cover model guys with their dead-looking too-close-together little eyes, or those porn star photos where the women hold their jaws in that funny way. All of which is to say that you must be right when you say it’s possible to get off on badly written erotic romance. But I gotta say that I don’t get it. And that anything I thought I had to say about what makes erotic writing fun and even maybe interesting kind of goes out the window.

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  58. Robin/Janet
    May 06, 2013 @ 11:51:36

    @Pam Rosenthal/Molly Weathefield (@PamRosenthal) and @lazaraspaste: This is kind of the lowest common denominator question, isn’t it? That is, what — if anything — does the lowest common denominator of a genre/subgenre say about the whole?

    The more I think about it, the more I think a companion post in which people talk about what they like in ER would be fascinating, because it might give us a chance to set these issues in conversation and dig more deeply into that space between what’s being written/published and what’s being read and enjoyed (or hated).

    Also, Angela, I’m wondering if you’ve read Remittance Girl’s Gaijin, which, it seems to me, is all about the ethics of physicality — and of erotic writing and fantasy, for that matter.

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  59. Maili
    May 07, 2013 @ 12:37:08

    @Robin/Janet:

    I have always used the following definitions for myself:

    Pornography: the exploration of the physical body through sex
    Erotica: the exploration of the self through sex
    ER: the exploration of romantic relationships/love (self+other(s)) through sex

    I like that list. Mine is somewhat different:

    Pornography: the ritualised display of sexual tropes
    Erotica: the intellectual exploration of sexual tropes and intimacy
    Erotic Romance: the sexual exploration of intimacy and commitment
    Romance: the emotional exploration of intimacy and commitment

    Those are within the context of need, desire, trust, fulfilment and control; all to different degrees. Romance usually have control, ethics, values and morals defined through genre conventions and the current social climate. Erotica and Erotic Romance usually have control, ethics, values and/or morals defined through a negotiation between characters. The difference between Erotica and Erotic Romance is a focus on who benefits the most from said negotiation. Pornography generally revolves around seeking gratification from sexual tropes alone. Romance, Erotica and Erotic Romance usually feature character development while Pornography generally doesn’t. Good writing and bad writing can be found in all these including Pornography.

    I’d like to point out one thing: All those don’t recognise social/sexual taboos, restrictions and boundaries. None whatsoever. Not even Harlequin romances. Anal sex, for instance, can be found in certain Harlequin romances. You just have to know the code to recognise it.

    So what makes each different is the use of language (and the level of exposure) when describing sexual acts (penetrative and non-penetrative) and character interactions. In Pornography, no code is needed. It’s WYSWYG (what you see is what you get). In Erotica, the author is likely to manipulate the language to make it – I don’t know – poetic or literary while allowing the details to be WYSWYG.

    Erotic Romance borrows some elements from Erotica and some from Romance to fill a gap for romance readers who want more from Erotica (too emotionally detached) and Romance (too coded). ER still hasn’t matured enough to find the right balance. This is probably why it’s rather inconsistent.

    Romance revolves around translating the language into codes for sexual acts. Some may argue that what separates Romance from ER, Erotica and P is the romance focuses on two people, but what about love triangles? Romance mostly chooses not to include or portray the sexual aspect of a major character and the third party, but some authors will code it to imply that it does take place. And of course, villain sex. In Romance, the genre convention requires some to demonise that to empathise the ‘good’ kind (a heterosexual couple in a committed relationship). It’s not always like that, though, as old-school romances did see heroes or/and heroines having sexual relations with other characters outside their courtship. From the 1990s and onwards, editors no longer allowed this. But I digress.

    Basically, the differences lie with the use of language to control the exposure of interactions in all respects including focus, sex, characterisation, dialogue and so on. I’m not even sure if I’m making any sense with this, but that’s pretty much how I see it.

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  60. Tracey’s Seal of Approval: Porn. Erotic Romance? – Mimosas @ Midnight
    May 20, 2013 @ 07:11:21

    [...] Why I Now Hate Erotic Romance: I’ve seen a lot of the problems this author writes about, but I disagree with some of her points. Still, it’s an interesting post and a discussion I think we should have about the genre, especially with this perception in the media that it IS romance. It’s not. Explicit sex scenes and a HEA does not a romance make. Likewise, I’ve read some erotic romance that I’ve loved and that I thought was well written, like The Theory of Attraction by Delphine Dryden. [...]

  61. Angelia Whiting
    Jul 14, 2013 @ 10:07:59

    I will never forget the very lengthy critique on one of my erotic romance books published about eight years ago. The reader wrote an endless comment about how much sex (or how little depending on your preference) was in my novel. She was very disappointed that the sex scenes were only four or five pages long compared to other books containing thirty or forty or as much as fifty pages of continuous sex. Are you kidding me? Where does a plot fit into a three hundred page novel when it contains that much sexual content? What disturbed me the most about this comment was her lack of insight. My characters are in multiple states of arousal throughout the story even with their clothes on, and yes-omg-there are actually moments in my “erotic” stories where they feel no arousal at all. Slay me! I love to write about intense, fully exposed and descriptive sex. I am however, a romance writer. That’s my story and I’m ferociously sticking to it! I push the romance with the doors wide open intimacy, not the sex with some flimsy romantic aside. In my opinion the sexual experience in an erotic romance develops and flourishes right along with the hero and heroine’s developing love, and as it is in some of my futuristic romances, between two heroes and the heroine. I am a pusher of the heart not the other way around. I closed that website with an immense feeling of disappointment and thinking, “Is this what we’re becoming-a society of erotic romance readers that craves books filled with the same shallow sex that mocks the backstreet alleys of hush-hush video porn shops? No thank you. Hit or miss, wrong or right, popular or not, I will continue to ink what I believe in, that both passion and lust can be discovered in true love, that even in true love the sex can be bad, that real people can have good, casual sex even with only a mild affection for their partner, or perhaps with no feelings about the person at all other than arousal. What is most important to me as a writer however, is that I’m telling a story about those people, writing about their journey, not just writing page after page after page of “look at us fucking and fucking and fucking,” sex.

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