Last month I attended the premiere Romance Novel convention is St. Louis, called “The Romantic Times.” I joked that I was going where pornographers fear to tread— but I was closer to the truth that I suspected.
I was asked to speak about erotica, an unprecedented invitation in 2005. Even though Romancers know that their genre is soaking in sex, the public impression is that romance is for ladies, while “erotica” is for hussies.
But the Romantic Hussies are emboldened. The hottest imprint at the Romantic Times is a company called "Ellora's Cave," which has put a copyright on the word "romantica." Sex is exactly what drives the Romance field. That’s where I came in. I was on a panel with fellow hussies Robin Schone, M.J. Rose, Jacqueline Deval, and Laurel K. Hamilton.
Before I arrived, I quizzed Robin to explain the Romance jargon to me. They have dozens of words to describe their sub-genres. There’s “sizzling,” “spicy,” “sensual,” and “sweet”— which have just as distinct meanings as Gonzo, Pro-Am, and Classic porn.
Because Romances are written so tightly to genre, the predictability factor is important to their buyers. they can’t overhaul their image that much. The explicitness of the sex scenes is the only wiggle room they have.
Now that every sexual taboo has been broken, the romance biz is a little anxious, because if they add any note of realism or literary feeling, they won’t be “romances” anymore, and the genre will crack. It already has.
When a woman buys a traditional Romance, it’s like a hardcore porn fan buying a XXX video. She wants her money shot. She does not want distractions. She wants familiarity, to connect with "the childhood masturbatory feeling," as my friend and offbeat Romanticist Pam Rosenthal described to me.I say this with utmost sympathy, but fans would probably feel exposed by that description. Still, romances are stroke books— they are not so much read as used.
The tension between Erotica vs. Romance isn’t sex, it’s writing style. Romance publishers are dishing out hardcore. They have fisting scenes and gay couples as major characters. They are overt about interracial sex, rape, S/M, incest, and every other top ten American taboo. Harlequin and the others are not shy about finding out exactly what their readers want; they’re notorious for their focus groups.
Let me demonstrate with one of these "taboo" desires: Inter-racial relationships. Even though they are an exploding statistic in American demographics, they are still frowned upon in the status quo. There are few media outlets that discuss inter-racial relationships outside the alternative media. In the mainstream, there's nothing except a few Hollywood celebrities who are held up as a lofty ideal.
However, in "Romance World," everyone is likely to be in bed with someone of a different “color” than themselves. White women with black men, and black women with white men, is a hot ticket. This year, "Mr. Romance" was black, and most of the attendees were white.
The specialty line of Romances marketed to black women is also filled with these couplings that would be a scandal in black literary circles. Like all Romances, these love couplings completely unrealistic, stories in which the beauty and nobility triumphs... aided by pots of juicy lust.
Another popular Romance fetish is overt bondage, and domination/submission. Rape/forced sex is de rigeur in the modern romance.
By comparison, “porno” has becom more politically correct over the decades. The mainstream X videos you see on cable TV avoid the above-mentioned taboos entirely.
The next time you are prepared to be scandalized by a bimbo fest in a X-rated DVD, please consider that the exact same thing is being described, from a female perspective, in Romances. The objectification simply happens in the opposite direction.
You know how women’s bodes in porn films are "perfect," even if the men are droopy or overweight? It's the same with romance, in reverse. The men’s bodies are RIPPED— the women can be whatever. Her imperfections are irrelevant or sympathetic; the hero has to be an oiled stud muffin.
The biggest difference between my Best American Erotica series and one of the “Sexxxy” Romances isn’t the sex... it’s the style of the writing (genre vs. literary fiction). Every romance has a ‘happy, monogamous ending” while BAE stories are more diverse, without that guarantee.
But in the same way that sci-fi and mystery novels historically became more psychological and complicated, the same thing is happening to romance, which has been an infantile genre the longest. The women still love their romances-- like loving their Barbie Doll-- but they’re buying other things now too.
Romance readers are no longer “monogamous.” Their reading interests are diversifying. Even the Inspirational (i.e., Christian) Romance readers read the sexy titles, too. Romance is losing readers to Chick Lit, and mainstream women’s fiction. Those readers are the types who are likely to like erotic literary fiction as well.
Military, thrillers, mystery/PI/Cop stories, are making a big splash—another example of fusion. The most interesting group of writers I interviewed were all female Vietnam vets who’ve become writers. I met female PI’s, cops, retired cops, and cops’ wives and widows.
Another exception to the Dowdy Look was the goth-vampire crowd, who are openly into S/M. They were small in numbers, but glamourosly visible.
Laurel Hamilton personifies this group. She appeared in a corset, with male bodyguards who were also in corsets. She offered sex-positive encouragements one minute— then, conservative warnings the next. She is in favor of S/M explorations, but against what she called “casual” sex. She was delighted to investigate kinky practices for her stories, but she warned her fans not to look at the web pages she’d devoured in her research.
I’ve never heard an author try to protect her fans like that before, while simultaneously titillating them. You’d never hear John Grisham tell his fans, “You’d better not look at the legal files I’ve seen, they’d be too much for you-- but wow, I can’t wait to show you my racy version.”
No one finds it “dangerous” when women have taboo fantasies, only when men do. There’s this sense that women have realistic boundaries, no matter how cockamamie their fantasy life may be. But if a man reveals a taboo fantasy, everyone assumes that he’s about to run out and perform it.
At my turn at the romance podium, I urged the authors with formula-writing doubts to abandon ship— to abandon genre-rules altogether. When these writers find themselves in struggles with editors and agents over “formula,” I ask them to realize the stakes.
If they break formula, they’ll be a better writer. There is no literary future in subservience to clichés. The commercial choice, to go with formulaic demands, may or may not prove to be a money-maker. You can’t count on it, and you will burn out. The key to longevity in Romance died with Barbara Cartland.
I do know this: if you write authentic, emotionally truthful, graceful prose, you won’t experience a moment of artistic regret— and you’ll have a reputation you won’t have to put a corset on to defend!