Brooding Men, Bodice-Rippers and Spanking: the Truth About Today’s Romance and Erotica Novels
Editors' note: For us, inclusive feminism involves sex-positive feminism. Reynolds' exploration of the complicated relationship between feminism, writing, patriarchal ideals, and romance and erotica novels is fresh, thought-provoking, and probably NSFW. Enjoy!
I write about sex. I write about sex a lot. I write entire books where the point is to stuff in as many sex scenes as I can.
My novels have boy/boys meet girl, fall in lust/love, have a lot of amazing sex, and decide to live happily ever after together. There’s plot, but I have to be careful to keep it driving toward the next sex scene. There are percentages to adhere to in terms of plot-romance-sex.
The men are tall, strong, devilishly good-looking, and usually hiding some desperate secret. The women are feisty, smart, beautiful, and secretly vulnerable. There are funny best friends, tertiary characters, a villain, and a quest.
Endings have sex, villains vanquished (at least until the next book), pressing emotional issues resolved, sex, references to inside jokes between the characters, explanation, sex, and the granting of care, love and protection from the alpha male hero/heroes to the heroine.
Cue feminist-eye rolling at self-defeating propagation of the patriarchal model’s agenda.
Cue feminist guilt at having several such novels discreetly tucked away on her phone/Kindle/Nook/iPad where the covers can’t be seen.
Cue counter-feminist feminist argument that women have a right to whatever fantasies they want, which means including the traditional fantasies of male dominance in relationships, economic roles and the bedroom.
Cue feminist counter-feminist-feminist reasoning that while yes, feminists should accept other women’s fantasies as their right, shouldn’t we be using mainstream media to inculcate changes in values, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality and the role of women’s sexuality in society?
Enter Vassar-certified feminist mass-market romance and erotica writer with a pointy point of reality and ready to pop some balloons of pretentiousness.
Have you read romance novels lately? Raise your hand if you remember Jude Devereaux or Victoria Holt…or even Barbara Cartland. How many of us got our first glimpse of sex through Harlequin or mom’s stash of paperbacks from the lending library? Danielle Steel took the market by storm with heroines who weren’t fainting virgins ravished by the cruel yet arrogantly handsome man they had been just married to in order to save the manor house/father’s reputation/sister’s secret affair/brother’s gambling debts/etc.
Back then you had the following major sub-genres: historical, regency, Wild West, modern young office girl. Yes, there were others, but think back to what you saw in the greeting card/magazine/paperback aisle in the grocery store. That’s the blunt reality of what sold the most and the best.
Today, the Internet and e-book formats have opened up a world of accessibility not just for “alternative” and LGBT genres (which have their own platoon of sub-genres that mirror straight sub-genres including vampires, werewolves, BDSM, ménage a trois/quatre/more, cowboy, interracial, plus size, sci-fi, fantasy, dark fantasy, etc.), but also for mainstream female readers.
Fifty Shades of Grey would not have known the commercial success it has if it had not already been for a large, vibrant, and high profitable market of just erotica novels. Ellora’s Cave, Siren Publishing and several others jumped into the market early and produced both volume and a design to meet specific market needs. Quite honestly, the traditional romance publishers were late to the e-book game, and worse, they’re still barely dipping their toes into the more explicit sub-genre of erotica.
While traditional “sweet romance” still sells, the hottest category for growth is female-oriented erotica. The reasons for this are pretty astounding when you really stop to think about them. Maybe nobody has really laid it out there yet in any kind of double-blind, peer-reviewed study, but from the trenches, I can tell this shift toward explicit sex in romance novels is an incredibly powerful economic force and hopefully an indicator of some grassroots gradual change in society.
Keep in mind that the full reach of the female readership of these novels is vast and diverse. The readership also includes gay, straight, bi and trans men, but truthfully, that percentage is dwarfed by female readers (and I use “female” as a shortcut for female-identifying straight, lesbian, bi and trans women, just like I use “male” that way).
The majority of these female readers, however, are from the various strata of the middle-class. They are not wide-ranging readers. They will not read Blacke and Blue by Fiona Blackthorne (small self-serving plug because Baby’s gotta move some volume in the business) from Siren Publishing and then easily browse around and pick up Paul Coelho’s latest. They read for pleasure, but not the kind of pleasure literary-minded readers identify with.
Reading romance and erotica books is a pleasure because it tranquilizing, escapist, and fulfilling in ways that real life cannot provide. It’s therapy without the co-pay and the medication. It’s a coping mechanism that allows for humor and orgasms, often at the same time. It’s a genuine pleasure and hobby because who really wants to make shit out of mason jars in their spare time?
Just bear with me and stay with these generalizations for a bit longer. These books provide fluff, froth and fantasy, the daydreams we have as we drift off to sleep. They offer a refuge from reality, and a safe place for dreams and hope to reside. Like all human beings, women require hope to survive. Forget Maslow. Hope is the primary primordial driver that makes us seek water, food, shelter and reproduction.
If hope and the dreams it engenders are that crucial, then it’s worth taking a closer look at the subtle-but-changed nature of romance novels and erotica. It’s worth respecting the hope that is represented by these stories and acknowledging their value as a positive tool for everyday living.
All right, stepping off the soapbox for a moment here and acknowledging that while romance and erotica novels have their hearts in the right place, the vast majority of the writing is dismal, repetitive, trite and poorly done. It’s frankly painful to have to read many of the mechanical sex scenes, and I wince at the bathetic, predictable characters and naively engineered, inadequately researched plots.
I’m at fault for this, as well, to a degree. Writing these novels requires you to play within the rules, as I said earlier, and to create a product that is satisfying to its market, I must tailor my stories to include the ‘expected’ characteristics.
But I’ve come to respect the ‘expected.’ Writing it day in and day out has given me a new and deeper understanding of what the tropes actually mean. Writing extremely explicit sex because it sells to women is a big neon sign spelling out in blazing letters that women are not afraid to identify themselves with highly sexual, highly sexually adventurous, and highly sexually satisfied characters.
The traditional components of a romance novel are also sending out a message, one that has the steady drumbeat of centuries behind it, calling for women to be cherished by men as much as they cherish their men. The word ‘cherish’ is in the wedding vows of many cultures and religions, and the concept is even more universal than that.
If you look at the concept of cherishing another person, it really isn’t about dominance. Cherishing someone is about sacrifice and humility for yourself as you put the other person first. Mutually cherishing each other in a relationship means equal sacrifice and love. Cultural contexts may define the modes of behavior used to express each gender role’s way of cherishing, but the end result is the same. Literally, the same. Equal love for equally loving partners.
Also, nowadays, not every romance begins and ends with the socio-economic Cinderella ploy. Many heroines are wealthy, independent business owners or executives. Many heroes are artists or not particularly associated with wealth. The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ scenario remains attractive because, frankly, who hasn’t stared at a stack of bills in a mild panic and wished that someone would just sweep you off your feet and pay your bills so you didn’t have to worry any more? The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ also has its place in LGBT and other sub-genres, so maybe we’re looking at a cultural pressure-release valve about financial worries instead of just a victim-savior model defined by gender.
The easy-to-swallow capsule of good-looking characters, predictable plot twists and comic relief sidekicks makes these books just that: easy-to-swallow. Pun fully intended when it comes to erotica novels. If you look at romance and erotica as a tool for sustaining hope and a coping mechanism for real-world stress, then a book that forces the reader to work at achieving the escapism she needs is not going to sell to her. Nor should it have to.
If art is subjective, then everyone’s subjectivity has a right to be respected, even the crappy trite pieces of art that please collectors of velvet Elvis paintings and those who wear three-wolf-moon t-shirts because it’s beautiful art. Put mass-produced bubblegum romances in the mix, and you still have to respect someone’s desire to appreciate it or consume it.
If art exists to meet existential needs (among other raisons d’etre to be discussed in my next dissertation), then art should not be valued based on whether it meets your needs if you are not choosing to appreciate or consume it.
The romance novel has a rightful place in the literary landscape, and before it is dismissed as worthwhile literature, remember there are some real stinkers of books in the traditional literature section, too. Bad writing is genre-less.
Let’s get back to sex for a minute before I start to run out of steam, or my neighbors wonder why I’m ranting at my computer…out loud.
The sex in mainstream novels has gotten a quantum level more graphic than in the 1980’s and even 1990’s. We now regularly see words like nipples, clit, cock, penis, ass, buttocks being used. Tying up the hero or heroine as part of playful sex is now widely accepted, and language around even more rough sex makes it clear that men must ask for it to be consensual. Also, a new ‘expected’ characteristic has been added to the list of requirements for a hero: the desire to and expert skill in eating pussy.
That’s right. No more vague orgasms derived from mere penetration. From mainstream romance to erotica, the men must work for the woman’s orgasm. Explicit descriptions are given about how the man plays with the woman’s nipples and breasts and how he uses his fingers to stimulate her clitoris and penetrate her vaginally (and anally, if the woman is willing or asks for it). Long paragraphs are spent on the hero performing oral sex on the woman, his techniques, his skill, his ability to tease and be the best at cunnilingus the heroine has ever had.
This implies that the heroine has had multiple sexual partners and various experiences with oral sex both from performing it and receiving it. Virgins are a rarity nowadays, even in historical romances. We have widows, wives, ruined women, girls who have secretly had affairs, women who decide to become mistresses, and women who decide to give in before marriage in order to assert their independence or demonstrate that their love is not tied to the expectation of a wedding ring.
In erotica, more explicit BDSM and BDSM club fantasies are played out between characters. Women can have multiple partners in the same relationship. In fact, several of my heroines are in committed relationships with two or more men. They all live together and are happy with the arrangement. There is no sexual contact between the men, but they don’t have a problem with the fantasy of sharing a woman…and the woman doesn’t have a problem with having one than more man adore her and be available for her. Many ménage novels have the two men involved sexually with each other as well as with the woman, and it’s still a happy, satisfying arrangement for all involved.
Heroines are more vocal about what they want, about teasing, about desiring a man and wanting to arrange for sex. Heroes are explicit about what they would like to try with the heroine, and it is incumbent on them to get permission for the sex to happen. Yes, there are some specific fantasies about dubious consent (yet again, another dissertation for another time), but even in those scenarios, one of the primary goals of the coercion is to bring the woman sexual pleasure and to get to her to admit feelings she already has but perhaps won’t acknowledge for the hero.
While male dominance is still the predominant model and preference for sex scenes, outside the bedroom, male characters have much more latitude for emotional issues of their own that require the heroine’s strength of personality or intellect to solve.
It’s not always about the reformation of the bitter bad boy by the woman’s selfless (and sometimes senseless) love. Heroes now deal with failed first marriages, career troubles, depression, anxiety, personal failure and other complex issues. Heroines bring to bear real world problem solving skills, emotional intelligence, confidence and a thinking compassion on the man’s problems. Between the bedroom and the living room, the balance of mutual rescuing has become a widely accepted theme.
Again, caveat emptor, this newfound literary sexual liberation and emotional range does not guarantee unique heroines or original heroes. There’s no certification that a sexually-open and voracious heroine won’t be a whiny emotional pancake and that a sensitive-but-dominant hero won’t be a one-sided alpha with six-pack abs. Then again, there are a lot of one-sided depressive characters in literary fiction where I just want to sit on them and force-feed them Valium. Or slap them. Sometimes I just want to slap them.
I write romance and erotica novels to pay my bills. I hustle sales through social media. I try and jam out 60,000-80,000 words in 45 days on an ongoing basis. I have multiple series planned in order to build a solid backlist to drive income growth. I am brutally honest about what I write and brutally realistic about the fact that I’m running a small business.
The thing is, though, I truly care about my readers. I recognize that they are spending money that they had to work hard for to buy my book. I realize they are sacrificing time out of a busy schedule of jobs, families, kids, exercising, housework to read my words. I respect the fact that they keep going day after day and consume these books as emotional fuel.
Genre formulas may circumscribe certain parts of my writing, but I’ll be damned if I don’t put out my very best writing for them every time. Every book I write makes me better at my trade. Personally, I feel it’s kind of a fuck-you intellectual challenge for me as a writer to squeeze in as much originality and lyrical writing as I can into my books. Finding a new way to describe an orgasm that is completely in tune with a character’s psychology is an endless game, especially when you have four-to-six orgasms per book.
My heroines can be strung-out smokers who work too many hours, grad students with bad attitudes about their dissertations, cheerful waitresses with Tumblr accounts, and divorcees with over-protective brothers who happen to be werewolves. The heroes I write can be civil engineers with depression, priests with fantasies about BDSM, or men who have lived too long with nothing to live for.
I play with my plots and sometimes let things get away from me, just to see where they’ll go…like, I really did not expect to have the SUV flip into the ocean and almost kill all my characters in one go in ‘Moonstruck.’ But it was fun, and my readers loved it.
Every reader who enjoys my books gives me another reason to churn out another 5,000 words that day. It may sound cheesy, but I am in service to my readers, and it is for their happiness that I write.
Not everyone likes my writing. I’m okay with that. Not everyone has to like it. Not everyone should like it. Romance novels as a whole can give you an insulin reaction from all the sugar. It’s my business, and even I have to take refuge in Tanizaki or Kazantzakis to recharge. But remember, it’s the churn-and-burn volume of romance publishing that keeps the publishing industry on its feet and allows publishers the economic freedom to take risks on books that push the literary envelope.
Romance and erotica can be proud standard-bearers of feminism, if we want them to be and allow them to be. They can be celebrations of female desire, changing views on women’s sexuality, and the continuing strength of women’s quest for equally loving companionship. We can bring into the light the good writers, the realistic characters that speak to our basic truths as women and human beings, the stories that touch the darker edges but affirm the power of love and hope in all our lives.
No matter what you read.
Cait Reynolds: Transplanter, writer, lover, human being. Not necessarily in that order. http://caitreynolds.com