Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Attraction of the Erotic Novel

Yesterday, I wrote about an article in the New York Times on the "graying of naughty." I promised to tie that article together with the recent interest in erotic romances.

Let me say from the outset that I have had a love/hate relationship with romance novels.

Like many woman, I began by reading Harlequin romances in my very early teens. I was looking for something to help me navigate the perilous terrain of male/female relationships. Anticipating my first boyfriend, I wanted help in understanding men and romance.

It was probably another six or eight years--after I'd accumulated a bit of romantic experience--before I began to find those romance novels formulaic and unrealistic. I became bored by the virginal heroines, and I eventually abandoned the genre altogether, choosing to read mysteries or thrillers instead.

By the time I approached thirty, my view of those innocent heroines had grown much more negative. I was concerned that romances encouraged passivity in women since the heroines always waited to be rescued by the hero. Romance novels promoted the belief that no woman could be complete without a man. In addition, I was appalled by bodice-busting rape plotlines in which the virginal heroine was taken forcibly by the hero. When my friends talked of their favorite romance writers, I sneered with contemptuous superiority or--worse yet--pontificated on my feminist manifesto.

A few years ago, stuck in a hotel overnight on business, I drifted down to the newstand, looking for a diverting read. My choices were extremely limited, and I picked up an historical romance. The publisher was Brava, the author was Robin Schone and the book was The Lady's Tutor.

I stayed up the entire night, reading that novel. The next day, lack of sleep made me a bleary-eyed participant in meetings. I had discovered the erotic romance.

When I analyze why that book made such an impact on me, I can point to three reasons: First, Robin Schone's genius in her choice of setting: the novel is set in the Victorian Age. The contrast between the very stuffy mores of the era and the sensual detail of Elizabeth Petre's sexual awakening makes the love scenes much more dramatic and erotic. It also raises the stakes for Elizabeth if she is caught having an affair.

Second, Elizabeth is no simpering, passive virgin waiting for Prince Charming. She is a woman who's been married for many years and who has two sons. Because she believes her husband has a mistress, she sets out, determined to learn how to lure him back to her bed. Her approach is extremely pragmatic. What Elizabeth wants is a disposable lover; one who can teach her the sexual arts and whom she can then discard. While not a contemporary heroine, Elizabeth is experiencing real life problems that a contemporary woman can appreciate. It's her solution that is the stuff of feminine fantasies.

The third reason I was so interested in the novel was Ramiel, Elizabeth's lover. Ramiel is the bastard son of an English noblewoman and an Arab sheik. He is disreputable, not fully accepted by English society. On the surface, he is the typical macho male. However, he is also extremely vulnerable. And it was that vulnerability that captured me. Ramiel has as much--if not more--to lose in his relationship with Elizabeth. He's not the cardboard hero I remembered from my earlier forays into romance reading.

I also appreciated the blunt language of the book. I am a straight-forward person. All the euphemisms of romance novels annoy me. The frank vocabulary of The Lady's Tutor held its own appeal.

And this brings me to the point of this post: the tie-in with the Times article. I talked yesterday about how Viagra, cosmetic surgery and people living longer are all contributing to an acceptance of older role models in porn movies. Our population is aging and, at the same time, our values are shifting. Not our values of goodness, honesty or fairness, but our values of what constitutes "attractive" and "vibrant."

I spent a little time at the U.S. Census Bureau's website this morning. You can find it here. Once you figure out how to navigate the site, it contains all sorts of valuable information.

I focused on the 2005 data estimates and found several things that surprised me. It's axiomatic that females outnumber males in our population, but did you know that this is not the case at every age? In fact, according to the 2005 data, males outnumbered females at every age level until 45 to 49. At that age, the numbers of men and women are precisely equal: each constitutes 7.7% of the total population.

After age 49, however, men start dropping like flies. By the time they reach 85 and older, women (1.7%) outnumber men (.9%) by almost 2:1. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FOR MEN: this is the reason why you need to get in the habit of going for regular physical exams and dental appointments.

In terms of the total population, according to the 2005 estimates, 28% of the total U.S. population is 19 and under, 43% of the population is between the ages of 20 and 49, and the percentage of the population over age 50 is 29%. That means that almost 30% of the U.S. is now over the age of 50. No wonder we're more willing to look at older role models for sex.

And what comes with age? Experience, confidence and, in many (although not all) cases, a willingness to relax and be playful. Think about it. Aren't you much more sexually adventurous now than you were at age twenty? Aren't you more confident and willing to say what you like in bed?

I believe this is precisely why women (and increasingly, men) are drawn to erotic romances. Young people are sexually active sooner these days. And the population in general can expect to be sexually active longer: we are living longer and we now have medications like Viagra to enhance performance.

The heroines of erotic romances are rarely passive creatures. They are more likely to be arranging the rescue of the hero than to be sitting around waiting to be rescued.

Let's not kid ourselves. Romance novels, like porn movies, are about fantasies. Remember: three-fourths of the population are older than nineteen. While a teenager may fantasize about her first lover, it grows less and less likely that a thirty-five-year-old woman is going to spend a lot of time fantasizing about losing her virginity. Her fantasies are much more likely to be about an adult relationship, one which includes sex. Sometimes it's hot, passionate sex. And sometimes it's gentle, loving sex. I personally like novels that include both kinds and, therefore, try to include both types of scenes in my books.

I've been reading blogs where writers speculate that the interest in erotic romance is dying out. What I think is happening is that erotic sex scenes are filtering into other types of novels in the same way that the chick lit attitude is so pervasive in other genres. While you see fewer and fewer books labeled purely as chick lit, you can find that spunky voice everywhere--in paranormals, mysteries and contemporary romances. I think the same thing is happening with erotic romance.

Publishers are already demanding more of their erotic romance writers. It's not enough to simply write hot sex scenes any more--unless you're interested in moving toward pure erotica. Erotic romances these days have to have fresh and compelling plots. Something that hasn't been done over and over already.

I personally welcome the trend, if for no other reason than I'm tired of the raised eyebrows when I say that I write erotic romance. It's time the genre grew up. I have.


Laura Vivanco said...

Do you still think the same way about non-erotic romances? It's just that when you say that 'It's time the genre grew up', it makes me wonder if you think that the genre hasn't changed, apart from with regard to erotic elements, and I think it has.

For what it's worth (and I haven't read very widely in romance, because most of what I can get hold of is Mills & Boon (i.e. Harlequin, but in the UK)), the type of story you're describing sounds somewhat like what's published in the Harlequin Presents line (there are lots of virgins, but they don't get raped, despite the fact that the heroes tend to be rather alpha). I'm doing a bit of work on them, and so I asked some of the authors some questions. They were adamant that they were writing feminist stories. And I can see how that is. It's probably not true of every book in the line (I wouldn't want to make a sweeping generalisation) but it does indeed seem true of the novels written by these authors. And then there are other lines, such as M&B Romance, which are much less sexual in content, and have a very different feel to them/the plots. And, again, many of them can be read as feminist novels (or at least, strongly influenced by feminism/feminist ideas).

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I was describing my own history with romance novels. Of course, the rape scenarios are gone. They are no longer PC. And I do think romance IS changing, albeit slowly.

My personal belief is that the biggest changes are happening in the genres like chick lit, erotic romance and paranormal, which probably explains why romance keeps spinning off new genres. However, that's probably the nature of change itself--to begin on the fringes and work inward.

I'm probably not the best person to comment on Harlequin, which I have found to be very rigid and formulaic. You have only to go to and read their guidelines for any imprint. They are extraordinarily specific in what they want.

I suspect that this mindset grew out of the famous bookclubs where readers could pick an imprint and be guaranteed four or six books a month of the kind of read they wanted. However, in the new world where e-publishing makes books immediately available, and where you can select exactly what you want, that rigidity is now working against the company--IMHO. Why would I agree to pay for six books unseen and maybe like four of them when I can select exactly what I want from the Internet when I want them? That the bookclub revenues have been going down in recent months is no surprise to me.

I am not a great rules-follower so rigid guidelines just aggravate me. The wide-open approach of erotic romance and paranormal romance has more appeal to me personally.

Laura Vivanco said...

Why would I agree to pay for six books unseen and maybe like four of them when I can select exactly what I want from the Internet when I want them?

I know what you mean, but I find that one can't judge a book by its cover, its blurb or even by reading the first few pages. In fact, I can't be absolutely sure that a book is exactly what I like until I've finished it. There's always an element of uncertainty when choosing books.

I think some people enjoy uncertainty more than others, particularly when reading in a genre which is often described as a 'comfort read', so some people will be more willing to take risks when choosing new romances than others.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I absolutely agree that some people want to be surprised by a new author or by something they did not select themselves.

On the other hand, Harlequin's bookclub revenues ARE declining, and I suspect the convenience of having books arrive in the mail every month is being outweighed by the novelty of ordering what you want when you want it.

Harlequin began beefing up their website to permit e-book purchases this past year (see my post of August 31, 2006). I suspect they are bailing water while they look for the leak in the ship. Every couple of years, they close and open new imprints. However, it's my belief that they are going to have to do something more radical--getting into manga was an excellent move as was beginning to do digital downloads in public libraries. I'd love to see what would happen if they would discard the reliance on formulaic recipes for their imprints, but that's just me.