Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Dilemma of a New Novelist

This has been an odd week for me professionally. I received my copyedits and the next installment of my advance on Bad Girl. I wrote my first book dedication, thanking those who'd helped me on my journey to becoming published. AND, I'm finding it's time to come clean with friends, co-workers and acquaintances.

While I'm not ashamed to be an erotic romance writer, it does pose some social challenges. Texas is a bastion of fundamentalist religious belief and conservative values. I have many friends who live far more traditional lives than I do. So now I'm forced to balance fairness and friendship. Several people have mentioned giving me a book party or launch. I've thanked them and gently dissuaded them from that plan. I would hate for anyone I know to be shocked or embarrassed by my book.

Invariably, when I tell people my book is an erotic romance, they get a stunned look and ask, "But, why?" And I find myself trying to explain. It comes down to some of my most fundamental beliefs about life, love and fairness.

Everyone knows men and women are different. But, saying it doesn't necessarily mean internalizing it. For centuries, the world has been run according to men's rules. In the last sixty years, men have made an effort to make room for women at the table, but change has been slow. Even our methods of offering health care are based on men's physiology. It is just NOW that physicians are learning that they must treat women's health issues differently from those of men.

I embrace the differences between men and women. I cherish the differences between men and women. However, different does not mean one gender is better than the other. It simply means different. Women look at the world differently, and we often respond differently.

As an example, whenever I get really, really angry, I cry. It doesn't mean I'm pulling the "gender card"; it is simply the way I respond to being angry. Women get it; men never do. When I was younger, I was embarrassed by the tears and found that embarrassment interfered with presenting my side of an argument. Most men reacted in one of several ways: they'd get condescending, they'd try to comfort me or they regarded the tears as a sign that I believed I was losing the argument.

It took years for me to learn to accept that quirk of my femaleness, disregard the tears and stop being mortified by them. Nowadays, I say at the beginning of a fight: "I may cry. Ignore the tears. I certainly will." The tears don't impede my ability to think or to argue. They are simply part of that difference.

I grew up in a household dominated by males. It was either surrender or learn to hold my own. I learned to hold my own. These days, I'm drawn to males who are not annoyed by our differences and who truly enjoy a woman's company. That's also a good description of how I feel about men: I LIKE their company, and I find them endlessly entertaining.

When I was thirteen, I loved romance novels. By the time I was twenty, I despised them. Although I didn't put it into words back then, I had an instinctive dislike for the power imbalance. Women were not depicted as equals; they were clearly subservient to the males of the books: forced to marry, forced to seek help, forced to fight their own sexual urges. I walked away from the romance genre and didn't look back.

Erotic romance does not yield to the world of men's rules; it turns that world on its ear. Today's erotic romances are very different from those passive romances of my youth. If there's a power imbalance, the story--not gender--dictates whether the male or the female will be the one taking the lead.

Additionally, most genre fiction has conventions, rules by which you must operate. In my opinion, erotic romance is the most wide-open of all genres. As long as it's erotic, you can write a mystery, paranormal, contemporary, sci-fi, thriller, whatever. Erotic romance ignores conventions, which--for me--makes writing one fun.

Frank language doesn't offend me; in fact, I prefer it. If you can't comfortably talk about the parts of your body, how can you expect to tell your lover what pleases you, or ask him what he would like for you to do? For two people to waltz around during their moments of greatest intimacy makes no sense to me.

When it comes right down to it, I'm more offended by violence against women in books than I am by sexually explicit scenes. Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho is far more disturbing to me than the erotic romance novels I read. I also find it interesting that Ellis' book received such huge media attention and was even made into a movie. Dismembering and displaying women's body parts is apparently more acceptable than using an Anglo-Saxon word to name the male organ.

Perhaps the reason erotic romance creates such angst is that, in addition to ignoring literary conventions, it ignores social conventions. Eroromance advocates a world order in which women are free to express themselves in a manner antithetical to a paternalistically ordered universe. Women can be leaders, warriors, priests, or whatever they choose to be. That's scary to a lot of people--both male and female. Scary and subversive.

Having said all that, I still think it would be wrong for me not to at least warn potential readers that my upcoming book is explicitly sexual--unashamedly so. However, on the flip side, I believe it's also intriguing, thrilling and--with the help of my editors--well-written.


lainey bancroft said...

Ah, Maya, I read your post both ways, and FWIW it was well stated both ways!

I completely understand your dilemma. I would categorize what I write as more 'racy romance' or I suppose you could say 'romantica' than straight erotic...probably due to cowardice for the very reasons you mention.

I have 1 ms that's a good story but my favorite beta reader called it a bit flat. She thought the characters were going to 'get busier'. I kicked it up many MANY notches. My readers husband then referred to it as 'housewife porn'. Six months later he continues to look at me as though I might hop on a table top and perform any minute. :)

While John Grisham is indeed a lawyer, and Cathy Reicks(sp) a coroner, it never once occurred to me that Thomas Harris might be a cannibal or Dean Koontz an alien. Yet in certain circles there remains a lingering belief that erotic writers are somehow 'perverted' for lack of a better term.
I think part of the reason for this is the quality just wasn't there in the writing with some erotic fiction. Stories were flat, and the sex jumped off the page as strictly for thrill or shock value. That's changing quickly.

The majority of what I write is non-formulaic enough that chances are if I'm going to get anywhere with it, I'll have to examine the erotic market more closely. And, well, you know, give myself yet ANOTHER pen name so the ladies in mom's hospital auxiliary group don't feel compelled to run out and subject themselves to my 'smut' (Joking...ah, kinda.)

B.E. Sanderson said...

Well said, Maya. I'd much rather see a well-written sex scene in a novel than a lot of things people seem to want to write about these days.

BTW, since I wasn't coming here when you announcing your book was accepted for publication:

Congratulations! =oD

Maya Reynolds said...

Hey, Lainey, I know exactly what you're saying. My agent has made it clear that--when, not if, I write in another genre--it will have to be under a different pseudonym.

I absolutely agree. The earliest erotic romances were driven by the novelty of the sex. That's no longer enough. The stories must be well written and plot-driven, like any other novel.

Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer prize winning writer, has written a sexually explicit novel ("Ten Days in the Hills"). That would not have happened ten years ago.

And despite what your husband (and my best friend) call it, erotic romance is not porn. Porn is a MALE genre, intended to titillate. Erotic romance is a woman's genre.

Maya Reynolds said...

B.E.: Thanks. I appreciate your kind words.

It wasn't until I stopped being embarrassed by my tears that they became a non-issue. I suspect that when eroromance writers stop apologizing for their novels, we'll stop being embarrassed by them.

Laura Vivanco said...

There are of course biological differences between men and women, but I think that a lot of the emotional differences are due to culture. Men are often taught not to cry - from an early age many little boys are told that they shouldn't cry. If, in later life, they don't cry, that's not due to biological maleness, it's due to what they were taught about masculinity.

Porn is a MALE genre, intended to titillate. Erotic romance is a woman's genre.

But presumably women can create porn and men can write erotic romances? I'm fairly sure I've heard of examples of both. And from what I've read on romance message-boards and blogs, it does seem like quite a few women read erotic romance for the titillation factor. Is the intention to tillilate, unmitigated by anything else, what distinguishes porn from erotic romance? Or is erotic romance never intended to titillate at all?

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I agree, the imperative not to cry for men is cultural, not biological. However, it's the culture of men that made me embarrassed to cry. It was only when I decided not to worry about what they thought of my tears that I was able to overcome my embarrassment.

Yes, men do write erotic romance and more and more women are writing straight porn. Your question about what distinguishes porn from erotic romance gives me something to blog about on Tuesday--since I've already written the Monday post and am going to be focussing on Oscar tonight :)

Thanks for another of your thoughtful comments. I always look forward to them.

Marie Tuhart said...


You bring up very intersting points. I have yet to come out of the closet with people I work with. Only because, I don't know how they will feel about it. Most know I'm a romance writer, but not an erotic romance writer.

And, like you, I find it very strange that violence is more acceptable than sex.

I can't wait for "Bad Girl" to be released.

Laura Vivanco said...

Your question about what distinguishes porn from erotic romance gives me something to blog about on Tuesday

I'm looking forward to that. I think I've got an idea of the basic distinction(s) but I'm really interested to read your take on this, since you're an expert on the topic as you actually write erotic romance.

Maya Reynolds said...

Marie: I can empathize with your situation.

As I've thought about it, I've realized I'm drawing a distinction between the people I care about and mere acquaintances.

I've decided I don't owe an explanation to anyone. I'm not embarrassed by what I write. If anyone chooses to make judgments, that's about them, not about me. [Shrug]

However, I do wish to spare the people I care about from embarrassment. Prior to the book's release, I will explain to them that I write erotic romance. That way, they can decide for themselves if they wish to purchase the book.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: I'm hardly an expert. However, I have had the advantage of being one of the founding members of Passionate Ink, the RWA chapter for erotic romance. I was privy to a lot of conversations in which we tried to hammer out the distinctions between the various genres.

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject as well.