Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Defining Erotic Romance

There has been so much on the Internet about RWA and the Board's decisions to:

1) Define subsidy/vanity presses
2) Limit the access of e-publishers to RWA's functions
3) Exclude erotic romance from the Rita/Golden Heart competitions (RWA annual awards)

I've already addressed the issue of #1 on this blog. Today I'd like to look at the issue of erotic romance.

I was one of the founding members of Passionate Ink (PI), the erotic romance chapter of RWA. I am committed to wanting to see erotic romance novels made available to the women who wish to read them (or to write them )

During the RWA Annual General Meeting, members were told that the reason RWA was excluding erotic romance as a category was because there was no "single" definition of the genre. I'm going to refrain from commenting on that statement and merely say that I think Passionate Ink needs to respond to RWA with a letter giving that requested definition.

On one of the writing loops I belong to, I got into a discussion with Brenna Lyons, president of EPIC--the Electronically Published Internet Connection. Brenna expressed dissatisfaction with the Passionate Ink definitions, and I invited her to share her thoughts.

She did, in a very interesting post, which she has given me permission to reprint here.

In order to invite other thoughts on the subject of defining the sub-genres of erotic romance, I'm reprinting that post below (slightly edited). Feel free to add your two cents to the dialogue:

Brenna: Thanks for posting your definitions.

For any readers who might be interested, I've added the Passionate Ink definitions under each of Brenna's definitions. The PI ones are bolded. My added comments are in italics.

"Brenna Lyons" wrote:

As you wish. I've noted some of the differences.

So, what is the difference between sensual, erotic, erotica and porn? FOCUS is the important thing...and content to a lesser extent.

Brenna's Definition of Sensual Romance--Take a traditional romance that doesn't fade to black. There is sexual tension between the characters, who definitely DO consummate the relationship, at some point in the book (unlike traditional romance, which may leave the characters, before that step occurs). In a sensual romance BOOK, it is expected that consummation will occur. In a sensual romance short story, it may not. Just thought I'd make that distinction clear.

Sensual books, by definition, engage the senses of the reader. You have a moderate amount of detail in the sex scene and not amorphous emotional responses to unknown stimuli, as you find in some romances. In addition, such books may contain a bit of mild BDSM/bondage play, toys, etc.

Sensual romance may also include more than one sexual interest for the main character, sometimes both realized sexual partners at some point in the book, usually not consecutively in sensual books. (Think of the woman who leaves a bad relationship and enters a new relationship during the book. Or...a woman who has two sexual interests and settles on one, but usually not sleeping with both, if it's sensual.) As stated before, the development of the romance is the central (or in the case of cross-genre, co-central) plotline.

I disagree with the RWA (as per the Passionate Ink definitions) that the scenes can necessarily be removed and still have a strong book.

Since all sex scenes should advance characterization and/or plot, deleting sex scenes should (theoretically) make the book weaker. HOWEVER, I do agree that the scenes in a sensual romance can often be toned down. I've recently done this, and I don't think I lost much of anything, in the bargain, because I lost detail...not
emotion, not characterization, not plot. Sensual romance MUST include a HEA, unless you are writing a sensual dark romance.

PI's Definition of Sexy Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex. The sex is not an inherent part of the story, character growth, or relationship development, and it could easily be removed or "toned down" without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After [HEA] is a REQUIREMENT as this is basically a standard romance with hotter sex.

Maya's Comment on Sensual/Sexy Romance: First of all, I prefer your word "sensual" to "sexy." I also agree that EVERY SCENE in a book should further the plot or characterization so that removal of the scene should not be an option. However, toning it down should be possible.

However, I think you are being way too prescriptive on the book versus short story business and would not support that change in any of the definitions.

Brenna's Definition of Erotic Romance--Erotic romance MAY include (but does not necessarily include in any given book): more frequent sex scenes than a sensual romance, more detailed sex scenes, multiple sexual partners (in the book or even at the same time...in fact, poly relationships are perfectly fine in erotic romance), harsher language/coarser language, extreme sexual play/BDSM...as long as it's consensual (it MUST be safe, sane and consensual), a more intense sexual/sensual experience. In an erotic romance BOOK, it is expected that consummation will occur. In an erotic romance short story, it may not.

Just thought I'd make that distinction clear. An erotic romance MUST include a HEA, unless you are writing erotic dark romance. Contrary to what the RWA says, an erotic romance certainly CAN explore the sexual journey/discoveries of the individual and how that affects the individual, which they reserve for erotica. It may also explore the sexual mores and how they affect sexuality or how sexuality challenges them. This is one of the MANY reasons I think the RWA definition falls short of the reality of the offerings out there already. They are too narrow, by my estimate.

PI's Definition of Erotic Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn't be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After [HEA] is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance.

Maya's Comment on Erotic Romance: At the very beginning of your definitions, you said it was about "focus." I absolutely agree. For this reason, I agree that the sexual journey of the individual may be explored. However, I also agree with PI that the FOCUS is on the relationship--whether that relationship be between a m/f, m/m or m/m/f. I do think that the PI definition could be improved upon by adding a line to include that point.

Brenna's Definition of Erotica--Erotica does not have the requirement of a HEA. It does not have the requirement of a romantic relationship. In fact, many erotica stories are about f**k-buddies, mistresses, BDSM trainers, one-night-stands...even complete strangers. Erotica is sex for the sake of sex and what the individuals learn/experience, not always with a mind to the repercussions of said acts. It might be about the sexual discovery, the sexual journey, the challenge of sexual mores and expectations... It might simply be someone with a need to experience, to break out, etc. It depends on the needs of the plot and characters. Again, the sex scenes should serve a purpose. They should advance characterization and/or plot. They should be safe, sane and consensual. A modicum of respect between the characters is my personal rule, but some "erotica publishers" don't expect it. I do.

Now, let me go back a moment. Erotica doesn't require a romance, but if it had one, some people would assume that would make it erotic romance. Wrong.

Why? The proof is in the focus. Is the focus ON the relationship, as explored through sexuality? You have erotic romance. Is the focus on the sexual discovery, from which a romantic involvement evolves? You have erotica.

PI's Definition of Erotica: stories written about the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals. Emotion and character growth are important facets of a true erotic story. However, erotica is NOT designed to show the development of a romantic relationship, although it's not prohibited if the author chooses to explore romance. Happily Ever Afters are NOT an intrinsic part of erotica, though they can be included.

Maya's Comment on Erotica: We're in complete agreement here. I think your definition and PI's are essentially the same, and you've made the point I just made under erotic romance. If the focus is on the relationship and there's a HEA, it is erotic romance. If the focus is on the sexual journey, it may or may not have a HEA but it is erotica.

Brenna's Definition of Porn--When you leave SSC behind...or respect...or sex scenes that serve a purpose and advance plot/characterization...When you sacrifice plot and characterization to "stroke fiction"...At that point, you delve into my personal definition of porn. You don't have to do all of them to accomplish that switch. But, since lines like this are in the eye of the beholder, defining porn is much more difficult than defining anything else out there.

PI's Definition of Porn: stories written for the express purpose of causing sexual titillation. Plot, character development, and romance are NOT primary to these stories. They are designed to sexually arouse the reader and nothing else.

Maya's Comment on Porn: I absolutely agree with you. Last year, I went on Fictionwise and saw that their best-selling e-book was a work listed as "erotica." I purchased it. I was appalled by the lack of respect and the "nastiness" of the story, which essentially turned the protagonist into an object to be used in any way her "owners" wished. It was porn, pure and simple. After that experience, I would never purchase another work by that author and, in fact, I've never purchased another "erotic" book from Fictionwise since I do not trust their ratings.

Brenna, thanks for taking the time to post your definitions. I think you have several good points, which I will discuss with the PI Board and, with your permission, maybe post on my website.

To my readers: You can visit Brenna's blog here.


Laura Vivanco said...

It seems to me that the point about erotic romance is that the erotic (i.e. sexual) part is as important in this sub-genre of romance as the inspirational bit is in inspirational romance, or the suspense part is in romantic suspense. In other words, in these sub-genres, the romance occurs through the sex/inspiration/suspense, which is what gives the novel its impetus. The novel is both about the romance (the romantic relationship between the protagonists) and about resolving the sexual journey/ inspirational journey towards God/ solving the crime. You can say much the same for the other compound romance sub-genres: in historicals you shouldn't be able to take out the history and set them in a different period, or even the present, without that making the plot and characterisation fall apart; for paranormals the paranormal aspects should be integral to the plot, characterisation and world-building.

I think that's what PI was trying to get at when it stated that the sex 'could easily be removed or "toned down" without damaging the storyline' in sensual romances. As you say, the idea that such passages could 'easily be removed' is probably wrong, because no author is going to like the suggestion that bits of her book could be hacked out and it make no difference and, as Brenna says, all scenes should be there for at a good craft reason e.g. moving the plot forward and characterisation.

But if you take the sex out of a sensual romance, it might change, but it wouldn't change sub-genre (since 'sensual romance' and 'sweet romance' are not sub-genres). Removing the sex from an erotic romance, the inspirational bit from an inspirational romance or the suspense part from a romantic suspense would (a) move these novels into a different sub-genre and (b) require massive re-writing with regards to how the protagonists meet, what moves the plot forwards, the characterisation etc. In other words, you'd have to write a new story, because the novel would collapse completely.

I wonder if the problem that some people have with understanding PI's definition of erotic romance is that they've perhaps come across too many romances marketed/labelled as 'erotic romance' which are really 'romances with a lot of sex' or are 'erotica with a HEA'. Because sex can be included in almost all the romance sub-genres, people perhaps don't see so clearly the distinction between sexual journey as plot motivator (as it is in erotic romance) and sex in other romances.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: As usual, you've hit the nail on the head. The RWA Board actually made an offhand comment that erotic romance writers could enter the contests of all other sub-genres, which just says to me how little they understand erotic romance.

I still have a VERY vivid memory of entering my first RWA erotic romance contest with an early version of "Bad Girl" and having a judge tell me that my storyline was "offensive" to her.

In order to give a fair chance to erotic romance, I think contest entries should be judged against OTHER erotic romances, not pitted against other sub-genres.

Laura Vivanco said...

It's true that you can get triply compound subgenres e.g. erotic historical romance (like Pam Rosenthal's), or erotic inspirational romance (I'm thinking of Eva Gale's The Seduction of Gabriel Stewart, a free online and very short work which I blogged about a while ago (part way down the page)) so there could be some reasons why there might be particular romances which could be entered in more than one category.

That shouldn't mean that every single erotic romance is assumed to be a triply compound romance. It really seems to comes back to the RWA board not recognising how and in what ways the 'erotic' bit is important to this particular sub-genre, and how that makes it a sub-genre in its own right.

It can be difficult to define what makes a sub-genre distinctive, and there are always some novels which blur the boundaries, but I think I recall reading an author of Inspirationals saying that the religious element is like a third strand, being interwoven with the love of the hero and heroine. Some authors of historical romances have, I think, said that the history is almost like a third character. I'm not an expert on erotic romance, but it seems to me that if the hero and heroine's journey is expressed through their sexuality and their sexual relationship, then that similarly becomes almost a third character, mediating between them.

Maya Reynolds said...

Laura: That is precisely Passionate Ink's stand on the matter. In addition, it is unfair to both the entrants and the judges to ask judges who are not comfortable reading erotic romance to judge erotic romance entries in a category not designated as erotic romance.

I suspect the REAL problem is that there are no erotic romance authors on the RWA Board (or e-pubbed authors, for that matter as well).

I am not meaning to dump coals on the RWA Board members. They are working very hard on a volunteer job--God bless volunteers--they make the world run. However, as quickly as the publishing industry is changing, RWA has to find a way to stay au courant of trends and definitions.

BrennaLyons said...

What I find amusing is that RWA claims that erotic romance can enter the RITA in non-erotic categories, but I HIGHLY suspect that's not true, in all cases, even if an erotic author could expect a reasonably fair judging against non-erotic books, and you can't.

Why do I say this? It's simple, really. RWA defines "romance" as being between two people. If you notice the definition of erotic romance, among other things you'll notice that poly-grouping romances are perfectly acceptable. They are commonplace. So, are you telling me that RWA National is going to just allow them and ensure them an even judging, though they aren't two-person romance? I highly doubt it.

So...no. Not all erotic romance books can enter the RITA. Not by my estimation, anyway.