Friday, December 16, 2011

Erotica, Porn, and Other Labels

This post turned into a college paper. There is so much to say on this subject. I recently joined a new networking group comprised of readers looking for romance books involving older characters. They invited me to post the link to Dating A Cougar which I promptly did. Based on concerned comments to the DAC post, I felt the need to warn worried group members about the somewhat explicit language and lovemaking scenes in the book. With my revelation, comments started including words like erotica and porn. Those words were not being used in connection to my book to pass judgement, but rather to ask questions. Those labels are the only terms many know.

Let me first say that I completely understood their concerns. They wanted to know up front what to expect from the book, and several had experiences of unpleasant surprises from books other than mine. I followed my posting discussion for days trying to get all the comments answered. The ones that liked the book have mostly joined me on Facebook.

That experience got me thinking about the purpose genre labels serve.

If you read my previous post titled "How much sex does your romance story need?" you already know my philosophy on lovemaking among my characters and how I let each book determine that sort of thing. I tend to see my work as mid-range sexually explicit, but I put the "over 17" warning in the edition notes. While trying to get traditionally published, I got feedback in a rejection from one small press with a romance line for older characters that the scenes in Dating A Cougar were too hot. The advice was to make the lovemaking slower, not happen so quickly in the storyline, and dial down the desire to the level of hand-holding. And no, it wasn't a Christian romance line nor a "sweet" line with closed door sex. They were fine with my verbs. It was the level of desire between the characters they disagreed with in my prose.

Ten books and many happy older readers later, I am so thankful I laughed at that rejection and kept on writing.

But I think the members of the new group I joined have a perfect right to ask me or any author to disclose what is really in story content. Readers have a right to be able to trust author assigned labels to help them choose what to read. As a reader, I certainly want this. As an author, I feel like I should at least attempt to describe content to the best of my ability.

There are several ebook retailers where my books get the "erotica" or "erotic romance" tag. My reviews at those sites say things like "not a lot of detail, but the scenes were hot enough" which is low praise for a label that promises a lot of focus on sexual interactions. Even though "hot enough" wasn't exactly a goal for Dating A Cougar, I am not going to be offended or become apologetic about pleasing readers in the erotica loving audience. I appreciate all readers.

Also, there is a tremendous amount of variety out there in the romance genre now. Going forward we will probably see even more labels being applied as readers start demanding more help in selecting books for their particular reading tastes. It's getting harder and harder to know what you are buying when you choose a romance. Important note to authors here: there are good surprises (great characters, fun romance, emotional connection) and bad surprises (I didn't know this was a menage story!!!! Why didn't it say so? OR This wasn't even a whole story. It was just a couple scenes.).

Next week, my guest author is a writer of romances that consistently get the erotica tag. Kallypso Masters, author of Masters At Arms, is a member of a writing group I belong to and is one of the hardest working writers I've ever met. Perplexed by the stigma of terms and their effect, I asked Kally to blog with me about definitions and labels assigned to her work.

Frankly, the only labeling that bothers me is hearing my stories referred to as "soft porn" or "porn for women". Words have power and the "porn" one has some power over me. Most romance writing gets that label attached to it at some point, so it's not like I'm the first or anything. But it's still the only one that offends me.

The dictionary on my Mac had a definition of porn as "printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings". The romances I choose to read have to contain the emotional connection component between characters to hold my interest. However, really good romances strive to "stimulate erotic AND emotional feelings".

The origin of the word pornography comes from the Greek word "pornographos" which means "writing about prostitutes". Okay. Ancient Greece had unmarried priestesses (holy women) who had sacred sex with men who made donations to their temples and it also had women who earned a living from selling sex for money (prostitutes). The actions were the same, but one sexuality was okay and one sexuality was not okay.  Now we've circled around to the age-old debate of a society (any society) attempting to regulate a female's sexuality by establishing a system of rules around her bed partners.

Fast forward to women today who read romances. Whether they live what they like to read or not in real life, they are certainly refusing to have their fantasy sex life regulated. Research shows the largest audience of M/M (male/male) romances is women. And you can probably extend the statistical logic out to every other mega-selling erotica or erotic romance label.

So now it's really confusing, but is it porn? 

Once I considered most men's magazines as porn. I sold a gazillon of them on the Army base where I worked at 19 (to be fair, I sold both Playgirl and Playboy). Everyone knows what's in those. Then I went to college in my 30's and had to read Burrough's Naked Lunch and Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow. Both of these literary works graphically describe all manner of sexual acts--many painfully perverse to me, some were downright disgusting--all were told with far less kind words than anything I've ever come across in any commercial fiction book of any sort, especially in the romance genre. When I tell people I'm a romance writer, it's hard to convince them later--if/when the subject comes up--that my broad sexual knowledge was mostly acquired in my Postmodern Literature class in college.

Somewhere in my 30's, I stopped resenting magazines and books dubbed as "male pornography". I stopped being offended when a woman chose to bend over while naked, grab her ankles, and talk to a Playboy article writer through her legs about how she liked going to movies, taking long walks on the beach, and was wanting world peace. If you are female and such things still bother you, hum the Beatles "Let It Be" song and it might help. True liberation really only exists in the absence of judgement.

Modern day romance writing is just as murky as the priestess/prostitute debate of ancient Greece, but I'm starting to connect the dots in my career. One person's porn is definitely another person's literature.

In a recent discussion with fellow romance writer friend, Dave Thome, Author of Fast Lane, we talked about the large appeal that many female readers seem to have these days for romances featuring what I think of as alternative sexual lifestyles such as BDSM, M/M, M/M/F, F/F, and others. We had our age 50+ theories about it which included the whole Women's Liberation movement, but came to no conclusions.

Personally, I cannot read BDSM at all and I have my reasons, but I have read pieces of Kally's erotic stories because I respect and like her. She has a full storyline in her books that takes you inside the lives of her characters. She shows you the damage, the healing, and the whole story. This has not been the case for some erotica labeled books that I have tried to read and failed to be able to.

As a romance reader, I would like to see more descriptive labeling of some sort used within our industry. As a reader, I want the author to tell me honestly what is in the content. Don't label a single scene with no HEA other than orgasm as a full romance novel. Tell me what the piece of writing really is.  If I want what you have written, I will still buy it, but give me the option. Carina Press (a Harlequin company) lost me recently as reader because a story I downloaded was calling itself a spicy romance. The story was a single sex scene of less than 10k words which did not develop the characters at all. I felt tricked. What they sold me was not a full, real romance. Now I don't trust them anymore. For less than $3 they lost me as a reader.

As an author, I'm going to work to not do that to my readers and lose their trust. If you ever have any questions about one of my books, and it's not clear what is in it or how big it is, write and ask me. You can also read my free book, Dating A Cougar. It is representative of all my work so far.

It's bad enough to struggle with labels among author peers of similar work and those outside the industry passing judgement. Inside the industry where they can be useful, genre and sub-genre labels and book descriptions should help readers, not just be exploited as marketing tools. Write what you want to write by all means, but don't wimp out at the selling stage and pretend your book is something it is not. If it is just a long sex scene, sell it as that. Just tell me the truth and let me as a reader of your work make an honest decision. This is the only way an author will get repeat business.

14 comments:

JM said...

Very intelligent and well thought out. I love it! I wish writers would be so thorough in their labelling. And I wish readers would take the time to try to understand the differences in all the different genres, and not paint romance as 'sex books'.
I wish some entity would step in and standardize practices in writing, including the aspects of every genre.
There is a label for everything. I write romances, WITH EROTIC ELEMENTS (the sex gets steamy), but I always try to have a happy-ever-after. At the very least a happy-for-now-with-plans-for-the-future. If a book is labelled as a romance, and it doesn't have a HEA, it's just simply erotica.
It is incumbent upon the author to represent their work appropriately. Part of the reason romances have a bad rap is because of author negligence. We've basically created the problem. Now we have to try to fix it.
Fascinating post Donna. Off my soap-box now.

Donna McDonald said...

Thanks for the comments, JM. I definitely agree.

There was another line of books from a smaller press right next to the Carina Press Spice set I purchased from and each book description of the other set contained a line that said something like "short erotic tale, contains male/male sex scenes". I chose not to buy them because I was looking for something else that time, but I had respect for their disclosure to me.

Carina Press could have done that for their line. Or they could have sold what I read as "Want a short, hot read on your lunch hour?" or something, but for me to see it, it would have to be on the purchase site which was Amazon. There was no indication at all that there was no HEA or genuine character development in the book. The writing was excellent, but that did nothing to appease my overall disappointment in the story.

Dave Thome said...

This line is so true: "One person's porn is definitely another person's literature." You just can't tell how any reader is going to respond to anything. Someone who reads M/M BDSM might be turned off if some of the same acts are depicted in a book with a traditional M/F couple--and not think there's anything hypocritical about it!

Donna McDonald said...

Thanks for comment, Dave.

When I think of judging, I stop and remember Shel Silverstein wrote for well-known men's magazines alongside publishing some of the best chilren's poetry books on earth.

Kallypso Masters said...

Great blog, Donna, and I look forward to the interview next week!

In my Rescue Me series of erotic romances, the stories are 75-80 percent romance/emotion/plot journey and 20-25 percent sex—albeit very erotic, HAWT sex with few or no euphemisms for body parts. They have strong BDSM elements. Yes, I write about strong, well-developed, honorable characters who enjoy kink--sexual bondage, discipline, domination/submission, and sometimes sado-masochism (well-motivated for the characters into that). I always write safe, sane, consensual encounters between heroes and heroines. The sex is sometimes rough (because they like it that way), but is always emotional and tender.

In an erotic romance, there has to be a REASON for the sex scene that advances the story, not just for titillation. I have readers ranging from 19 to their 70s (not counting my 80-year-old mom, but she skews the data because we're related ). One 70-something reader is a friend who fell in love with the characters over the summer when I told her about them and these stories. But she says she skips the sex scenes. I don't see how she followed the story in Nobody's Angel, but I told her that, just because they're in the bedroom and she's sitting in his lap, don't assume it's sex. Some of my best negotiation/communication scenes (which I love to write!) take place with her sitting in her hero's lap. But another of my 70-something readers definitely does not skip those scenes--and offers me suggestions sometimes!

See you next week, if not sooner!

Kally

Donna McDonald said...

Thanks Kally. Looking forward to your interview!

Patricia said...

Very well-written post, Donna. I immediately went to Amazon and bought Dating A Cougar in paperback. I would have purchased number one in the series but it's an e-book and I don't have an e-reader yet.
Patti

Donna McDonald said...

Patricia, thank you the compliment about the post and for buying my book in paperback. For future reference, Smashwords offers books in PDF format which can be read with Adobe's free Acrobat Reader software. Even some browsers will open a PDF, but for sure Acrobat Reader will let you read it on your computer.

I just got my first ereaders myself last month (Kindle Fire and a Nook that I use for testing files). Up to now, I had the Kindle software and Nook software (ereader software) installed on my Mac which let me purchase ebooks. They make the ereader software for Windows OS also. That was how I looked at my published files. I had friends with iPhones who checked my Apple files. My sister owns a Sony ereader. I now have friends with Android phones. I reciprocate with coupons for free books now and again.

I am doing print books (first series is done) because many people still prefer print and because some of my readers also wanted them. I have to admit it was a thrill to hold physical copies in my hands. However, my profit is almost the same from print books as the ebook files, so any purchase is a good purchase from my perspective. You might still want to go to Smashwords and download the PDF of DAC just to have a soft copy. It is still free in all channels, but only Smashwords has the PDF. Obviously, I can't make the print book free, but I do give some copies away in contests.

It was lovely of you to buy the print and I hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think.

Anonymous said...

I like this line: "If you ever have any questions about one of my books, and it's not clear what is in it or how big it is, write and ask me."

I'm not published yet but I do write, and I love it when readers ask me about specifics about what I write. I do prefer sweet contemporaries and write mine exactly like that - kisses, hug, no sex. I have one paranormal that is erotic, and I've stated that to readers before they get too deep in the story.

Thanks for such great insight into this topic. It's helpful since defining the differences is hard for me.

Donna McDonald said...

Hi Mirriam, thanks for posting a comment.

You didn't indicate if you are traditionally published or an Indie. I do think this applies to both, but as an Indie I have complete freedom to disclose what I wish. This is something I don't think the writer for Carina Press has as much control of with her work.

I read across genres and all heat levels. In what I have downloaded recently, I have noticed more and more I simply can't tell what kind of story I am buying. Covers and blurbs used to help more. My covers have no people on them, so they don't offer many clues about content other than the context of the included items indicating sexuality. Definitions of genre lines at publishers were also helpful at one time, but my Carina Press experience crushed that illusion.

I released ten novels this year. All I know to do at the moment is try to keep communication open and answer questions. I also intend to start adding word count size to my book descriptions somewhere.

Like I said in my post, some authors are already taking steps to say "this book contains xxx" and I plan to emulate that in my work.

Kristin Harris said...

This post had so many great lines! I love "True liberation really only exists in the absence of judgement." This is so true for everyone. Great, insightful post, and I'm going to get "Dating a Cougar" as soon as I'm done here. Thank you!

Donna McDonald said...

Thanks, Kristin. I get fired up sometimes. I hope I come off as sincere and not just someone on a soapbox. I do mean those things.

Kathleen C said...

Great post, Donna. I understand your concern and that of some readers. Tags and labels can hurt or help an author sell his or her books, and ultimately affect their repuation.

That said...buyer beware. There are nearly always reviews out there for prospective buyers to read prior to purchase. Amazon has both reviews and customer tags that are very handy for making that final decision. And publishers and booksellers such as Bookstrand and Ellora's Cave are great for categorizing the subgenres of romance/erotica available on their websites. There are few believable excuses these days to regret the purchase of a book that ends up offending the reader.

From my own perspective, I care not what others think of what I read, so bring on the labels. There is only one person when I have a book in my hands who can judge the merit of that story, and that is me. If I like it, I like it. I don't care what labels have been associated with it. The only time I pay attention to tags/labels is when I'm looking for books to purchase, and I do appreciate (when available) a thorough brief from the author about its content.

In the mean time, carry on! A job well done.

Donna McDonald said...

Kathleen, I couldn't have said that any better. That's how I feel about what I read as well. It's just me and the book.

I put my first book up on All Romance ebooks site yesterday. It had me choose a flame level to describe the sexuality in Dating A Cougar. I chose three flames out of five because I have been investigating writing like Kally's for several days which I consider definitely worthy of four or five flames.

Along with the email notification of your comment was a new review notification on Smashwords for Dating A Cougar. It was four stars and the commenter talked about it in comparison to in-your-face-erotica.

Labels. It is very hard for all of us to figure them out. For someone who has never read anything like Kally's work, my book might be worthy of five flames. Your point about it being personal choice and buyer beware is well said.