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.
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