When does a romantic story become erotic romance? And when does erotic romance become erotica?
You know when you’re reading porn. There’s barely a nod towards scene setting, the characters are merely pipecleaner people to be bent into various shapes, and the aim is to get you as hot as possible as quickly as possible.
But the romance/erotic romance/erotica genres are not distinct. They blur.
I’ve been quite surprised, to be honest. I read widely, and I would consider myself one of those omnivorous readers. I cannot sit and not read. I like waiting rooms, because I get to pick up and browse magazines way out of my fields of interest – things I’d never buy, about topics like golfing or caring for snakes or how to live a full life when you’ve got genital warts. But up until a few weeks ago, I’d never read a Mills and Boon (Harlequin) story.
The stereotype of traditional romance
You know why. There’s this stereotype of them as being old fashioned, conservative, traditional, anti-feminist wish fulfilment written in a formulaic and predictable way. I’d happily consume chick-lit, because once you’re past the pink swirly covers, there’s a lot of good, emotional, real writing there. But I associate Mills and Boon with my mum’s endless consumption of slim paperbacks featuring chisel-jawed men throwing slender, pale women onto the backs of horses. The men can be Arabian princes but the women are almost always white. If she’s allowed any other ethnicity then she must be “exotic” in a “sultry” way (for which read, tanned but not too dark – Spanish is acceptable, Nigerian is not.)
I’ve written for loveyoudivine, as I mentioned in a previous post. They publish “alternative erotica”. The alternative means that it’s not your average man-meets-woman, nor are our characters all white, Western and middle-class. It’s a bit sad that to be gay, or black, or poor, or trans, or all of the above, is not mainstream – it’d be nice to think that these things shouldn’t really be considered “alternative”.
I’ve done lots of proofreading and editing for them, too. It’s been very educational, to say the least! I’m based in the UK so there are various terms and phrases that I’ve had to google to be able understand the meaning. The first thing people say to me is usually “oh my god, I had no idea that sort of thing even got proofread” and then they follow that up with “how do you proofread it without getting turned on and distracted?”
Because erotica, just like porn, still has the aim to make the reader hot. I would suggest the difference between erotica and porn is the craft of writing – there is emotional depth and development in an erotic story. There is plot. There is a need for the reader to read on, and that’s to find out what happens in the story as well as to get to the smutty bits.
The language in erotica tends to be very robust. There are no euphemisms or beating about the bush (that is NOT a euphemism, in this context!)
What about erotic romance? This is where I got surprised. I had downloaded a heap of short books to my Kindle, from various categories at Mills and Boon, and some other publishers, and some self-published books too.
Well, anything in the Mills and Boon Desire line, or the Historical Undone imprint, would find a happy home at loveyoudivine (in the het romance section, Sugar and Spice) if they made one set of changes: the words they use for genitalia. At Mills and Boon, it’s all velvet lengths and erect manhoods. Swap those out, and everything else is quite firmly (NOT another euphemism! Stop it!) erotica.
The Cherish line has fewer sex scenes, and is more romance than erotic romance – but when you remember that something can be incredibly erotic without anyone ditching their clothes, when you have sexy characters that spark off each other, that’s erotic even if they don’t start whipping out their quivering lengths.
And that’s really the only difference I can see between modern Mills and Boon stories, which surprisingly do have feisty heroines, sex outside marriage, and real ethnic backgrounds – and “erotica”. The language used for genitalia. That’s it.
A good story is a good story and should be entertaining. You should engage with the characters, follow their path, and want to know what’s going to happen. It makes me think that people buy erotic romance/romance because they want a good story and to be turned on, but don’t want the stigma of buying erotica which is associated with porn. And other people buy erotica because they think it’s edgier and more sexy than erotic romance, and they don’t want the stigma of buying romances. But it’s all the same stuff – with amended vocabularies!