16 February 2012

From Cuddle to Climax: The Changing Face of Romance

Romance is one of those things that, for many of us, is a guilty pleasure. I didn’t read it much when I was younger, I read more in science fiction and fantasy. The stories that excited me, though, had fully-developed relationships in them. When I first read Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series I found a fully-realized fantasy novel with actual sex and romance. What an eye-opener. From there, I started re-examining my assumptions about romance.

I think many of us who are in the science fiction and fantasy genre look down on romance because of all the usual things: it’s a trite storyline, they don’t really do anything interesting, the writing is tawdry, there aren’t any good stories. All of those statements, though, are incorrect. Sure, there are romance novels that fit that profile, but there are also science fiction, fantasy, and mystery ones that do. From my perspective with a B.A. in Russian literature and Civilization, I can also add that there’s a sort of elitism associated with disliking romance novels. For American women, it’s like liking soap operas: everyone says they are too intellectual to watch them, yet you scratch such a person and they can tell you who Victor on the Young and the Restless is. Once I started reading good romance, though, the chip fell off my shoulder very quickly. These stories are good, and the writers are good. And wow – talk about titillating and enticing!

It comes down to the guilty pleasures we pursue but don’t admit in public. Authors such as Hamilton bring those pleasures into the mainstream, and the rest of romance has followed suit. I think it’s a reflection more of society than of genre writing in particular – twenty years ago we would never have gay romances out and open on television nor would we have soft core porn on cable, yet now we have Queer as Folk and True Blood as two wildly popular shows. I think my fellow author Xakara is much better qualified to talk about modern media offerings, but I will say that I think society’s changing views and openness, at least as far as my own culture here in the U.S. is concerned, is getting more open and our books are a reflection of that.

For myself, writing erotica isn’t a new pursuit, but sharing it publicly is. I remember the first time I posted a story with sex in it, one that is relatively tame compared to my other stories, and I felt nervous and giddy. Now, Burning Bright, our new release with Samhain Publishing, has full-blown sex and BDSM in it – two subjects I didn’t think I’d be able to write publicly.

Because of this, I think the reading consumer is growing more sophisticated about what they like to read. Readers know what they like and they ant ore of it, better quality, and fast. This is not to imply that the quality of what is there is bad, but that with the ebook revolution there are more outlets for authors to play in and more opportunity for us to provide content that brings us a paycheck. It’s no longer the days of secretive sharing of erotic material or Penthouse Forum letters; now it’s mainstream publishers looking for fully-imagined stories in which sex is a factor of the action just as much as story is.

I think this trend will only continue. To some extent, our collective fascination with sex in the novel will wane as other things grab our attention. But I see the trend of having it here to stay because of the sophistication of internet search engines and the many ways publishers can now classify works. Back in the days of only brick-and-mortar stores, you could only put a book in one location in the store – and thus, the idea of the genre was born. It led to silly things – such as when I couldn’t find Stephen King’s book On Writing in the “Writing Books” section but found it in “Horror” along with his prodigious fictional offerings. With the internet, we can classify it in a multitude of ways so that the Stephen King fan and the person interested in writing can find it easily, though each has very different desires.

I’m excited by this trend, to be honest. The idea of genre makes me impatient, both as a writer and as a person interested in literature. I believe a story should be considered exactly that: a story, not a mystery, a romance, or whatever else. Then it can be judged on its merits as a story alone and not as being representative of a type. I think readers will need to modify some opinions for that to happen; but, in the meantime, with the prevalence of internet searches and keywords, those of us who want good stories with particular elements in them don’t have to wonder where to find them. We can simply do a search on the elements we desire and voila.

Story.

Write on!



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