I realize that parts of this post may come off as dictating what and how writers should write and readers should read. I’ve thought twice (or ten times) about whether to post this at all. If you read it and your view differs, I hope you comment. My intention is to open a conversation and talk about my own experience, not to pronounce from on high.
In my post on sex words in romance fiction, I mentioned that lately I’ve noticed some romance readers wondering whether (some) romance is porn, a charge they usually defend it against. The most notable example is Jane Granville’s All About Romance post, which asks whether “hot” books with more plentiful and graphic scenes are porn–a question she ultimately answers in the negative.
I don’t think romance is porn. Nor do I think the kind of erotica read by romance readers (which is often written, openly or secretly, by people who also write romance) is porn. Sex scenes in these books may be intended to arouse, but they’re also intended to do other things, like show character development.
I don’t think “graphic,” concretely described sex equals porn, either. Detailed description can help convey the intensity of such moments, the narrowing of one’s focus to physical sensation. The fact that there’s closed-door romance doesn’t mean opening the door is automatically gratuitous. It’s a narrative choice like any other.
I don’t think it’s bad that romance sex scenes can arouse readers. Explorations of sex and desire shouldn’t be ceded to porn. We accept that art should arouse other kinds of feelings (tears, laughter, pity, fear), so why not desire? I don’t think eroticism is bad or trashy or should be exiled from “art.”
All that said, I’ve been thinking lately that there are ways romance is, or can be, like porn. And that bothers me. (some not-too-graphic but adult stuff after the jump)
Genre romance, like porn, tends to depict a standardized fantasy version of sex.
Romance is a huge genre, and generalizations about it have a lot of exceptions. I can think of plenty myself. But any romance reader can list the standard sex scene features: for example, the dominant man with a giant, every-ready penis; the hero who loves to perform oral sex but is too gentlemanly/desperate to get inside her to expect the heroine to swallow, if she goes down there at all; the penetration-only female orgasms; the simultaneous and multiple orgasms. I understand the appeal of these fantasies, some of which work for me, and that these things happen sometimes in real life. It’s their omnipresence that bothers me. The uniformity of sex scenes is one reason some longtime readers skim or skip them (eh, page 120, time for the carriage sex). I sometimes do, and I once skipped to the “good parts.”
Can this standardized fantasy have negative real-life consequences for female readers and their partners? Can it make them feel inadequate or have unrealistic expectations? I don’t know, and I’m not really concerned with that here. I don’t think it harms me, unless the occasional spurt of annoyance is harm. But I became a romance-reader in my sexually confident middle age. (It can have positive real-life consequences too, as many a reader has attested). Author Jill Sorenson recently did a great post on why she tries to bring a little more realism about women’s sexuality to her books.
But what interests me here are the literary consequences of these fantasies. All genre fiction has an element of fantasy, because it all originates in medieval Romance; it tends to feature somewhat larger-than-life or archetypal characters, a “hero” and “heroine,” however flawed, whom we can root for. But a focus on standardized fantasy sex makes romance less a literary fantasy than a sexual wish-fulfillment fantasy. (I’m using the term “literary” here in the sense Ursula LeGuin does in her fantastic post on literature vs. genre fiction).
There’s overlap between the two kinds of fantasy, certainly. All art comes, in part, from the writer’s unconscious, just as private fantasies do. And art may nurture a reader’s private fantasies, too. But I don’t want to read a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. I can make my own sexual and romantic fantasies, thanks. What I can’t do is write fiction.
Slippage between one kind of fantasy and the other is obvious in some of the ways the romance community talks about books. Heroes get far more love and discussion in Romancelandia than heroines. When people talk about “waiting for X’s book” in a series and hoping X gets paired with someone “worthy,” X is almost always male. When there are discussions about rape in romance, they almost always are, in part, discussions about women’s rape fantasies, as if fantasy were unmediated by the acts of writing and reading. A blog post asking (even tongue in cheek) “what is the best color for a romance hero’s hair?” can only exist in a world where authors get told that they can’t make the hero a red-head because “that’s not sexy” to a big enough audience, and where that audience wants a hero to match their private fantasies.
My manifesto (seriously, I’m in a manifesto mood):
I don’t want the stories romance can tell me, and the kinds of people they can be about, to be limited by the need to appeal to the most common sexual and romantic fantasies. Right now, to some extent, they are. And I think that’s partly why, outside the genre, romance doesn’t get much respect. If its fans don’t talk about it as literature, why would anyone else?
What do I mean by limitations? For example, romance heroes, like female porn stars, tend to conform to a certain rigid (heh) body and character type: big, super-muscled alpha. But real-life women, like real-life men, manage to find a much wider variety of people sexy. Real-life men can be submissive, and they somehow find women who want to dominate them. That’s almost never shown in romance or erotica read by romance readers. You get the picture. What I find “sexy” is a story in which the author shows me that the characters are aroused by what they’re doing, even if it’s something that isn’t part of my own private fantasy repertoire. I read to get out of my own head.
The characters should drive the fantasy, not the other way around. I haven’t watched all that much porn, but I’ve seen enough to know there are standard kinds of scenes. Romances, too, can read as if there’s an editorial checklist somewhere writers are filling out. That can mean scenes that seem to be there because they’re required, not because they work for those particular characters. I once read an anal scene where the sheltered, socially isolated heroine–she hasn’t dated much or had a serious relationship–suggests it. In a parking lot. Because she’s done it before and likes it. Really??? I felt it was there only because erotic romance does anal these days. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t feel the author did either. But hey, checked that box!
Writing, reading and talking about women’s desires and sexual experiences is great. But right now romance is limiting itself to a fairly narrow area of that topic. What I’d like to see is more great sex that doesn’t conform to a particular script, just like the great sex real people have. I’d like to see sex scenes, like everything else, be less bound by genre rules. I want less under-crafted mass-produced sexytimes, more variety of good stories about falling in love, with or without graphic sex scenes in them. On good days, when I’ve read a formula-busting book, I’m confident that’s where romance is headed. Other days . . . I wonder if porn for women is our future.