Seller of Smut? Purveyor of Porn? Writer of wantonness?
Anyone who’s ever read anything I’ve written, be it published or not, knows none if the above labels apply to me. Romance with several angsty chasms to negotiate before the happy ending, and the very occasional, often oblique, coming together of my (hopefully soon to be a) couple. That is what I write and I see that very clearly in my head. The sub-genres vary; historical, contemporary, paranormal, but I think my readers know what to expect from me in style.
However since both my lead characters are men it appears the rest of the world can only see with tunnel vision. To the world outside our circle—small it’s true, but definitely growing—gay romance equals erotica. If I write about the developing relationship between two guys, then that’s smut, right? No. Wrong, with a big fat capital W.
To the world at large there are no shades of grey; gay romance doesn’t exist, only hot sweaty, hard bodies, writhing against each other. People with artfully crafted matt-black reading material tucked under their arms in the most public of places—the beach, a train, their kids school playground!—will look at me as if I’ve grown two heads when I declare that I write gay romance. What makes my sweet sexy exploration of love worse than the 300 pages currently nestling against their sweaty armpit? Oh yeah, two guys bumping uglies—or not, as the case may be.
This is an issue that seems to have caught the imagination of writers of the sweet ‘n’ sexy variety over the last few weeks. I have been involved in several discussions on this very subject, and people, we are revolting. By which I mean we’ve decided to speak out and make our discomfort known, in the most genteel way possible. A blog post here, a new group there. Alex Beecroft wrote an eloquent and impassioned post here. I strongly urge you to read it.
Elin Gregory, another gentle soul—as I’ve taken to referring to us in my head—also blogged on this subject recently and in the time it has taken for me to gather my thoughts a Goodreads group has been formed. Join us if you’d like.
As you can see from my covers I am currently published with Ellora’s Cave. They publish work under different ‘lines’, distinguished by the amount and type of sexual content included in the book.
Romantica: follows most of the conventions of the romance genre, focusing on the development of a central love story culminating in an emotionally satisfying, happy ending. The difference lies in the erotic component of Romantica stories. Romantica books contain frequent sex scenes, described explicitly using frank language rather than flowery euphemisms.
Exotika: focus is on the sexual journey or adventures. Although they might or might not include a romance and do not typically end in a committed relationship, Exotika books do not generally adhere to the traditional romance book formula.
Blush®: Sometimes you want a little more romance, a little less sex. The Blush line is more traditional romance. There might still be some sex scenes in Blush books, but they are less numerous and less graphically described.
Guess which ‘line’ I write under. Yep, I’m a Blush writer. However, until EC agreed to publish my debut novel, Lesson Learned, they had no authors writing m/m in Blush. I was the first writer of gay romance to be published in their traditional romance range. To say I was amazed was an understatement. Gobsmacked would be a better description, worried would have summed up my feelings at the time. Did I really write so little sex into my stories in comparison to all the other m/m writers out there? Would anyone want to read a story that so obviously went against what EC as a brand normally published?
(I have to confess I had read very little published m/m at that point, romance or otherwise—an error I’m fast putting right.)
The answer of course was yes, people are reading Lesson Learned. EC were happy to publish Lovers Entwined under the same Blush imprint. They have never pressed me to add extra sex scenes in the name of titillation. So, yes there is a market for less explicit stories. I’m not the only one who would happily only read a sex scene if it moves the plot forward or adds to our awareness of the character of the persons involved.
The more m/m I read, the more I realised that there were other authors out there who like me kept the sex scenes to a minimum. Authors whose work could be described as sweet and sexy, and no more erotica than many who write mainstream romantic fiction.
Why should the mainstream of our profession lump me and mine in with erotica when authors such as Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins (I realise picking these authors ages me somewhat but I last read het romance in my teens and never of the Mills & Boon/Harlequin style) are considered general romantic fiction? The fact that both the characters in my stories have a penis. Shocker!
Maybe I’m really a frustrated (failed?) erotica writer, but I don’t think so. I find writing scenes of an erotic nature exhausting. They take days, valuable hours when I could be writing plot or relationship angst, so each scene has to say something about the characters or move the story forward. The last thing I want is for any sex scene that I write to become an automatic exercise, otherwise you run the risk of what should be emotionally charged scenes of connection becoming a ‘tab A into slot B’ situation. I never want to read in a review that someone has skimmed (or heaven forbid, skipped) the sex scenes in one of my stories. Unfortunately, this is a comment I see far too often on Goodreads, strengthening my resolve not to write gratuitous smut.
As readers we know there are writers of erotica, while other author’s works are more plotty and character driven. Some even drive the plot and character motivation forward using sex. You read and you learn who will provide you with which type of story. If I pick up something by Alex Beecroft or Josh Lanyon I’m fairly certain I’m going to get something with a solid plot and I’m not going to get sideswiped by too many sex scenes, unnecessary or otherwise.
The problem as I see it isn’t how we perceive ourselves as a genre but more as the outside world sees us.
Invariably niche scares people, they don’t know how to bracket us within the mainstream, or if we should even be allowed within the mainstream. We are different, afterall. Aren’t we?
No. I sat in a room of gay romance writers last September and I can honestly say that you wouldn’t pick most of us out of a lineup. A more unassuming bunch of people you’re unlikely to meet, until one of us starts to speak or you hear the topics of conversation over lunch. Lube over spit. Knotting. Cowboys. GFY. Condoms. Tentacle sex, anyone?
And that maybe is our downfall. Our sense of humour. We are happy not to take ourselves too seriously. We can joke about tentacle sex without batting an eyelid. Many of us have come from fanfic of some kind or another where, whether you like it or not, you can be exposed to the strangest things imaginable and still find some redeeming feature in the writing.
Being different is not so bad.
Looking at Word’s Thesaurus ‘different’ can be ‘unusual, special, singular, distinctive, out of the ordinary, uncommon, unique.’ I can live with all and any of those labels. Claim them even.
I can even cope with being labelled different. I’d just like people to understand how I’m different.
And that will never happen while the only label the mainstream are willing to give me is Erotica Writer.