Thursday, June 19, 2008

Erotic Romance's Slutty Reputation

The lovely folks over at Title Magic just posted a guest blog by fabulous author Monica Burns entitled "Sex, Language, and Readers." Monica got the rare and precious opportunity to sit down with readers and discuss what they liked and didn't like about the current trends and it was quite the illuminating discussion. And the comments section of the post is even more stimulating. Spawning off that, I was inspired to keep the discussion going over here at Star-Crossed (thus saving you all from reading about my garden, which was what I intended to blog about, along with the psychotic bunnies and kamikaze squirrels. Alas, you'll have to wait for another day for the wildlife).

I think there's also another level of dialogue going on around erotic romance, and that is a more socialogical one--the dialogue of women's sexual fantasy. I've always believed (though I lack the academic chops to conclusively make a case that anyone will take seriously, but someday when the kids are in school, I am going back for that Master's, dammit! Or something), that romance as a genre is a subtextual dialogue about women's fantasies, in addition to being a genre of literature and a mode of storytelling.

There are very definite trends you can trace having to do with the "sexual revolution" back in the 70's, or the "moral majority" swing in the 80's, etc., that track the dialogue about what women find acceptable to fantasize about. Not strictly limited to sex, as the dialogue of romance covers more than just the sexuality--in the 90's you couldn't swing a dead writer without hitting a rack full of "home and hearth" style romances, whereas prior to that time, there were pounds and pounds of "glitz" romances, and after the "home'n'hearth" boom, came chick-lit (a very urban response to the "small-town" feel of the past half-decade or so).

These days I get the sense that there's been a sudden explosion (although it may have been simmering for some time) that more women are being more open--and maybe a little more unapologetic--about the inherent sexuality of romance. We find more heroines who don't have to be coerced into sex in spite of themselves (and their very real and valid feelings which may differ from societal expectations), and heroines who are open to unconventional relationships, and the acceptance (however small it is right now) of same-sex relationships in the greater dialogue of romance (M/M or "slash" romance is about exploring the language of same-sex romantic relationships in a way we can understand it and finding the universal truths that resonate in them, whether we're accurate or not).

Within that greater dialogue, things are much messier. There's more risk-taking with the boundaries (thanks largely to the quick turnaround and reduced physical production cost of e-publishing) of what is "mainstream" or "acceptable" and the emergence of some surprising micro-trends that a changing, more global, readership, and a different medium play a part in, too. This messiness, so to speak, needs to be present for this ongoing dialogue--without the free-for-all lack of moderation, this "brainstorming period" can't truly happen nearly as effectively. Granted, this is at odds with the commercial part of "commercial fiction" which erotic romance falls into, but the commercial will undoubtedly, eventually catch up to the greater body of the work. And it will be up to the small presses, the fringe or specialty publishers, to push those new boundaries and test their true limits yet again.

In the future, they may expand yet again, or they may contract, or push off in an entirely new direction that no one saw coming. Any which way you put it, though, it's an exciting time to be reading!

--Xandra

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3 comments:

Savanna Kougar said...

Xandra, incredibly insightful. And I'm glad you carried the discussion on in the direction you've taken it.
For me, underneath is the fantasy, to put it simply. Whether it's the sexual erotic fantasy. Or the love, the happily ever after fantasy. Also, it's the fantasy of being able to actually express the woman I am, and the feminine beyond what is currently allowed in the culture itself.
That's obviously not the whole of my story telling, but it is a major part of it. My heroine gets to be what women aren't currently allowed to be in this culture, despite all the supposed freedoms, and I'm not just talking sexually. Well, that's a whole other discussion, which would require pages.
Hey, I love that title!
If you want to post your blog as a follow up to the discussion on Title Magic, or if you would want create it differently, just let me know. You're more than welcome.
I'll reference your blog on Kougar Kisses -- not that I get much traffic.
I know I'll put in the comment section of Monica's blog.

Monica Burns said...

Great post Xandra.! I love thought-provoking posts, although I confess, I’m FAR from Master’s potential.

a more sociological one--the dialogue of women's sexual fantasy.

I agree about romances being cultural expressions about numerous things, including women’s fantasies. I think romances have always reflected how women think because they are primarily written by women.

Romances since the time of Austen, the Bronte sisters, Gaskell, Woodiwiss, etc have always reflected women’s fantasies of a female writer’s time period.

I think the romances of today are reflective of a couple of things -- age, education and rejection of stereotypes. The American population is aging, and the women in the Baby Boomer population are the women who burned their bras in the 60s. They were strong women then I see them as stronger women now.

They’re comfortable with themselves in ways their mothers weren’t before them (telling a man how they like it, demanding orgasms, etc.). Those same women have passed on that comfort level to their daughters.

In addition to age, education has played a significant role in how sex is viewed in the American culture. What did we do before Dr. Ruth?? She made it okay for a woman to tell a guy what she wanted in bed. Then there’s the rejection of stereotypes such as the weak-willed heroine who is the Penelope Helpless while Dudley Do-Right comes to her rescue. That was the type I used to read as a teenager, but I’ve matured and thank God romance has as well. (I just wish Dr. Phil would crawl back into the hole he came out of! LOL)

So absolutely, from a sociological POV, romance has evolved to reflect the fantasies women have because they’re more secure in who they are and where they’ve come from. Erotic romance I think is a reflection of women who want some spice in their life, whether imaginary or via ideas for their significant other.

I think erotic romance is also a great way to help empower women to feel comfortable in their own skin and their own sexuality. They can pick up a book that pushes the boundaries and if it’s too much for their comfort level, they can put it down. It is the ultimate safe sex.

The only gripe I have is the political correctness aspect. I’m sorry but the hero fumbling for protection is annoying, particularly when I know that the only reason the condom is there is because the author or publisher doesn't want to be seen as promoting sex. It’s a blatant message about having safe sex. Come on, it’s a fantasy, and we all know that in a battle of pleasure sensation between latex and skin, skin is going to win hands down every time! LOL

As to the boundaries, what’s really interesting is that women in vastly different cultures overseas are being affected by American romance. Particularly in cultures where women are oppressed. They’re avid romance readers, and as time progresses I think those cultures will evolve with romance books playing a large role in that evolution. That to me is a phenomenal boundary pusher.

fabulous author Monica Burns I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ll take it and run! LOL Thank you for the flattery. Every author needs it from time to time.

Ruth said...

Great post! I haven't read the original article yet -- on my way over there next -- but you certainly do present some interesting food for thought.

As a relative newcomer to the genre of erotic romance I wholeheartedly agree that it's an exciting time to be reading. I've read books lately that I would've never dreamed of reading earlier in my life. P.F. Kozak's Take Me There is a good example of erotic romance that I would never have looked at twice before.

In fact, for years I wouldn't even read a book that was written by a woman because I didn't want to be seen as reading anything remotely romantic. Yet the older I get, the more I think that I'd rather indulge in a little female fantasy, both of the sexual and the happy-ever-after variety. And I'm very grateful to the authors that write it because they allow me to dream and think that maybe, just maybe there's a little hope for me yet. :)