Love Fifty Shades of Grey? Beware the Erotica Section

Aug 27, 2013 • Books, Culture

Your guide to finding the sexy books you want

Last week, the erotica author Remittance Girl received a negative review for her book Gaijin. “Some how this was in the romance section,” the reviewer commented. “Its a story of any girls worst nightmare and it’s soooooo not happily-ever-after.” The book, a work depicting coercion and non-consent, is labeled erotica by Amazon.

The author said this was a common problem.

“With the rise of Erotic Romance, a lot of ER [Erotic Romance] readers have the expectation that anything labeled erotica is to have a HEA [Happily Ever After] for them,” she told me during the course of a Twitter exchange. “Blame FSOG [E.L. James’ best-selling erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey].”

Last year, Remittance Girl published a beautiful piece explaining the critical difference between Erotic Romance and Erotica. Reading it in its entirety would serve any new fans well, and ensure they never leave the bookstore with something they don’t want. This is an excerpt:

Modern erotic romance novels conform to the mythic structure of a classical comedy described by Northrop Frye. People meet, they become lovers, chaos ensues, but social order is finally restored in the form of a wedding. Although most erotic romances no longer end with a wedding, the ‘Happily Ever After’ convention is maintained through the explicit culmination of the romance in some sort mutually agreed upon serious and long-term emotional commitment to each other. By the end of the story, we are left with a stable ‘family-like’ unit. We go from order to chaos to order.

Even when the pairings in an erotic romance are non-normative, i.e. gay, lesbian, bi or trans romances, they still ultimately pay obeisance to the prevailing cultural dominance of a ‘normative’ relationship structure: two people, together forever. Even when the story revolves around a menage, it either ends with a pair at the end, and the third party neutralized somehow, or an hermetically sealed threesome that, for all intents and purposes, results in a place of domestic order. No amount of wild, kinky or transgressive sex in the middle can mitigate the final conservative outcome of a neat, socially recognizable and culturally settled bond. The outcome of all these stories is essentially a conservative one. One that supports and perpetuates the prevailing social order.

I cannot recall who said it, but one very famous murder mystery writer once said that her readers were people who had a very passionate love of justice. No matter how gruesome the murders or thrillingly evil the murderer, he or she is inevitably caught and made to answer for the crimes. The convention of the genre demands it. The readers expect it and are left disgruntled and unsatisfied when the implicit promise of the narrative is not delivered. I would echo this by suggesting that, no matter how explicit, licentious or debauched the sex, erotic romances promise something similar. These two individual characters with their chaotic taste for erotic adventure find each other and this perfect matching up of desires neutralizes whatever destabilizing influences they might have on society. The inevitable pairing at the end guarantees the reader a return to emotional and sexual order. Erotic Romance lovers are essentially ideologically conservative in their appreciation of a restoration of the social order.

But the preservation of order is not erotica’s role, is it? Yeah, I knew you’d end up wanting to read the whole thing.

Header image based on photo by Frank Carroll.

  • KimberlyChapman

    Speaking as someone who writes non-standard romance novels, I can assure you that for all that readers scream out that they want “different”, sales numbers reflect that they want “the same”. For those of us who actually do want “different”, it’s really hard to find because publishers know that the market actually wants “same”, so they don’t publish “different” often, and even in the rare case where they do it’s not necessarily the “different” a given reader is looking for.

    As in, I actively don’t want to read erotica because I want the order from chaos story, but I want it to come with steamy sex. However I also want that sex to be hetero and what is insultingly called “vanilla”, as if those of us not into the kink du jour are lesser sexual beings undeserving of fulfillment. My general reading choices are standard tropey romances that offend my feminist principles and have meh-written sex scenes, or else 50 Shades and its clones which also offend my feminist principles and have sex scenes that put me off.

    So what’s the solution? Surely there are people out there writing what I want to read, but it’s really hard to find (especially at professional-level quality). How do we pair readers who want a particular thing with the writers who are providing it, and do it in a professional context where it’s okay for the readers to expect high quality, editing, and good stories but the writers can actually make it financially worthwhile to work at that level for only a small audience?

    • avflox

      I don’t know the answer to that, Kim, but there’s a hot start-up idea in it.

    • Remittance Girl

      I think the way e-books are currently classified, through genre labels and keywords, is very limiting. I’m hoping as the electronic publishing business matures, classification will become more sophisticated. As an author, I’m really torn. Do I actually put, in the Amazon description, THIS STORY DOESN’T HAVE A HAPPY ENDING’? Talk about a way to blow the plot of a story and spoil the ending for readers who DO want the reading process to be one of adventure.

      I think I feel a blog post coming on.