Over the years since I started writing romance, I have found myself in the distinctly uncomfortable situation of answering the “what do you write?” question inevitably asked in response to the “I’m an author” line.
A huge chunk of my discomfort comes from the fact that the two protagonists in my stories are the same gender (so far, all male). The LGBT community—including (especially) the arts portion of it—still has a long way to go as far as acceptance is concerned.
But today, what I want to talk about is the other part of my response: the romance part.
I recently submitted a request for a vendor table at a local anime convention for myself and a couple of other authors. Now, I am lucky to a point because as a volunteer manager for the con, I have some options general vendors don’t. When I did not get the response I wanted (instead, they gave me something vague about variety of merchandise), I requested more information. When I didn’t get a response to my request for clarification, unlike general vendors, I could go higher. Which I did.
The answer I finally got back shocked and angered me. Okay, “anger” is probably a bit mild. Furious? Livid? That’s closer.
The shock ended up a good thing because it kept me from replying immediately with some not-so-polite phrasing, including where they could put their IT department (the department I manage). Their response was fairly short, explaining that since they checked into it “finding only erotica,” it didn’t fit their “family friendly event.”
I don’t know how they came to the conclusion that the books in question are “only erotica.” Not knowing how that came about, I can only speculate one of two things. One, the books are all about gay men and, thus, automatically considered erotica because of that. Or two, they are romance and simply by virtue of the fact that some romance contains sex scenes, it is thus considered “erotica.” I have seen both of these from the non-romance (and non-LGBT) reading groups. As I was not sure if it was the LGBT aspect—since I wasn’t sure how I could reasonably focus on that—I focused instead on discussing the difference between romance and erotica.
I’d read tons on this in different places, but I thought the best pace to start was my own primary publisher. Since I knew Dreamspinner Press does not publish pure erotica, I went straight to their website. From their submission guidelines:
“Dreamspinner Press seeks gay male romance stories in all genres. While works do not need to be graphic, they must contain a primary or strong secondary romance plotline and focus on the interaction between two or more male characters.” (https://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/submissions)
Now, I am well aware there are plenty of LGBT and romance publishers that do publish erotica, so I thought I’d dig a bit further. One of the unfortunate problems with trying to define this is that there seem to be no set publishing industry definitions of “romance” and “erotica.” The best I could find was some background on the differences, per a couple of other romance authors and other industry members.
Sylvia Day said, “Erotica: stories written about the sexual journey of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals. Emotion and character growth are important facets of a true erotic story. However, erotica is NOT designed to show the development of a romantic relationship…”
“Sexy Romance: stories written about the development of a romantic relationship that just happen to have more explicit sex. The sex is not an inherent part of the story, character growth, or relationship development, and could easily be removed or “toned down” without damaging the storyline.” (http://www.sylviaday.com/extras/erotic-romance/)
I further found an article on RT Book reviews (and referencing Publisher’s Weekly) that distilled it even more and said erotica is: “when sex is the basis of the conflict.” (https://www.rtbookreviews.com/rt-daily-blog/what-exactly-difference-between-steamy-romance-and-erotica)
(Please note: I firmly believe that any sex included in a book should be there because it does something for the story, either character development or plot movement. That said, in romance, the story still should not fall apart completely if you don’t show the couple’s whole sexual progression. There are levels, including erotic romance—like my Golden Collar series—where this doesn’t apply in the same way, but it still passes the litmus test I found.)
What I came to, in the end, was that the single distinctive difference was a simple question:
“What drives the story?”
In my research, I found in a number of places where erotica isn’t expected to have an HEA. The Romance Writers of America says for a story to be considered a romance, it should have “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” They go on to define that optimistic end as having “emotional justice and unconditional love.” (https://www.rwa.org/Romance)
Beyond the happy ending—or lack thereof—many types of erotica may not even include a primary relationship, and instead is more about one person’s sexual journey. One prime example of this is the Beauty series by Anne Rice (under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure). While there is a happy ending at the end of the series, the story is about Beauty—and her sexual journey—not a specific relationship she is in.
I have been a firm believer that there is a wide variety of heat in romance novels. Everyone has their taste. Some want to read the sex, others want to skim. I’ve been in the mood for lighter stories (with less sex) and some that are essentially one sex scene after another. Both have their place. I don’t believe a romance requires sex, but what I found in my research also says that having it certainly doesn’t automatically make it erotica, either.
In the end, it still comes down to what drives the story. Is it the sex? Or is it the relationship?
If it’s the latter, then it’s romance.