You Can Never Be Too Rich, Too Thin or Too Sexy

I am closing in on the first draft of my Regency-set historical (65,000+ words, Amanda, for next time you crack that Hello Kitty whip and ask how it’s going!), and find that my hero and heroine are having a lot more sexual encounters than I’d originally anticipated.

Which is good for the ultimate sellability of my book, and it’s nowhere near as hot as some of the hottest historicals out there (never mind the erotic romance), but it does beg the question, how much is too much? By pushing the envelope one way, or we backing people into a corner another way?

For example, do you remember the hoopla when Lisa Valdez‘s Passion came out? I thought it was a fantastic book, but some people thought it crossed over the invisible appropriate erotic line. But in that book, the hero and heroine only had sex with each other, and it was all fairly vanilla, if quite frequent and usually public.

One way for authors to avoid being tagged “erotic,” and therefore not put into a further genre is to go the fantasy route; if your hero or heroine is otherworldly, of another species, you can have them do all sorts of things: Demons, angels, seals that turn into humans (are those selkies?), werewolves, ghosts, and yes, trees all get busy.

Jane Lockwood had a post about the evolution of erotic romance at the Spiced Tea Party yesterday; she says she and her fellow erotic writers are concerned erotic romance “was losing its romantic side, and, worse yet, wasn’t even story telling; that it was becoming formulaic and more like porn . . that there wasn’t enough emphasis on plot and characterization, the nuts and bolts of storytelling.”

I have read Jane’s book, and Pam Rosenthal‘s books, and Colette Gale‘s, and they are frankly sexual, but yes, have a plot. And although I would argue Pam’s books are, there is no way Jane or Colette’s could be called “historical romance” (despite what the marketers of Jane’s book say), but they are definitely not straight porn.

In some ways, I’d say books written by Jane, Pam and Colleen are suffering the same kind of fate traditional Regencies did a few years ago: With historical romances getting hotter and hotter, erotic authors are moving further and further into previously uncharted territories, leaving erotic plot-driven books stuck uncomfortably in the middle between hot historical and straight erotic.

I would argue, of course, that labeling books is silly; I liked Elena‘s suggestion awhile back of rating the hotness factor, the way All About Romance does, and leaving the categories alone.

What do you think? How much sex is too much in a historical romance? Do you read erotica as well as historical romance? Would you want your books labeled for their hotness factor?

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

I don’t read erotica, just because I liked my books to not only have a plot but an emotional connection between the hero and the heroine. I also loved Passion, and I was so sorry to read that the reaction to the book gave Lisa Valdez a serious case of writer’s block. And I also loved Jane and Colette’s books because while they pushed the envelope, it all came out of the story, it wasn’t gratuitous. And the idea of rating books is ridiculous. Isn’t that what RT and other reviewers do? In Jane’s case, I believe that the publisher’s are totally at fault for misleading the readers about what kind of book they are buying, whereas with Colette and Pam, it’s pretty clear.

I also think that writer’s need to only do what they are comfortable with. If your WIP is sexier than your previous stuff, it’s probably coming out of the story and the characters, rather than anything that you are doing. I think readers can sense when a writer is just writing to the market and not what he or she really wants to write.

15 years ago

I agree one hundred percent Elizabeth. Those of us who love and read historical romance are pretty savvy people. We are able to discern plot-driven sensuality from just plain old “let me put this in to sell a book” sex. I read for the story, the romance. Anything that grows organically from the story-line and is well-written works for me.

15 years ago

I’m one of the people who is reading less and less historical romance because I like the history more than the sex, except in the cases of authors like Laura Kinsale or Balogh who integrate the sex into the emotions driving the story.

Beyond that, I run into the issue that one person’s “hot” is another person’s “Ick.”

And then there are those authors whose “hot” sex scenes make me say, “Poor lady. Her husband really needs some remedial education if that’s her idea of good sex.”

There are some generational differences in what is considered normal, too, which is an issue because some market research suggests it is the older reader who is still buying books. Younger women are into stuff that this early boomer considers porn, and nasty porn at that given the emphasis on S&M and other kinds of deviancy, but they aren’t buying it at B&N. They are downloading it.

I can remember when Mary Balogh’s sex scenes in Signets were shockers, but boy did those books work! Now they look pretty tame. But Balogh’s real gift is for working the reader’s emotions up to fever pitch. Authors who can do what she does will always beat out those who string sexual encounters together without giving you anything else to make you care. If you want to read dirty for dirty’s sake, take off your search controls and do some obvious searches on Google. It’s free.

And please keep writing some historicals with good research, great characters, conflicts appropriate to the time period and sex that could actually have happened in those time periods!

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

I do enjoy books like Janet’s, where the sex is integral to the character development and the plot. I love the complexity of that sort of thing! Books that are just one sex scene after another–now they’re doing it in the elevator! now outdoors! now upside down on a trapeze!–tend to bore me. I find myself skimming while thinking “Did I put laundry detergent on the shopping list?” That can’t be a good sign. 🙂

Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

BTW, a Hello Kitty whip–I’ve gotta get one of those for real 🙂

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

Amanda, I googled “Hello Kitty whip” and found a HK-themed bondage room.

I will make no further comment.

15 years ago

I obviously have read enough erotic romances to know it’s just not for me (one has to try something before saying for sure you don’t like it! LOL), but yep, I think there is a big problem out there with a lot of sex and no real story to go along with it. Wherever your own personal level of sex in books is, I think most readers are really looking for a plot to be their first and the sex second. Otherwise, I think it pretty much is porn, just with words, or approaching that line.

And sure, if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s great too, but I imagine most of us here posting and reading are looking for something else. So yep, there can be such a thing as too much sex. Amazingly enough. 🙂


Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

This discussion usually winds up in pretty much the same place, probably because story is the ultimate seduction.

But whereas I agree with the conclusions, my own trajectory through these genres and markets has been very different. I started by writing very literate and very graphic pornography: Carrie’s Story and Safe Word (w/a Molly Weatherfield) are more intellectual, more deeply psychologized, and (in the case of Safe Word) more sophisticatedly plotted than my erotic historical romances. I made them literate because I’m very literate, and if I was going to explore my own outre fantasy life and passion for certain classic pornographic texts, it would have to be in a literate way — I wrote the pornography I wanted to read, precariously (and to me thrillingly) perched on the edge of the body/mind divide and discovering how romantic I found all of that.

The romances came second — fueled by what I found out about my romantic imagination by writing the pornography.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

Pam, I think the problem for a lot of people is that there are lot of books that seem to be 200 pages of sex and very little else. I have no problem with pornography or erotica that is pyschologically based or that has a plot. It just needs to have something going for it other than just boinking. It’s the problem I have with porn movies, after the first two sex scenes I get bored, because there’s nothing else going on. No meat on the bone as it were.

15 years ago

I personally have no problem with strong sexual content in a book – historical or not. What I do have a problem with is badly written sex scenes and/or action that is inconsistent with the characters in the story. I read anything and everything from sweet romance with very little sexual content to straight erotica – my one criterion is that it must be well-written.

Oh and Pam – I loved Almost A Gentleman. After I read that, I ordered Carrie’s Story. That book blew me away and I bought Safe Word not to read more erotica but to find out what happened between Carrie and Jonathan – I just had to know.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Some of my best friends write erotic historicals (Janet/Jane, Collette, Pam)! And I know for a fact the eroticism is integrated into the story.

It is still not my first choice to read, though, not my fantasy. And I do feel sorry for the reader of yesteryear who enjoyed Traditional Regencies that were not overtly sexual.

Anonymous, I love Mary Balogh’s books. She’s my idol! I can assure you that the writers on Risky Regencies consider the history very important and we aspire to make our love scenes very integral to the story so that readers don’t flip the pages to see what happens next. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve done that!

Megan, just when i think you could not find another old bookcover that would surprise me……(My Brother was Better?????)

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

Diane, I bought a CD of all those book covers here:

So it’s kind of cheating, because those came from the “sleaze” section. I do love those pulp covers.

15 years ago

“I think readers can sense when a writer is just writing to the market and not what he or she really wants to write” I agree with that statement!

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

Tumperkin, thanks for the nice words. Safe Word is my favorite thing of anything I’ve ever written, tho it’s sold the fewest copies.

And I’m sure you’re right, Elizabeth, about the 200 pages of sex and nothing else. I always want to give hard-core writing by women the benefit of the doubt — because, I guess, I’ve always thought that sex from a woman’s pov had narrativity built into it (a kind of creative ambivalence about power, and some surprises about what one really wants), and that the point of erotic fiction by women and for women was to explore that. This is probably naive of me.

Some erotic writing outside the romance world that has knocked me out recently: Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica and Steven Elliott’s fictionalized memoir called My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. Yes, I know it’s a shocker of a title, and the book is about rough stuff, but it’s also got sort of a ring to it, doesn’t it? And it’s beautiful, revealing writing. Also, Katha Pollitt’s memoir Learning to Drive: And Other Life Stories has a wonderful chapter about being a proofreader for a porn publisher in the 70s, and about how sex and romanticism and smarts and language do and don’t go together for women.

15 years ago

“You Can Never Be Too Rich, Too Thin or Too Sexy” … or have too many books, shoes or chocolates. I love the covers you’ve posted.

How much sex is too much in a historical romance? depends on if it essential to the plot

Do you read erotica as well as historical romance? YES

Would you want your books labeled for their hotness factor? no, basically because who would decide on the labeling? Wouldn’t everyone’s opionions vary?

I just read Sarah McCarty’s historical erotica book CAINE’S RECKONING. I thought it was fantastic. I knew from the start that there would be erotica and that was what I expected. But, there was an actual plot and storyline that went along with it.

Just my opinions as an avid reader.

Camilla Bartley
15 years ago

I’m like anonymous–I like the history more than the sex, unless it’s a wonderful book that uses the sex to show character growth (like Kinsale, Rosenthal or Ivory). These days, anything reeking of being based around sex is immediately placed back on the shelves because it’s not what I want to read a romance for.

We’ve reached this impasse because readers wanted erotic content in their romances, but then soon realized that they wanted the hotter content with just as much romance and three-dimensional characters as “regular” romance novels. But publishers just assumed the readers just wanted sex, sex and more sex, and acquired books in that vein. Now, hearing agents speaking about editors wanting “soft historicals”–historicals with a greater focus on characters than sex–the backlash is going to hurt all of the talented authors out there writing erotic romance.

As for the age thing–women in my generation aren’t reading erotic romance. Some of my old college buddies read Zane, but that’s about it. Romance novels are still seen as being written for “middle-aged housewives”, and the younger generation isn’t really braving the shelves of “heaving bosoms and ripped bodices” to get to Jaid Black or Lora Leigh. In fact, erotic romance is really only spoken of in romance circles and publications, so I don’t even know if outsiders make the distinction between the clinch covers of historical romance and the clinch/naked couple/naked torso covers of erotic romance.

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

BTW, I read Carrie’s Story and really liked it, too–and Tumperkin, you reminded me about Safe Word, which I haven’t bought yet.

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

readers wanted erotic content in their romances, but then soon realized that they wanted the hotter content with just as much romance and three-dimensional characters as “regular” romance novels. But publishers just assumed the readers just wanted sex, sex and more sex, and acquired books in that vein.

That reminds me of a conversation I had with an editor at RWA National 2 or 3 years ago, Camilla, just before all the romance publishers announced their erotica lines. I asked her what her company’s take on erotica was. She proudly replied, “twice as much sex as Almost a Gentleman.” And when I asked, “Well… yes… and..??” she seemed genuinely surprised I didn’t think her answer covered all the bases.

I don’t even know if outsiders make the distinction between the clinch covers of historical romance and the clinch/naked couple/naked torso covers of erotic romance.

Probably not a lot — so if they’re not expanding into new markets, they’re only taking away from the existing romance market. Anybody know any sales number to prove or disprove that contention?

Interestingly, tho, the small press publisher who does the Carrie books and the Allison Tyler and Violet Blue anthologies was so impressed by some recent erotic romance/erotica hype in Publishers’ Weekly that they want to expand in that direction.

And Megan, glad you enjoyed Carrie.

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Coming in late to the discussion with little to add except that I agree that sex alone when not closely intertwined with the character development and plot makes me laugh at first and then get bored.

I don’t think there’s actually a trend away from having characterization and plotting, though. I just think there’s been such a demand for erotic romance that some less-than-stellar examples have been published. A shame because that can cause a boom and bust phenomenon which doesn’t help anyone.

All we can do is keep writing the best stories we can. What a platitude. Gah. But true.

Megan, love those covers!

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