Recently in one of my paranormal romance groups, this post popped up:
When you’ve written an erotic novel, do you label it as such exclusively or do you label it as romance as well? I get why people like erotica, I do, but it’s just not for me, and a couple of books I download are like 50% aggressive sex scenes and I don’t know how to filter these types of books out when I search for romance novels exclusively. Any suggestions?
This is not an unusual post. Someone in every romance forum (and every erotica forum) conflates lots of sex with erotica. It doesn’t happen so much in general writing groups, but I’m pretty sure that’s only because there’s so little respect for either genre that it doesn’t matter.
The key word in that last sentence is genre. Erotica is not a style or a theme or a literary device. It’s not a demographic, and it’s not a trope. It’s a genre just like romance and horror and mystery. And just like romance, horror, and mystery, it can be blended with other genres, but a book doesn’t magically become erotica simply because of the sex scenes within it.
So let’s look at these two genres as well as their intersections:
An Overview of Romance
Romance itself is a misunderstood genre. I’m not just talking about the romance bashing endemic in the writing community, either, although I do think a great deal of the bashing comes from this misunderstanding.
Romance, at its core, has a love story as its central plot. That seems simple enough, and if that’s all that someone thinks that’s the only criterion for romance, it’s easy to see why they might think that the similarities found in most romance novels come from a place of laziness or a lack of skill or creativity on the writer’s part. But take these additional elements into account:
- The story must end in a happily-ever-after or happy-for-now. Some publishers are so strict about this that even if a series ends with a happily-ever-after, if the series focuses on a single couple and each book within the series doesn’t have a happy ending, the series is automatically not a romance. (This isn’t everyone’s opinion, I don’t believe this to be the case, but I’ve been told this is absolutely true of Harlequin.)
- The external plotline must simultaneously bring the couple together and force them apart. It can’t be simple geography, either. There must be a valid reason for the main characters to think they can’t have a relationship, and usually distance isn’t enough unless something else dictates that a long-distance relationship cannot work.
- No cheating. This might seem obvious and easy enough, but pretty much anything with someone outside of the main pair is off-limits. That includes a romantic scene with a previous partner even before the couple meets or a one-night-stand with someone else when the main pair isn’t in a defined relationship yet.
- Everything you can possibly think of is a trope already.
That last one might have you scratching your head, and it’s not a rule, per se, but it’s something to keep in mind for romance readers, romance authors, and people who accuse romance of being cliched and formulaic. It is impossible to avoid tropes. It’s not because the authors aren’t trying to be original, it’s because we love our definitions. Enemies-to-lovers and friends-to-lovers are both tropes, so right off the bat, you have to write one or the other. Either they get along at the beginning or they don’t, there’s nothing else. There’s the alpha hero, and if you don’t want to write that, you’re either writing a beta or an omega. If you deliberately avoid a trope, you’re probably inverting it.
And this isn’t a bad thing. Romance readers are very particular. Putting a definition on every element of a romance means that readers can easily pinpoint exactly what they’re looking for. It just makes the genre appear more cliched than other genres because every book can be so easily pigeonholed.
The important thing to take from this is if the primary plot of a novel is a love story AND it follows the rules, it’s a romance.
No matter how little or how much sex is in it.
So What’s Erotica?
Let’s start with what erotica isn’t: I’ve already said what a romance is, and a romance is not an erotica. Furthermore, if a story has a lot of sex in it and doesn’t pass the test for romance, it is not, by definition, erotica. A good bulk of erotica is heavy on sex and does not pass the test, but that’s not why it’s erotica.
For a story to be erotica, the primary plot must be one of sexual discovery. By that I don’t mean that at least one of the characters is a virgin. An erotica doesn’t need to start at that point any more than a romance must start when the main characters meet. A couple who’s been married for fifty years will tell you that just like most things in life, sex is something that perpetually changes. Our identities change, our comforts change, our interests change, our bodies change. This is the central theme of erotica.
I frequently see, even in articles similar to this one where the writer is doing their best to speak fairly of erotica, references to it not having a plot. Not necessarily long-form erotica, but the shorts. They don’t have a plot, they’re just a sex scene.
I refuse to accept this definition. An erotic short story has just as much of a plot as any other short story, and it’s still a story of sexual discovery. It is a new partner or a new sex act. Or it’s the same partner they’ve had for years and they’re doing what they’ve done before, but this one is unique in some way. It is slice-of-life, and no one would reasonably say that slice-of-life doesn’t have a plot or is somehow invalid or lesser as a genre because it focuses on the mundane.
Some people also say that an erotica does not have romance in it, but that’s not true either. If the romance is a sub-plot or it doesn’t meet the other criteria, and it’s a story of sexual discovery, it’s erotica.
So an erotica, regardless of its length, focuses on sexual discovery, and romance focuses on the love story. Can both these elements exist within the same novel? Yes, of course. But one is going to be the whole ‘point’ of the story, so to speak, and that’s going to be the primary genre.
That’s your tl;dr. Romance = love, erotica = sexual discovery.
What about erotic romance?
Okay, so pedantry is pretty big deal in the writing community, and it certainly pops up every time this conversation happens. Someone gives a thorough, thoughtful explanation on why romance and erotica are two separate genres and how having a bunch of sex doesn’t make the a book erotica, and someone always has to jump in with ErOtIc RoMaNcE iS bOtH gEnReS.
It’s not. The genre of an erotic romance is romance. The subgenre is erotic romance. And, yet again, a novel doesn’t become erotic romance simply because it’s heavy on sex. An erotic romance is a love story where the love develops through sexual discovery. This is something like 50 Shades of Grey, where the whole plot is working toward their HEA, but the romance develops over the course of a sexual relationship. It can also be argued that it’s a romantic erotica because each book doesn’t have that HEA, but a more definitive romantic erotica would be someone considering committing to a relationship, going on a journey of sexual discovery with other partners, and ultimately returning and committing to that relationship.
An easy analogy to this for romance readers would be comparing paranormal romance and urban fantasy. Both genres typically have a supernatural element, a contemporary urban setting, and a love story — though not always, of course — but as readers, we can generally identify which genre a story is. To use two popular YA series, Twilight is paranormal romance and City of Bones is urban fantasy. The most important element of Twilight is the romance between Bella and Edward and the most important element of City of Bones is Clary’s place in the supernatural world, but the series have very similar elements and it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to label Twilight as UF or City of Bones as PNR.
Which is really the most important part of this. Yes, it’s important to know the definition of romance and erotica and the distinction of the two if you’re going to use the terms. It’s important to not mislabel. But it’s just as important to remember that in two markets as closely related as Romance and Erotica, there’s usually nothing wrong or deliberately misleading to say a book is both.
Algorithms: a final thing to consider
Amazon’s algorithms come into play in two ways. The first is, even though authors are only allowed to select two genres when they submit a story, Amazon will automatically sort the novel into up to eight other genres. Sometimes when you see a book in the wrong category, it has nothing to do with the author’s decisions. Now, some authors DO game the system by putting their books in obscure, niche categories where it’s easy to get a #1 Bestseller tag, but that’s certainly not going to be any of the romance categories. And authors can contact Amazon directly about what categories they’re in, but many don’t realize this is an option or even know that Amazon puts their books in other categories to begin with.
The other thing is Amazon’s algorithm is not kind to erotica. I’m dealing with this right now with one of my Vella serials. Amazon won’t allow erotica to be advertised and can even make it unsearchable. Usually when they make it unsearchable, it’s because the story has an incredibly taboo element to it, but since it’s done with algorithms, it’s not the most reliable and some stories end up ‘dungeoned’ erroneously.
So, because of this, some authors are hesitant to use even the erotic romance category, and you can’t really blame them. It can destroy any chance of success for a story.
Romance = love, erotica = sexual discovery.