In the spirit of me trying to jump back into producing blog posts about writing, today I’m going to tackle a subject that one of my readers prompted me with last week. SE White asked in a comment:
I had an interviewer ask me how I decide the amount of sex that goes in a book and that really got my imagination going. How much is too much? Which part is plot? Are we still considered housewife porn or is romance a legit genre now? Does the amount of sexy time change based on the genre you’re writing?
This is a really good series of questions! The answer depends on a lot of things: what you like to write, your publisher, your target audience, and even what’s selling right now.
Everyone knows there’s a lot of stereotypes surrounding romance novels, even though most of them are incredibly outdated. The idea of every romance novel being vacuous smut, the old school purple prose-laced “bodice ripper,” and the idea that it’s not real writing but simply “porn for women.” Unfortunately, the biggest example the non-romance reading public has to look at is the Fifty Shades series, which isn’t actually romance but erotica (leaning toward erotic romance, but I’ll get to the differences in a moment) so it reinforces the stereotype. There are different levels, and types, of romance. Romance is also a lot more diverse, inclusive, and socially aware these days than the naysayers give it credit for.
Not every romance novel is jam-packed with hot sex. There even exists a genre called Sweet or Clean romance, which includes nothing more racy than kissing. There is Christian and even Amish romance, which of course don’t focus on sex. There are romances that imply sex but it happens off the page and isn’t described. It goes all the way up to erotica, which is the wall-to-wall smut that the layperson thinks of all romance novels as being. Most publishers use a “heat level” system which lets readers know just how much sex is–or isn’t–contained in a book.
Here are some different kinds of romance:
- Sweet or Clean romance. As I said above, these books contain no sex and not even the implication of it. They are simply love stories and focus on the building of a relationship. They’re usually pretty wholesome. And have quite a big audience! Which contradicts the idea that “all romance is smut.”
- Closed Door/Fade to Black. These are romance novels where sex is implied, but never shown. The characters might start getting hot and heavy but the sex happens off the page. I wouldn’t classify these as “clean” romances though, because there is some sexual focus.
- General Romance. This is a broad, broad category. It’s the one I tend to write the most in. Sex happens–and is even described–but it’s not a big ol’ raunch fest start to finish. And there’s a lot of space here for just how much sex is in there and how well detailed it is. Think of how you watch a movie and there’s a sex scene or two in it–that’s where this category falls.
- Erotic Romance. I write some in this category too. This is general romance, but there’s more sex, and it’s more focused upon and detailed. The love story is still paramount but we really get more into these character’s sex lives.
- Erotica. This is what your average sneering, dismissive critic of romance will think all romance is. This is the smutty, porny, high focus on sex story. However, erotica isn’t just “porn.” You’re not going to get far as an erotica writer if you just write porn. There also has to be a story, and you have to make the reader interested in reading about all the hot sex these two (or more) random people are having. Why should I care? Why should I find it hot? This is a broad category too, which branches out into all sorts of things like BDSM, fetishes, and kink.
So, circling back to the question: how much sex do I put into a book? It depends on the book, and what layer of romance I’m writing. As you can see, there’s a lot of gray area. I’ve never written Sweet Romance, and I’ve only dabbled in Erotica in anthologies. Most of my work falls into that broad swath in between. The best answer I can give is: I let the story dictate it. I don’t sacrifice plot and story to wedge sex in, and similarly, if the characters wanna do it, I let them do it. Then I let the publisher go ahead and decide the heat level.
As for the question “is it a legit genre?” Well, I’ll just let the numbers do the talking.
Thanks for reading my ramble! If you have any writerly subjects you’d like to see my take on in the future, just leave me a comment!