by Doug Langille
Oh, this is going to be fun! A couple of months ago I wrote ‘The (Not So) Definitive Guide to Romance Novels‘ for Reader’s Carnival . It got me to thinking (I know, a dangerous thing):
What is the difference between a romance novel, erotica and outright porn? Is it simply age group boundaries? Explicitness versus love? Where are the boundaries? Has this changed over time? Putting quality aside, what separates Danielle Steel from E.L. James?
Absolute Write had this as a topic a couple of years ago. Here’s where they landed:
Erotica doesn’t necessarily have a Happily Ever After or a Happy For Now ending. It’s about character developed through or by the way of sex. The sex scenes are a lot of more detailed than in the Romance genre. Also, depending on the length, the scenes are also more frequent. Erotica is one person’s sexual journey. It may or feature a relationship but the HEA/HFN is not needed and the main focus is one character’s journey. Some erotica can be surprisingly non-graphic.
Romance focuses on the love or relationship. The sex scenes are not entirely detailed as in Erotica. Also depending upon the line/story, the sex scenes aren’t really as frequent as they are in Erotica. Romance is the story of a growing relationship between two people with an optimistic ending… a happily ever after (HEA) or happy for now (HFN). You can see the relationship continuing beyond the end of the book. These can be entire chaste or have very graphic sexuality.
Erotic Romance is basically a combined version of Romance and Erotica. The scenes are probably more frequent and more detailed. It does focus on the love and progress of the relationship, but there is also a focus on the couple/character growing through sex or by sex, as in Erotica. However, unlike Erotica, Erotic Romance must have a Happily Ever After or Happy For Now.
If it’s all about the sex for titillation and has little story and all sex, consider it Porn.
I also asked my writing brethern for some insight.
The dividing line isn’t quite so firm as people might prefer (and isn’t that true of most things involving humans?) One man’s porn is another one’s erotica, to corrupt an old adage. In porn, it is the physical act of lovemaking that drives the plot, such as it may exist, where in Romance it is more the character interactions that drive the plot and the act of lovemaking is secondary in nature. I think if we’re going to split hairs, then erotica fits in that notch where character and sex have the same level of focus and attention to detail. Erotica, then, is the sort of equilibrium point or fulcrum on the scale between romance and porn.
The difference between romance and porn, simply put, is the reader’s expectation. Romance is a meander through a fragrant garden where the young lovers lose their way, at times, one may even fall and need saving, but they will hold hold hands and declare undying love before you read the words ‘THE END’. Porn (which is not the same as erotica) has little interest in scratching the surface of the characters. Porn is the sprint, where romance is the marathon. Porn is driven by the physical detail, where romance is driven by the emotions. Porn is a roller coaster ride, where romance is a ride on a Gondola. Okay, now use a sliding scale, and you can use those two bare element of ‘romance’ and ‘porn’ to create that hybrid creature, erotica.
Porn is generally not going to have a story, at least not one worth telling. There is only so many times with repair-guy can get laid by a MILF, ya know? I will point to Anne Rice’s “Beauty” series or her book “Belinda” as being Erotica. It is very obviously for an adult audience, and is chock-full of sex, but the characters develop and change and have a story to tell. I think that’s the difference. Porn characters don’t have a story.
All Romance publishers have standards that they used to define and categorize the “heat” level of their books. Generally, in a straight-up Romance novel, primary importance is given to the love story between the characters and to any side plots they encounter in the course of their story. The physical side of their relationship is secondary to the emotional. In an Erotic Romance, sex is supposed to be used as a way of furthering and enhancing that romantic bond, so in a loose sense, the physical should be come as equally important as the emotional. However, there are varying degrees to both general Romance and Erotic Romance. The trend in both right now is for more explicit sex scenes using adult (some would say vulgar) terminology and very little if any “purple prose.” There is a very large, very hungry audience out there right now that wants non-traditional Erotic/Romance. A lot of the calls are for stories touching on polyamory, homosexuality, etc.. pretty much anything goes that isn’t illegal or universally considered immoral. So the dividing line between what one person deems Romance and what another considers trash or worse, is a pretty wide one. If hetero, happy ending, typical romances are your bag, then yeah you might consider non-traditional Erotic Romance little more than Porn. However, the definition of Porn, or straight-up Erotica is technically that the physical aspects, the nitty gritty sex, is primary to the story (if there even is one) above and beyond characterization and plot. Personally, I see a value in all of it. Not because I find it titillating, but because I’m completely against censorship and I could see the value in expressing human sexuality in all of its forms. Sometimes, regardless of the sentimentality attached to it, sex is just sex.
Given that sex and everything that goes with it is such a key part of the human experience, it seems something that writers shouldn’t avoid entirely. Anyway, I agree that it highly depends on the genre you are writing for and the audience you are hoping to snag. Sometimes the tasteful thing is to fade to black. Sometimes something more explicit (or a lot more explicit) is called for, and not just if you are writing for an exclusive erotica publisher. That said, I believe that a lot what makes good writing holds true. Develop your characters, pay attention to your story, and keep it interesting. As for dividing lines? I think it depends on the emotional context between the characters, if that makes sense. Two characters meet, have sex, leave? Probably looking at porn. They develop a relationship, an emotional connection, and there’s some plot at work that isn’t completely contrived? Looking more at the romance end of the spectrum. Final tidbit: Did you know that there is Bad Sex Award given out by the Literary Review (a London magazine) for the worst sex scene they’ve read in a given year? Well you do now!
I think there’s some significant differences. Sure, there’s all kinds of markets out there. Even some that are, shall we say, rather blue in nature. I think when writing anything, knowing your audience is good. But there’s always a line. Sometimes you can push it, and get away with it– depending on how it’s done. Writing about love-making (sex, horizontal break-dancing, making love, doing the “Wild Thing”, take your pick) is, in my opinion, something that should be approached with some depth of thought. The imagination is a funny thing. Usually, less is more. Though sometimes there’s something to be said about being explicit, that’s usually the exception not the rule.
My current novel has erotic scenes, and I have been asking myself if my story fits young adult for that reason. I try to use metaphors instead of writing the genitals for example, and try to put love and passion in it.
So that’s that. What do you think? Weigh in and keep it clean, kids.
References and more reading:
Many thanks to SupernaturalRomanceGirl81, Cameron, Karen, Julie, Shanna, Matt and Tim for their input. The original discussion can be found here: http://www.writerscarnival.ca/erotica-making-love-vs-writing-porn