Friday, July 1

Erotica vs. Porn

Someone asked me an interesting questions last night; it happened in my critique group, and came from another writer, someone I respect tremendously. "What's the difference between erotica and porn?" The question was spurred, I'm sure, because of the content of the chapter I'd submitted to the group for critique--and it was asked as an honest question. I think it's a good question--and I'd love to hear what others have to say (hint!)

The overall consensus around the table last night was that the difference is quantity; in a pornographic story, every page (or nearly every page) is filled with sex. A secondary--and for me equally important--point was brought up, having to do with the quality of the sex. Pornography typically doesn't involve a lot of emotion on the part of the participants. Erotic romance, on the other hand, is all about the romance, all about the connection between the two characters. Take the emotion out, and all you're left with is porn (and I'm not necessarily knocking porn. There's a time and place for just about everything.)

I define erotic romance as first and foremost romance. The story is about the participants, the people falling in love and having to work out their feelings--and their lives--in a way that they can live happily ever after. The eroticism is simply an added layer, the proverbial (and pun intended) cherry on top. If you remove the erotica--the sex--you still have a great romance novel, it's just a little shorter.

I never got the chance to answer the question last night about the proportion of sex to plot, but I wanted to, so I will here. Every author is going to have a different answer--probably a different answer for each story, because each story has its own pace, its own heat level, and that is, for me, by and large determined by the characters. For me, it's also about balance. Does the quantity and quality of the sex enrich the story? Does it contribute something?

Some people, I'm sure, would argue that sex in any quantity bogs down the story--and if it's not an erotic novel, they would be absolutely correct. In a traditional story of any sort, the story does not stop for the sex, unless the sex is somehow integral to the plot. Even then, a lot of it is likely to be behind closed doors, i.e., off the page where the reader doesn't see it. But erotica is its own genre, with its own rules. One publisher goes so far as to say they don't want any closed door sex--it's all got to be on the page. Another says they don't want gratuitous sex, but when I asked (because I was definitely curious what they  meant by that), the email I got back said that they define gratuitous sex as being sex that doesn't contribute to the romantic involvement of the main characters, but yes, of course they expect there to be lots of steamy sex! They just don't want porn. (Their words almost exactly.)

I try to have each of my sex scenes contribute in some way to the plot/character development. Characters can reveal a lot to their partners--and the reader--during intimate moments, even explicit ones. For me, a well crafted sex scene tells something about who these characters are; it isn't just 'insert Tab A into Slot B'. That would be boring, no matter how many salacious words were used to describe it. That's why I tend to split my POV between the characters 50/50 when it comes to the sex (although I've read a couple of really great books that were from a single character's POV... which is really a topic for a different time.) What I want to get out of a sex scene is what are my characters feeling, emotionally as well as physically.

While I don't use an exact formula for determining the proportion of sex/plot, in my 90,000 word novel there are four or five juicy sex scenes, and each one is in the neighborhood of 1500 words. Ironically, in a work that started out intended to be shorter, there is far more sex... but the nature of the story is different. That piece is about one third bedroom action, and I doubt that will change much in the revisions because it happens to fit the story (there also isn't much of a subplot in that one, it's literally boy meets boy, boy ties up boy, boys deal with both external and internal conflicts, realize they're both being idiots and live happily ever after. in a lovely and healthy M/s relationship. That's Master and slave--a very consensual form of slavery set in modern day Ohio, just in case you're wondering.)

Lastly, I'd like to talk a moment about why I'm writing erotic romance, because that's a question I've been asked before, too. There are a lot of answers, starting simply with "two guys kissing is hot!"  (Which I believe is a quote I've stolen from one of my fanfic readers... ;-)   But it's true--obviously not for everyone, but I'm not writing for everyone, I'm writing for a specific market: mostly women, probably from about 20 to 50 years old. Most men aren't turned on by words on a page--guys are more visual, typically. And yes, it does strike me as ironic that gay romance is marketed primarily to women. What can I say, two guys kissing is hot! 

unagented manuscripts, particularly those that are novella length or longer. The publishers that do accept anything from anyone are typically so small they only publish a dozen or so books per year--so you have hundreds, if not thousands, of writers clamouring to get one of those spots. None of this makes me angry (I've heard other writers--none in my critique group--complaining bitterly about the unfairness of the market. Well, news flash: life is unfair.)  All it really means is that someone like me has to go where she has a chance, although that doesn't mean I don't enjoy what I'm writing.

Yes, I do pander to the audience; one of the expectations of erotica is that there will be that element of sex. Erotic Romance. Gay Erotic Romance. These titles mean something.  If that bothered me, I wouldn't be writing it (or at least I wouldn't be enjoying it so much, because oh, darn, I felt the need to do some research last night and bought a new m/m/m erotica book.... this on top of the $50 worth of non-fiction books I bought two weeks ago...good thing my husband doesn't read my blog! But even the money spent on non-fiction research has been into areas that facinate me.)  Really, it all started quite a few years ago when someone suggested, flippantly, I think, that I should write romance because "anyone can do that" (I don't think that's at all true.)  I thought about it a little and even did some research into what makes a good romance novel, but my first attempts were pretty contrived, so I dropped it.

Until the day I realized I was writing romance, in my fanfiction. Catherine and Vincent. Jack and Ianto. Those are both love stories.

Adding the erotic element to my work has come naturally; I enjoy reading a good steamy novel, so why not write one? All the better that it's a place where I have some hope of actually getting picked up by a publisher. Maybe some day I'll make at least enough money to support my book-buying habit... hey, a girl can dream, right? 

And maybe, just maybe, some day we'll be able to bring gay erotic romance into the romantic mainstream. Because to some of us, watching to guys kiss is just hot.  :)

Once again, I welcome comments. I'd love to hear what others have to say on the differences between erotica and porn or just what makes for a good erotic romance!

~Helen

2 comments:

Kitsa said...

Well the short answer is does the sex further the emotional development of the characters/plot. If it does, then it is Erotica. If it is just graphic sex, its porn. There is a lot more to say on this but well written sex should fit into the plot, not detract or be a 'time out' from the action. Just my two cents.

Helen said...

I think part of the problem is that what one reader finds distracting, another finds enticing. ;-) But definitly, there's a line between sex without emotional development and sex that does something to further the characters in some way.