I’ve been thinking about sex in romance novels lately. (This is going to ramble some. My Deep Thoughts often ramble.)
I used to get reviews that said my romances were pretty hot. I reread a couple of those books recently and compared with what’s out now, they’re barely lukewarm. That’s fine with me, but I’m wondering now what the blurring of the lines between romance and erotica means to the genre. That is, how is it redefining romance? I have no problems with erotica, but it doesn’t have the same aims as romance, any more than women’s fiction is romance-centered. I’m not even sure chick lit is romance, but then I’ve never really been sure what chick lit is. The point is, romance is the only genre that’s romance centered, so what happens to romance within the genre is important.
And I think sex is mugging it.
At this point somebody will call me a prude. Nope. I’m a wonk, that’s worse. To take this out of the romance context, I once got into it with a guy on a pop culture board over one of the last scenes in Kingsman, the one where Eggsy ignores people in trouble to accept anal sex from a imprisoned princess. The guy mansplained to me that many people enjoy anal; I said I knew that, but as Eggsy had been carefully set up through the movie as someone who was devoted to protecting the women in his life, the idea that he was ignoring a female partner stranded on a remote arctic plain, not to mention not knowing what’s happened to his mother who was last seen menacing his baby sister with an ax, all in order to have sex with a woman who had been portrayed earlier in the movie as sophisticated and bi-lingual and who was now in a cell at his mercy and talking baby talk to him, all so the director could get off one “dirty” joke (Eggsy smirks as I remember) REALLY pissed me off as a writer. I don’t care how much anal Eggsy gets, just don’t destroy his character for a stupid joke. That is, it’s about the character, not the sex.
Where was I?
Right. In the same way, don’t destroy the romance for a lot of pointless sex. Erotica is a fine genre, go over there, but remember that romance is about the power of the relationship, not the power of the moving finger or penis, which very often in real life moves on. Convince me the romance is real, and the sex becomes an illustration of that, not the end itself.
Then I reread Georgette Heyer’s No Wind of Blame because I posted about it here in the comments, except I just skimmed through for the Vicky and Hugh parts. It’s one of my favorite romance subplots ever though Heyer is very subtle about the way she puts it on the page, the two of them gravitating toward each other, the excitement when they see each other disguised as banter, the final scene that shows how perfect they are for each other, and yet not only is there no sex, they never kiss. I don’t think they ever touch, aside from Hugh handing her out of a car now and then.
And then there’s Connie Willis’s Take a Look at the Five and Ten, a novella (not much time to develop a romance) that takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas about two people who also never kiss but instead develop a strong friendship based on the memories of an old lady who’s smarter than they think. It has one of the most optimistic and cheering thematic endings ever, but the romance ending is just as strong, no marriage proposal, no protestations of undying love, just the very work-focused hero saying to the heroine “We’re going to be stuck going to dinner there and putting up with Sloane and her mother every year, aren’t we?” It’s one of the best commitment lines ever because he doesn’t say, “I’m with you forever,” just betrays his commitment with the assumption that they’ll be together for the far distant future.
Both of those romances are in my favorites list, while a lot of the hot-and-heavy new age books turn out to be DNFs, so what I’m thinking now is that a lot of sex in romance novels obscures the romance, the need to put the physical cues on the page overwhelming the emotional cues. Please note, this is not about morality, this is about page real estate for genre.
The problem is that if the only thing pulling the lovers together is the physical attraction, that’s not convincing. Physical attraction can go pretty quickly. On the other hand, physical attraction is a large part of courtship, so there has to be a balance there, something that grounds the physical passion in something stronger and deeper.
What I’ve come to believe is that physical attraction is contextual in a successful romance novel (successful by my definition only).
For example, the lovers in The Flatshare don’t meet for most of the book, they communicate only in post-it notes (he works nights, she works days). But the way they get to know each other, understand each other, care for each other is on every page. She bakes for him, he cooks for her. She worries about her ex, he worries about his brother, and then she worries about his brother and he worries about her ex. By the time they meet by accident, the fact that he’s naked (shower) and she’s in her underwear (going to shower) has a huge impact on them, but not just because they’re undressed; it’s because they know each other so well, they like each other so much, they’ve connected so strongly through the post it notes, that the context of their (almost) nudity raises the intensity level to eleven. Without the months of post-its, they’d still have been attracted to each other, they’re both attractive people; with the post-its, their brains melt and run out their ears. This isn’t two naked people, this is Tiffy and Leon and they’re naked. And freaked out.
The lovers in The Year We Fell Down have more awareness of each other as attractive people, but it’s set in a context of shared disability: he’s temporarily coping with a badly broken leg and she’s in a wheel chair because of a permanent spinal injury. He’s got a girlfriend so they start as friends, playing digital hockey because neither of them can play the real thing (her spinal injury is from hockey); talking about the problems of coping with crutches, stairs, distance; helping each other navigate the university and their own issues about being hurt. They don’t just hang out, they connect. So when his girlfriend stands him up and he invites her into the bedroom, the sex scene there is more about disability and exploration and recovery, they don’t whisper words of love to each other, they talk about her fears and his hopes for her future; it feels like a logical extension of their friendship. Except it’s more than that so when the relationship finally evolves into the Real Thing with a Real Thing sex scene, it’s clear that it’s more than “god you’re hot” sex; they’re connecting in a context that takes things beyond lust into mature love between two people who understand each other and the relationship they’ve developed over time.
I think context is always the key.
I think the fact that modern romances are so much more explicit can skew a writer’s focus away from establishing the romance, shifting it toward establishing nudity without understanding that the nudity is only story-telling if it reflects and arcs the context.
I think that the first thing a writer has to do is establish the context of the sex, that is, establish the emotional relationship that’s the backdrop to the sexual relationship because that’s what gives the sex meaning beyond orgasm. Nothing against orgasm, but it’s not romance.
I remember doing this on purpose in Charlie All Night, starting with a one night stand, followed by a celibacy bet, followed by sex in the context of the relationship they’d established. And then I did it again when I started Anna, playing with the trope of the one-night-stand-who-turns-out-to-be-part-of-her-life. I think one of the reasons I stalled on that one is because the relationship that follows is built on banter–good banter but still just banter–instead of connection, that the banter has to show the arc of the connection. If the context doesn’t change, the relationship can’t arc and intensify, and the sexual relationship can’t arc and intensify, and it becomes just body parts meshing again and again.
I have no idea if I’ve done that in my work (aside from Charlie All Night where I did it deliberately for another reason), but I think it’s going to be key in everything I do from now on. (Oh, wait, I think I did do it in Faking It, since it started with bad sex and then okay sex and finished up with great sex after they trusted each other.) What it really comes down to is that a romance has to be about the arc of the emotional relationship first, and the sex has to be written to reflect that context.
And now that I’ve come this far, I’ve realized that’s a big DUH, OF COURSE. But still, I’m thinking deep thoughts and knew you’d want to know.
Note: Bob also has a theory of writing sex (aka YEC, Yucky Emotional Crap):
Email from Bob last week:
and now some YEC stuff in manuscript.
Reply from Jenny:
You wrote YEC? And you’re still alive?
Reply from Bob:
I didn’t write YEC.
I just literally wrote
and now some YEC
the reader can figure it out.
So there’s another approach to writing sex. Over to you, Readers.