So, obviously, it takes me a while to get around to anything lately. I’ve been thinking about this since I read a comment by Nora Roberts at Dear Author (in response to Jane Litte’s article Let’s Talk About Sex (and Love,Â and then Sex Again) which posed the question of how/why/what it’ll take for romance to be accepted in the same way as a show like Bones, where the sexual tension and romantic subplots aren’t belittled):
when writers and readers talk about the hawt, hawt, hawt, then it becomes about the hawtâ€“and not about the sex within the context of the story. Itâ€™s that the detractors and the media will jump on, while they disregard all the rest.
I donâ€™t want to be known as a writer of hawt books. I want to be known as a good writerâ€“whose books contain well written love scenes as well as good characterization, strong dialogue, a solid story, etc.
And my reaction was kind of like: nod, frown, nod, frown, nod, frown. Because I agree: to talk about how hawt books are when speaking with someone unfamiliar with the genre moves the focus completely onto the hawtness. But within the genre — hell, even on this blog — I like using “hawt” and to mention the heat level. The term “hawt,” IMO, has become a shorthand for “explicit” that also distances me, as a person/author/reader, from the eroticism of the novel.
I probably have to explain that. (Long post coming up after the cut.)
As reader and author, I have a different vocabulary (so to speak) when I’m speaking with someone familiar with the genre and with someone unfamiliar with the genre. When I’m talking to someone outside the genre, I always always always focus on the story and the whole:Â it’s about characterization, dialogue, the plot (the romantic plot and the external plot). If, at some point, the person expresses a wish to read the book (and I think they’re being genuine), I will mention if there is explicit sex. And I say it like that: there are love scenes, and they are on the explicit side — and necessary to the story. Only because they are explicit do I feel the need to mention it; every reader has a different comfort level … and I wouldn’t want to surprise someone and discomfit them completely. (Readers in the genre probably know what to expect when they see how a book is packaged or labeled. Outside the genre, maybe not so much. But I don’t want to alienate a reader with an erect cock that shouts “surprise!”on page 198. If I get the sense that she/he would be uncomfortable, I can recommend another book.)
Usually, there aren’t any jokes after that. But if there are, I don’t respond to it much — I just reiterate that it’s a good story, and that I love the characters. (Questions like “did you research those scenes yourself” are given a flat “No” or are ignored.)
And I would never, ever use the word “hawt” to describe the novels, as in, “it’s so hawt!” (Actually, in real life, I’d probably never use that word (hot or hawt) with anyone except a superclose friend, and even then I’d probably be parodying something in pop culture (or talking about Batman) … although I might say to this hypothetical reader something like, “they are on the hotter side,” if I’m trying to judge the comfort level).
Within the genre, however, is an entirely different story — I feel that when I use a term like “hawt” to describe a book I just read, it does several things:
It tells readers to expect explicit scenes. We all know there are varying degrees of heat within the books, and every reader has their preference. Usually, mine are the more explicit books, but I do like a sweeter one now and then. If I say a book is hawt (or hot, or scorching, or smoking, or wayhawt) anyone reading a write-up of the novel is going to know what sort of scenes are contained within it. All other things being equal (quality of writing, intensity of emotion, tightness of plot) put two books in front of me and tell me one is hotter, I’ll probably pick the hotter one. So, depending upon the reader’s preference, it can be a caution or a selling point.
It allows me to state my satisfaction with the sexual portion of the book and how it fits into the story in a way that feels comfortable to me.Â Honestly, a term like “erotic” is just too personal, and I would only use it for certain books (books that I don’t mind expressing a deep emotional or intellectual attachment to). Terms like hawt, wayhawt, smoking all allow me to take a step back from my response to the book, so that when I talk about it, it feels like I’m talking about the book and not my reaction to it.
Tangent — the question might be, “why do I have to mention satisfaction with the sexual portions of the book at all?” I can only answer that if there is a love scene, (to me) it becomes a part of the novel that is almost up there with plot and dialogue. If there are love scenes, I want them to be effective scenes (not ON me, but according to character and movement of the romance). A sex scene that falls flat is almost as disappointing as trite dialogue, because then an integral part of the romance (if a sex scene is in a romance, it should be an integral part of the novel) has fallen flat. And because in a good sex scene, there is usually so much more going on than just Tab A and Slot B — there might be an emotional shift, a power shift, something revealed, a resolution, a realization. Every scene in a novel should have something, of course — plot movement, character building or growth; but in love scenes, the layering of the physical and emotional deepens and converges. In other scenes, you can have action or introspection or realization — but rarely at the same time. If someone is fighting hand-to-hand with a baddie and having an emotional epiphany at the same moment, I’d probably laugh my ass off (although I’m sure there are some books I’ve read that have pulled it off.) But overlapping physical action with emotion in a sex scene? Yes, yes, yes. So I expect a certain intensity from love scenes in romance — and if a book fails to deliver that intensity then you can bet I’m going to single it out, just as I would if it delivers in spades. And if an author consistently delivers in spades, I’ll probably use the term “hawt” when describing her books in general. “Hawt” might not be the first term I’d use (“awesome” would probably come first. Kresley Cole’s IAD series, for example, I might describe (on this blog/to another romance reader who was familiar with my personality) as: An awesome, tightly plotted, fun and hawt paranormal series with great characters and fantastic romance. (And if they weren’t familiar with my personality, I’d probably substitute “sexy” for “hawt”.))
Tangent roundup — So this pretty much boils down to: IMO, if there are sex scenes, they are an important part of the romance. (Note: Not “Sex scenes are necessary for romance,” or even “Sex scenes are the most important part of romance.”) And so when I discuss whether a book worked for me, I’m going to mention whether the sex scenes worked within the context of the story, just as I’d mention if the dialogue worked or if the plot was an epic fail.
Which brings me to: dude, there is no way I’m going to talk about whether the sex scenes WORKED worked (if you know what I mean.) That’s no one’s business. Yet it is very difficult — in a genre where emotional response is another important component — to get across “the love scenes were effective” without a) inadvertently suggesting something about THAT response (which I would never do, because, ew — far too much information) and b) stripping the emotion and intensity out of the scenes by using words like “effective.”
An effective scene might be exactly the same as a wayhawt scene — but, really, I’d rather read a wayhawt one.Â And I assume that when the discussion of a book is within a circle of readers/authors, it is understood that “wayhawt” means: explicit, well-written sex scenes — and that they don’t think I’m saying I got all hot and bothered while reading (ew ew ew (it’s even weirding me out to suggest that I might get hot and bothered – there’s a line I hope never, ever to cross on this blog)). And the fact that “hawt” isn’t even a real word is just another step removing me (the living, breathing, emotionally responsive person) from the blogging me who writes about books in a virtual environment. (Heh — while, at the same time, trying to infuse a distinct personality in to the blogging me … because the blogging me doesn’t like to use words like “effective”. I know, I know — it’s all crazy.)
Of course, the problem is that while — as far as I’m concerned — this blog is written for a romance-reading audience, it’s also very, very public. I’ve said that books were hawt on this blog (the last, I believe, was when I said Through the Veil contained Shiloh Walker’s “wayhawt love scenes”) but hopefully the other aspects of the write-ups show that a book is made up of more than hawtness. Can anyone control, though, what someone takes away from any post? No. And so I think it could be very easy for a non-romance reader to see “hawt” and think: silly, sex-obsessed romance readers.
Do I care? … sigh.
A part of me automatically thinks: No. I do not care. Fuck ’em. But I think the truth is that it’s more like, I wish I didn’t have to not-care. It’s hard to not-care, dammit; when romance is dismissed so easily by outsiders, it actually takes an effort to not care, it makes me grit my teeth, and I don’t like doing it.
I like even less the idea of changing the way I talk in an informal atmosphere (with fellow romance readers) on the chance that an outsider might draw the wrong conclusion based on very real (and easily misinterpreted) evidence on my blog.
A part of me knows that for many readers, it really is the hawt hawt hawt that is all-important (but is that a completely different thing? I don’t know. A part of me realizes that is kind of what NR is addressing in the quote, the focus on hawt to the exclusion of everything else (whether originating from inside or taken away by the outside) … but I wonder if it is the degree of the focus that is the issue, or that it (sex, and talking about it) is there at all. In any case, my question here is: if a reader does read for the hawt, and an author does play up the hawtness** — why should that keep romance from being acceptable to those outside the genre? Is sex (and the focus on it, the marketing of it) the big stumbling block to genre acceptance? I don’t know. Bones has its share of fans screaming “hawt!” … but it doesn’t make the show unacceptable. But, on the other hand, are those fans getting the rolly-eyes from other fans? I just don’t know.)
A part of me thinks that I should put a disclaimer on the blog that informs outside readers that they are entering another dimension, where the language and assumptions are different from the “normal” world.Â Where, even though they think they know the language (hawt) they should contact me and ask for a translation before they leave this alternate dimension, or they will go with absolutely the wrong impression.
A part of me thinks that we could take sex out of romance and the genre would still never be as culturally acceptable as a show like Bones. Also from Nora: [It’s] more fun [for the detractors] to sneer and smirk than to think about it and say: Hmmm, books that celebrate human emotion and relationships, and sex ARE valuable. Plus fun.
Yeah, I think that’s true, too.
I don’t know if there is a way.
But for me, I think it boils down to: If there is sex in a romance novel, it’s an important part of the romance. I won’t pretend it’s not. I don’t want to pretend it’s not; I think sex in romance novels is great*. But it’s not all there is, and it’s unfortunate that has to constantly be stressed to readers outside the genre. So, to those readers outside the genre, I’ll keep plugging along and talking about romance like I always have (and trying to write damn good books that I’d be happy to show anyone) … and here, I’ll keep going like I always have (but especially keep trying to write damn good books).
But I might put up that disclaimer.
*And you know, I want it both ways: I want readers to be able to discuss sex scenes to death, to devote pages and pages of text to them, to analyze them, to talk about what works and doesn’t, to talk about gender and power … or simply, say “Oh, man, that book was so hawt!” — and to have both reactions and forms of expression/discussion be equally valid and acceptable, inside and outside the genre.
(In case you can’t tell, no one has ever called me a realist.)
**From a marketing standpoint, I see why authors might play up the hawtness. But I have to say I’m one of those readers who, if I read anything about it crossing over from fiction to personal (the author researching with her husband, a reader playing out something from a book), I can’t run the other way fast enough. From the reader side or the author side … anytime it goes beyond the book into someone’s room, it’s a major squick moment. But I wonder if romance is more prone to it than any other genre?