As any romance reader worth her frequent-buyer card can tell you, there are a LOT of racy books out there these days. Not only have the love scenes in historical romances grown in number and explicitness, but the sub-genre of erotic romances has taken off in a big way, in fancy trade paperbacks with come-hither-soft-focus photographs on the covers and prices to match.
The line between a really hot romance and erotica is a wavering one at best, and lately it’s so wavering that it’s nearly invisible. One woman’s steamy romance is another’s filthy trash. For every reader who enjoys following the hero and heroine into the bedroom, there’s another who skips That Part, or dismisses the same book altogether as little better than pornography. Hot sex, like beauty, truly does seem to be in the eye of the beholder.
And while we often are hearing readers vocally declare it’s not their cup of tea, a good many others must silently be voting with their MasterCards. This seems to be one romance-trend that’s thriving, as all of us Wenches who’ve been asked by editors to turn up the heat can attest.
I’ve read a bunch of scorchin’ books in the last year or so. Some have come to me for contest-judging, some from my editor, and some –– I’ll be honest –– I’ve picked up myself. For research purposes, mind you. The Countess of Castlemaine, heroine of my next historical novel, Royal Harlot, is, well, a harlot. Barbara Villiers was a lady by birth as well as the mistress of King Charles II. Her contemporaries and later historians branded her a great many less flattering names that ranged from “the great whore of Babylon” to a “wicked, avaricious nymphomaniac”. (I know, I know, not standard heroine material, but I like a challenge.) For obvious reasons, sex plays an enormous part of who Barbara was as a woman and in her relationship with the King, as well as the basis for the power she held in his Court. Therefore sex had to be a big part of my book, too. With that in mind, I was curious to see how other writers beyond my usual favorites were handling sex and love.
Like all books, these vary widely in writing, imagination, characters, and emotion. Some are well written, and others are about the same level as the letters to Playboy Advisor. Some rely on a vocabulary that is, let us say, blunt, while others go in for flowery euphemisms that still manage to leave little to the imagination.
But there’s one thing that far too many of them have in common: for books filled with sex, to me they’re surprisingly unsexy. A list of body parts and contortions, grunts and squeals of ecstasy just aren’t enough to indicate passion or even real desire, especially when the action begins on page one and continued with dutiful, predictable regularity for another 300 pages or so.
It’s not that I’m turned off by the sex itself. It’s the lack of much else to support the sex that sadly makes so many of these books mediocre. As a reader, I want to know how and why these characters are doing what they’re doing. I want to know if they’re acting on impulse, or wracked by guilt. I want something to be at stake, some risk being taken or commitment made. I want all my senses engaged, including that all-important sense of humor. I want to know what makes this particular encounter special to these particular characters, because if I don’t care about them as people, then I might as well be reading a textbook on animal husbandry.
I’m reminded of that old joke about how to seduce a woman, versus how to seduce a man. For the woman, the advice is many paragraphs long, a prolonged and careful wooing through witty conversation, flowers, dinner, chocolate, champagne, soft lighting, and sweet nothings. But for a man, it’s only two words: get naked.
Maybe that’s the difference for me. Just getting naked isn’t sexy. I want all the rest that leads up to the grand finale. I still think that the simmering tension in Gone With the Wind between Rhett and Scarlet before he carries her up that long flight of stairs is infinitely more satisfying –– and more sexy –– than any number of naked bodies grappling behind the credits of contemporary movies.
As Bruce Springsteen sang, “Can’t start a fire without a spark.” If you really want me to feel the heat, then show me the sparks, and the tinder, and maybe even a puff or two from the bellows before we get to the red-hot flames.
Or, to quote Justin Timberlake: “Bring sexy back.” Please!
So what did I do with the Countess of Castlemaine and King Charles? You’ll have to wait until Royal Harlot is published in July, and tell me if I succeeded or not. But how do you feel about the books you’re reading now? Do you think there’s too much sex in books today, and not enough passion? What do you believe is essential to a good love scene –– and what would you rather never have to read again?