This morning, I read an interesting article on romance novels and feminism. It’s a good piece, with lots of insights into the genre and the market, and it got me thinking about how much romance novels (and erotic novels) have changed just in the time I’ve been alive. I started reading romance novels with my grandmother; she had huge bags of them that she traded with friends, or that my grandfather picked up at garage sales.
Then, when I was maybe in middle school, I stopped and started reading science fiction and fantasy. Why? Partly because those were worlds and characters that I could identify with more closely. The transition wasn’t a conscious choice, so much as it was a movement toward something that held more interest for me. When I found women protagonists (although I didn’t know the word then–I would have used “heroes”), they did cool things, they didn’t wait around for someone else to save them from society’s constraints, they didn’t give up their career or their dreams, and they weren’t afraid of their desires (carnal or otherwise).
(I want to stop for a second and give my usual caveat: There’s nothing wrong with traditional romance, in my opinion. Read what you want. Write what you want. Just because something isn’t for me doesn’t mean I’m against it in principle. I am an advocate for reading and writing, in whatever form it takes, and whatever pleasure it brings you).
When I started writing erotica in 2001, I hadn’t read much in the genre. Mostly because what I had read was very “take back our bodies” with talk of our precious yoni flowers and our spiritual awakenings and our hatred of men — and while I respected those things and the work women had done to get us to that point, I was ready to move into something more carnal, something that really took women’s bodies back. When writing erotica, I also didn’t think about romance. My characters were living, breathing lust machines. They didn’t want love; they wanted hot sex and screaming orgasms and new experiences. I pushed my characters beyond the issues that I saw in erotica. There were no limits to what my characters wanted and would go after. I understood, even then, that I was balking against genre
The first time someone asked me to write a romance novella, I was like, “Um, no. Ew.” It didn’t occur to me at the time that I could break the romance genre apart the same way I had with erotica. In fact, my first published romantic novella is so traditionally sweet that I even called it “Sweet Season. ” My second romantic novella moved into new directions — “Reversible Cowgirls” was full of hot girl-on-girl romance. And my most recent, “Safe Haven,” is probably somewhere between the two.
I learn with every book I write, and what I was learning about romance was the same thing I had already learned about the other genres: Break the fucking boundaries.
When Harper Collins commissioned me to write Leather Bound, an erotic romance novel, it was right around the 50 Shades phenomenon. The quality of writing aside, the book was such a throwback to the old days that I found it difficult to stomach. The main character knows nothing about her own desire, nor about sex, nor about how to use the internet. She’s passive (which is not the same as submissive). She waiting for a man to fullfil her. On and on and on.
So when I sat down to write Leather Bound, I knew there were a few things that I absolutely refused to do:
Leather Bound is a risk; there is the potential that it will be one of those novels that people love to hate. Traditional romance readers will potentially despise it for its lack of traditional elements. They might be turned off by the hot sex and the character’s strong libido, bisexuality and kinkiness. Modern romance readers might think it hasn’t gone far enough, that it doesn’t make a strong enough point about gender and sexuality and feminism.
But I think it’s a beautiful story, and one I’m very proud to have written. And I believe that readers who want strong, interesting, sexual characters doing interesting, sexy things will see themselves in its pages, and get to live vicariously in a world where romance and kink and sex and submission and leather and lust and books and real characters are all important and strong and true.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.