Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

WTF Wednesday: Erotic Romance is NOT a Subgenre

A few months ago, I entered an RWA chapter contest that permitted entries from both published and unpublished authors, provided the manuscript itself was not published. (No, I’m not going to tell you which contest it was.) I was curious to see how these stories would play, but also figured I should enter the category which had an editor I’d be interested in getting the manuscripts in front of should I final.

To that end, I entered the historical category rather than erotica, despite the fact that there are sex scenes in the first chapter of both manuscripts. I knew that was a gamble, but both manuscripts were firmly set in historical periods and, as such, fit in the historical category as well as or better than they fit in erotica.1

Fast forward to yesterday, when I received my score sheets. I already knew I hadn’t made the final round, and I was fine with that. I also expected the early sex to be an issue for the judges, but not as big an issue as it was. My scores on one manuscript were 74 and 68 (of 100). On the other, 69 and 59. Ouch!

But the kicker is that all of the judges, in one way or another, indicated they would have scored higher if I had entered erotica, not historical. WTF? One story is set in 1817, the other in 1929. Both are romances set in a historical time period, ergo, regardless of the sexual content, they are historical romances. This means they were not entered in the wrong category and therefore, should not have been scored “down” for content that might have met the criteria of a different category.

For a long time, I’ve waffled on whether or not adding an erotic romance category to the RITAs would be a good thing. In theory, I thought it would be a good idea since it would give authors more options when it came to determining which category their book best belonged in. RWA has long maintained, however, that the criteria for defining a romance as “erotic” is simply too slippery and could lead to more problems than it solves. (The outcome of Dear Author’s poll last week on the question of what constitutes erotic romance provides, to me, confirmation of the “slipperiness” of the criteria. The most popular answer was “any romance that is really sexed up.” Okay, great. Define “sexed up.” Anyone?)

The outcome of this contest has pretty well convinced me that RWA has it right. Erotic romance isn’t a subgenre; it’s a heat level. And all subgenres (with the exception of Inspirational, which I do think has specific expectations that are distinct from other subgenres) can accommodate all heat levels, from sweet to scorching. A romance set in 1825 is a historical romance, while one set in 2009 is a contemporary. Neither the role sexual encounters play in that romance nor the frankness of the language used has any bearing on whether the book is identifiably historical or identifiably contemporary. If the book fits the definition of the category, it does, even if it also happens to fit (in the judge’s opinion) the definition of another category.

The problem is that when a category for erotic romances/erotica exists in any particular contest, the judges then feel free to second-guess and penalize the author for entering a book which is otherwise clearly suited to the parameters of the category simply because it has strong sexual language and content. Basically, this means they are importing subjective opinions about what heat level is acceptable in a romance of a particular type (be it contemporary, paranormal, historical) when that is nowhere objectively defined in the scoring or the category descriptions provided by the contest coordinators. True, there may be more contest coordintors could do to instruct their judges NOT to score manuscripts/books based on heat level, but the reality, I think, is that they’ll do it anyway, especially if an erotica/ER category exists. Moreover, in the RITA, where scores are simply numeric with no comments, authors will never even KNOW they were dinged for erotic content unless the judge actually goes so far as to state the book was entered in the wrong category.

So, what do you think? Is “erotic romance” a separate, definable category? If it is, how would you define it? And do you think I’ll ever enter another contest again ;)?

1In my opinion, erotica is distinct from erotic romance. Erotica does not follow the romance genre requirement to focus on the development of a romantic relationship nor does it have to resolve in an HEA or HFN ending for the protagonists. Erotica can end UNhappily. Genre romance, and therefore any romance with erotic contact, canNOT. If I am writing a story that focuses on a romantic relationship and ends with an HEA/HFN, it’s an erotic romance, not erotica.


  • Elise Logan August 19, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with your footnote, by the way. Erotica and erotic romance are not the same thing, and an erotica category does not, by definition, require a HEA or HFN. Which means that a large chunk of erotica is highly inappropriate for RWA .

    I also agree that disqualifying or downscoring a work because it is “hot” is a disservice to the entire romance genre. If Romantic Suspense can have heat levels from sweet to hot, I don’t see why there can’t be room in that construction for romances termed “erotic romance.”

  • Leslie Lee Sanders August 19, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I also agree with the footnote, but I look at it from two different angles as well. Sometimes I think erotica is a genre and the ‘romance’ is the subgenre as well as ‘paranormal, suspense, or scifi.’

    An editor asks me to submit under one genre, listing: crime, mystery, horror, romance and erotica. My ms is an erotic romance. Which do I submit under? Erotica.

    Of course it has the love, romance and the HEA but it also has descriptive, detailed, graphic sex.

    If it wasn’t written to titilate but to tell a story of passionate love (without the graphic sex) then I’d slip it in under romance.

    If erotic comes before romance in erotic romance, then it must be erotic. Yes?

    Good post!

  • Tiffany Clare August 19, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    OH! I think I KNOW what contest that is. It’s brutal, period. They either liked me in the past or completely hated my stuff. I actually HATE that contest and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they want to build tougher skin.

    They shouldn’t have marked you down, but then it’s probably that contest I HATE so it doesn’t surprise me.

    I played the contest circuit like a big ho. I can tell you which to avoid! This one and a particular September one are big no-nos and new authors should never enter them! LOL

    Nowadays, it is not a sub-genre of romance. there are all sorts of heat levels.

  • Jill Sorenson August 20, 2009 at 11:24 am

    In general, I favor fewer categories in the RITA. I don’t think a book should be counted off for explicit content, but I can see how it happens. Many readers consider graphic sexual situations erotic, rather than romantic. Early sex, stranger sex, multiple parters, etc. All very common in ER, where the emotional connection often comes later. But if the “romance” is there in the first 3 chapters (or whatever) you shouldn’t be penalized in that category.

  • Jody W. August 21, 2009 at 9:33 am

    In our chapter contest, I ask authors to designate whether their partial has erotic content so I can send it to appropriate judges. Anybody who thinks a vast majority of judges will score “fairly” when confronted with erotic content is fooling him or herself. Probably BECAUSE of the religious implications, sexual activity is way too hot-button a topic.

    I do think many erotic romances shift into something that could be considered a separate category, though, but the line is even blurrier than when a romance with suspense shifts into the romantic suspense category. Basically, there are lot of erotic romances in which the erotic subplot is exactly that — a subplot, not just a degree of heat. At that point one does have to apply different criteria to their assessment in the same one one applies different criteria to romantic suspense or inspirationals.

    This is not to say that a book isn’t a book isn’t a book or that assessment standards are more “lax” for certain genres, it’s just that the subgenre expectations are different.

  • Amie Stuart - Semi-reformed Contest Slut August 24, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Hmmm Jody on the one hand I agree w/you. If your heroine is on a BDSM Journey (first thing I could think of), I can see where it would smack of subplot … BUT!!! at the same time it goes to character arc/growth which some contest judges won’t *get*

    Anybody who thinks a vast majority of judges will score “fairly” when confronted with erotic content is fooling him or herself.

    WORD!!! Though I did manage to final in a few contests with a ms. that had early sex, more often than not I got my ass handed to me LOL

    You can no more think you’ll be scored fairly by RWA Contest judges if you have “Early Secks”, than you can think/assume you won’t be reamed out because your hero isn’t introduced quickly enough/isn’t obvious enough to the reader.

    That’s the downside of RWA and I don’t want to sound like I’m RWABashing here but the “Borg” mentality in terms of contests just ain’t GOOD!! That’s why I didn’t renew. And I said to a friend of mine this summer (we were talking about YA as a matter of fact), what type of writers would we have ended up being if we HADNT joined RWA and been assimilated? EVen me who has always been a rule-breaker, I still find myself struggling to shake off some of the remnants and right now, I’m not even writing a ROMANCE!

  • Amie Stuart - Semi-reformed Contest Slut August 24, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    The bottom line is, if you color too far outside the lines of the RWA Color Book, don’t enter.


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