A few months ago, I entered an RWA chapter contest that permitted entries from both published and unpublished authors, provided the manuscript itself was not published.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.