Like it or not, there's this list of preconceived ideas that is attached to the genre that is fiction romance. It's not like action/adventure, or mystery/suspense, or sci-fi, or fantasy - the difference being that this aforementioned list comes with judgement. Sure, every genre has its own list. When I think of sci-fi or fantasy lovers, I think nerds, online forums, comic books, space travel, weird-made-up-languages, words-I-can't-pronounce, Comic Con, and dad. (That last one should let you know that I've got love for all you sci-fi nerds out there. There's no judgement here!)
The crazy thing is, when it comes to romance, the average person hears the word and thinks one of two things. Hallmark or smut. But, let's be honest, most people are thinking smut. And maybe you're special, or awesome, or completely indifferent and you're not who I'm talking about - but I rarely encounter those people. I encounter people who hear me say I write romance and they think one of two things. I love romance, that's awesome! or Oh. And that oh is something I feel. That oh is way heavier than you'd think a two letter word would be. Oh makes me feel like I've ripped open my cardigan to reveal a big, scarlet R sewn onto my t-shirt.
Perhaps this isn't something you experience. Maybe you don't feel like you need to hide the cover of your paperback in public; maybe you aren't relieved that your story is embedded in an electronic device that enables you to read on a crowded train without anyone knowing the hero of the story is rolling on a condom as you speed toward your destination; maybe you don't get any flack whatsoever for having a plethora of book boyfriends; maybe you don't ever feel like you wish people would just accept the fact that you're an author without asking too many questions about what genre you write, because if you answer romance it somehow diminishes your credibility; maybe you've never experienced the oh... Or maybe you just don't give a damn. (Good for you, by the way.) Perhaps this is just an insecurity that I have and I'm the weird one. But this is my truth:
There is no shame in my game - and yet, I always feel like I have to justify my work and make excuses for my choice of genre to both romance readers and non-romance readers alike.
So, let's talk about why. The sex.
I don't remember who said it (not that I would call him out if I did,) and I don't remember if I actually saw his post, or if someone told me about it - but that's neither here nor there. I'm sure he's not alone in his thinking. Anyway, what he said was something to the effect of: the women who read/write romance novels are just a bunch of overweight or unattractive women who aren't "getting any."
Yeah. That's stuck in my brain. Possibly forever.
Honestly, I'm not offended by his opinion. He's entitled to it. He's wrong, but he's free to think what he wants. Furthermore, I know there are readers out there (attractive, healthy women!) who pick up romance because they want the smut. They like the way it makes them feel. They like the fantasy aspect of it. And, truth be told, long before I started reading romance that had any sex in it, I had heard it said that it was porn for women - even the clean stuff - because it was all fantasy. But it's frustrating that by being associated with romance that somehow creates a label for you as a person.
I'd be lying if I told you it wasn't hard to write in a genre that carries around that kind of reputation.
I often wonder - when someone reads my stuff, or when they're told that I write sex in my novels - does that suddenly somehow define me not as a writer, but as a woman? How much sex do I have to write before someone assumes I'm not "getting any?" How much sex do I have to write before someone assumes perhaps I'm "getting" too much? When an author is known for their murder mysteries, people assume their google search history is full of questionable content that could have the FBI knocking on their door; but what does one assume my google search history looks like?
My content is never going to be something that I can defend. You might say - what are you worried about? In today's society, you don't have to defend a novel with sex in it. But, I would argue, in today's society....are you sure about that? Nevertheless, as an artist, once my work is out there, it's out there. It's yours, which means it's not mine to defend. However, it still has my name on it - which means my name is what I must guard and protect. If I have one book with a few hot scenes, that's one thing. If I have ten books with 50 reviews that talk about my ability to write a sex scene...then what?
Now, let's assume you think I'm being dramatic, or I'm thinking too much, or merely exposing my insecurities to my readers. Let's argue that someone who writes thrillers riddled with death isn't judged or labeled for that; her content does not mean she struggles with murderous thoughts or psychopathic tendencies. I would tell you the two scenarios are not comparable. Now, if you don't believe in God, or if you don't believe you have a soul, then everything I say from here on won't carry any validity for you - but hear me out.
Sex is a physical act with soul-touching consequences. It's an intimate exchange unlike any other you could possibly experience. We are all sexual beings, regardless of what makes us different, and it affects how we act, how we think, how we connect. If I write a murder scene, it won't affect you the way a sex scene will. (At least, I really hope it doesn't.) And you can spout some scientific facts at me if you want, but I think sex is more than science. I'm a woman, which means I'm uber emotional; and I'm a Christian, which means I believe that sex is a gift that God gave - so, to me, it's an act that is so intertwined with your mind, emotions, spirit, and soul - it's so rich and deep and marvelous that if you tickle those senses, it's never as meaningless as you might think.
My point is, on some level, the sex I write has an affect on my readers that might point back to me. And while I just described sex as this beautiful, life-altering experience, society has redefined it, which sometimes makes my work feel like an arrow pointing at that big, scarlet R that I imagine is on my t-shirt.
Like I said, I know I can't defend my writing. Not really. And on many levels, I don't want to. But just this one time, I want to tell anyone who's listening - I don't write sex to evoke any sort of bodily response for you or for me. I'd like to think it's not that shallow. Also, my search history probably isn't as interesting as you might think. You see, for me, I have to keep boundaries around what I allow myself to see. Visual inspiration is not my best bet, if you'll allow me to speak plainly. The truth is, I'm not getting any. I also don't plan on getting any until I find someone who wants to put a ring on it; and in order to keep myself sane, I can't tempt myself.
Now, if you've met Sage, or Jude - or Leo - you might not believe me when I tell you I do not write from experience. But I'll tell you my secret...I like my beta readers married. I trust them to tell me if I've written something that's not possible or remotely believable. It works for me. Furthermore, my characters are pretty good at telling me what they want - but more on that next week.
The all knowing "they" say you should write from experience because it'll come out better. The funny thing is, I so rarely write from experience. Not only have I never had sex, but I've never been in love. Admitting that might really be harming my street cred. It also might give validity to anyone who thinks I write romance because I long for what I depict in my stories; except, that's not how it works. The truth is, I'm in love with the idea of love. I enjoy the complicated, sacrificial, mess that is love. I enjoy writing complex characters who long for that connection with someone else - even if they're too afraid to admit it. And therein lies the reality behind why sex is important in my novels, because it is important for me to write characters my readers can relate to.
This might come as a shock to you, but when it comes to sex, I have a hard time relating to most people these days. I can't write myself as a character over and over and expect people to slip into her shoes and feel at home. I don't mean that judgmentally, either. I really don't. I understand why people don't choose to wait. It is my choice for many reasons, but it's not a choice I can make for someone else. Including my characters.
So - yes, I pen romance. Yes, it's got a bit of a reputation. Yes, my stories "fit in" with those my peers write. But no - what I write is not a reflection of how I choose to live my own life. I am merely the voice telling someone else's story.
And while I'm being transparent, sometimes I am no better than the people looking at us romance readers and writers, judging us by the content we enjoy. There have been times where I cringe when I see something or read something that is the very definition of tasteless - not merely because it exists or because I have anything against the person who wrote it - but because I know someone will look at my book and think it's something it isn't, simply because it shares the same label of romance.
But you know what? I've decided something. It's worth it. You are worth it. I've said it once, I'll say it a million times, there's room out there for all of us, regardless of our content preferences. If you like it clean or if you like it raunchy, there's something out there for you. And I will sport my scarlet R proudly if it means someone has found what they're looking for when they pick up one of my books.
When I release them into the world, they are no longer mine to hold onto or define. Neither are they a reflection of me. If I do it right - you shouldn't think of me at all.