(This rant originally appeared on my Facebook page, but I’m preserving it here so it doesn’t get lost under a series of posts about my latest haircut and/or strong feelings about a new T.V. show.)
So my naughty, twisty, suspenseful erotic romance ‘The Surrender Gate‘ made this list of recommended reads from some of the top erotic romance authors in the biz. I’m thrilled. The whole romance thing has proved a risk and a challenge after years of writing books in which plants ate people or parasites gave people strange powers or your sexy college roommate was trying to seduce you or kill you. For me, it’s much harder to write something with a happily ever after. As an author, it makes you vulnerable in a lot of ways. For starters, it sets you up for ridicule from those who dismiss all romance novels with one big sloppy brush. Furthermore, large groups of readers tend to grant anything that’s inherently pessimistic and dark with automatic “literary-ness” or “cultural legitimacy”, regardless of how it’s actually written, especially if it’s a memoir or is marketed as carrying the whiff of one.
Romance requires an author to expose their fantasies, their deep and abiding desire for how they’d like things to work, to the world, an act that’s often greeted with incredible condescension and disdain no matter who performs it. My personal belief is that honest and consensual exploration of erotic and romantic fantasy is essential to the healthy mental development of any adult, whether it comes from reading the fantasy, writing the fantasy or acting it out with other willing partners. That’s the theme that runs through The Desire Exchange series and ‘The Surrender Gate’.
That said, if I read one more purported “think piece” about how romance novels “damage people” by setting up unrealistic expectations, I might vomit. This is sexist nonsense that seeks to depict fantasies of brave sexual intimacy as a toxin swimming through a superior landscape of stereotypically male destruction and violence, the strange cultural supremacy of which is largely unchallenged in popular culture. It also furthers a bogus image of the largely female romance novelist population as a bunch of delusional ninnies suffering through a string of broken relationships because of their purported “unrealistic expectations” and “dangerous fantasies”. The majority of successful crime novels streamline the realities of the criminal justice system in an unnatural way to deliver a nice, tidy, bad-guys-go-to-jail resolution, and yet there’s no concerted effort to constantly wage the accusations of “dangerous fantasy” against them with a barrage of sanctimonious, finger-wagging news articles and blog posts. And when was the last time people accused a male crime novelist of harboring secret fantasies of being a serial killer?
All genre fiction works with a baseline of reality and then departs from it to convey difficult emotional truths within a safe space that feels comfortably detached from our everyday lives. Its depictions of human behavior are largely aspirational, no matter what genre you’re talking about. And depending on the genre, the dial is often tuned to one emotional level with a severity that can’t be called “realistic”. Sometimes the notch on the dial is heightened eroticism, sometimes it’s heightened terror. The point is, if you turned the dial in one direction, you don’t really have any business accusing someone who turned the dial in a different direction of producing work that’s “unrealistic”. I realize a rant like this is a strange way to celebrate recognition from my peers, but it’s been an interesting and eye-opening two years in the romance world and I’m not done yet, apparently.