Erotica vs. Pornography, Sexy Romance vs. Erotic Romance, and Adult Something Else

I am endlessly fascinated by genre classifications and at the same time I hate labels with passion. For an indie author, once you step into the grey zone of mixed genres (the case where said genres are represented in equal or nearly equal amounts in your work), all hell breaks loose as you try to figure out what is this that you have written, where to put it and how to market it to the readers.

With this grey area of defining comes one benefit for the seller: how a book is marketed can be different from the actual content within the book (this surely can piss off a lot of people who have genre expectations.) The classification is within the eyes of the writer/publisher and the reader, and authors/publishes would aim to market a book in the genre that currently sells. Perhaps, this is more true for such genres as romance and those surrounding it. But probably can be said about all other genres such as thrillers and science fiction as well. I don’t have the statistics for this practice, but I have surely seen a fair share of angry Amazon and Goodreads reviews. So it definitely happens. Would this practice influence the reputation of a genre? Most definitely it would.

Another thing to mention is that books within the same series may not all stay within the structure of a single genre. It may also happen that you have a series with books belonging to multiple genres, with a first book being A, B and C, and the second book being B, D, E and F, depending on the focus. The intersecting genre may be represented in different amounts, say 60% for the first book and 35% for the second, but no less than other categories, hence making it one of the main genres of the series. This case is particularly interesting to me, since this is what happened with my first series.

As someone who has struggled with categorizing her own stories, in this post I’ll try to look at differences between fiction genres and labels that deal with the sex and the erotic.

I’m not going to discuss the good and the bad here. The true distinction lies in the psyche of the purchaser (or retailer): what one would call stimulating adult literature, the other would label porn. The intention of the work is in the mind of the perceiver. What is banal to one person may elicit sexual response in another. The number of sex scenes in the work in question does not matter. Generally, the more intense the stimulus (even from a single scene) the greater the possibility of the material being perceived either as erotic or pornographic, with the former being in good taste and stimulating, and the latter seen as crude, immoral and obscene. That distinction would be inaccurate, since extremely explicit material can be at the same time both erotic and pornographic, or neither, despite the author’s intentions. The material is either excellent or poor in the task of sexual stimulation.

With this in mind I want to look at objective traits of each genre/label.

What is the difference between pornography, erotica, romantic erotica, hot (sexy) romance, erotic romance, and adult something else? The definitions of these terms are subjects of debates, but here’s the basic distinction between them:

Pornography: plot, character development, and romance are not primary to these stories. It may not even have a story attached. It is designed for the express purpose of titillation and sexual gratification.

Erotica: a stand-alone genre where the stories may or may not contain romantic elements. One thing that defines erotica and differentiates it from porn is that sex is the basis of the conflict. Here the sex is the driving force between the participants and/or the central theme of the work. This is also valid for erotic romance, or erotic thriller, or whatever subgenre you have there. Yet the genres of erotica and erotic [subgenre] are not interchangeable.

Emotion and character growth are important in a true erotic story. Though author may choose to explore romance*, erotica is not designed to show the development of a romantic relationship. These stories are all about the sexual journeys of the characters and how this impacts them as individuals. Happily Ever Afters (HEAs) can be included and if they are, they aren’t the focus. HEA is not an intrinsic part of an erotic story.

*Romantic Erotica: A romance is a book where the romance itself is the main plot and the romance resolves optimistically or with a HEA. Romantic stories** have romance as an integral part of the plot but other areas of focus as well. Romantic erotica is erotica that has romance as integral part, but the focus of the story also coincides with the ones of erotica – protagonists’ personal journeys.

**Romantic stories should also be distinguished from love stories, which revolve around romantic relationships but do not require a happy ending.

Hot, Sexy Romance: a romance that may be highly sensual and descriptive but is not intensely explicit. The sex in these stories supports the characters’ emotional journey but is not an inherent part of the story and could easily be removed without damaging the storyline, character growth or relationship development. This is a standard romance with hotter sex. HEAs are a requirement.

Erotic Romance: romantic relationship develops through explicit, highly descriptive sexual interaction, which cannot be removed without damaging the storyline. The development of the romance toward a stable relationship/commitment between characters is central to the plot and the sexual relationship is fundamental to character growth and relationship development. HEAs are a requirement.

Adult [Insert Genre except Romance] a.k.a. Something Else: The rule of thumb here is that sex is not a filler, it’s a valid and required act to achieve some goal, e.g. develop characters, show hidden emotion, etc. Unlike in erotica or erotic [subgenre], sex, however explicit, is not driving the story. The story drives the sex. Nevertheless, a story with explicitness level of an erotic romance is doomed to be placed into stores’ erotica-something category.

Where does all this leave my book, Falaha’s Journey Into Pleasure? Well, it’s certainly not porn. But it’s this and that and something in between, and something else. I don’t know. I’ll leave that to the readers.

Jeno Marz
JENO MARZ is a science fiction writer from Latvia, Northern Europe, with background in electronics engineering and computer science. She is the author of two serial novels, Falaha’s Journey: A Spacegirl’s Account in Three Movements and Falaha’s Journey into Pleasure. Marz is current at work on a new SF trilogy. All her fiction is aimed at an adult audience.

4 Comments

  1. Science fiction is a notoriously difficult genre to bend the rules of, but if you don’t feel it’s got enough romantic elements (or erotic elements) to be mentioned, then I don’t think you should be afraid to say so. From what I’ve seen of your plotting, it’s also definitely not soft SF. Fantasy books get away with all the time, no matter what the lean. There can be sex, erotica, straight up porn, or rape, and there is no warning in the genre or in the blurb. I think readers have a certain expectation, though, that in fantasy, there will be some sort of romantic (stereotypical) damsel in distress. So, that may be why they get away with it.

    Great post, Jeno. Liked your definitions. 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading!

      The first book I wrote was a blend of space opera and hard science fiction (I defined what I write in this statement here: http://jenomarz.com/what-i-write/ ).

      I’m not afraid to say that science fiction lacks something, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing my books. The protag in my first book is a girl, a child. That already bends many things found in SF for adults (I wouldn’t define my story as children’s or YA, even having kids as stars there). Not only the girl is the main hero, she narrates her story, Hard Science Fiction story.

      HSF has certain readership (males, most in sci/tech professions), so I wanted to make a more comfortable environment for female readers as well. Whether I succeeded or not is another question. I’m just beginning to get it out to the readers. I’m slow at this.

      The second book (in the same series!) still contains that mix — and now also has a young woman, adding something not usually found in HSF. In Space Opera — maybe. She continues her exploration and narrates her adventures. Some in the bedroom now.

      Both stories were fun to write.

  2. The labeling that Amazon forces on us in unsatisfactory. I had one reader very angry and she wrote a low rating for my book because she said “it wasn’t romance” [in her eyes]. When an indie author self-publishes on Amazon, they can only choose two genres from a list. We can’t make our own list. We can only hope that readers keep an open mind when reading our stories. True, we have to come close regarding the genre but isn’t writing about creativity? We can’t present our stories within only two little peg holes. We can only hope to fill up 20.

    Great post! Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joanie!

      Yes, I absolutely agree about Amazon and that two slots is not enough, but I have to note that it is possible to place your book in more than two categories by using key words (phrases). There are only seven allowed, though, so some brainstorming required how to get the best out of those.

      Also, I have some beef with the romance genre itself, since I write about polyamorous people. That’s not what romance genre implies, at least in trad publishers guidelines. Again, I can use key words, but I think ‘polyamorous’ group on amazon was a subgroup of erotica or something. ARGH!

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