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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