It strikes me as odd that one of literature’s mostly highly profitable and widely read genres needs to be “defended” but life can be stranger than fiction, as they say. So I’ll say it plainly: I write romance and it’s a worthy pursuit. As you’ll read below, there’s so much psychology and intent and depth that goes into writing and reading a good romance. It speaks to vital aspects of human experience—it can be uplifting or healing or funny or insightful, and many other things. Romance, like any other genre of literature, excavates a corner of human experience, arguably the biggest—our interior life—and how that is challenged and unfolds when we share it with another. That’s all the defending I’ll do of this genre. Perhaps you’re sold on romance, but the real page burning scenes are an issue. “I like a clean romance”, you might say. And that’s okay. But there’s nothing wrong either with romances that keep the heat! If that’s where you are or maybe you’re curious why Chloe has to have all those words and face-fanning moments in her books, please read on and give this beautiful, insightful, wild ride of romance that includes explicit content a chance…
Part I: Why the Sex
Outlander was published in 1991. It’s a fantastically genre-crossing series that’s full of sci-fi, history, fantasy, and side-splitting banter. It’s also peppered with some wonderful, steamy sex scenes. Fast forward exactly twenty years later, and enter Fifty Shades of Grey, then its subsequent books and movies, which put erotic romance on the mainstream map. Plenty of people delight in trashing the book, disparaging its prose, and scoffing at the dynamic between its protagonists, but the trilogy clearly resonated (in some fashion) with a vast readership. Put the critique aside as well as the topic of BDSM, which is certainly a grab/shock factor that has generated lots of enlightening conversations about how damn important consent is in the world of sexual kink and play, and the book has three things: 1) conflict, 2) sex, 3) conflictual sex.
And if that doesn’t sound familiar to anybody who’s had sex, then I don’t know who you are, but you’re either the best communicator about your sex life, or you’re scrunching your eyes shut and waiting for it to be over. The point being, sexual communication and connection, like any other component of a relationship, is a signifier of a couple’s intimacy or lack thereof. And like any dynamic in a relationship, you either have an innate understanding with each other about it (like who switches the clothes to the dryer, and who folds; who pays the mortgage, and who balances the budget), or you have to learn how to talk about it. Connecting and working well together as a couple while still liking each other enough to want to laugh and share and strip down for each other—that is, intimacy—doesn’t fall out of the sky, and healthy, mutually-fulfilling sex doesn’t either.
Back to the books. Outlander: 25 million copies sold, and a wildly successful TV version on Starz that’s doing so well, both its main actors are now producers. Fifty Shades: over 100 million copies sold and a trio of movies that everybody loves both to hate and secretly binge-watch. These books and many others have, over the past few years, moved the genre (erotic romance/romance with explicit, adult content, with and without BDSM) into greater fictional (often romance) prominence, and have skyrocketed in readership. I can theorize and write all day about the specifics—is it the book version of porn, an escape into a false reality? is it because we’re lonely and bad at talking and seeking what we want between the sheets? is it because we’re looking for new ideas to spice up our own sex lives and fiction lets our imaginations run wild? I think it can be any of those things to some people, but more often than not, its reason is very simple: sex is human, it’s a vital aspect of an intimate relationship, and as humans, we seek input that validates and engages what we value and feel. We’re all sexual, and reading books that ignore and erase sexuality—its nuances and challenges, not to mention the massive unpacking of false expectations, shame, and “shoulds” we internalize about it via culture—just reinforces what so many of us grew up learning: sexual pleasure is bad, sexual desire is taboo, sex is naughty.
The history of how and who maligned and defamed sex is vast and twisted but it can easily be summed up as a sordid past of androcentrism, sexism, and despicably misinterpreted scripture, all for a patriarchal agenda. If you’re unfamiliar with this notion, read something that puts the facts of this damaging ideology right in your lap. Once you’ve done that, then you get to rip away all those layers of self-loathing, female-male objectification, and shame, and you’re left with the beautiful truth, all the more beautiful for its stunning simplicity: sex is foundational to the continuation of life, and guess what? It can also be tons of fun. And passionate. And tender. And rough. And argumentative. And healing. And damaging. Just like…you got it, relationships themselves.
As I come out to my social world as a writer who writes explicit (consensual, always consensual) sex in her stories, I realize there will be people who really scratch their heads. Not all books need sex, but in my opinion, books that portray the heart of an unfolding relationship—its conflicts and obstacles, its points of growth and evolution—are much richer when they don’t cover their eyes and skirt those very same experiences as they play out (significantly) in the bedroom.
If we’re going to raise sons and daughters, shape culture itself, to be sex-positive, and sex-intelligent, wherein as a society we’re accurate and informed about sexual function, sexual health, and sexual liberation, where sex is an act that can have lots of different meanings between people but must always be undergirded by communication, consent, and intention, I think it’s high time books with realistic, honest sex infiltrated broader sections of our art and writing. And guess what? They’re starting to, though they’re often wrapped in misleadingly innocuous, “clean romance” looking covers. And just exactly what that indicates is unpacked in Part II.
Take a look at mainstream published romantic fiction, scroll through your channels of high-brow television, and you see that the trend for storytelling that seeks to include without solely relying on sex is a growing trend, and in my most humble of authorly opinions, that’s a damn good thing.
Part II: Writing it Real
There’s a new trend in the contemporary romance. It looks clean on the outside, but open it up, blast through a few chapters and—gasp—they’re doing it.
Bow chicka wow wowwwww.
Yikes! I didn’t see this coming. I thought I was going to read about a couple’s complex psychology, their hearts’ yearnings, their troubles and trials, not an intimate breakdown of their sexy times.
Welll, guess what? You are, you were, it’s just that all those things are tied up in their sexuality.
There’s a market for this, and I’m all about it, not just because I love writing it, but because it means more women (and men!) are enjoying the fact that they can be brainy, badass workers, thinkers, feminists, lovers, and sexual humans. As a society, as I wrote in Part I, it’s becoming less taboo for women to be outright sexual. To address the nuances of arousal and passion and pleasure as we go through the hormonal shifts that accompany midlife, for some pregnancy and nursing, for others laterlife menopause. That we’ve had to hide our true sex drive and libido behind our bedroom doors for our husbands and stash our “bodice rippers” tucked in the nightstand, is truly a reiteration of sex shame and patriarchal control over our bodies and the full expression of our humanity.
To which I say, F*&k that.
So there’s a push to get real in contemporary romance. To write flawed humans with real challenges and struggles, with particular needs and hangups. The tactic of wrapping these stories in beautiful, often illustrative covers, is a Trojan Horse of sorts, a wonderfully clever tactic for allowing stories that we’ve excluded from mainstream reader respect and appreciation to infiltrate the fiction community.
A lot of readers who have a stigma against Romance and steamy books (often looked down on whether “clean” or not, and the “unclean” pejoratively called smut or bodice rippers) don’t have as much of an actual resisitance to its content, but more to its cliche reputation as the lowbrow junkfood of literature. Clean covers are a way of bringing a looked down upon genre into the public space without the judgment.
So what does this say about us? One, that romance is gendered feminine and that our society still looks down on that; it’s air-headed fluff. It’s not “real” literature. Which is bullshit. Romance delves into every facet of human life, and like any other genre it has its brilliant prose authors and its more straightforward storytellers. Two, I think it betrays the reality that sometimes we need permission to step into places we feel are taboo or “not for us”, and this new hybrid of deep-thinking, complex character and plot-driven stories that keep the sex, wrapped in a pretty cover, seem to be doing the job. They’re a remarkable locus for readers to tap into a 360 experience of romance—mind, heart, and body—to reclaim (mostly for women, the vast majority of romance readership) the totality of our personhood—sexual, intellelectual, feeling, philosophical. We don’t have to choose between saint or slut, prude or provocative. We get to have it all—the smarts and the sex, the feels and the funny. And if I had to define third wave feminism, that would be it, ladies and gents!
Romance celebrates and epitomizes our desire to love and connect and have deep experiences, and gives us permission to explore new dynamics and landscapes. Sometimes, we need an escape—a story world thousands of lifetimes away from ours. And other times, especially I’d say when it comes to romance, we need books that speaks to us. Like a friend that sets an arm on your shoulder and says, “I see this about you, and I get it. You’re okay. And in the ways you’re not okay, that’s all right too.” Books that resonate and empathize with our experiences can be deeply comforting, liberating, even redeeming.
At this point you might be thinking, “Um, Chloe, your book is about a mafioso soccer prodigy who can’t quit a feisty biomedical engineer with a complicated past, how realistic is that?”
Touché, and thank you for having read my book synopsis. If you haven’t, it’s on Amazon here (Note: Content suitable for readers 18+, with explicit sexual content and some violence. Apologies for the shameless plug, now back to the matter at hand).
I’ll concede that some qualities of my characters are extraordinary. That’s so the book is fun and engaging and feels a little different than just hearing what your relatively more ordinary (albeit wonderful) friends and acquaintances are up to. But the crux of these characters’ struggles—their moral quandries, and their physical realities—are deeply realistic. At least I’ve tried pretty damn hard to for them to be.
If you hate mild spoilers skip this (and the next) paragraph. Still here? Okay. Both of my characters have good reasons for keeping to themselves, staying on the ordered path dictated by their trajectories. Nairne’s life went nuts in Europe, and now she’s in the States, trying to keep to the straight and narrow while she gets her dream degree at her dream university. Inviting anything that mixes that up is threatening both her newfound stability and the viability of her goals. Zed’s life is a hot mess, and he’s got a twisted, tested way of handling it. It makes him a little cranky, and a lot demanding, but you empathize with the coping mechanisms he’s adopted to make sense of his insane life. Falling for someone at this point is a recipe for disaster for him as well.
So what do they do? They go and fall for each other. Because life-changing, mind-bending events and people don’t come at you when you expect them to or need them (most of the time). They come when they come, and you just have to figure out what you’re going to do about it. So this is a book about two people—yes, with exceptional talents and extraordinarily dramatic circumstances—trying to figure out what you do when you meet the right person at the wrong time. What you do when that person challenges your preconceived notions and makes you recognize something inside yourself that you preferred to ignore. There’s a psychological digging that happens in my stories, and I hope you’ll find them both relatable (when they resonate with you) and informative (when you’re surprised, challenged or educated by them).
That’s on the personal/psychological/interpersonal level. Now for the hot stuff. If you haven’t figured out by now (and that would be because you still haven’t read my book’s description, you rebel) my characters have sex. And yes it’s a little edgy and perhaps a bit unconventional to some of you, but its mechanics and challenges are deeply realistic. Because, again, when I’ve opened a book where the couple talk about what they like in bed and don’t and how to pursue that together; when the man’s “done” pretty quickly or the woman takes longer than 90 seconds to have a mind-shattering orgasm, it’s freaking refreshing. There’s a ton in our media that misrepresents fulfilling healthy relationships, consensual intimate sex, and fails to depict how challenging it is to cultivate and experience love, partnership, and pleasure. In my books, Nairne and Zed have their work cut out for them to find a path that both of them can step on in order to make who they are as a couple work. To me, it’s gritty and real and unique. To my readers, I hope it’s relatable or intriguing at least, in some sense.
There’s a place for great escapist fiction, and there’s a time for fiction that acts a little like a mirror, prodding and poking you to examine what it reflects back and gets you wondering: Do you like that? Have you struggled with this? Have you ever wondered if you could say this or do that? Nairne and Zed are characters in the literary and figurative sense—they’re a little larger than life, but they’re also compellingly quirky and deeply human. In some way I hope they act as a mirror that invites to my readers.
Because my characters might be stashing handguns in their pockets, or engineering a world-saving vaccine, but they’re also negotiating fundamental human challenges—discovering themselves, finding partnership, doing the psychological and emotional work to be equipped for that relationship, and learning about themselves and each other as they go. And lucky for you, dear reader, just as in real life, that happens for them both outside the bedroom—and in.
Part III: Reality is Messy
“All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. I’d argue its use is as common as its misuse–for it’s the beginning of a poignant soliloquy about the stages of life rather than a commentary on humans’ propensity to posture and pretend. That said, it’s forever compelling to me to explore why such quotes and snippets that enrich our cultural lexicon end up getting reappropriated for different meaning–like the phrase “which begs the question” that is now widely used to signify “which leads one to ask” even though that’s not at all its original use or meaning. English is a fascinatingly adaptive and evolving language, and it’s also a confessional one. When we change our language to reflect us, we wear our hearts on our linguistic sleeves.
To the point: We use “All the world’s a stage…” to highlight our tendency to put on a stage makeup mask to cover human imperfections and reality of age, a costume of color and misleading shape to trick the eye into thinking the body is different than it is, words that wound or worship, grand gestures that climb balconies or weigh pounds of flesh, because this is true of us. Human beings put on a front because we struggle to be naked in front of each other–to bear our true natures when asked, “how are you?” or “what’s wrong?” Fine. Nothing.
What the hell does this have to do with fiction? Everything. Everything. To me, at least. Because as a reader who is also a writer, nothing scratches my psychological itch more than reading a book wherein a female heroine can be both lonely and powerful in her solitude, a male character can be less than perfect at everything, where sex is a bit awkward and takes tons of talking and trying, where families drive each other nuts and chosen family is sometimes all you have. The world is a stage because we often make it so, and as pretenders and deflectors, we’re too often players. Why? Because our culture gives us shit permission to do otherwise. Hide the bags under your eyes. Don’t let them see you cry. Pretend everything’s fine in the marriage. Smile when you get the bad prognosis. Laugh when you want to sob.
As a writer, I’m obsessed with creating characters who deal with real life’s mess, who struggle and screw up and change and say things they wish they could take back. Who menstruate and shit and stumble and fail. Whose morality is ambiguous and whose lifestyles aren’t easily labeled. But who also learn and love spectacularly. Because what is life for, if not for ripping off these layers of lies that say “I’m okay, same as you” and instead stand proudly “not okay” some days and fabulously “uniquely myself” every damn day.
Like a billion other people, I love the Harry Potter series. The story starts with this opening line: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of Number Four Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” If you’ve read the Harry Potter books you know who these people turn out to be: flat, fearful, and horribly narrow-minded two-dimensional characters. Their plea of normality is a warning sign in a world that’s bursting with magic and oddballs and eccentric originality and mystery.
Normal doesn’t exist. “Okay,” is a lot rarer than we think. We’re all on this planet for a brief, fleeting moment. Oscar Wilde, who had a brilliant flair for ripping open culture’s façade and showing society more than it wanted to see, was known to have said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” As a woman who’s had impossible cultural standards reinforced in every form of media and representation since she could walk or talk, I wholeheartedly agree. Which is why, as I write and read, and connect with those in my life, books and relationships that dig around the dirt and depth of human experience—and for me most often, that’s romance—are as important as ever.