Sunday, October 18, 2015

Little Miss Crabby Pants Gets Smutty

I'm officially old.  It's the only way to explain my crankiness about certain phenomena in the romance community.  I get it, times they are a-changing, and yet?  I can't ignore the baggage that has been left on the tarmac.  So I pick up the bags, load them on a cart, and start trailing after the rest of Romancelandia begging them to "Just look at the bags!  Maybe these belong to you!"

Reading romance novels was once something done in secret.  Furtively.  Women walked into drugstores, grocery stores, bookstores, lurked over in the area where "those books" were, and then somehow found the guts to go to the cash register to pay for their purchases hoping like hell some snotty (usually male) clerk didn't provide backhanded commentary.  However, like most things, the Internet has changed that.  Romance readers have found each other, formed communities, and been able to slither out into the light.  Couple that with online retailers and digital reading - we've taken back the night, so to speak.  Case in point?  The use of the word "smut" to now, presumably, positively describe what we love to read.

This truly is because I'm old.  I get it.  Romance readers are embracing what they like to read.  They're "taking back the S word."  They want to stand tall and be unapologetic about what they read.  "Yes, this book has hot sex scenes and I love every minute of it!!!!"  And yet, here is Wendy storming off her front porch with her shotgun.  Sigh.  I'm so predictable.

I can't get past the history behind the word as it relates to being dismissive of the genre.  That romance novels are "porn for women."  That it fuels unrealistic expectations in women.  That we "escape" inside a romance novel because we're simple females whose poor feeble brains can't deal with "the real world."  Now git back in the kitchen woman and make me a sammich.

Then there are the writers who proudly proclaim they write smut.  I get it.  They're taking back the word much like readers are.  And yet?  I feel these writers are selling themselves short.  Hell, anyone can write smut.  I'm a god-awful writer and I guarantee you I could sit down at my computer and bang (ha!) out a completely smutty story in about 15 minutes.  It wouldn't be very good - but it would be smutty.  Writers who write quality erotic romance?  Yeah, it's a lot more than a bunch of smutty fetishes strung together.  There has to be that emotional component to make it work.  Otherwise you are just writing porn. 

What critics of the genre have never understood is that, when it's done right, it's not simply "smut" or "porn."  For the record, I'm not against either.  Smut and porn has it's place.  You'll never see me at an anti-pornography rally for example (that's probably TMI - but whatever....).  But if a romance writer is doing their job properly, they're not writing smut or porn.  Smut and porn, broadly speaking, aren't overly concerned with emotion.  They're interested in the sex act.  They're interested in the "feeling good" component of it.  And romance authors?  Emotion is pretty much the whole point of the thing.  If you're not writing emotion?  You're doing it wrong.  Which is why my favorite erotic writers (and even non-erotic writers) tend to concentrate on themes of "awakening."  Of "personal growth" of the characters.  The goal of the story?  Hero and heroine in better emotional spot at the end of the story than they were in the beginning.  Full stop.

The S word, the P word, these were (and still are) accusations hurled at readers to shame them.  To put us in our place.  So while it's admirable that some readers and writers want to take away the power of those words?  The use of them merely reinforces the negative connotations.  I find the S word, the P word dismissive.  They're belittling words, and words are powerful.  They have the power to harm, the power to heal, the power to change lives.  And the S word?  The P word?  While "taking them back" can be viewed as admirable - there's too much history standing in the way for it to work for me.

But then, I'm old.


azteclady said...

A while back, I read an erotic romance anthology that had one story that absolutely didn't work for me--both as a romance, and in the writing. I later learned that the author proudly professes to write smut. These days, I just take those writers who claim to write smut at their word--and avoid them when I'm looking to read romance, erotic or otherwise.

As for reading smut, when I am in the mood for it? There are plenty of places were fairly well written smut is offered free, thanks so much.

Laura K. Curtis said...

What AztecLady said.

I like romance. When someone tells me they write "filthy books" or "smut", I assume I won't like their books and just pass right on by. If I'm looking to get all hot and bothered, I've been around the Net long enough to know where to find it for free.

For the record, I am pretty sure I am even older than you. GET OFFA MY LAWN.

nath said...

Great post, Wendy. I agree with you. I know where the authors are coming from, but at the same time... hasn't the genre worked so hard to shake off those two labels?

Caz said...

I completely agree with you, Wendy. Smut for smut's sake has its place, and that's great, but using it in the same breath as the words "romantic novel" is a big no-no for the reasons you've said. I can't help but think it's nothing to do with "reclaiming" a word, but is more to do with an attempt to make romantic novels acceptable in a world in which practically everything is sexualised.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I was presenting at an RWA group and one author identified herself as writing smut. I wanted to say to her, "Oh, please don't sell yourself short," but the synergy in the room really flowed toward her and the others were all, "You go and embrace that word!" and I thought... wow. We have a new generation of writers, who missed the revolution of... what? Ten years ago? When we all agreed to turn away from that word and toward erotic romance and being better than smut. And yet, we're back where we started, and I don't know why.

Lynn Spencer said...

I tend to agree with you, and I don't think it's really a matter of being old. I think it's more of a question of what we read romance for. I read for story, for characters I can relate to, and for a happy ending that makes me feel happy for the people involved. Those are the things that hooked me in the beginning. If there's hot sex that's well written, that's dandy by me, but not every story has to take me back into the bedroom.

Some of my friends read primarily for the sex and the titillation factor, and story is secondary. I don't think either view is the only right one, but I do sometimes think that the P word and the S word lump romance into books geared at folks in that second camp I mention. And I don't like that because it puts romance into too small a box. It also gives ignorant naysayers an easy way to discredit the genre but mostly it sticks in my craw because I think using those words to categorize the genre limits what it can be.

Wendy said...

Great comments, as always. Between Susan's comment, and Lynn's, I'm now pondering if it's a matter of genre history? The S and P words bother me because I'm so wrapped up in the baggage the genre lugs around - but I think there are a lot of newer readers who just don't have the same baggage because they're not as concerned re: genre history (they don't know it, they don't care, whatever it may be).

When Fifty Shades hit it big, there was this belief that it would bring new readers to romance. It probably did - but I think the bigger influence has been the rise of self-publishing. I think there's this huge group of readers who may not necessarily identify themselves as "romance readers" - but who DO read romances they discover via self-publishing. To them the S and P words would be said in all good fun with none of the baggage attached. And as Lynn theorized - they may be reading romances for totally different reasons than we do.

I repeatedly remind myself that there are countless readers who read in a vacuum. But now I'm realizing that we're seeing splintered tribes within the online community as well. I call them The Group That Hates GIF Reviews and The Group That LOVES Posting GIF Reviews On GoodReads ;)

Marguerite Kaye said...

I'm with you all here on the use of 'smut' - I just can't get past it being an insult. And even worse, my father, who rarely reads any books and has never seen past the cover of any of mine, calls them 'my smutty books' - yes, I know, proud parent personified. We work really hard to gain credibility in the world of romance, and we're going forward by leaps an bounds, but this seems to me a big step backwards, to be boasting about something that is still, no matter how much we want to reclaim the word, seen by the majority of the population as a deliberate insult. I get that there's a generation younger than me who maybe don't see those connotations, but surely we'd be better inventing our own word rather than making it really hard for ourselves trying to reclaim this one?

Wendy said...

The more I think about it the more I think my real problem is that the word "smut" is being co-opted to describe romance novels across the board. Sort of like the term bodice ripper has. I'm actually FINE with bodice ripper so long as the term is used properly. In a historical context to describe a very specific era/time in historical romance publishing. But so often it is not used that way - and I see the same thing happening with smut. If you're reading or writing smut - hey, more power to you. But if you're reading or writing a romance novel? IT'S A ROMANCE! It's not smut. The two are not mutually exclusive.