Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reloading The Canon: A Look At Erotic Romance

The idea of a romance genre "canon" has been discussed and debated before, even by yours truly (now the most popular post ever to exist on this blog).  Canon is not always a word I'm entirely comfortable with, mostly because all genres ebb and flow over time.  For me, genre fiction (all genres, not just romance) are a reflection of their times.  Therefore, when looking back on important books in genre history, it often requires readers to put on those rose-colored glasses.  To view the work through the lens of history.  Not all books "stand the test of time" - nor should they be required to.

I got the idea for this post from Victoria Dahl and some kerfuffles that have erupted over the past few days.  Victoria pointed out an influential erotic romance book, now ten years old on Twitter.  I agreed with her, and stated that it's a book I point anyone to who is interested in erotic romance "history."

Which leads us to this post.  Wendy's Top 10 "Canonical" Works In Erotic Romance.  First, the caveats:
1) I'm going to be focusing heavily on the past 20 years or so.  There are countless works (from the bodice ripper era specifically) that I'll leave off.  Mostly because I'm not an expert in this era of romance and don't want to talk out of my backside.

2) I'm going to focus heavily on the "romance" word.  There are countless authors who will not make the cut because their work is more "erotica" than "romance" (Zane would be a prime example.  She's hugely important when we're talking erotica written for a female readership, but I have a hard time classifying her as romance.  Feel free to disagree with me in the comments).

3) I'll name specific titles when I can, but that's really hard for some authors.  In which case, I'll just be naming names.
In no particular order....

1) Skye O'Malley by Bertrice Small (1980). You can make a serious case for Small's The Kadin, but I'm going with that erstwhile Skye O'Malley, the heroine who launched six books and a thousand erotic ships.  Literally.  O'Malley is captain of her own ship, caught in the intrigue of Queen Elizabeth I's court.  Bodices rip, the language is lush and purple.  Love her, hate her, it doesn't really matter.  Small is one of the grand dames of not only erotic romance, but the romance genre as a whole.  If erotic romance were an envelope, Small would be the stamp.

2) Thea Devine.  I can't pick one book by Devine, it's just not possible.  Her writing style is....different.  Her plots are pure Soap Opera Bodice Rippin' WTFBBQ Sauce.  And gods help me, I love her for it.  I love her for it because Devine allowed her heroines to be just as morally ambiguous, just as duplicitous, as her Alphahole heroes in an era when we were overrun with Sweet As Pie, Butter Doesn't Melt In Her Mouth Virgins.  OK, I'll pick a book by Devine.  Desired.  Because it's trashy and southern and gleefully over the top.

3) Susan Johnson.  Again, nearly impossible to pick one title.  Most fans point to her Braddock series (book one is Blaze) and that seems a solid place to start as any.  Queen of the Footnote, Johnson was known for (especially in her earlier works) to really delve into her research.  Then she tossed in plenty of Old School Shenanigans and naughty Sexy Times.  She also published with Playboy Press early in her career, meaning that Johnson found a way to get her work out there, even before the "erotic romance" label was a "thing."

4) The Lady's Tutor by Robin Schone (1999). Or How A Married Victorian Mother Of Two Finds Her Groove Thang.  We see a lot of virginal ingenues in the genre, but Schone delivered a heroine who was older, married, with two kids, who goes looking for something more outside of her passionless marriage to a cold and indifferent husband.  To this day, we still don't see a ton of that in the genre.  Schone really kicked open the door for older heroines.

5) Menage by Emma Holly.  I'm going with Menage because, well, it's about a menage.  It's also the book most readers point to when discussing Holly's work as a whole.  Menage romances are a dime a dozen these days, but Holly did it 1998 and addressed how such relationships can get very complicated, very quickly.

6) Portia Da Costa.  It's just too hard to pick one book by Da Costa, but I'm including her on this list for one very important reason.  She writes "fun."  She's one of the few erotic romance writers out there who hasn't forgotten that sex is supposed to be fun.  There is a playfulness to her work that can sometimes get overlooked in a sub genre that can wallow a bit too much in angst.  In Too Deep is a good illustration of Da Costa's brand of playfulness.

7) Natural Law by Joey W. Hill.  A Domme heroine and a submissive hero.  An author who takes the time to really explore what a BDSM relationship means (trust baby, it's all about trust).  Published in 2004I had issues with this story when I read it not too long ago, but seriously?  Shockingly, breathtakingly ahead of it's time, published ten years ago.  Mores the pity that we continue to see tired retreads in BDSM storylines (clueless heroine = sub ; Alphahole hero = thinks he's Dom but he's really just an Alphahole).  Hill showed us another way 10 years ago - why didn't we listen?

8) Passion by Lisa Valdez (2005).  I'm probably going to get flack for this one, and Lord knows I wasn't personally wild about this book, but I'm including it because everyone lost their damn minds over it.  Why?  To this day I think it's because it looked and was packaged (mass market as opposed to trade paperback or digital) as a "historical romance."  But once you got inside those pages?  Good Lord above!  Turns out a lot of readers didn't like that surprise.  Others were all on board, and blessedly overjoyed they weren't paying trade paperback prices for a change to get their naughty fix.  Turns out, yes - marketing is important.

9)  The Breed series by Lora Leigh.  Go ahead, argue with me that it should be the Men of August series.  I'm not going to tell you you're wrong.  However I'm going with the Breeds for sheer volume and crossover appeal.  Certainly there were other Ellora's Cave writers who parlayed their success into contracts with "traditional" NY publishers (Jaid Black, Angela Knight to name two off the top of my head), but Leigh took her Breeds and turned them into a NYTimes Bestselling, 30-volume juggernaut (includes short stories and March 2015 release).  She also played a hand in the popularity of shifters in paranormal romance.  Hence, she's on the list.

10)  Fifty Shades trilogy by EL James.  I'm including it for two reasons and two reasons only - the first being that it captured word of mouth frenzy outside the confines of the genre.  The second being that it revived the idea that you could follow the same characters over the course of several books and still call it a romance.  Others had done it before (Bertrice Small, Rosemary Rogers), but it had been out of vogue for a number of years.  For good or ill, James helped bring that back.  But really, what I really want to say is Yada yada yada, Fifty Shades, yada yada yada

Erotic romance existed prior to us knowing what to call it, but the first big wave really launched in the late 1990s with Kensington Brava and the birth of Ellora's Cave in 2000.  Readers have always had a desire (ha!) for erotic work, but those two events really galvanized with strategic marketing.  Prior to that readers floundered around and magically found erotic content through trial, error, dumb-luck and that ever elusive word of mouth.  Once the marketing was in place?  It got easier to identify "those books" - then it was just on the reader to flounder around some more and discover the writers who struck a chord with them.

So, what books and authors did I miss?  Make your case in the comments section!


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

Red Sage, maybe?

Kati said...

I remember reading a ton of Judith Krantz when I was a kid (there was a F/F scene in Princess Daisy, which I found hella hot at age 12). I also remember a tattered copy of Lace being passed around my 7th grade French class. But neither of those books are necessarily erotic romance.

The inclusion of Passion does make me laugh. Only because it provided so many memorable scenes, and some really cringeworthy ones.

This is a terrific list, Wendy. Thank you!

Wendy said...

Jody: I covered Red Sage in my history of erotic romance post, and they belong in the conversation (definitely!). But since they were mostly known for their anthologies, I had a hard time singling out just one volume or one author. I guess maybe Volume 1? Since, you know, it was the first?

Wendy said...

Kati: Judith Krantz kind of falls in that nebulous area. She belongs in an "erotic" conversation, but she's not really romance. Someone like Jackie Collins probably lands here as well. Certainly read by readers looking for steamy content, but outside the confines of the genre. SO many authors like this that could be included if we broadened the scope.

Passion suffered for me because the melodrama was so thick on the ground - but I swear it was the mass market format and the fact that it wasn't published under an "erotic romance imprint" that kicked off the hysteria. These days? We'd hardly bat an eyelash me thinks.

Ro said...

Oh, yeah, Red Sage! There was always at least one good story in them. I'd choose whichever volume had that MaryJanice Davidson story in it (just checked, it was Vol. 6). That one really made an impression on me! o^o


Ro said...

Wendy, this list is great, but maybe I only think that because it's the exact list I would have made. Every time I went "oh, how about book x", yep, that was the next book on your list. It kind of shows we've frequented the same sorts of places in Romanceland over the years!


Nikki said...

I also think this is a great list mainly because I've read every author you listed, and I nodded my head with each one.

Unknown said...

And on my personal canon list is The Bracelet by Fredrica Alleyn. I know I read this in the mid 90s and I'm sure it was one of, if not the first, bdsm romances I read. Holy crap, mind blown.

Unknown said...

Hmm, somehow I left off my first paragraph (how'd I do that?).

Excellent list. I'd just add Black Lace to your list of publishers who helped popularize and market erotica and erotic romance. I know they published a lot that wasn't romance, but I think they published enough that was romance that they count.

Wendy said...

Rosario: Which brings up an interesting point, how different would this list look if someone who didn't spend time online wrote it? I think some of these authors would still make the cut (Small and Johnson in particular seem like "locks" to me) - but what about the others?

Nikki: Great minds, and all that :)

Cleo: Black Lace definitely got a mention in my "history of erotic romance" post. In the US market, that imprint is a good example of "word of mouth" and readers finding erotic content in an era when it wasn't always marketed as such. (These days words like "erotic romance" and "erotica" are thrown about all over the darn place - back then? Not quite as much IMHO).

When picking "break out" BL authors - Emma Holly seemed like The One to me. I included Da Costa mostly because I think her tone runs "lighter" than a lot of the angst that can overtake the genre at times. Plus, I like Portia - and hey, it was my list :)

Unknown said...

"how different would this list look if someone who didn't spend time online wrote it?"

That's an interesting question. I'd say Emma Holly would also make the non-online list, mostly because I discovered her, and Black Lace, long before I was online (in romancelandia that is). But I sort of discovered her by accident, so I don't know.

Rosario said...

Interesting question! Agree about Small and Johnson (and obviously the Fifty Shades phenomenon was off-line as well), but of the others... hmm. Maybe Lisa Valdez? I'm guessing enough not-online readers would have picked her up expecting a regular historical romance and been shocked!