In Defence of Dirty Books … by Josephine Myles

Dirty books

Dirty books shouldn’t need defending, should they? However, there’s a certain kind of book I’ve noticed that gets badmouthed everywhere it goes. It’s treated like an uninvited guest who turns up at a formal party looking like a streetwalker, then proceeds to get drunk, foul-mouthed and does a lewd dance on the table top, flashing her skimpy undies. Everyone considers her an embarrassment, but you can guarantee most of them are secretly enjoying the show.

What books am I talking about? I’m talking romantic porn. You know the sort of book: the one where the plot is the thinnest excuse for hanging together a series of sex scenes. Romance readers feel cheated because there’s little in the way of a romantic arc: just two unfeasibly hot men (or whatever gender combination you like) shagging like rabbits at every opportunity. Erotica addicts get annoyed because it isn’t edgy or literary enough, and there’s too much lovey-dovey snuggling for their tastes.

And yet this stuff sells like hot cakes, making all us writers who are aiming for a higher class of erotic romance—the kind where there’s character development and genuinely plotty sex—look on in bewildered envy. Who is buying this stuff? Don’t they know it’s tawdry rubbish? Why would they turn down our gourmet feast for the literary equivalent of a fast food burger? It makes no sense.

Except it does.

I used to be a literary snob. I think it comes with the territory of having a degree in English Literature. For years I looked down on both romance and porn, while secretly devouring them when I had the chance and no one was looking. As an undergraduate I even wrote a paper on Mills and Boon romances, purely so I had the opportunity to sit and read them with a valid excuse: “I’m not doing it for fun. It’s research, honest!”

I still remember the illicit excitement of reading those books, much like I remember the thrill of reading my first genuinely pornographic novel. I was about fourteen when I found a paperback copy of “The Sheik” by Anonymous on a park bench. The plot was a fairly standard—western woman kidnapped and becomes part of the Sheik’s harem, then falls in love with one of the other slaves—but I was hooked. Here was sex on the page. Genuinely dirty, explicit scenes that revelled in the human body and arousal. I read it secretly under the covers with a torch, and it fed my sexual fantasies for years.

Now I own an ereader it’s much easier for me to read trashy books without anyone knowing. I don’t have to admit I’ve read them on Goodreads—no one need know about my deviant tastes. Except I don’t want to hide it anymore like a shameful secret. I want to be open and honest about it:

I read romantic porn, and I’m proud of it.

Dirty book web

I read and enjoy a lot of other kinds of erotica too—romance doesn’t have to figure, but the longer the book, the more I yearn for some kind of romance in the plot, even if it’s between a whole bunch of people—and there are certain publishers out there who are more than happy to cater to my hunger for smut-laden polyamorous romances between more men than you can fit on the cover.

I’m not entirely sure why I like my smut to have hint of romance, but it seems as if many other women feel the same way—and no doubt a fair few men, although female readers do represent the majority of the market for written erotica. I recently spoke to erotica publisher Hazel Cushion (Xcite Books), and she told me that since “that book” exploded all over the marketplace (you know the one: tie on the cover, rhymes with “shifty fades”), her biggest sellers are no longer the more edgy BDSM titles, but it’s the books featuring a romance in amongst all the sex. The new set of erotica readers want something safe, not too challenging, but with copious amounts of explicit sex. And they want all that sex to be between two loving and consensual partners (or more than two, if they’re kinky sods like me).

Without wanting to get mired in that age-old debate about what makes something erotica rather than porn, I’m going for the following definition of porn when I use the term: writing that is designed to arouse the reader, where the plot exists to provide scenarios for sex, and where the characters are pretty much ruled by their sex drives. When I think about it in those terms, I can’t help but wonder if all my novels so far have in fact been porn (although the next one has very little sex in it, which was quite a surprise to me!). Of course, I try to be literary and include themes and a wider world outside the bedroom, but the fact remains I enjoy writing sex scenes, and I enjoy writing highly-sexed characters. It stands to reason that my plots will provide plenty of opportunity for them to get it on, and I’ve never shied away from using explicit language. Indeed, I was rather proud when The Hot Floor came out, and reviewers said it felt like they were “reading porn”. They often said it in a rather surprised way, as in they were expecting erotica and got something rather more filthy. Fine. It is a very dirty book, I’ll admit it, and I definitely wrote it with the intention of arousing the reader. I can’t think of a finer compliment than someone telling me my book has fed their erotic fantasies, but so far I can only think of one review where the reader has actually stated they masturbated while reading.

Why are we still so ashamed of admitting we’re aroused by reading smut? It strikes me that a lot of the snobbish attitude I see directed at dirty books springs from us being uncomfortable with our own sex drives. Instead of looking down on pornographic writing, the feminist in me rejoices in the fact that this is one lucrative part of the porn industry that’s almost entirely in the control of women. The vast majority of writers and publishers of erotica are female, and they’re doing extremely well for themselves out of it. No one gets exploited, and there’s no risk of spreading STDs. Written porn is the ultimate in safe sex, while still giving us the chance to get down and dirty in our imaginations. I want to see an end to this widespread snobbery about dirty books, and I want to celebrate all those books that have nurtured my filthy fantasies.

Yes, even the romantic ones.

Bio:Josephine Myles

English through and through, Josephine Myles is addicted to tea and busy cultivating a reputation for eccentricity. She writes gay erotica and romance, but finds the erotica keeps cuddling up to the romance, and the romance keeps corrupting the erotica. Jo blames her rebellious muse but he never listens to her anyway, no matter how much she threatens him with a big stick. She’s beginning to suspect he enjoys it.

Find Jo at JosephineMyles.com

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

44 comments

  • You know I tend to think of romantic porn as the junk food of reading, be it het or slash. Sometimes all you want is a quick fix without the nutritional value you get from a decent novel. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it isn’t really sustaining. I spend a fair amount on romantic porn every now and then, but its the authors who manage to pair some smut with a story which keeps you from moving until the end, they’re the ones I will preorder anything they write without even reading what the plot is about. The holy grail of great tasting healthy food! I’m doing a PhD at the moment and trust me I’m probably reading (and eating) more along the junk food lines, but hey there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

    I loved your piece here though as I wholeheartedly agree with you. Romantic books without the smut are definitely becoming the minority in the slash market though, so much so that when I come across one I make a point of reviewing it on my blog just to show that there are books with non-heterosexual couples out there that I can feel comfortable recommending to young readers.

    Reply
    • Hi Kez! I agree about needing to snack on romantic porn at times. I’m sure I read more of it these days because I just don’t have the hours of uninterrupted reading time I used to before I was a writer AND mother. Complex, involved plots that demand focus and thought aren’t easy to follow if you’re just grabbing the odd twenty minutes to read, knowing a small person could make a demand at any time 🙂

      I’m glad there are m/m books out there with all heat levels and in all subgenres, but right now I’m especially glad for the pornilicious ones because they entertain me with a minimal amount of concentration required on my part 😀

      Reply
  • So many great comments on this post. What a well thought out and thought-provoking post. I enjoy reading sex, I enjoy reading a LOT of sex, I enjoy reading filthy sex, romantic sex, all kinds of sex. Sometimes though, I have to be in the mood for it and if I find myself skipping over the sex scenes in a book it’s either b/c it’s bland, it’s not adding to the story, or I”m not in the mood to read it. None of these are mutually exclusive that’s for sure. But I do agree, that if it just becomes tab A goes into slot b and doesn’t really do much to add to the story – to me that is a “gratuitous” sex scene and could just as easily been cut from the book. And when I find too many of those – it puts me off reading sex scenes and I find myself gravitating to the more romantic side of things and looking for more substance.

    That all said, Hot Floor was a wonderful mix of both. Hot sex but enough plot and love and caring between the three men that the sex scenes were just an extension of what was going on between the three of them. But that’s pretty much par for the course for you – you haven’t written anything I didn’t like…so I’m probably a bit biased 😀

    Reply
    • Hi Katherine–good to see you here 🙂

      I know exactly what you mean about sometimes skipping sex scenes when they don’t seem to be adding anything. I have to be in the mood for reading smut for smut’s sake

      And thanks for the vote of confidence in The Hot Floor! I felt all the sex in that book was justified because to me it was about Josh’s sexual awakening as much as it was about the romance. When the sex is thematic, I reckon you can put in as much as you want… within reason! 😉

      Reply
  • I understand your stance as Romance novels were (and still are) also often looked down upon by others. I feel all sorts of books/readings are legitimate reads and no one genre or type of reading should be looked down upon.

    However, like Wave said in an old post (can’t remember when), I’m getting tired of PWP-ish stuff in M/M nowadays. I can find plenty of those kinds of stories on Fanfiction sites and free erotic literature and even visual mediums like manga/anime/doushinji, artwork, fanart, etc. I like sexy-times, but I like to know more about the characters outside of those sexy-times as well. Sometimes it’s interesting to see how a character acts out of bed contrasts how he/she acts in bed. =)

    I’m getting to the point where I’m not buying m/m books until I read reviews (either here or on Goodreads, etc) for fear of finding yet another PWP. It’s not that I’m against them; it’s just I’m tired of the erotic stuff.

    I enjoy the mushy Romance-y parts, if that makes any sense.

    Before m/m, I’ve read het romances that have some sexy-times, but have more plot or sweetness than anything else. (I highly enjoy reading Historical Romances and even a few Christian Romances).

    M/M nowadays are just erotic/erotica. It is why I’m reverting a little bit back to sweet het stuff and looking for LGBT YA fiction.

    I’m still loving M/M (I’m a slash fan all of the way) but only specific authors I will look for.

    When I shop M/M, I’m now actively looking at “Heat Levels” because of the onslaught of erotic stuff. I enjoy steamy reads, but I want a bit of a plot or characterization out of the bedroom. Otherwise, I could have just googled slash fanfiction or some good yaoi if I wanted this much porn.

    Reply
    • BG — note that “heat level” won’t always give you the info you want. First, a book might have only one very hot sex scene, and have a high heat level, although it’s mostly plot. Or it might have a bunch of vanilla sex scenes but not much plot, and have a lower heat level. As an example, both my novels have three flames on ARe, but the first has 1.5 sex scenes, and the second (which is about 40K words longer) only has one, and they’re not kinky or anything. [shrug] Someone looking for, say, lots of non-kinky sex (if that’s their interpretation of 3/5 heat rating) would be disappointed.

      The problem with trusting the labels is that heat sells, and publishers will sometimes give a book a higher heat level than it deserves to make extra sales. Or different publishers (or different vendors) will have different definitions for their various heat levels. Some standardization would be nice, but I don’t see it happening. :/

      Angie

      Reply
      • Oh, I totally understand that. Luckily, I don’t mind high heats. (A couple of my fav authors are in the RedHots!!! Category of Samhain, for example.) 😀

        That is why I also check reviews from multiple sources. But, yeah, even then, some labels of some publishers are not informative enough. 🙁 I love my romance fluff along a bit of plot which is why I tend to more plot-oriented/world-building genres, such as scifi and fantasy romances. Luckily, because there are so many m/m stories and publishers, I’ve been finding some good stuff that’s not purely PWP. 🙂

        I try to be informed as much as I can, though. Which is why sites like Jessewave are very helpful for me. (For example, if there’s hardcore BDSM, if there’s more violence/action, if it’s dark/fluffy, etc). 🙂

        Reply
      • I’d agree that the heat levels can be really misleading at times. The only publisher I’ve ever had a story out with who gave really thorough definitions of their different heat levels (including you having to give them a breakdown of what percentage of the narrative was sex) were Amber Allure. Their website does go into great detail with kinks as well. I think Riptide are doing well with the labelling too 🙂

        Reply
    • I think the reason I like the fusion of romance and porn is that you can get those mushy bits in there too–it’s the best of both worlds 🙂

      I’d say there’s a fair bit of m/m with little or no sex in it, but I suppose it depends how voracious a reader you are. Perhaps there wouldn’t be enough to keep a book a day reader happy, but I’m always reading reviews about m/m romances that have much more plot than sex. I just read Family Man by Heidi Cullinan and Marie Sexton, and thought that was a great example.

      I wonder if it’s simply because I only read at the rate of a novel a week, and I also read in other genres, that I haven’t managed to overdose on the erotic stuff yet? I hope I never do 🙂

      Reply
      • I wonder if it’s a matter of what people consider erotic? 😕

        For me, nowadays, most of the m/m are very… detailed compared to what I’m used to. Which is fine. But when it’s most of the books of the genre (and especially in the sub-genres I enjoy), I feel tired and want some…variety. Even some more variety in the sex scenes would help. 😆

        Then again, thinking about it, maybe it’s because I come from a background of reading children’s books, Young Adult books, some LGBT YA books, Historical Romances, and a couple of fantasy/sci-fi in which the sex is not as detailed/not even mentioned in detail and there is more plot/drama (ex: Mercedes Lackey). I must read lots of tame stuff, heh. 😆 I also read slash fiction that have more plot/romance-drama stuff than some of the m/m I’ve read so far. I just prefer more emotions or sweet stuff, and I wish there were more of them.

        I think in the contemporary genre (in m/m) there is more variety in heat levels, I’ve noticed. 🙂 With certain sub-genres, especially paranormal romance, there tends to be more higher heat levels. (And BDSM. :whip: Lately, lots of BDSM, both in straight and LGBT romances. Must be “Shades of Gray” influence, I am guessing?)

        Reply
        • You’re right about the level of explicit detail in erotica being higher than it used to be–I’ve noticed that in het erotica too. I like that because detail makes things more convincing for me and tends to avoid the traps of purple prose. However, you’ve got to get some emotional charge in there too or it can start to read like a technical manual on how to have sex!

          I suspect BDSM is selling well right now because of 50 Shades–it’s always been more of a niche, but I guess more readers are trying it out after reading that one. Bet they get shocked by some of the more hardcore stuff out there!

          Reply
  • Everything what Angie said (only from reader’s position) and especially this:

    “At the same time, though, although I personally dislike books that are just a string of sex scenes, loosely stuck together — or as I usually describe it, twenty pounds of sex in a five pound plot — I don’t want fewer of those books published. There are obviously readers who love them, and that’s great. People who enjoy reading twenty pounds of sex in a five pound plot should have as many of those books to read as they want. What I would like, at the same time, is to have plenty of the kinds of books I like to read too.”

    Reply
  • To me, it’s not a matter of how much sex is in a book, but rather a matter of how well all the sex pulls its weight. Does it further the plot, show character, develop the relationship, something? If so, I’ll happily read it. If not, I skim until the story starts again. If I do too much skimming, I regret the cost of the book and probably won’t buy anything else by that writer. Which isn’t to say I prefer to read books with only a little bit of sex, although that’s usually what people take away from the above statement. 😛 I’m supposed to be a writer so you’d think I could get my point across more clearly, but so far no luck. [wry smile]

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of books with plenty of sex, so long as it’s all organic to the story. My favorite example is Bad Case of Loving You by Lainey Cairo, which has tons of sex, a lot of it kinky, and every bit of it supports the story.

    At the same time, though, although I personally dislike books that are just a string of sex scenes, loosely stuck together — or as I usually describe it, twenty pounds of sex in a five pound plot — I don’t want fewer of those books published. There are obviously readers who love them, and that’s great. People who enjoy reading twenty pounds of sex in a five pound plot should have as many of those books to read as they want. What I would like, at the same time, is to have plenty of the kinds of books I like to read too. This isn’t a zero-sum game, where we’re all (speaking as a writer now) competing for physical space in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. There can be a million books out there that are heavy erotica or outright porn, and so long as there are also a million books of heavily plotted romance with sex that’s completely organic to and supportive of the story (and so long as the online bookstores have good search engines so I can find what I like and you can find what you like) then everyone wins. We don’t have to choose up sides or make this an either/or situation.

    There are enough readers who like different kinds of books that writers should feel free to write whatever type we like to write. Readers will find us. Sure, some subgenres will wax and wane in popularity, but that’s always been true, and it’s always been cyclic. The nice thing about e-books and POD books is that they can be in print forever. If what I’m writing now isn’t popular when I publish it, then it can sit there (while I write my next book) and wait for the audience to find it. I don’t have to fret over whether “enough” of it will sell in the six months or so before a traditional publisher gives up on it, and a traditional bookstore strips the covers and sends them all back. 2013 is a great time for readers and writers of all types.

    Angie

    Reply
    • Hi Angie–thanks for stopping by. You make a great point about there being room for every type of book. Really, it’s just a labelling issue that seems to get most readers annoyed, when they end up with a book filled with sex when they were expecting something else. I tend to buy my romantic porn from erotica publishers (and it’s usually BDSM), so I know exactly what to expect from it and am rarely disappointed.

      I’ve looked up that Laney Cairo book and it looks like something I’d enjoy. Thanks for the rec!

      Reply

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