At the Back Fence Issue #265

May 21, 2007 – Issue #265

From the Desk of Sandra Schwab:

Lascivious, Luscious Lusting

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man (be it a haughty Regency earl, a bonnie Scottish highlander, a rugged Texas rancher, a heartless Greek tycoon, a furry werewolfie, or an humanoid alien with interesting body parts) in possession of a good fortune (or old castle, lots of sheep, cows or horsies, a Viking ship, spaceship or any other sort of ship) must be in want of a wife – even if he doesn’t know it yet. And good for him if he has a lot of sex until he finally finds out. Good for the author, too, because, according to another universally acknowledged truth, sex sells: covers with nekkid male torsos remain extremely popular, and erotic romance continues to grow in leaps and bounds. As a consequence, large parts of mainstream romance have also become sexier and more daring. But if there are more love scenes in a romance, does this also mean that the levels of lusting should be increased, that the protagonists should spent more time fantasizing about each other? After Laurie received an email from author Karen Templeton on whether or not erotic romances should be judged by mainstream romance standards, she decided to ask if anybody would tackle a guest ATBF column on the subject of lust-thought in romance.

Why did she choose me?

Well, probably because I was the first to yell “here, me!”, or perhaps because I admitted I had been trying to increase the sensuality in my own novels, with varying results: That some rather kinky scenes ended up in my debut novel was more or less an accident (or rather, entirely due to the crap mood I was in when I wrote that story). But later on one of my published friends told me, “You do know, Sandy, don’t you, that now you have to continue writing dark and kinky.” – Ooookay, how hard can it be? That my second novel turned out to be not quite so dark is the fault of the lady with the sturdy boots, who stomped all the darkness to dust (literally so, I’m afraid), and that it didn’t turn to be terribly kinky either … well, it was certainly not for my want of trying! I thought it a splendid idea to have my protagonists look at some naughty pictures together – but when other people’s characters (and perfect strangers at that point!) have wild, hot sex behind a screen at the Crystal Palace Exhibition, how naughty can looking at naughty pictures in the privacy of a bedroom be considered? Not to be thwarted, I set out to write my third novel: this time I would increase the number of love scenes and the amount of hanky panky and the amount of lusting. Scorching thoughts, here I come!

Yet is this increased sensuality in Romancelandia really a good thing? In preparation for this column and to answer Laurie’s question, I asked a number of fellow authors, of readers, and of AAR reviewers for their opinion on this matter – and as with any good questionnaire study, I belatedly realized my one, single question might have been a little bit clearer. So I apologize for any sort of ambiguity or lack of clarity that has resulted from this.

Generally speaking and as was only to be expected, opinions were divided: best selling author Kathleen Givens believes that lusting or longing is an essential part of romance: “One of the most powerful things in a romance or any relationship story is the sexual tension, call it longing or lusting, between two people. That tension is what makes the reader stay with the story until the relationship is clarified – either through consummation or separation. I don’t think it matters whether the story is a sweet romance or an erotic one, it is the longing/lusting that holds our interest and there can almost not be too much of it in any story.”

Givens’ sentiment was partly echoed by Dick, the only man I asked: “. . . romance fiction without sex and lustful thoughts, either explicit or implicit, doesn’t seem very logical to me;” and by [new reviewer] Kate G. (katiebabs on the AAR forums), who thinks lustful thoughts make it easier for the reader to believe in the chemistry between the protagonists and names Gena Showalter’s To Catch a Mate as a perfect example for this: “. . . both the hero and the heroine seem to hate each other. They are very vocal about how much they dislike each [other], but when we read their inner thoughts, it is the total opposite. It is very funny and just cute to see what the main characters are really thinking. Also if they just jumped in bed together and we the audience have no clue how they really feel about each other, the whole act seems very cold. I think of the whole lustful thought concept like a foreplay between each character before they go on to the main event.”

Islandelf helpfully provided some rules of what makes sensuality work for her: “1) built the hotness from the beginning but 2) no overkill [i.e. love scenes shouldn’t be too long or too numerous] and most important 3) no gold-medal gymnastics.” Rosario enjoys it most if the lusting is done on the part of the hero: “I just love knowing that he is completely into the heroine, that he finds her attractive and is turned on by her. But here’s the thing: I want to know that he is turned on by *the heroine*, not by a collection of body parts which could belong to anyone.” This latter point was, in variation, brought up by many others, too: “. . . I tend to think that lots of scenes involving lustful thoughts along the lines of ‘he’s so hot. He’s so gorgeous. Look at those xxxx. I want to xxxx him. Oh he makes my xxxx xxxx’ are boring. If that’s pretty much the only thing the character thinks about she/he is going to seem extremely shallow, with a one-track mind,” says Laura Vivanco, who is part of the academic bloggers’ team of Teach Me Tonight. And while Kristie(J) likes her books hot, “. . . I like it better when lust turns into attraction of other things such as intelligence, intellect, humor, mutual interests. It takes longer to build, but the end result is much richer for it.” Or, as AAR reviewer Sandy puts it, “I really do want some love stuff in the build-up.”

The listing of body parts and the lack of romance are, in fact, exactly the things which annoy several readers about the increasing number of lust thoughts: “Many romance novels substitute lust for love,” says Laurie, “and rather than an author building a relationship perhaps more slowly and a bit more realistically – not to mention meaningfully! – too many use lust-thought as a short cut. It’s one thing if the book is erotic romance, where there is lots and lots of sex, but it gets old quickly to continually read about a hero’s hard-on for the heroine, and her consistently wet panties (or pantaloons) for him.”

AAR’s Rachel echoes this: “My opinion on lust think is that it’s already waaaaay overdone and what’s there is mostly cliche. And, of course, it would be – how many ways can an author write, essentially: ‘He was aroused looking at her and wanted to have sex with her.’? Not that many. . . . Personally, as a reader, I like fewer love scenes. If they are there to make the plot work or illuminate character, then great. But I don’t need filler love scenes in my romances; I don’t have that kind of time to waste, nor do I want to pay for something I’ll just skim.” Rachel believes that romances with “subtle or kisses only sensuality are becoming extinct”, and argues that “a not insignificant portion of the romance reading community is finding it harder and harder to locate a romance they’d want to read.” She regards the success of inspirational romance partly as a result of this yearning for “cleaner” reads.

And what about the authors? Carolyn Jewel, Diana Groe, and newbie author Farrah Rochon all agreed that the level sensuality should depend on the story and on the chemistry between the characters. Yet Carolyn and Diana also voiced their worries that due to the success and popularity of more erotic romances, authors might feel compelled to increase the level sensuality in their novels, even though the story doesn’t call for it: “What you end up with then is a story in which the sexual heat is explicit but tepid,” Carolyn says. “Yuck.”

Which, in a way, brings us back to my aforementioned efforts to spice up my own books: so for my third (as yet unpublished) novel, I increased the amount of lusting and the hanky panky and when it was finally time to write the first love scene, I was so fed up with all the lusting and panting and what not, that I made my characters read a book (and it was not erotica either!). That will show them! Of course, it also showed me, namely that I’d better stick to writing warm instead of attempting the uber-hot!

Before signing off, let me extend a big thank you to everybody who took part in my mini-survey! And now it’s up to you: let us hear your thoughts on luscious lusting: do you like it hot? Or not? Or do you share Nikki’s opinion, “more sex scenes doesn’t mean they have to lust over each other more”?

Questions To Consider:

What makes lust thought good for you? Can you provide examples where the lusting went beyond the mere listing of body parts?

Would you prefer if authors would cut back on the sex and the lusting, solely the sex, or solely the lusting?

Do you see the increasing heat in today’s romance as part of an ongoing development that started with the real bodice rippers of the 1970s?

If you are an author: have you consciously increased the sensuality in your novels? Or, perhaps, have you actually been told to spice up your books?

Sandra Schwab

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(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)