As I begin doing book reviews more regularly, the question of categories comes up very quickly. For some things it doesn’t matter. A historical cookbook can be listed in both the culinary and historical categories and no one will complain. To the contrary, it makes it easier to find the thing. But no one expects a division between cookbooks and really, really cookbooks, and even if there was such a thing, it’s unlikely people would get huffy by confusing one for the other and getting something slightly different than they planned.
Erotica has those subdivisions and those problems, and very little terminology to differentiate.
Most of the trouble, as far as I can figure it, is a certain relativism that floats over the subject like a fog. What to one person is a mild reference to adult activity is enough to make another blush and fan herself, and borderline pornography to a third. It’s frankly absurd, and makes it very difficult to discuss literature with any reasonable frame of reference. Let’s see if we can untangle things a bit.
The first thing to do is remove the irrelevant variables. Artists describe color as having hue (tint/what color it is), saturation (richness/density/how much of the color there is), and value (shade/contrast/darkness). Like a painter who wishes to focus only on the contrast of a piece, we need to set aside the frequency and setting of a story’s erotica and compare the words of the erotica itself. The frequency isn’t the thing, here: adding hand-holding and fluttering eyelashes on every page of a story does not move the erotica level remotely as much as even a brief yet specifically described sex bout. The type of erotica has influence, of course, but is also not the definition of the erotic levels: a tittering 3rd-person mention that someone likes a good spanking is far milder than a stroke-by-stroke narrative of even straight missionary sex. Before you object, understand that I’m not saying these things are entirely unrelated (it’s all part of the color, to continue the metaphor), but that in practice the interest in, objections to, and rules about publishing erotic literature is mostly predicated by some fairly objective criteria, and on this part of it especially. The fact that one person gets flustered over the same thing another doesn’t is not at all useful when trying to convey in brief a given shade of erotica. Identify the levels and let people choose which they prefer; trying to do it the other way around is doomed to failure.
Whew! That being done with, let’s get down to business.
On the one end of things we have what most people might think of when they hear the phrase “romance novel.” While that can encompass a fair range in this list, it is the only term that can include the chaste and restrained Victorian courtships, religiously-inclined and sex-free prairie romances, and what Fred Savage’s character in The Princess Bride referred to as “kissing books.” Pretty much anything more than a kiss usually happens offstage, and without description. It’s mostly about feelings and social intricacy, not the least reason being that there is very little else to work with. A romance may well contain acts up to and including sex, but it’s handled without description aside from the emotions of the characters.
On the other end we have literary porn. Every act is described to near-clinical detail, all parts, all fluids, and usually with such luminary dialog as, “OOOOOOHHHHH GOOOOOOODDDD!!!” Though generally looked down on, at least openly, it not only has its place and usefulness, but is pretty popular in its odd way. It’s the category where every taboo is broken and all kinks are celebrated. Terminology is varied, inventive, and crass. The plots tend to be sparse and often don’t make much sense; but most of erotica is fantasy, and this is the style that has the least call for realism. Very much a cut to the chase sort of thing. But it doesn’t have to be: once in a while you’ll find something more elaborate that nevertheless leaps to wild abandon when it can.
Stepping back from lit. porn we have what I’d call erotica, partly because it lacks any other reasonable term. It is specifically about eros, and that is why it is read. Every aspect is ratcheted back a bit from porn: words chosen are less likely to offend even if they describe the same things, dialog avoids the all-caps transcriptions, and details are plentiful but not usually to pointless excess. It also connects physical aspects with emotional, giving a more fully erotic impression, and in the service of emotional arousal usually has a more coherent plot, if still fantastic. I say “usually” because one of the most popular series in this category, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, is scant on plot and nonsensical in premise. But the sex is hot. That particular example I might further break off into a subcategory perhaps called scrubbed erotica, which is quite explicit but very carefully worded so as not to cause publishers such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble to have trouble deciding where to put it.
Coming back to the other side, to describe a step farther into erotica from basic romance I’ll invoke the term bodice ripper. That describes a more ferocious and passionate sort of plot and premise and often drifts (or charges) into fantasies clearly popular yet absurdly denied… until recently, anyway. 50 Shades of Grey popped the lid off that can of worms, but that’s for another time. More pertinent to our discussion is the more brazen level of description. Nipples make an appearance, among other bits and pieces, and a more enthusiastic sexuality is the norm. It’s still primarily about plot and character, because while sex might be why someone picked up Outlander, it’s actually a fairly small part of the word count. And it’s really not much described. To continue with Outlander as an example, have a look at the lists of “hot sections” online and note the level of description.
As broad as these categories are, there’s still a fair distance between bodice rippers and erotica. For lack of a better term (and I’m open to suggestions if you have better ideas for any of these) I’ll call the middle of the spectrum erotic romance. Much of the group could be described more as “kind of erotic fantasy-adventure,” but setting notwithstanding, the term works for the level of described erotica. The Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey is an example of this. The main character in the first trilogy is raised as a highly-trained courtesan, “cursed” to feel pain as pleasure. A lot of sex naturally ensues, but mostly it’s offstage, though sensuality abounds throughout. The category ranges from this example, which is in its way almost as mild as the bodice rippers, to the border of explicit erotica.
The greatest challenge in identifying what specific category a piece belongs to is the interplay between its setting or premise and its erotic wording level. They combine to produce a unique effect, much as hue and value combine to make a distinct color. I’ll be meeting this challenge more frequently as I expand the kinds of books I review. I’m open to suggestions there, as well!