by Janis Susan May
I always thought I wrote ‘sweet.’ I mean, there’s no sex, no groping, no interactive body parts (other than lips, I will confess), no acrobatics. How sweet can you get?
In my case, apparently not enough. Once I got a very heated letter from a reader who was blazingly infuriated that in one of my books the hero and heroine had sex. Then she called me a number of names, the kindest of which was ‘pornographer.’
I was astonished, as I’ve never written like that, at least not in that book. Convinced that she had my book mixed up with another, I pulled up the manuscript file and began to read. Shoot fire, she was right. My characters did have sex – but only in a very non-sexual way, if that’s not a total oxymoron. There was a passionate standing-up clinch, then I said something like ‘he lowered her tenderly to the ground’ (they happened to be in a cave at the moment) and that was it. End of chapter. The next chapter started late the next morning when the hero and heroine were back on the run from the bad guys.
So did they have sex? Yes, but so far offstage that if you didn’t guess it you wouldn’t have known. No description, no blow-by-blow, no details, no morning-after smirks. Was it – even as shadowy as it was – gratuitous? Most definitely not. That evening’s activities were the lynchpin for a very important plot point.
So I ask, what constitutes ‘sweet’ and who sets the parameters? There are obvious no-nos, such as exposed body parts and minutely detailed acrobatics, but where is the line about incidents as described above? By the way, both characters were distinctly adult and cognizant of any repercussions. Teens and younger readers deserve their own set of much more restrictive conventions.
It’s easy to say ‘the publishing house sets the rules’ but in this day of burgeoning self-publishing that doesn’t fly. There’s one big publisher line where it’s a rule the kiss is the culmination of the book. Personally, I find a romance with just one kiss and it only at the end a little bit creepy. On the other hand, I find romances with characters repeatedly hopping in and out of bed with each other and repeated intimate descriptions worthy of a technical manual more than a little distressing and hardly deserving of the name romance.
I guess it comes down to an equivalent of art – how many of us have said “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Some people sigh and gush over Mondrian and Warhol; others’ hearts go pitty-pat over Watteau and Monet. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Unfortunately, until the unhealthy day some hard-and-fast rules are put in place, there is going to be a grey area, which in turn means that no matter how hard we try to get across our heat level, some readers are going to be insulted. Frankly, I’d rather have a few angry readers than a rigid, industry-wide standard, because as we all know, rules stifle creativity.