Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What Exactly is ‘Sweet’ and Who Says So?

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. 


  1. Very sensible. I would hate to see industry-wide rules on any literature. I've had letters from readers (not many, thankfully) that complain they would never commit murder for the same reason as my character did in a book I wrote. I'm not sure what to make of that.

    1. Hmmm. I wonder what would constitute just grounds for murder for those people? Okay, maybe I don't wanna know. :)

  2. I write sweet too, and made a decision to excise all the sex from my backlist books before republishing them. I've always understood sweet and clean to mean kisses on stage, but otherwise closing the bedroom door. I guess your reader doesn't think so!

    Everyone has their foibles, and it's unlikely any set of rules would please everybody.

  3. Hi Janis--
    Sorry you got an angry reader letter. That sounds a bit overkill to me. I suppose if your book was labeled as young adult her reaction might be understandable. It's a shame that your nice description came across as offensive to her.
    Victoria M. Johnson--

  4. This is a great topic and I'm really enjoying the comments too! I was just having this discussion with friends the other day in which we were talking about the big debate in Y.A. (amongst traditionally published authors). Apparently there are certain words that are a "no-no", but also, there are certain acts and if committed, the heroine, (and only the heroine), must suffer the negative consequences of her actions. (There's a word for that, which I'm not sure I can use on C&C, so suffice it to say, it entails shaming the character into contrition.) And in YA, there's a broad range of maturity amongst, say, 13 year olds, so the concensus was, (amongst those of us who were writing it,) that it had to be worded in such a way that a more mature 13 year old could "extrapolate from incomplete data" while the connotation would be over the head of the less mature 13 year old.
    I know, I know. Life is complicated enough. (BTW, I have a transgender heroine in one of my upcoming books, but it too is written in such a way that some will "extrapolate from incomplete data", and it will pass without recognition by others. :) Gotta do what you gotta do in order to push the envelope, to build a vocabulary, toward making a thing more widely... if not accepted at first, then at least open for discussion and debate.

  5. sweet to me has always been behind closed doors. I think the lady was over the top, but sure it was both confusing and distressful for you. like they say, you can please some of the people....

  6. As one of the authors who brought "sweet" romance back into vogue, I'll say sweet is just kisses if the couple are unmarried, and closed door sex (like you described in your example) if the hero and heroine are married.

    Nevertheless, you'll still have some people who think there's too much sensuality and some who think there's not enough. :)

  7. These days sweet is in the eye of the beholder, In my experience the readers who want sweet romances also want Christian and inspirational romances.

    I limit my sweet romances to kissing no sex if the couple are not marries, and fade to black sex if they are.

  8. Thank you for this post, Janis. 'Sweet' is a romance sub-genre with expectations, but to say there is no sex in 'sweet' is debatable. Sex is a natural aspect of romance, from thinking about kissing to actually kissing is all part of the emotional progression.

    When writing romance about teens or adults, there will be moments of intense emotional and sexual tension, on or off the page. My first novel published by Avalon was 'sweet' in the sense that the newly married couple made love 'off the page.' My editor allowed hints as to what was about to happen or had taken place. No one has complained, in that I've been fortunate, judging by your reader's reaction.

    Of the many 'sweet' and 'inspirational' romances I've read, the best are honest about the sexual attraction between the main characters, celebrating love and its natural expression, without denying, exploiting or denigrating sex.