Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sexual content is not just for the romance genre

I recently had a reader complain about the sexual content in one of my novels. The person declared that he did not want to read romance or erotica. I can understand that, but I don’t write in those genres. If I were to market my novels as romance I would likely get many complaints about not focusing on love enough.

The offense I caused this reader got me to thinking about how self publishing can differ from traditional publishing. Publishers define genres, acquire content that fits criteria or shape it to their criteria, and then place round peg products into round peg holes. Readers learn to expect certain things. Epic fantasy, the genre I write in, was for a long time not a place for bumping uglies. Although I love this genre, I had always imagined that it would be even more fun and meaningful if its characters had a more realistic edge and were allowed to openly indulge in romantic urges.

When I started writing in the late 1990s I had conceived of myself as being published by a publisher, so I kept the content within some of the boundaries I was familiar with from commercially produced fantasy fiction. I worried that if I went too far, a potential publisher would tell me to change things. And trust me the thought of anyone telling me to change something in my novels is anathema to me. Even so, my first four novels were decidedly PG-13. I included sexual situations and love scenes but wrote them politely.

Then in 2004 I discovered the fantasy of George R.R. Martin and was exceedingly impressed, apparently along with millions of other readers. I loved the huge cast of characters, the battles, the intrigue, the magic, but I was also delighted to discover an epic fantasy not hobbled by ridiculous Victorian notions about keeping everyone’s pants up. Epic fantasy had matured, moved out of the house, and was going to live with her boyfriend if she wanted to. Feeling quite liberated, I decided to write my next novels exactly how I wanted to without playing chaperone to my sexual content.

When I do love or sex scenes, my phrasing has become more graphic and my sexual situations are a bit more frequent. I very much enjoy writing my stories this way. I write epics in which years pass in the lives of characters and it would seem quite strange if none of them had love interests or the occasional hook up between battles. Would it even be reasonable to portray a young man who is good looking, rich, and frequently facing death as NOT interested in the advances of women?

Then there are literary reasons for giving characters sex lives. It adds intensity to their lives and hopefully helps readers relate to them and understand their motivations better. For example, of course a hero wants to save people because it’s the right thing to do, but he especially wants to save his lover and mother of his child. Or how about this scenario? Of course that young princess hates the thought of an arranged marriage, and now that exciting outlaw who just kidnapped her would be a great way to get back at daddy. Now that’s much more interesting, at least to me.

But now I return to my marketing quandary. How do I present my fantasy novels to readers? I don’t think I’m romantic or sexy enough to claim the label romance and certainly not erotica. But when I use the label epic fantasy, apparently some people seem to think nookie is off limits, or at best off stage. I understand that some readers never want sex in their books, but how am I supposed to convey in my marketing that my writing is inspired by the full range of human emotions and experiences?

I realize I’ll never please everyone. I never became a writer shaped by the requirements of a product line developed by an outside company. I’m an independent writer self publishing her novels. They are exactly the way I want them to be, but I admittedly struggle with how to package and present them to readers. I’m sure I’m not alone among indie writers with this problem. I guess I’ll just have to go along upsetting the occasional reader who doesn’t want chocolate in his peanut butter. As a writer, I can at least be satisfied that I am provoking strong reactions.