Animation by Kayelle Allen at The Author's Secret

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Is My Sweet Romance Too Dirty?

Stick with Ted until you're wed?
-  I like it when books leave it to your imagination as to what goes on between the sheets or in the privacy of one's home - that's what relationships are - private - and should stay that way, so congratulations on keeping the book clean and sensitive. review

-  This is a clean read no sex (just reference to) and no swearing! review

It seems a little ironic that after my last post ‘Is My Romance too Sweet for You?’ (see below), I should now be asking if my ‘sweet’ (and I’m still mildly uncomfortable with the term) romance is clean or…well whatever the opposite is – dirty, I presume?  Can a sweet romance be dirty?  That sounds like a contradiction in terms – an oxymoron, even.  Either way, it seems I have been deluded in glibly thinking that I write ‘clean’ romance!

But that is what I stand accused of now!  You can imagine how surprised I was to receive an email this week from a reviewer who claimed she was unable to finish reading The Apple Tree because, effectively, it was not ‘clean enough’ for her tastes!  My disappointment, I hasten to add, was short-lived.  Since it took her more than four months to make her monumental decision, it was hardly at the forefront of my mind. However her comment did shock me and make me wonder, yet again, about romance sub-genres and whether we poor writers will ever be able to please all of our readers all of the time.

The two reviews quoted above both relate to The Apple Tree and both clearly refer to it as being ‘clean’.  A little research into the first reviewer shows her (or him) to be a discerning reader while the second is a reputable reviewer.  Could they have got it wrong?  How many more classifications can the ‘sweet’ sub-genre be broken down into?

A look at another romance writer’s blog was extremely helpful.  In her delightful blog (, Morgan Mandel describes Sweet as showing attraction between the sexes but with intimate contact being limited to sweet kisses, while Sweet Discreet allows implied but not detailed sex between the hero and heroine. This must be “either understood to be behind closed doors; or, if it's mentioned in the here and now, no graphic and/or overly long details dwelling on body organs and body responses.”  Morgan’s definition is extremely useful and it places The Apple Tree very cleanly (sorry!) in the Sweet Discreet category.  But is this a category universally understood by readers, writers and, indeed everyone else?

The condemning of my novel to some unclean category also raised another question in my mind.  Am I being hypocritical in allowing my characters to have sex, but refusing to describe it?  As discussed previously, it's a conscious decision not to describe their intimacy, but should I also refuse its existence?  Hmm.  

In The Apple Tree my heroine is on the threshold of her twenty-seventh birthday; she has already been married and is a doctor, to boot.  The hero is at least the same age, possibly even in his early thirties, absolutely gorgeous, eligible and with girls falling at his feet on every street corner.  Would it be realistic for these healthy heterosexuals, with no religious or cultural constraints, to resist their powerful sexual attraction for each other until after they are married – i.e. throughout the course of the entire novel, especially when their two best friends are living together quite openly?  

I would love to know what other romance writers feel about this and I would especially love to hear from readers of romance – after all, they are the ones whose preferences really count in such matters.


Deborah said...

Thank you, Lynette, for this delightful article - the perfect addition to your last (and I luurve the lil kitty with the bear). Since I've read all of your books, I can safely say that they deal with the physical side of romance very subtly and delicately - there's really nothing in your books to offend anyone. Except if you're against sex before marriage, maybe - I think this is what the "shocked" reviewer meant.

Personally, I like my romances spicy but also read "sweet" romances - there's a wide range of books for every taste available. While I respect people's different religious and moral opinions, I strongly object against censorship and calling a book a "clean" read, which implies that more sensual stories are "unclean" and "dirty".

Such expressions make me wonder in which century I live in. Sex in a relationship between adults is an expression of love, which, at least in my very personal opinion, is God-given.

Morgan Mandel said...

That kitty is precious!
Thanks for mentioning my blog, Lynette.
When I started Sweet Not Spicy, I noticed a niche that needed to be filled, so I wanted to fill it. So many books do include graphic scenes, and not every reader likes them.

As soon as I set up the blog, I had authors emailing me, asking exactly what books could qualify to be featured. That's how I made the categories of Sweet and Sweet Discreet. Each author has to designate which it is. Does the book include unspicy sex or no sex?

It's all a matter of free choice. To each his/her own.

Morgan Mandel

Emily Harvale said...

The kitten is gorgeous!
Personally, I dislike the whole sub-genre issue. To me, a good romantic story, is a good romantic story. I've read all levels of "heat", and whilst some have actually made me blush, it didn't stop me reading them. Of course, that's my personal choice.
I'm also a writer and I find it's like walking on eggshells. You can't please everyone. Deciding exactly where my own novels "fit" has been more difficult than writing them!

Jane Richardson said...

I agree with a bit of what everyone says! I can understand why Morgan made the categories she did, as she says, not every reader wants the same thing. Fair enough. My main feeling is, if you really notice the sex and it somehow doesn't jive right with the rest of the book, then something's wrong with the book....maybe? I've read books where it's so obvious the writer either decided to or was instructed to 'insert sex scene here ' and it unbalances the story. Publishers are very often to blame here too, catering to genre rather than letting a perfectly good book exist as it stands. That does happen.
Then again, if there's a sex scene and it's right for the characters and the way the rest of the story has unfolded, it shouldn't be an issue.
I do find the whole sub-genre thing such hard work, like Emily says, if it's a good story then it's a good story, full stop! After hearing so much about this issue for so long, I've got to the point that I'm honestly not that bothered any more if a reader doesn't like something I've written. You can only be true to yourself and your characters - which means not including sex as much as including it. If that's all that's bothering a reader, well, what can you do?!! If my writing isn't spicy enough for some, or too spicy for others, they won't read my stuff again and I can't change that - wouldn't want to, either. So, I think you have to do what YOU think is right.
Sigh....! ;-))

Jane x

Gilli Allan said...

I, too, think the whole sub-genre issue a pain. It is also a block on many writers getting their books to a public who would enjoy them. If an author doesn't fit a sub-genre, how on earth can s/he 'SELL' the book? If punters search only for books by their sub-genre 'label', what are writers, whose books DON'T fit a narrow, prescriptive description, to do?
If you don't like reading graphic sex, then I can see a need for a label of some sort. If ALL you want to read is graphic sex, well ditto ditto, I suppose.
But I want to write books (and get them to readers) which are about far more than who fancies who, and how soon they get into a clinch, and how hot the description of that clinch is going to be.
If anyone can come up with a sub-genre for a well told and subtle story about a developing relationship, which has some sex at the appropriate moment, but is about far more than that, I'd be grateful.

Rose Anderson ~ Romance Novelist said...

Great comments on a thought-provoking post. When I read a romance, I'm looking for the love story. I want that love story to be the pillar around which everything else leans and depends. As I reader, if I find the love story solid and running on a believable time frame, then it wouldn't matter if the author gives me a chaste kiss or a full love scene. In the moment, I want to feel the love is real. That's what I go for - the love story.

The comment above about what century are we living in describes the "dirty" issue perfectly. We'll watch shoot 'em up / blow 'em up movies. Our children will play with toys and video games that are incredibly violence oriented, our world is balanced on a knife edge of war. And yet we find the natural human expression of love and desire to be dirty. Go figure.

Joan Alley said...

I've enjoyed reading the blog and comments, Lyn! I think Morgan hits it dead on. You both make a very valid and interesting point, one that I've pondered myself as an editor. After all, our publisher website states we publish both inspirational and sweet romance, but several times recently I've wondered if this is the right term to apply to our non-inspirational line of romances that are all fantastic, clean love stories, but don't necessarily stay in the box. Perhaps it's misleading.

With books, it's very much each to his own. I say write a darn good story and don't worry so much which category it will fit into. Far far too many great books are rejected from publication because they don't conform to certain criteria and that’s a shame.

I love the kitty! ;)


Mysti said...

What a pretty blog!

You said: "However her comment did shock me and make me wonder, yet again, about romance sub-genres and whether we poor writers will ever be able to please all of our readers all of the time."

My answer: NO

It's impossible to please every reader. There are some who don't like romance at all and romance readers who like certain sub-genres and heat levels above others.

Don't ever let one negative review spoil how you choose to write. The choice of how you write your love scenes is completely up to you and your comfort level. If you force one way or another, it'll likely show in your story.

I, personally, don't feel like sex needs to be omitted in a romance novel, or at least the THOUGHTS of sex. If two people are attracted to each other physically in a story, it's natural for them to at least have those thoughts. Now, what you do with them after that is totally up to you. Unless you're aiming for some squeaky clean Christian romance where no one ever thinks about sex (yeah, right), then I think you're doing just fine!

And that's Mysti's 2 cents :)

Linda Banche said...

If you try to write to please everyone, I can guarantee the book will be awful.

Something's wrong these days. Authors are being forced to write to narrow labels or they won't be published. What this scenario produces is a lot of the same old-same old. Boring.

While some general sex is fine, I personally prefer sexual tension to detailed descriptions of body parts. Sex is a component of romance and I have my doubts about a romance where the H/H aren't even thinking about it.

That said, my stories tend to fall in the Sweet-Discreet category. Like Morgan, I think there's a hole in romances these days in the Sweet-Discreet category. If some publisher is smart enought to fill that hole, she'll make a mint.

Jenny Twist said...

It's high time somebody started a discussion on this and the response to your blog shows that many of us are confused by the whole thing.
I read The Apple Tree and loved it. Sex did happen but it was treated subtly and sensitively and I am amzed that anyone could be offended by it.
I, personally, am deeply offended by explicit sex scenes. They ruin a good love story for me. But, provided the author has made it clear that the book is erotic, I have the choice, right? What I hate is when I am reading and enjoying a book with no such warning and am suddenly confronted with a pornographic scene.
There seems to be a fixed idea amongst publishers that, in order to sell, a book MUST contain such material. I review for a major site and well over 90% of the books submitted are erotic.
Does this really reflect the taste of readers, I wonder? It is interesting to note that the real best sellers, Stephen King, John Grisham, Maeve Binchy, Kate Atkinson, etc, etc, etc do not find it necessary to resort to smut.

Paula Martin said...

I agree that you can't please all the people all the time, but confess that I am totally confused by the different sub-genres and the 'levels of heat' particularly once the story goes into the bedroom. I dislike the use of the word 'clean' however, since it implies that any book which does have more than a kiss between lovers is somehow 'dirty'.
Like Gilli, I'd like to see a sub-genre for a story about a developing relationship which has some sex as a natural part of that, but which is about far more than just physical attraction/gratification.
I'd also like someone to explain to me the difference between 'sizzling hot' and pornographic'. I'm by no means a prude but some so-called 'erotic' excerpts I've read are simply gratuitous porn, with graphically described sex between two people who aren't in a loving relationhip.

ManicScribbler said...

Thanks, Deborah,
I appreciate you stopping by and also your kind comments.
I do know what you mean about certain classifications. When we start labelling things like 'clean romance' we instantly pose questions about what the opposite is and healthy relationships between consenting adults should not be considered 'unclean'.
We really do need to start a campaign for more liberal-minded classifications of romance!
All the best. :)

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Morgan,
I agree - that kitten is so adorable!
I really appreciated your classification of Sweet and Sweet Discreet. It made it very easy for me to see where my novel would fit in terms of appearing on your excellent blog. Maybe those classifications should be adopted more universally?
Thank you for your helpful comments.

ManicScribbler said...

I'm with you 100%, Emily.
I've come to the conclusion that romance writers are not only incredibly creative, but also exceptionally brave!
Thank you so much for stopping by and adding so usefully to this discussion.
Best wishes.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you so much, Jane,
Your rationale makes excellent sense.
The problem is, as you rightly suggest, that intermediaries such as publishers and book reviewers have the power to prevent writers and potential readers from discovering each other by their interference and/or censorship.
I really appreciate your helpful comments in this discussion.

Celia Yeary said...

Hi--I, too, wonder about the blurring of "hotness" lines--a little about that on my blog right now.You have cause to be confused by the levels, because the lines aren't easy to distinquish.
Like you, I got an unpleasant review this week for a 51-page story--one star--and I'm used to 4s and 5s. She said my story was "too short," (clearly stated on the Buy page)--that my characters were schizophrentic and frenetic (words I think she loved to say), was labeled "sweet" and not one character acted sweetly. Well, this made me laugh. I did reply to her and offer a refund, and explained "sweet" was a term used to explain "no explicit sex."--not how the characters acted toward one another. She replied again--"well, not to me! Sweet means how you act!!."
And so, take your review with a grain of salt. There are crazies out there who just love to pretend they know it all.
And I don't like the label "clean" either. Good luck with your writing!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Aw, gorgeous photo! Great post and interesting discussion. We definitely cannot please all readers so I would say write what's comfortable for you. I quite like the term Sweet Discreet, but readers would have to understand what it means. I'll read most types of novel within reason, though I usually don't choose erotica and really can't abide overly graphic sex scenes.

Although I prefer to write only about sexual tension, it all depends on the type of book it is. I surprised myself recently by adding a short slightly more explicit scene in a new short novella (but no body parts!) - but only because it absolutely fitted the two mythological characters and contrasted with the main hero and heroine who don't have any. But she wants to! And what eventually happens will be left to the reader's imagination.

Mysti said...

Jenny, you do a great job in telling fabulous stories without anything explicit. I can read just about any heat level if the story itself is well done. You can tell the ones that are just filler to lead to the sex scenes. *rolleyes*

ManicScribbler said...

Hear, hear, Gilli!
I can do no more than agree with your sentiments 100%.
Thinking caps on, everyone. We need that sub-genre name quite badly.
Thanks, Gilli :)

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Rose,

Maybe we should abolish all the sub-genres and simply call them 'love stories' with two classifications only to indicate explicit sex or not.

That's a very valid point you make about what we consider acceptable for ourselves and our children in society and what is taboo. Food for thought, indeed.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you Joan,

And of course I did point out to the would-be reviewer that my esteemed publisher would not have accepted my novel had it been other than "sweet" (ugh!) romance.

It is probably up to publishers/editors to take a stand on this one - as long as they all agree, of course - and simplify things for the poor, puzzled writers.

Big responsibility, Joan ;)

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Mysti,

I certainly can't argue with you there.

Fortunately the reviewer didn't get as far as writing a review - negative or otherwise - as she didn't finish reading the novel. As my dear friends here who have read it will vouch - there is absolutely no graphic sex in it!

Big thanks for dropping by and supporting my blog.

ManicScribbler said...

Indeed, Linda, I totally agree.

I hate being bound by narrow genre conventions - no surer way to kill creativity and originality.

I hope you are right about publishers and that mine (i.e. Joan Alley who commented previously) will be the one to capitalise on that - no offence to all of you who obviously love your own publishers!)

Thanks so much for coming by, Linda.

ManicScribbler said...

Jenny, dearest,

Those pornographic scenes that just creep up on you unannounced - tsk!

You know you and I have such similar tastes that we could never disagree (well, except about fish and chips!)

On a serious note, though, your comment about publishers and your review site makes me wonder if this fascination with erotica is some sort of sinister or even self-perpetuating disease. 90% of books being submitted for review being erotica is a frightening comment on today's society!

Thank you for dropping by and lending your support.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you, Paula,

We're all agreed then - we do need a much simpler classification of sub-genres - or that they be abolished altogether.

I know what you mean about gratuitous porn - not that I actively read this, but in my role as an editor I do come across it - and it is exactly that. The H & H are usually ripping each other's clothes off before they've discovered each other's full names. And the joke is - after three rounds of sizzling sex in five pages, they then decide they are deeply in love and must spend the rest of their lives together!

Thank you so much for looking in and supporting my blog.

ManicScribbler said...

Hello Celia,

I read your excellent blog, and hope everyone else will too ( I was really pleased to see that we shared similar thoughts and ideas.

Fortunately, perhaps, my experience didn't actually result in a bad review as the would-be reviewer didn't finish reading the novel. A pity, as she might have changed her mind, though I doubt it. Some people just seem to enjoy being contrary. Still, I can't help smiling at your reviewer's logic and her literal definition of 'sweet' as this classification has become a bit of a pet hate of mine!

Thank you for dropping by and commenting.

ManicScribbler said...

Thank you for contributing, Rosemary.

I must say your novel sounds absolutely fascinating. I must look this one up. And that's an excellent point too - readers do have their own imaginations and are perfectly equipped to supply all the missing details themselves. I personally prefer stories that allow me to do a little bit of thinking for myself.

Best wishes.

Maggi Andersen said...

Love the kitty! It does depend on the book and how well it's written. I'm reading Joanna Bourne's Black Hawk and her sex scenes are beautifully described. If done badly they're cringe worthy! Some books don't need the bedroom door open, but a taut thriller probably does.

Bonnie McCune said...

Quality of writing trumps everything for me, regardless of genre. The reader enters another world, cares about the characters, expands her mind. That's what I strive for in my own work, including the new "A Saint Comes Stumbling In." That said, explicit sex often simply interferes with the story.

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