The Fifty Shades of Grey Effect



I love a good historical romance!  I think reading Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters fueled that love at an early age.  As most of us know, there is a big difference between romance and erotica but, that line is being blurred.  Yes, it is still possible to find a great romance that doesn’t share the intimate sexual acts of the characters however it is getting harder.  This isn’t always a bad thing.  The wild success of Fifty Shades of Grey proves that there is a huge audience for graphic sex.  I am finding that many, if not most, of the historical romances now have graphic sexual content.  As long as it is a good story and well written, a reader can just flip through the sex if they are offended by it and not lose the story or the ability to share in the intimacy of well written characters.

But here is the problem I have seen all too often- The sex seems to be added JUST to titillate and not to add to the story.  It often breaks the mood, stalls the story and this lowers my impression of the ability of the author to convey love or lust.  I think authors should consider how the story flows and advances without the sex- make sure it is a coherent story and well edited.  Even though readers seem to expect and want to read more graphic descriptions today, an author should not rely on the erotica alone to sell their book.   I’m sure most of us have little interest in the sexual activities of characters which have not engaged us.  Perhaps I am wrong.

It has become a tradition in more evocative romance novels to have rather risqué covers – “bodice rippers”– which definitely sets them apart from the romances of the past.  The question is, does an author of the romance genre need to include graphic sex and eye dropping covers to sell their books?  Does a romance without this seem too provincial and even juvenile?  I’m not sure.

Books by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen are considered some of the best in the English language – and did so without titillation.  Could they be so successful if written as a modern romance today without it? Again, I’m not sure.  Of course these were not historical stories in their day and mentioning such intimacy would have been unthinkable- even more scandalous than being written by a woman!

I have read a number of wonderful contemporary romance novels that were truly romantic with no, or little, descriptive sex and I enjoyed them immensely.  I have also read and enjoyed wonderful books that did include the sex and which I did feel was appropriate to the story and characters.  However, I find it groan worthy when these stories are marketed to a young adult audience.  I do admit to being a woman of a certain age and realize that these books are not sold as “how to” guides on life but feel they should be thoughtful of the impact of their content and include or allude to responsible sex or the consequences of poor judgement.  I recently read a book about teenagers which, I felt, included sex that was irresponsible and unnecessary for the story.

So, here are some questions for you- I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Have detailed sex scenes become necessary to sell Historical Romance?  How much is too much?
  • Where is the dividing line between romantic sex and erotica?
  • Can a well-crafted romance sell today without graphic sex?
  • Do authors have any responsibility in the content of their books that may be attracting a rather young audience?
  • Do young adult readers now expect romance to include erotica?
  • Is there a line that an author should never cross with a character of a certain age – perhaps younger than 15 years old?

I’m looking forward to the discussion-

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6 responses to “The Fifty Shades of Grey Effect”

  1. Stuart Laing says:

    I’m a bloke but enjoy Regency romances. However too often an enjoyable tale is marred by scenes of graphic sectors and strong language which doesn’t feature anywhere else in the book.
    Those scenes do feel really contrived and, in my opinion, add nothing that a clean scene wouldn’t.

  2. Geri Clouston says:

    I agree Stuart.
    It takes a talented writer to create a good romance with characters you care about and even fall in love with. I think using sex scenes to add excitement to a book is a bit like a thriller movie that relies on car crashes and lots of blood to make a lackluster story exciting.

  3. lauren says:

    I don’t want to know what my neighbors are doing in bed. I’m not interested in the occupants of the hotel room next door, either. So the only way I want to know about sexual acts is if they are happening to characters that I have come to identify as, in a reader’s sense, ‘me’.
    The problem is that I have a long-standing and satisfying sex life of my own, and sorry, most of the author’s imaginary scenarios don’t really ring my bell.
    So the best solution is, leave it to my imagination. I can insert a much more satisfying scene than somebody who isn’t me could ever write.
    Regarding a responsibility to unformed minds–those who DON’T have a healthy and well-set sexual experience to judge fictional scenarios against–romance authors have much to answer for. Dare I say, ‘irresponsible’?

  4. Geri Clouston says:

    That is such a good piece of advice for an author- write enough for the reader to imagine! Telling too much and giving second by second description isn’t really skillful writing.

  5. G J Reilly says:

    I disagree that some of the classic romance novels were written without titilation. In their time, I’m sure at least some scenes were considered more than a little provocative.

    Changing attitudes and taste lead to evolutions in literature. However, I agree that there are settings where it’s just plain wrong to include such scenes and that they can detract from the reading experience of they’re not to the reader’s taste. Romantic scenes don’t necessarily have to be graphic, it depends on the author’s intentions, and telling an author that they shouldn’t do something is, in my opinion, like telling a child where the cookie jar is and then leaving them alive with it.

  6. Geri Clouston says:

    I agree but I think in earlier days of writing there was a line not to cross and if you did it would probably ruin the author. I am wondering if today there is a line and that some authors seem to feel they have to push the limits rather than trying to create by using deft writing. I would never presume to tell E.L.James she went too far–millions of readers would disagree and I actually think the graphic descriptions were what her book probably required. My concern is that many authors of romance today feel that they must include graphic sex in order to sell their books. I recently read a wonderful Regency Romance that went off track with 4 pages of detailed sex that wasn’t in the least bit romantic and I wonder if she felt she needed to do that.

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