The sub-genre that set the stage for
In May of 2011, an unknown British author called E. L. James used an Australian website to self-publish an erotic romance novel. The book quickly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon. In March of 2012, it was picked up by Vintage, who re-released it in a revised edition.
Fifty Shades of Grey became the fastest-selling book in the history of Penguin Random House (of which Vintage is an imprint), and the biggest-selling book of the decade in any genre. Salman Rushdie—whose novel Midnight’s Children was voted the best Booker Prize winner of all time—said of Fifty Shades of Grey that he’d “never read anything so badly written that got published.” Whether or not you agree with Rushdie, his verdict is representative of the general intellectual contempt that greeted James’s debut, which was in proportion to the novel’s commercial success.
If you’ve heard of only one work of romance or erotica, it’s probably that one. Notably, the book’s reception illustrates society’s ambivalent relationship to romance writing as a whole. It has long been one of the most popular and lucrative genres in US publishing. But romance is also the most critically neglected, both in terms of how it’s covered in the quality press and how seldom it’s studied in institutions of higher learning.
It’s a shame that romance literature is culturally stigmatized. Because exploring the genre, both as a reader and as a writer, can help you tap into your desires and have better sex.
What exactly is romance writing?
If you’re new to romance, it can be useful to know what to expect from it. The Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the industry’s largest professional organization, and it provides an unambiguous definition of the genre. “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel,” the RWA’s website states, “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” The same page defines erotica as a sub-genre of romance “in which strong, often explicit, sexual interaction is an inherent part of the love story.”
On first reading, these definitions seem restrictively precise. But there is room for apparently endless variation within the parameters they describe. The Book Industry Subject and Category (BISAC) Subject Headings List—a standard index in the publishing industry—includes 49 subcategories of romance fiction, including Historical / Gilded Age (FIC027460), Clean & Wholesome (FIC027270), and Paranormal / Shifters (FIC027310).
This formal classification only hints at the true diversity of subject matter and characterization within the genre. One of the strangest and most exciting aspects of getting into romance and erotica is the swift realization that no matter how wholesome or perverse your tastes are, someone has almost certainly already written a full-length novel—and very possibly an entire series—based on your specific turn-on(s).
Where to read (and write) romance and erotica
A good starting point is to browse the catalogs of established publishers. Some, like the romance behemoth Harlequin, offer a wide range of general titles. Other publishers focus on books geared toward specific demographics or interests, such as Bold Strokes Books which specializes in LGBTQ+ literature.
Outside of professionally published work, an abundance of romance and erotica writing can be found online. Literotica is one of the OGs of erotic writing on the internet. That the website apparently hasn’t been redesigned since 1998 only adds to its charm.If you want to try writing romance or erotica yourself, there are plenty of places to find a readership online. Reddit’s r/eroticauthors community is full of writers and readers happy to share tips on the craft and provide feedback on your writing.