Podcast, The Great Smut Debate

Heternormative HEAs and Husband Material…Podcast Edition

We’re trying something new! Instead of transcribing and blogifying our conversations about romance, we’re giving this whole podcast thing ago.

For our first episode, we’re continuing the Great Smut Debate. This month, we’re tackling Heternormative HEAs and the question of what makes a hero good husband material.

Give us a listen, and let us know what you think in the comments—especially if you want to see more content like this from us!

Episode 1: Heteronormative HEAs and Husband Material The Smut Report Podcast

Erin, Holly, and Ingrid talk about heteronormative happy endings after reading a whole bunch of books called HUSBAND MATERIAL.Full show notes at smutreport.com
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The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

Let’s Talk About Sex (Baby)

A recent Twitter interaction:

Us: Retweets promo image of a romance novel that looks intriguing

Author: Oh hey, based on your user-name, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a good amount of sex in this book!

Obviously, readers have preferences about sex in romance novels. Some people are tickled by the ridiculous sexcapades that authors dream up. Some people skim over the sex scenes to get back to the plot. Some people find mentions of genitalia off-putting. Some people roll their eyes at purple prose.

The problem comes when the dogmatism arrives. The sweeping statements that a book must have a sex scene by the halfway point, or it’s getting chucked in the Women’s Fiction bin. The assertions that a book with more than 2.5 tasteful sex scenes is not proper romance, but must be locked in the erotica dungeon.

Our goal with this series is to explore the boundaries of romance—the places where romance might transition into other genres for various reasons—and, given that sex is so intrinsically entwined with (at the very minimum) people’s perception of romance, we couldn’t omit a discussion of sex in romance, now could we?

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The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

What We Do in the Shadows: Crossing Lines and Pushing Boundaries in Romance

“It’s not a romance if the hero is mean to the heroine.”

“It’s not a romance if the relationship is toxic.”

“It’s not a romance if one protagonist rapes the other one.”

“It’s not a romance if someone is physically harmed.”

“It’s not a romance if the power differential between the characters is too extreme.”

There is nothing, in any definition of romance, that says that the characters have to have a good relationship. In fact, many great romances feature terrible people doing terrible things, but in a dramatically entertaining way. The broadest definition of the genre says that a romance includes a romantic relationship with a happy, optimistic ending—for the characters. Even if we go by Ingrid’s more narrow definition of what makes a satisfying romance—that the characters grow separately and together—we can see that negative interactions can be a catalyst for growth, as the characters move towards an HEA. 

When we first started on this journey into the question of “What Makes a Romance,” we were spurred on by the seemingly endless debates about whether something was *really* a romance novel—or whether it should be more properly classified as “women’s fiction” (or “chick lit” or just “fiction”). 

But as we started to outline all the intersections of “what counts as a romance,” we found that the conversation is much more expansive than simply “true romance” vs. “women’s fiction with romantic elements,” and today we’re shifting once again to a completely different nexus. These books are not dismissed as “not romance” because the relationship is underdeveloped or doesn’t end happily, but rather because the relationship includes stuff that makes the reader uncomfortable. Invariably, these books are blasted as “problematic,” which is ultimately a term without meaning—it literally means “unresolved” or “posing a problem.” We are pushing back on this discourse here by discussing a range of books deemed “problematic” and exploring what these books actually do.

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The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: Genre Crossovers

We’ve been discussing the strange space between genre romance and what is typically referred to as Women’s Fiction, but that’s not the only place where we see romance cross over into other genres. In fact, the romance genre is rather famous for having something for everyone. Thrillers? We got ‘em. Outer space? We’ve been there. Elves? Werewolves? Witches? Wizards? Vampires? Necromancers? You name it, there’s romance for it. Wanna take it back in time? We got historical romance, but let us also show you the steampunk, the gaslamp, and the timeslip. There’s monster romance that includes largely bipedal but non-human romantic protagonists. There is even, believe me, horror romance (not to be confused with dark romance, which is a whole other thing). 

Romance readers’ frustrations with those books that fade into the WF space tends to stem from the expectation of a dual* protagonist story arc that has strong romantic elements and an HEA or HFN ending, and the reality of the story not meeting the expectation. But that can happen in these other crossover spaces, too! And, depending on where those crossover books fall on their own gray area spectrums, they also may receive mixed responses from romance readers. 

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The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

The Great Smut Debate: Point of View

When we were coming up with examples of definite romance novels, it was relatively easy to find examples written in both first and third person, as well as single and multiple perspectives. However, when it came time for us to talk about gray area books—books that had many hallmarks for the romance genre but sometimes had readers sardonically raising their brows—we struggled to name any that weren’t single-perspective, first-person POV.

This raises the question: How does POV contribute to whether or not something feels like a romance?

What does point of view do?

Let’s start with some terminology. Point of view is the perspective from which a story is told. First person is narrated from inside a person’s head; a book where the narrator says things like “I walked into the bar” is a first-person narrative. Third person refers to the main characters as he/she/they, as appropriate: “she walked into the bar.” Third person narration can be close, where the reader is privy to all of the character’s thoughts and feelings, or distant, where the reader sees only the character’s actions. Omniscient third refers to an all-knowing narrator who is privy to the thoughts and emotions of all the characters, not just the protagonists. Distant and omniscient third are rarely used in genre romance.

When we talk about single or dual or multiple points of view, we refer to how many characters share their thoughts directly with the reader.

There is no one right perspective from which to write a romance novel. Point of view is a tool, and good writers use the right tool to tell the story they want to tell. We’ll get more into the details of how these different styles work to make a romance better (or worse), but here’s a quick example: When we buddy-read two Beauty and the Beast retellings last fall, we noted that they were both single-perspective narratives. This storytelling choice allowed the authors to make the beast character more mysterious, thereby heightening the tension of the story as the beast was slowly revealed. (Ingrid talked about slow reveals and how that creates tension on Tuesday.) 

So let’s explore how this tool impacts the reader’s perception of a romantic narrative.

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