Friday, October 24, 2014

Sex or No Sex in Romantic Suspense?

A reader recently likened one of my novellas to "junior high". I was totally baffled, considering the adult subject matter: An ugly divorce gets out of hand, churning up a series of chilling events that spiral out of control as a man is brutally shot down, a woman stuffed into a rain barrel alive, and a second man is missing, possibly a kidnap victim. How does this qualify as "junior high"?

In an effort to help readers recognize the book content, I've clearly labeled my books as PG-13. That's because they contain mild adult situations, mild violence, and mild language. In other words, if you like your books squeaky clean, you might be offended by some of the language, actions, and character behavior. If you're looking for word porn, I'm not your author. I'm not 50 shades of anything.

I thought I was making myself clear enough, but apparently not. That's because what is romantic suspense to one reader is not to another, especially in the world of self-publishing.

Things have changed drastically since I first began reading romantic suspense. The old standard authors like Elizabeth Peters (AKA Barbara Michaels), Catherine Gaskin, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, M. M. Kaye, Mary Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge, Nora Roberts, and the venerable Daphne du Maurier have been replaced. Apparently, many readers now search for steamy self-published novels that describe every single sex act in great details, with a little mystery thrown in on the side to heighten the sexual tension.

And yet, over and over again, I see die hard readers searching desperately for romantic suspense novels they describe as "clean". Not everyone thinks bed-hopping and endless groping is romantic or suspenseful. Some readers actually want to see characters who demonstrate a little restraint and a good conscience, who think before they act, who aren't impulsive or predatory.

That's not to say we should censor books. I don't believe it's our job to police the book industry. But how can we help readers find what they are looking for in the genre of romantic suspense, if some people want a "clean read", others want to set their pants on fire, and everybody else wants something in between?

Should we offer a heat rating, along the lines of the Scoville Scale? For example, the bell pepper has absolutely no heat. You can eat those till the sun goes down and you won't burn your mouth or your gut. On the other hand, the Trinidad scorpion will blow your socks off and send you screaming for mercy. In between, you've got the mild banana pepper, the cayenne, and the Scotch bonnet.

What if we did institute a heat rating for the content of romantic suspense books? How would it look?

Bell pepper: Squeaky
Nothing naughty. No one would cringe if a kid picked it up and flipped through the pages.

Banana pepper: Creaky
Old-style Hollywood. The action happens off the page. You suspect that a tender caress or a passionate kiss leads to more, but you respect the characters. You're not really a voyeur.

Cayenne pepper: Sneaky
Wink-wink. You like a little sizzle in your story, with a few tingles thrown in for good measure. If you saw your neighbors having sex, you might pull the curtain back for a peek, but then you'd feel guilty. Or start to worry they might also be watching you having sex.

Scotch bonnet pepper: Dirty speaky
"Get a &^$#@ room!" That's what folks would say if they saw the characters from this book in action. Lots of profanity, sexual prowess, and power plays on display.

Trinidad scorpion pepper: Totally freaky
Call the fire department...this one's on fire! It's all about the sex, not the story. Basically, it's a fantasy gone wild, masquerading as a romantic suspense mystery.

Is this heat rating necessary? Think about this. If we allow romantic suspense to be defined by steamy sex scenes and endless profanity, we lose books like "Rebecca". That classic tale defines the epitome of romantic suspense: A young woman marries an older widower, feels inadequate in context to his late wife, and in her effort to become the woman of his dreams, unravels a web of deceit and murder that boggles the mind.  The second Mrs. de Winter must scramble to shed her naive illusions about her new husband and her life as the myth of Manderley explodes in a subsequent investigation. Is the story romantic? Yes. It's actually about the heroine discovering what real love is. Is the story suspenseful? Yes. It's about finding out how easily we are duped by dangerous and deceitful dames. Is it a mystery? Well, we certainly don't know the real Rebecca until the big reveal.

If my reader had picked up a copy of "Rebecca", would she have been disappointed by the lack of sex? Probably. Her expectations are that romantic suspense automatically involves sex. But she's not every reader, just as I'm not every writer. Even within genres, there are levels of heat. So, how can I as a writer help a reader to avoid disappointment? And how can a reader choose the right book and not slam an author like me for not including steamy scenes? I respect a reader's desire to climb into bed with fictional characters and watch them go at it in the bedroom, but I also have the right, as an author, to not provide that kind of voyeuristic experience to like-minded readers.

The question to ask ourselves as readers and writers is do we want an "either or" kind of world? Should romantic suspense be shoved into two distinct piles -- the clean or the steamy? Can we allow the two extremes to rule what is the genre? Surely there is a place in this world for different levels of heat in mysteries that have a romance and some suspense. Let's support and respect readers and writers of varying preferences for sexual content by not assuming that sex is either "on" or "off" in a mystery. Sometimes it's nice to dim the lights, turn up the fire to a warm glow, and let nature take its course.