Is it hot in here? Or is it just what you're reading?
What if you're a romance reader who wants to look outside of the genre, toward a land where “happily ever after” might mean something a little more short-term, or a little more naughty? Like more mainstream romance novels, erotica comes in a variety of flavors, or subgenres.
What is consistent among them is the hotness level: how much sex is in the story, and how explicitly, or bluntly, it’s described. In general, Erotic Romance is the closest to mainstream Romance; the main difference is hotness, and that more of the relationship development happens during and because of the sex scenes.
Stories described simply as “erotica” cover a much broader range.
In erotica, you might find heroines and heroes who do not engage in monogamous heterosexual relationships. Part of their journeys might include sex with characters other than an eventual permanent partner, or characters might still be searching for a permanent partner at the novel’s end. Stories might examine ménage relationships, sometimes as part of a ménage romance, sometimes in a more purely sexual sense. Characters might be searching for sexual freedom rather than a romantic relationship, or experimenting with new practices.
Emma Holly was one of my first favorites among erotic novelists because her characters always seem to be having such fun. And sex is supposed to be fun, right? I think her books are a great introduction to erotica. She's written everything from contemporary to paranormal. Her two Victorian historical romances, Beyond Innocence (2001) and Beyond Seduction (2002), if published today, might be called erotic romances, and usually there are romantic elements to her work. In Romance, she might be equated with Susan Johnson or even Judith Krantz.
For erotica that's strongly flavored with romance, I would recommend starting with the contemporary Cooking Up A Storm (1998); though the heroine has multiple partners, one man in particular becomes the one for her. Ménage (1998) is a classic among, well, ménage novels, which weren't nearly as common when it was published; though it focuses on a male/male/female relationship at the beginning, and pushes a few boundaries, it eventually becomes a male/female romance, so can feed two different tastes at once. One of my favorites of Holly's novels is Strange Attractions (2004), which features a ménage relationship with light bondage elements as well as a sex club; it’s a little more boundary-pushing than Ménage. Paranormal fans might prefer Holly's long-running vampire series, which begins with Catching Midnight (2003) or her steampunky demon series, which begins with The Demon's Daughter (2004). The earlier novels in the vampire series are more erotic romance, while later ones, set in the 20th century, bring in mixed erotica/erotic romance plots. Holly’s demon series tends to be more erotic romance, with some boundary-pushing due to the demons’ alien physiology.
If you'd like to go steamier with your paranormal erotica, you might try Louisa Burton's erotica series featuring creatures of myth such as incubi, succubi, and satyrs in historically influenced prose, with continuing immortal characters, one of whom is able to switch gender. Burton’s work is much more traditional erotica than erotic romance. The novels and collections of short stories do not need to be read in historical order to make sense. In the Garden of Sin (2009) begins in 1626, and House of Dark Delights (2007) is set during the Regency era.
Not everyone likes the paranormal or historical, of course. If you're a fan of contemporary women's fiction, particularly if you enjoy complex emotional plots, either Megan Hart or Zane might be to your taste.
Hart's 2007 Dirty was a breakout novel of her more literary style; her newest erotic novel, Collide, is due out in June of 2011. Zane is best known for her first novel, Addicted (2001), which addresses painful issues along with the erotic elements. Zane's prose is more direct and straightforward, and her heroines are sexually confident. Though both authors have romantic elements in their novels, they are not romance. Zane is also a well-known editor of erotic anthologies. Emma Holly, mentioned above, has written many contemporaries, though generally they are lighter in tone than those of Hart or Zane.
On to historicals! If you like historical writers who write more sensually, such as Lisa Valdez and Thea Devine, Sharon Page's The Club (2008) is a good starting point to shift over to erotic romance. The Club is a mainstream historical romance, but very sensual; Page’s novel Sin (2006) and its sequels move into erotic romance. Page also has a vampire series beginning with Blood Red (2006).
I'm especially fond of Kate Pearce's Regency-set series for Kensington, which begins with Simply Sexual (2008). Pearce's characters often have painful pasts but fight their way through to happiness; each novel features a romance as well as more purely erotic scenes. Her mainstream romance equivalent might be Anna Campbell, because of the emotional intensity both writers create.
The primary setting of the Simply series, a forward-thinking Regency brothel, links the series nicely and provides plenty of opportunity for naughtiness; scenes of rope bondage are particularly memorable. Pearce has also written contemporary erotic romance.
If you’d like to venture a bit further, Portia DaCosta has written everything from short fiction to novels, all with her trademark characterization and sense of fun. Her works ranges from erotic romance to pure erotica; most have a contemporary setting. My personal favorite is one of her Black Lace novels, The Stranger (1997), in which an older woman meets a mysterious and quirky amnesiac young man; I would call it erotica, but with a strong element of erotic romance as well, and a happily-ever-after ending. Another charmer is the librarian heroine of In Too Deep (2008), whose romance begins as pure erotica. Recently, Da Costa has taken to writing historical erotic romance; I've been enjoying her Victorian-set erotica for Spice Briefs, available electronically, and will have a Victorian-set novel out in the near future, also from Spice.
Saskia Walker has written a number of erotic novels in a range of genres. Right now, I'm looking forward to her new erotic novel, The Harlot (2011), featuring a witch and a priest—or are they?—in 18th-century Scotland. As with DaCosta, I enjoy the mingling of erotica and romance influences in her work.
If you like science fiction, you might enjoy Lauren Dane's Federation Chronicles, erotic romances which begin with Undercover (2008). She also writes contemporary and paranormal erotic romance. Erotic science fiction is the specialty of Circlet Press, a great starting point for themed anthologies.
If you decide you want to explore further, the best of erotica writing is often in short stories. Single-author collections and short-story anthologies offer a wide range of choices that you can explore quickly. Try getting your feet wet with some of my favorite editors of short erotic fiction, in alphabetical order:
Rachel Kramer Bussel, Cecilia Tan, Alison Tyler, and anthologies edited by Kristina Wright.
After you've read, come back and let us know what you think!
Image of Anonymous' chest courtesy of Jen SFO-BCN via Flickr
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.