The romance genre as a whole is often dismissed when referring to great fiction. But do a happy ending and toe-curling sex scenes somehow make a book less worthy? There is a subset to romance today written by some of its brightest rising stars: Intelligent erotica.
Erotica itself is the sexual journey of one character, but these books also have the added component of intelligently crafted romance, with richly drawn characters and a raw, honest quality to the writing that unquestionably elevates these books to the mark of true literature.
Eden Bradley is an author who writes intelligent erotica at its finest. Whether it's a university professor and her student who share a food fetish in Forbidden Fruit or two separate couples who practice the art of Shibari rope bondage in The Beauty of Surrender, Bradley's writing is incredibly sophisticated. Her style is captivating, where every line has purpose and her choice of diction and dialogue is a thing of beauty. Her characters' struggles are largely internal, and because of that, there's opportunity for really lovely character study and development. Her heroines are independent, self-reliant, and hardened because they've had to be. She explores humanity and social issues in a current, relevant way. And best of all, the sex and romance are deep, and the hero and heroine balance each other in personality and compatibility.
Her best novel in terms of intelligent erotica is A 21st Century Courtesan. Valentine is a modern-day courtesan, living a dark, lavish lifestyle that while unconventional and polarizing is more high-brow and opulent than seedy or dirty. Yet while it's always provided for her needs and even fulfilled her, it's begun to take its toll. Especially once she meets Joshua Spencer. The first man in a long time who isn't a client, he seems perfect and sweeps her off her feet, making her really question the way she's living. But Joshua has secrets of his own, and he has skeletons to juxtapose Valentine's.
Bradley doesn't shy away from writing the tough stuff. The scene where Valentine reveals her past as a courtesan and the aftermath is perfectly handled. Nothing is sugarcoated, and the way it unfolds is unexpected and mature. Together they find a pure love, which is fascinating given how they have each lived. Valentine has a completely cathartic experience throughout the course of the novel, and part of the journey is if she can accept that she deserves true love.
Below me Hollywood sparkles, like a handful of diamonds strewn carelessly over the dark landscape. But that's life, isn't it? All of us so careless, ultimately, driven by our own selfish needs. At least, it comforts me to think I'm not the only one doing it.
Joshua is possibly the only human being I've met who isn't entirely selfish. He may have had some rough times, been foolish, been self-indulgent in the past, but he seems to have truly worked through it all. Come out intact. Self-aware. Unshakable in his beliefs. He is the best person I know.
My whole body surges with longing for him, and I have to wrap my arms around my waist and hold on tight, staring out the window. He is out there somewhere, and I can hardly stand it.
Be with him. Tell him. Take a chance.
Bradley also writes a BDSM series as Eve Berlin, and it shows every level of skill and art that her other work does. The most recent book, Temptation's Edge, featuring a tattoo artist heroine and a graphic artist hero who again balance each other perfectly, is one of the best I've read this year.
An author I've recently discovered who also writes breathtaking intelligent erotica is Jasmine Haynes. Her characters are flawed and have cracks to show for the difficult life experiences they've endured. Her DeKnight trilogy explores really heavy topics like death of a child, sexual abuse, and bullying. But she writes with a thoughtful grace and level of care that gives substance to her books without ever making them feel gratuitous. Her hero and heroines have to work for their happy endings, but they are more satisfying because of it.
The second book, What Happens After Dark, is the personal journey of accountant Bree Mason, who lives a quiet life on the surface, but hides an alternative lifestyle and an even darker secret. She engages in extreme BDSM mentality, where she wants to be submissive to the point of demeaned. She does it because she doesn't feel she deserves better, issues stemming from her childhood. All of this while she's dealing with the sudden demise of her father to cancer. Then she meets Luke Raven, who isn't like any of the guys she's been with before. He is a mature man, who sees the light in Bree that she's tried to snuff out, and he wants more with her.
“Do you think I'm an awful person?”
“No,” he murmured soothingly. “I don't.” He suddenly had a glimmer of why she'd called him yesterday. She needed him; he was her panacea, and that touched him deeply. “I'm here, baby.”
She rolled her lips between her teeth, held them a long moment. “What if I call you up in the middle of the night for phone sex?”
“That will be fucking hot.” He had the sense to realize that the phone sex would be less about sex and more about comfort.
“What if I say I need to see you and suck you and nothing else?”
He smiled. “That won't be a problem.” Though true, he'd made it a problem in the past, wanting more. “Suck me anytime.”
She laughed, choked it off. “I just don't feel right about anything.”
He soothed her with a hand down her arm. “That's normal.”
She snorted, a touch of derision mixed with pain. “I am so not normal.”
This is an erotic thriller with controversial themes and lots of grit. The sex scenes are stripped to their barest form, and there are times when it seems uncertain if Bree will really allow herself to have love. But Luke won't give up on Bree, and slowly he becomes the only man she has ever been able to trust. Bree learns how to find redemption and to move on from a past that has haunted her, and Luke is there by her side the whole way.
While these stories offer the uplifting promise of true love, not all is wrapped up into a tidy resolution by the book's end. There will still be struggles, still be issues to work through, which is true of life for all of us. What makes them literature are the profound, realistic personal journeys of the characters. What makes them romance is the hope that is found in their powerful love stories. And Eden Bradley and Jasmine Haynes are writing some of the best that any genre has to offer today.
Tiffany Tyer is a writer and editor who loves reading and analyzing all things romance. She also works as a vocalist, a tutor, and a non-profit ministry assistant, and she loves it that way. Her book reviews can be found at Happy Endings Reviews, a blog she co-founded.