There’s a new kind of contemporary erotic romance in town, and it’s breaking all the rules. The heroes aren’t billionaires, the heroines aren’t virgins, there’s no specialized equipment cluttering up the love scenes, and the only thing complicating the plot is the essential, authentic quirkiness of human psychology. It’s the grunge music of erotic romance—earthy, experimental, choosing flannel shirts over leather pants and broken down VW Beetles over red Audis. If Fifty Shades of Grey brought kinky fuckery into the mainstream, then the new contemporary erotic romances are bringing it to the next level.
Charlotte Stein and Cara McKenna are two of the rising stars of this subgenre. In Stein’s latest release, Beyond Repair, the heroine is an emotionally and physically scarred recluse who spends her days in her home watching movies until the day she discovers an unconscious man in her house and realizes that he is a movie star. In her blog, Stein mentions that she’s been working on the book for about two years, and it shows—this is no throwaway bonkfest. Instead, it’s a book that includes a funny, shockingly hot scene that features…oh, man, how do I say this…a formerly taboo act, now trending enough to warrant an, er, in-depth article in the April 7 issue of New York magazine. You may be thinking, ew, that’s not my cup of tea, but Stein may have done for that particular act what the California roll did for sushi – made it palatable to the uninitiated.
Stein, who is English, has a distinct writing style; witty, raunchy, emotionally authentic, reminiscent of Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding, or non-fiction author Catlin Moran. Stein is also an omnivorous genre-bender, and if you binge read her (as I did) you can find science fiction (including the terrific Almost Real) shorts, Bollywood historicals, ménages and more. Stein’s sly humor comes out most vividly, however, in shorter books such as Restraint, where the whisper-thin plot (camping trip with old friends, bawdy jokester heroine thinks uptight Conservative hero despises her) allows the dialogue to dazzle. (Speaking of dialogue, I should add that despite the BDSM sound of the title, Restraint is actually about talking dirty, and manages to be both funny and erotic at once.)
Cara McKenna, who also writes extremely sexy blue-collar contemporary romances as Meg Maguire, is an American, and her settings include working class Boston and the kind of grim towns that are neither charming Americana nor big city glam. In McKenna’s latest novel, Hard Time, the heroine is an outreach librarian teaching literacy skills in a federal prison and the hero is an inmate. The hero isn’t innocent, and he suffers from disorthographia, (like dyslexia, but affecting writing rather than reading) but he is intelligent and emotionally mature and nuanced. What makes this novel unusual, even among unusual erotic romances, is the gradual buildup of sexual tension. In a subgenre where people often wind up trading spit before surnames, Hard Time takes its time establishing character and making the growing desire of hero for heroine and heroine for hero feel specific to those individuals, rather than a generic urge for an attractive partner and some therapeutic friction.
In an earlier novel, After Hours, the setting is a psychiatric hospital, (the hero is an orderly, not a patient, and heroine is a nurse). In Unbound, which is set in Ireland, the hero is a recluse, and the heroine is on a solo hike after losing a considerable amount of weight.
Like Stein, McKenna is an experimenter, and her heroes are all distinct characters with their own strengths, weaknesses and quirks. She describes her penchant for writing what she calls “real sex” in a guest blog on Romance Novels for Feminists. “We all have idiosyncrasies in bed,” says McKenna, “the highly personal particulars we need to have done or imagine or to hear or to say, to get there—and so should fictional characters.”
McKenna shares a blog, called Wonk-o-Mance, with some like-minded authors, including Delphine Dryden, Ruthie Knox and Mary Ann Rivers. According to the blog’s manifesto, the authors “…believe there’s a place in romance fiction for weird-ass heroes and heroines. We want characters who are depressed, who are fat, who are diagnosably bent. We want nerds who are actually nerdy, lumberjacks who are unabashedly bearded, quiet men who are so close to mute, it’s hard to tell the difference. In fact, we want cripplingly shy middle-aged virgin heroes. Ambitious, ball-busting heroines who never apologize. Bricklayers and plumbers and short-order cooks who don’t turn out to be slumming heirs and heiresses.”
The manifesto goes on to say that “…sometimes the market says, “Ooh, too much. This hero you’ve written, Aspiring Romance Writer—Whoa. He’s really . . . strange. You’re going to lose readers.” And we at Wonk-o-Mance say, “You might lose them, but you’ll gain us. Bring on the strange!”
Amen to that. Now, if only there was some kind of catchy name for the sub-genre. Contemperotica? Erotimance? Chick Clit? Or, hell, maybe just call it “the strange” which kind of sounds like “grunge.”
Whatever it gets called, I sure hope it’s here to stay.
Alisa Kwitney is a former editor at Vertigo/DC comics. She writes romantic women’s fiction, YA and graphic novels, and (as Alisa Sheckley) writes sf/fantasy. You can visit her at www.alisakwitney.com