Romance:Porn as Rice:Chocolate

We’ve seen a handful of rehashes over the last few days of the age-old question of whether romance is porn, and if you object to the label, why you are objecting to it. There was an article in Slate recently. Smart Bitch Sarah posted a letter today in which a boyfriend asks a girlfriend to stop reading romances because he thinks they are porn.

Every so often, someone pipes up with this: “Why are you getting all annoyed when people say romance is porn? There’s nothing inherently bad about pornography. So who cares?”

Assuming that the pornography in question is made in a consensual, nonexploitative manner, I have nothing against it. And yet I do bristle when people say that romance is porn. Part of the reason is a type-classification argument. For instance, I love dogs, but if someone insisted that I was one, I would be offended. Even though I have nothing against dogs. Dogs are great; I just happen not to be one.

But mostly the romance=pornography thing bothers me because it implies that only a small level of romance is healthy in the intellectual diet.

If someone told me he spent 20 hours a week reading porn, I would think: “Whoa. Don’t you… like… get chafed? Down there?” I have nothing against porn. But porn is like chocolate: a wonderful snack; you can argue about the health benefits for an occasional piece; but everyone agrees that it should not be a staple of your diet, no matter how much you like it.

Romance, in my view, is not the chocolate of the intellectual buffet. I see it as more like rice. It’s filling. It’s chewy. Some cultures eat it with every meal. Others eat it sparingly. Some books are like risotto and others are like gallo pinto. There’s fried rice. There’s chicken-and-rice soup. There’s bi bim bap and nasi goreng and sushi… and can you tell it is almost lunch time for me? I am making myself hungry. (And yes, the line can be blurry: there are some books that are chocolate rice pudding–but that doesn’t mean that everything with rice in it is dessert.)

Plus, there’s brown rice and white rice and arborio rice and jasmine rice and wild rice… lotsa kinds of rice out there. And we haven’t even gotten to grains like quinoa, or things that act a lot like rice, but aren’t at all, like couscous.

Some people don’t like rice, because they don’t like the way their body reacts to the carbs. And that is okay. But if someone told me they ate rice at every meal, or that rice formed a regular part of their diet, I wouldn’t think, “yeah, maybe you should branch out.” It’s quite possible for a healthy diet to include a good amount of rice.

Most romance readers out there browse a varied diet. They read historical fiction (not just historical romance). Science fiction. Fantasy. Mystery. Nonfiction. The news. Drama. Memoir. Short stories. Poetry. They demand more than boy meets girl of their romances, too–they don’t just want a scoop of white rice on a plate. Romance novels touch on family relations, wars, spies, spousal abuse, alien abductions, mystery, suspense, gay rights, race relations, murder… you name it, it’s in a romance novel.

That’s why I firmly believe that a healthy reading diet can contain a large proportion of romance novels. I don’t think the same is true of pornography.

14 thoughts on “Romance:Porn as Rice:Chocolate

  1. What I hear as an unspoken subtext here, is that romance “feeds” (to extend your metaphor) different “appetites” than porn does.

    That porn has only one purpose (to arouse) whereas romance has much more variety.

    Would that be true of what you’re saying here?

  2. I have a big problem with the label too Courtney. For one, it’s used to say that romance is somehow not valid, that’s shameful, or a dirty secret, and definitely not something most people should admit to partaking in. That’s what people are saying when they equate romance to porn.

    Second, pornography is created for sexual arousal/release/pleasure. That is ALL it is for. It is its sole purpose and meaning for existence. That is not why a romance is written. Yes, there can be sex. If done right, it should make you feel SOMETHING. But it’s part of something much bigger than that. And it’s in context with a story.

    Thanks for the post!

    A dedicated rice eater…who really does eat almost ALL rice. 😛

  3. Nobilis Reed: I think this is true almost by definition.

    Pornography is designed primarily (if not solely) to get you off.

    If something is doing more work than that, it’s probably crossing the line into something that’s not pornographic any longer.

  4. I didn’t expect to agree with this primise, but yes. I’ve watched porn. Three times, and long before the third “movie” even began I was bored. I truely have seen all i need to for one lifetime. Romance is totally different, something new with each book or movie. And yes, there are all kinds of romance out there, from erotic to inspirational with a little paranormal and sci-fi throuwn in. And don’t get me started on all the flavors of historical.

    Then there’s my personal favorite, YA romance. I don’t write that genre because I have to like it, I write it because I love to read it. It’s a healthy diet that keeps me coming back for more.

  5. I have to both agree and disagree with you. Your definition of what you consider pornography isn’t clear here. Are you saying all erotica and erotic romance is pornography? In general terms I think of pornography as poorly written stories with no plot, no character development, and little more than blunt sexual acts targeted mainly towards men. Erotica is generally targeted towards women and, at least from some publishers, is better written and generally has some sort of plot. However, erotica is centered around the sexual act.

    Erotic romance, however is in most cases, much more like a traditional romance with the sex scenes being more explicit. In erotic romance the story doesn’t revolve around the sexual act; it is merely one part of the whole. Erotic romance does indeed come in the many varied flavors that you attribute to romance.

    So, while I agree with you, in regards to pornography and erotica, I have to respectfully disagree with you when it comes to erotic romance. Many erotic romance authors are as talented “chefs” as their counterparts who write “tame” romance. There is nothing wrong with having your rice and chocolate together on the same plate.

  6. Delinda,

    I have never said that erotic romance or erotica are all porn. As I said in the piece, there can be chocolate rice pudding.

    There are erotic pieces that are heartbreaking–and ones that are funny–and ones that make you think.
    I’ve talked about erotic romances that are extraordinary on this blog (Megan Hart comes to mind).

    Is some erotic romance/erotica porn? Sure. You can throw a HEA on any old stroke story, and it’s still a stroke story. But I don’t think that most published erotic romance falls into that category, and I have never said that erotic romance is by definition pornography.

  7. If you define porn (as you kind of did with the phrase ‘by definition’) as that which is intended to do (or does) no more than arouse, then the label “porn” is one end of a spectrum with a lot of colors in between.

    What is literature that does nothing more than make you laugh? What is literature that does nothing more than make you cry, or tremble in fear? Would you apply the same standard (that is, shouldn’t be reading too much of it) to someone who only liked comedy, tragedy, or horror?

    Ultimately, inspiring arousal (or laughter, or tears, or fear) in the reader is one technique in the author’s toolbox. Yes, if that’s the only one that gets taken out, the result will be fairly boring fairly quickly, but that’s true of ANY authorial technique, isn’t it?

  8. If someone only liked to read joke books, I would likewise think they had a pretty limited reading diet. Same for someone who only reads obituaries in the paper. Or classified ads.

    So I agree with the broader statement: people should eat the literary equivalent of vegetables and fruits and get protein, too.

    Moderation is good–but my point is that some things need to be moderated more than others.

  9. Nicely said.

    I didn’t find that Slate article until Monday (which is weird cause I’m on that site 10x a day) and just saw your comment today (on Monday I was too annoyed to go all the way back). I liked what you said there as well.

  10. I’ve always thought this question a pointless argument, like trying to determine whether apples and oranges belong to the same class. Yes, they’re both fruits, but who would mistake one for the other? Romance fiction, in my opinion, does have some relationship to pornography, just as apples have a relationship to oranges. If the purpose of porn is to “arouse,” certainly some passages in some romance fiction does that…or should, because surely one of the purposes is to make one receptive to the feelings of one of the protagonists at that moment. As a prior poster pointed out, some erotica is replete with sex, but that same book tells the story of a relationship leading to an HEA, which by definition puts that book into the class romance despite that one of the purposes of erotica is to “arouse,” and some readers might read it for that very purpose just as they would pornography.

    It’s ironic, I think, that a number of works one has to classify as pornographic–The Decameron Tales, Fanny Hill, Ovid’s poetry, de Sade’s works–are viewed as classics and yet readers get antsy when romance fiction is considered soft porn.

    The best response to such charges is, I think, so what.

  11. They’re called Romance Novels for a reason. They have interesting plots, interesting characters, interesting settings, and interesting, sometimes surprising, ideas. And like all other novels, they’re usually differentiated by specific genre identifiers. Instead of violent crime or fear, they focus on relationships and love. It’s the mushy, happy aspect with a pleasurable ending that people seem to object to. Apparently, emotional and physical happiness equals pornography. Interesting world view some people have.

    I object to the Porn label because it’s incorrect. I object to the Romance label when it’s incorrect. There was a time when publishers were slapping Romance on any paranormal novel that had a whiff of relationship in it. It creates confusion, like picking up an apple and discovering it’s an orange somebody painted red.

Comments are closed.