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Romance vs. Sexy Literary Fiction: What’s the Distinction?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story examines the publishing history of Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women, a novel that is considered by many to be a classic of modern European literature — but has had a checkered publishing history in the United States.

Surely, there have been no shortage of literary censorship cases in the United States — or in Europe, for that matter — but overall, continental Europeans seem to like their sex couched in literary fiction, while United States and UK has the market cornered in chest heaving, thigh thumping romance novels. But what, truly, is the distinction? Or is it simply a matter that continental European romance novels don’t translate that well?

Let us know what you think in the comments?

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  1. Posted August 4, 2010 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    I have not had the pleasure of reading In Praise of Older Women, but I will definitely pick it up.

    In my experience, there are many, many distinctions between sexy literary fiction and romance. The most important being that romance follows genre conventions. (Just as the murder will be solved in a mystery novel, the main characters will get together in a romance.) I know a romance will be about relationships, with the romantic relationship taking center stage, and I know it will end on a high note. Romance is about optimism. Sexy literary fiction is more open to ignoring genre expectations, and there is no guarantee that the book won’t be depressing. (If it’s not romance, it may very well end badly for the characters and I will close the book feeling glum.) Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, sometimes not.

    Sexy literary fiction may appeal worldwide, but so does romance. Loving the love story (rather than just the sex story) is not confined to North America.

  2. Posted August 4, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Stacy. Romance/sex novels are usually based on the fairly set formula of the particular genre. Sexy literary fiction is great, too. But usually, the sex scene is expressive of something else as well, such as a particular aspect of the character’ nature. I think of sexy literary fiction as portraying a lot more than just the sex.

  3. Posted August 4, 2010 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I am not exactly sure what is meant by “sexy literary fiction” but assume it is the area of romance that has explicit sex scenes that lack the beauty of a soul to soul connection. . . . Personally, I am a hopeless romantic, and love romance in all its forms. For me Romance is a dance of discovery, connecting, and “falling in love,” whether the love is between two friends, a parent and child or a man and woman–of course sex would only calculate in to the last example. That said: it is the plot, “the dance,” as described above that captures my heart, holds my attention and makes me reread a passage. Many sex scenes border on porn, and I personally think it takes the sacredness out of one of the most profound connections in the human experience.

  4. Helen Bourke
    Posted August 5, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I agree with Stacy and Mary. Let’s say that sexy literary fiction can be about what the characters involved don’t have at least as much as what they do, while romance is about having your cake and eating it, and even if that doesn’t quite happen until the end of the book, the cake is definitely there with a fork stuck in it on the last pages. I’m afraid I don’t agree with the idea that “many sex scenes border on porn”. Sex is disturbing when described with words because it is an experience of its essence absolutely physical and yet absolutely transcendental, because every lover takes something completely different – and not necessarily sacred – from the contact; good “sexy literary fiction” is about that something different, and that is why, paradoxically, it can communicate the essence of sex so well. However, let’s not forget that “sexy literary fiction” does not necessarily just portray sex. The example that springs to mind now is Lolita, in which not one of the sex scenes is graphic and in fact the descriptions of the hairs on Lolita’s legs are much more erotic than the rather disastrous physical encounters that actually take place between her and Humbert Humbert… and of course the sex in Lolita is not really about sex at all, but about longing for your cake, furiously eating other things to try to replace it and in the end of the day (now that I have stretched the metaphor as far as I possibly can) being left neither the cake nor the pleasure of eating it, nor even the conviction that cake really exists.

  5. Jane
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I am a lady who likes a variety of genres, including romance fiction. I picked up the book The True Love Quilting Club. I love quilting and other handwork, so I was delighted to find it. It was what I wanted and expected for about the first half of the book. Then it got “raunchey” for lack of a better word. Now I am stuck with a book that I do not want to continue reading and that I am reluctant to give to anyone due to the graphic scenes.

    Graphic sex is not romance. Romance may lead to sex, but not the other way around.

    Truly, I would like my money back and as much as I abhor destroying books, I would like to set fire to this volume! I realize that my opinion is subjective, but I feel the title is definitely misleading to the romance reader who is a needleworker.

    I will probably never pick up another book by this author ever again.

    Thank you for your time in reading my opinion.

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