The Evolution of Smut

When I was a young lass back in the 80s I was addicted to Harlequin romances. Seriously addicted. Whenever my aunts, my grandma, or my mom got some more of them I would pounce upon them to learn about eschewing promiscuous kissing (even in 7th grade I called bullshit on that one) and that if the overbearing boss twice your age sexually harassed you it was only because he really loved you.

I also learned some really good lessons, too. I learned women could start their own business and become doctors and reporters as well as secretaries. I was told it was okay if women became sexually aroused. Those books pointed out that women could travel and have adventures and that they could be “headstrong” and “smart-mouthed” yet still find love. Alright, so the women in those books frequently had violet or emerald eyes and hair that was either golden or fiery or ebon or in one stand-out case “sable”. And sure, they were all beauties who “tossed” their heads and “stared daggers” at their enemy/suitor, but by God they were very seldom complacent, silly, milquetoast doormats. Those books showed me that a woman could be rebellious but still get the Happily Ever After and that is the kind of thing a girl needs to know.

The most ironic part of these tame little books -- wherein kissing was as far as it went and heavy petting only occurred (if at all) at the end after the “will you marry me” part (since there was a serious “no hymen no diamond” vibe back in the day) and it was clear the hero would only get the cherry on top of the sundae after he had lifted her veil during the wedding -- was that my family and my friends all referred to them as our “smut books”. We loved those slim volumes that would have been hard pressed to shock a Victorian matron, but because they were romances we bought into the entire concept that they were “smutty” and we were lowbrow for reading them.

I am indignant in hindsight.

Later we all discovered the ‘single title romances’ which often featured a heroine who was “deflowered” by the hero early-to-mid way into the book and we found out that sex could be written about in gloriously explicit detail. Sadly, the what-what could be rapey or flat out rape (I don’t think a romance heroine could lose her virginity before she met the hero or under normal circumstances prior to 1999) but at least we got detailed sex scenes! The more daring authors (cough Johanna Lindsey cough) even had the hero give the heroine a “very special kiss” on her ladybits. Seldom was this reciprocated by the heroine (who just had to lay there like a happy starfish to drive the hero mad with desire) but the hero’s lack of a “mouth hug” wasn’t something that particularly bothered me. My friends and I all called these novels our “smut” books, too.  

In spite of the ever-increasing sexual liberation of the protagonists, really raunchy sex remained confined to the books of a very few authors. After the turn of the century (wait, what?) the reader started to get more variety regarding the beast with two backs, at least in some books. We usually referred to those books as “steamy”, to set them apart. I remember a book about an Amazon queen that involved a threesome with the hero and a guy he picked out just to please the queen. The queen got double-stuffed. I was agog. (I cannot remember the title of the book but I think it was by Beatrice Small; does anyone know what it was??) Moreover, paranormal romances also burst out as a major sub-genre and that was a field that was ripe for *ahem* exotic squelchies.

By then I was a feminist and knew romance was a genre worthy of respect, but I still called my books “smut” from a combination of nostalgic affection and a determination to make the word “smut” the proud adjective it deserved to be.

Nowadays anyone who wants to can enjoy a sampling of the sub-genre called “erotic romance”. These things would have caused my eyes to roll back into my head and my my brain melt during the Harlequin-reading days of yore. Come to think of it, even Harlequin came out with the Harlequin Spice line and all the naughty naughtiness that entails. Some of the erotic books and novellas and short stories available now actually make my kindle fog up from the steam. My sixty-three year old mother loves erotic romances and when she read 50 Shades of Grey she condescendingly sniffed that it was “boring compared to the stuff Judy Mays writes”. My mom recently found out that one of her favorite new erotic romance authors, Tacie Graves, was the pseudonym of a friend of mine. This friend is a nice middle-aged soccer mom who grew up in the South and can speak Junior League. They are always the one’s with the sex swings and thigh-high boots, y’all. Anyway, my tactful mother cornered Tacie at my house during Thanksgiving and whispered plot suggestions in her ear for an hour. Tacie has mostly recovered and one day her eye may stop twitching, but she will never again voluntarily sit on my mother’s furniture.

Tacie’s stuff is great, but there is no respect or recognition given to her for her work outside of a circle of fans and fellow authors. Tacie’s sister is the only member of Tacie’s family who knows about Tacie’s books, and she won’t mention them to any of her friends or coworkers because they are just “smut” and thus inherently unworthy of Tacie’s background as a scholar. We’ve not come a long way, baby.  Although erotic romance has exploded as a sub-genre and is clearly in demand, the mainstream sneers that it is “Mommy-Porn” and refuses to acknowledge any literary merit in ANY work in this category.

Well, just you wait bub. Shakespeare was once just a bawdy playwright whose “smutty” works have since become the gold standard of the written word. Gothic novels and “horrid” stories were once dismissed as “trash” and now the works of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley are canon. Jane’s Austen’s works were hella popular but shrugged aside as mere romancesuntil the 1940s, more than 100 years after she was first published. Once she was a Literary Great her books weren’t romance novels any more; they were “fundamentally comic”. Go figure. Some of Stephen King’s first writing gigs were a column in his college newspaper called  "Steve King's Garbage Truck" and short stories for “men’s magazines”. Not a lot of respect given to writers of stories in “men’s magazines”, but Stephen King seems to have done alright for himself.

I’m not saying that, as of now, a work of literary genius lies waiting to be discovered in the fallow fields of erotic romance. I’m saying that the idea that there is now, or one day will be, a novel of resounding brilliance in that field should not be ruled out simply because it is culturally denigrated sub-genre in an already culturally denigrated genre.

After all, JK Rowling started out with young adult fiction about wizards.

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