Love them or hate them, some of the most popular books written are romance novels. And whether you're a free lovin' open book, or as prim a prude as possible, there's no denying sex sells. So how do we bridge the gap between perfumed letters, whips and chains, tearful confessions, and leather and lace? Love and sex are integral to literature and always have been. From Homer's Iliad to Stephenie's Twilight, to the Fifty Shades trilogy and more, stories about people getting together, getting it on, making out, splitting up and making up are page-turners.
First we let's take the bestselling smash success 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James - what makes it such a smash? Is titillation and sex all that's needed to make a bestseller, or is there more to the formula? From its celebrators to its detractors, one thing is certain - the book got attention. So much so that it was developed in to a highly anticipated and speculated-about film version, starring Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey and Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele. We haven't seen the 50 Shades of Grey movie, but you can check out the AbeBooks blog to read our honest book review of 50 Shades of Grey.
Then we talked with bestselling author Mary Roach, whose most recent title, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Sex and Science brings sex out of the bedroom and into the laboratory for a closer look.
Joining her are the owners of Seattle-based Alta-Glamour Inc., both sexologists, who have been selling books, specializing in erotica and sex, on AbeBooks for a decade.
And with her take on love, sex and the written word is prolific, popular romance author Merline Lovelace, hot on the trail of her next book from Harlequin.
AbeBooks: You’ve used science to examine, various subjects. In Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife , you look at human corpses and the possibilities of the afterlife, respectively. What made you make the jump to sex?
Mary Roach: "I jump around a lot. I randomly came across a reference to the films that Masters & Johnson had made, the human sexual response films – with the penis camera, the phallus camera, filming women’s sexual response while it was actually happening - the whole bit. I started thinking sexual RESEARCH has to be the next book. People having sex is a strange thing to see in a laboratory, and I though 'that sounds like an awkward and entertaining prospect!' so I figured it would fit in well with my interests."
Abe: To your mind, in literature, what are the differences between romance, erotica, and pornography?
Mary Roach: "I would say erotica is a mixture of romance and pornography, done by someone who's a very skilled writer. Pornography has a very focused and directed goal. Romance as well, with a very directed target audience and a dollar-oriented bottom line. Erotica, I’d say has a little bit of art mixed in. It's not really my area of expertise, but that would be the distinction for me."
Abe: Which genre is your favorite of the three?
Mary Roach: "I don’t spend a lot of time with any of the three – certainly not romance. Although I did interview Fabio, the cover model, once.
He was so nice that he wanted the photographer and me to stay and check out his German audio components of his sound system – while watching Terminator 2.
He’d written a cookbook. That’s why I was interviewing him."(editor's note: the cookbook, 'Fabio's Recipes for Romance' appears very scarce and is not currently available on AbeBooks).
Abe: Do you get a lot of corny comments, having studied sex?
Mary Roach: "Actually, I get a lot of absolute silence. Nobody in my family or friends wants to talk about it. Especially the famous ultrasound scene with my husband Ed (in which Ed and Mary had intercourse in a laboratory while a scientist used ultrasound imaging to record the motions and contractions of the bodies --ed). When I talked about it once in public, I know Ed’s parents were there, but after the reading they disappeared."
Abe: Despite what Cosmopolitan Magazine might have us believe, there are only so many kinks, so many fetishes, so many positions - so many ways to have sex. Yet erotica and pornography are a booming, incredibly prosperous industry. What do you think keeps people coming back, buying more?
Mary Roach: "I think the stuff you see on the cover of magazines of that kind just feeds on people's insecurity and anxiety, the sense of 'I don’t know all the tricks and I’m going to lose my partner'. It's ridiculous, but sex is so important, especially to men, and people's insecurity is fueling that endless river of articles.
As for erotica and pornography, I think there is still a sexual taboo in our culture – to look at television you might not think so, but in terms of people feeling comfortable talking about it in their own lives, it still has a long way to go. So there is a taboo, and I think any time you make anything taboo, naughty or off-limits, people are drawn to it."
Abe: What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of the amount of erotica and pornography available today, from the mild to the wild?
Mary Roach: "Benefits - Well, I tend to be of the mindset that if it's not hurting anybody, it's fine! I think if someone is driven to seek out pornography, and they decide to, they're going to find it whether it takes them 30 seconds or two days. I don't think the accessibility is turning people into addicts, although in terms of drawbacks, the internet - having it available instantly, all the time, anywhere, even in the office - I suppose could encourage or enable behaviors that are potentially damaging to careers and relationships. As well, children having access to it certainly isn't a terribly positive thing."
Abe: You're incredibly open about sex, to the extent of helping science by participating in sexual experiments yourself, and with your husband. Do you think the shame and secrecy, the “don't ask, don't tell” attitude so prevalent towards sex in our society contributes to some of its sexual problems (pornography addiction, rape, pedophilia etc.)?
Mary Roach: "I don't know about those problems, per se, but it certainly contributes to a lot of the relationship problems between couples. I think most of those problems could be remedied with a) communication and b) removal of the fear and anxiety of talking about it. For instance, say a guy loses his erection. This happens, from time to time. If we shrug it off, make a joke about it, discuss it, it loses importance and associated anxiety. But without communication and laughter, it becomes a big deal. Sex needs more laughter in it. Funny things happen.
As for the bigger stuff, I would say it does contribute, yes. I suppose if you looked at, say, the Netherlands, where they're more open, but..no, even there, it doesn't mean the average person is comfortable talking openly about sex. This isn't an arena where I've put in much research or thought, but intuitively I would say yes, the don't-talk-about-it attitude toward sex in our society is probably damaging on a larger scale."
Abe: Would you rather get a good love or romance story, or a good piece of steamy erotica from a valentine?
Mary Roach: "A good piece of steamy erotica, definitely. Romance is harder to write well, I think, and doesn't tend to be up my alley. I'm going to go with the erotica. In fact, if a lover didn't know me well enough to not buy me a romance novel, it might be a deal breaker!"
Abe: Can you recommend some reading to fans of Bonk who'd like to learn more about the science of sex?
Mary Roach: "Well, there's been very little written, but I would recommend Masters & Johnson's book Human Sexual Response, even as just a period piece. It was first published in 1966, and was really the first book of its kind, so they were very concerned that people would view it as smut. As such, they did everything they could to downplay any possible offensiveness, so the book is written with these elaborate euphemisms. For instance, if a man can't achieve an erection, it's called a 'failure of erective performance'. A woman who only reaches orgasm 50% of the time she has sex is experiencing a '50% orgasmic return rate'. And a couple having sex is called a 'responding unit'. Most of the research and writing was done in the late 1950s, so it gives a real glimpse of a very conservative time. They had very real concerns that there would be a lot of angry reaction. And they were right - William Masters once said at some conference that they had to hire a secretary to answer all the hate mail."
Abe: What are some of your favorite books?
Mary Roach: "Some of my favorites...The Fruit Hunters, such a wonderful nonfiction book. It came out last year and didn't get nearly the attention it deserved. The author is a wonderful reporter, a truly magical writer, who writes with such vivid imagination. Another favorite is Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Such a fantastic read. I recently read City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. It's a fictionalized account from the Hurricane Katrina disaster that follows two families, and really brings it home. I don't think I had, before reading it, fully realized the scope of the human tragedy that happened in New Orleans. Oh, and anything by Bill Bryson"
Alta-Glamour Inc: "We are a mail order / Internet store only."
Abe: You're sexologists, is that correct? What exactly does that mean?
Alta-Glamour: "We are both sexologists. Ivan has a DHS (Doctor of Human Sexuality), from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, where he is also the archivist. Cynde has earned both a MLIS (Master of Library and Information Science) from the University of Washington, and a PhD in Sexology from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. We met in the exotic sexual archives of the Institute and have been twirling happily ever since. We are active members of sexological professional organizations - SSSS, the Society for Scientific Study of Sexuality; and AASECT, the American Association for Sex Education, Counselling, and Therapy.
Being sexologists means we are professionally trained to understand the entire range of sexual practices in an objective and non-judgmental manner. We are well-versed in the history of sexually explicit materials and the related academic fads and sexual styles. We can evaluate and handle all sorts of sexually explicit materials and discuss them respectfully and in detail with customers and researchers. Our day is probably not unlike other booksellers - evaluating and purchasing collections, entering data, scanning, uploading files to the Internet, printing out invoices, and carefully packing and taking it all to the post office. Is it more fun because all the books are about sex? We hope so! To contribute to the Valentine's theme, when the day of stacking and packing sex books is through, we drive back up to our cozy little love-cabin in a nudist recreation park, build a fire, and nuzzle up together."
Abe: You have a tremendous collection of sex-based literature, from old pinup magazines to medical and psychiatric journals to vintage erotica. How did you amass this extensive collection and become a bookseller?
Alta-Glamour: "We are on a mission to save these popular culture sexual expressions from censorship or the dustbin. This is our sexual history we are preserving, protecting, and providing; we take this mission very seriously. We have over 10,000 books and magazines, plus thousands of photographs, posters, pamphlets and other ephemera. Ivan has persistently collected and carefully organized these materials over the last 35 years. Like many second-hand booksellers, we are part of a kind of invisible college, and welcome referrals from collectors who are ready to sell and those colleagues who would rather not handle sexually explicit materials."
AbeBooks: What came first, your interest in sex as a field of study, or your interest in books?
Alta-Glamour: "For both of us, the interest in books came first. Ivan's interest in sexual materials expanded from his commitment to collecting and selling materials about obscenity and the repression of information. Cynde came to sex from her study of the history of marginal sciences."
Abe: After having a look through your catalog, your erotic fiction collection is certainly diverse. Are there any topics or taboos at which you draw the line and wouldn't stock/sell?
Alta-Glamour: "We don't sell materials that contravene laws of the United States of America. Our international customers are responsible for monitoring their own local regulations. All of our customers are responsible for knowing that they are purchasing sexually explicit materials."
Abe: Has being in a sex-based line of work positively or negatively impacted your social life? Do you get invited to more parties, or judged?
Alta-Glamour: "We are both accustomed to, and even revel in, our marginalization. Neither of us want fame or to be invited to parties. We work hard and have earned the respect of our fellow professionals - sexologists, librarians, booksellers - and the trust of our customers, the readers and collectors of sexually explicit materials."
Abe: From a literary point of view, for the reader who's in it for the story as well as the sex, what are some of the better titles you've read?
Alta-Glamour: "The Paris Olympia Press published a great range of stories with plenty of historical and literary value. New York Olympia Press also has some excellent works. Grove Press and their imprints Black Cat and Victorian Library also have high quality writing. Leyland publishes a great array of contemporary gay fantasy. We both are partial to sexually explicit comic books, graphic novels, and books with sexual artworks, for example Georges Pichard, R. Crumb, Bill Ward and Gene Bilbrew."
Abe: What are some of the real treasures in your inventory?
Alta-Glamour: "We recently received a collection of 1950's "Soho Bibles" - typescripts illustrated with photographic reproductions of drawings, typically sold under the table or circulated by private libraries. A collection on this scale is very scarce. We both enjoy sexual humor, and collect exemplars from the long history of sexual jokes, folklore, drawings, books, gags, and three-dimensional constructions. We are more excited by, say, old birth control manuals with a kinetic cycle dial than by a first-edition anything."
Abe: Romance, erotica, pornography or other: What are some of your favorite books?
Alta-Glamour: "Cynde likes to read first-person stories of body trouble, alien abduction stories, conspiracy theories, and other topics that reveal the margins of science and society. Ivan prefers to relax with mysteries and great novels. Happy Valentine's Day to all!"
Merline Lovelace: "My parents were both avid readers and got us kids hooked early. So when I looked around for something to do after serving in the military, I knew it had to involve books. I considered opening a bookstore but instead decided to try my hand at writing. I knew right from the start that I wanted to write romances. First, because I love to read them. I'm a sucker for a happy ending. Plus, today's romances feature heroines I can relate to -- smart, resourceful women who can think (or kick!) their way out of most dilemmas."
Abe: Many romance novels tend to follow similar rules or formulas. How do you make your books and characters stand out?
Merline Lovelace: "I like to take readers to exotic locations. For example, my husband I traveled to Egypt a few months ago. I had a whole book plotted almost before we climbed off the camels at the pyramids of Giza. I also try to weave very dramatic plots. Lots of action, lots of surprises to test the characters in ways they --and the reader -- never expected."
Abe: Romance is an enormously successful genre. Why do you think that is?
Merline Lovelace: "We all want to believe good really can conquer evil and love can overcome all obstacles. It doesn't always happen in real life, so we turn to books for that elusive happy ending."
Abe: I read the Harlequin Romance writers' guidelines, and it focused a lot on emotion, strength of the heroine, etcetera. However, your books have a lot going on besides the romance. How long on average does it take you to write one of your books?
Merline Lovelace: "You hit on the key to romance novels. Emotion is at the heart of every one. The story can have suspense or paranormal or historical elements, but the core of the book always centers on that fascinating dynamic between the hero and heroine. As to how long it takes me to write a book -- if I'm writing a big historical, I tend to get lost in my research. So I might spend 2-3 months researching and another two writing. Contemporary thrillers also require lots of research but the writing goes faster as I'm more familiar with the jargon and the settings."
Abe: The Harlequin Romance guidelines also say “we don't want the explicit details - leave that to the imagination of the reader!” Where do you draw the line in your sex scenes?
Merline Lovelace: "I don't consciously draw any lines concerning the sex scenes in my books. As Ethel Merman belted out in Annie Get Your Gun, I just let my characters do what comes 'natcherlly'. Some of those characters are more adventuresome than others, although none get into real kinky stuff."
Abe: Aside from the above, what factors do you think decide whether a book is a romance or erotic fiction?
Merline Lovelace: "Hmmm, tough question. I guess I would say that sex is the integral, almost dominant element in erotica. By contrast, sex in a romance novel is only one part of the evolving relationship -- if it shows up in the book at all."
Abe: Do you have male readers as well as female?
Merline Lovelace: "I've got quite a number of male readers, probably because I write so much in the military thriller/action-adventure genre."
Abe: Aside from your own, of course, what are some of your own favorite romance novels?
Merline Lovelace: "A few of my all time favorites are The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer, Hummingbird by Lavyrle Spencer, Night Magic by Karen Robards, and The Roselynde Chronicles by Roberta Gellis."
Abe: Do you have any tips, suggestions or books to recommend for a budding romance novelist just starting out?
Merline Lovelace: "Write. Just sit down and write your heart out. When you finish the first manuscript, get it out there circulating and jump into the second. You gain skill and confidence with every book. Joining a local writers' group is also terrific for motivation and learning about the business."
Abe: Romance, erotica, pornography or other: What are some of your favorite books?
Merline Lovelace: "When I'm writing a romance, I read mostly thrillers, biographies, and non-fiction histories. When I'm writing a mystery, I let myself OD on romances.
I mentioned a few of my favorite authors above. I also love works by Jayne Ann Krentz, Susan Wiggs, and our terrific Oklahoma authors Sharon Sala, Maggie Price, and Gena Showalter. For thrillers, I'm hooked on Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Lisa Scottline, and John Grisham."