One Weekend in Aspen: Navigating the murky waters between erotica and romance

One Weekend in Aspen author Jaime Clevenger discusses the division between erotica and romance in lesfic and where the new novel lands.

One evening in late spring 2020, I was at my desk typing away on my latest manuscriptOne Weekend in Aspen—when a question popped into my head: What was the purpose of this story?

Most of the time when I get an idea for a book, I don’t pause to analyze it. I simply jump in and enjoy the wild ride that the characters take me on. Which is why it hadn’t occurred to me to worry about the fact that I was setting a light romance at a sex party until I was about half-way to a finished manuscript.

Can a book have a mid-life crisis? As it turns out, yes. Should that happen at a sex party? Well…

Now I could argue that I was writing One Weekend in Aspen simply because my brain needed a vacation and a real one wasn’t happening. What better way to take a break from homeschooling two kids while juggling a day job than to escape each evening to a sex party? Plus, given the craptastic year we all had, giving readers a little fun wasn’t a terrible excuse either.

One Weekend in Aspen
One Weekend in Aspen, available for purchase now!

Still, the answer seemed more complex than this. But before I’d tackled my novel’s existential question, another more dire question followed: Could I even pull off a light romance set at a sex party? Two strangers walk into a sex party…Sounds like the opening for an erotica, right? And yet I was pretty sure I was writing a romance.

While plenty of important questions were posed in 2020, this is the one that claimed space in my mind: Where is the line between erotica and romance?

I’ll admit I don’t generally like lines. Or rules. Or categories. Heck, I have trouble even picking my pronouns. That said, I can appreciate why lines exist as well as the beauty of folks who can adeptly blur them. But I was still at least ninety percent sure I was writing a romance despite the setting. To convince myself, I decided to dig deeper.

If you ask almost anyone, they will tell you the line between romance and erotica is sex.

Okay, fair enough. But is it simply the number of pages devoted to sex? Beyond that possibility, I’ve heard people say that you can tell a story is erotic if there are toys involved. Or any kink. I’ve also heard it posed that if the characters fall in love first, and have sex second, then it’s romance. Others claim that what happens in the end is the most important—do the characters have a happily ever after? If so, you’ve got a romance on your hands.

Honestly, I have problems with all of the above as sole criteria for differentiating erotica from romance but arguing those points wasn’t going to help me decide what type of book I was writing with One Weekend in Aspen. I had fallen for these characters and didn’t want to change anything about their love story. So, was I writing a romance or did I need to email my publisher and admit I’d stumbled into other territory?

According to the Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS), the leading literary organization for books about women loving women and lesfic, erotic novels “contain a high level of sexual content.”

Wait, so maybe they do think that it is the number of pages devoted to sex that is important?

Well, before we settle on that, GCLS goes on to state that “The sex (in erotic novels) must be such an inherent part of the plot, setting, narrative, characterization, etc., that it could not be removed without damaging the storyline.”

Now this is more interesting. If you think about removing all the sex scenes from an erotic romance, you stop and wonder—where’s the story? And I think that is precisely their point. There is no story in erotica without the sex. Also, why would you do that?!

Conversely, according to the GCLS, in a contemporary romance: “The love story must be the main focus of the novel, and it must have a happy or hopeful ending.”

Who else wants to argue all the potential meanings of a happy ending? I think erotic novels may have the upper hand here, but I digress.

Writing reflects life. Our real relationships and also our fantasies. But life doesn’t have distinct lines for our relationships.

The GCLS goes on to state that a romance “is distinguished by novels whose main plot focuses on the obstacles a new couple faces to get together or the threats an existing couple must overcome to stay together.”

I agree with all of that. But I have more questions. What about a story where the main challenge our two characters face is sex? If the obstacle is sex, does that make it erotic? I’d argue, no. Especially if they don’t spend that much time in bed.

Writing, as with all art, reflects life. Our real relationships and also our fantasies. But life doesn’t have distinct lines for our relationships. We fall in love, we have sex—or not. And it’s all good. Sometimes it’s hot. Sometimes it’s simply sweet. The important part is the connection we feel. For this reason, I wish we could move beyond the idea that we need to fit our stories into categories.

My last book, Just One Reason, was accused of being more erotic romance than contemporary romance simply because of the conversation around a Dominant/submissive relationship and someone getting tied up. With that description, are you thinking the book sounds like an erotic romance? But if you remove the sex, there’s still a story and a sweet connection so I maintain it is a contemporary romance.

Which brings us back to our question about One Weekend in Aspen.

Two people meet at a sex party. One of the characters definitely is not interested in falling in love. The other is practically ready to propose at first sight. Spoiler alert—they do fall in love. When that happened, I couldn’t keep these two from then wanting their own happily ever after but the focus of their early story was sex. Sex is the challenge, sex is the reward, sex is how they show all their insecurities, their fantasies, and their realities.

So does that mean I wrote an erotic romance? Or because it’s sweet and silly and they fall in love, is it then a contemporary romance?

Like so many things in life, I’m not sure I want to pick a category. Maybe you can? Either way, I am certain I blurred a few lines, and I can only hope that readers enjoy the results. Also, if you find yourself having a midlife crisis, you might consider hosting a (socially distanced? fully vaccinated?) sex party. It’s certainly cheaper than a new sports car and you’ll have a good story to share later.