Ah book reviews! Attracting them, proactively seeking them, getting and maintaining a high-star rating… A massive topic for writers who publish independently.
However, here I am taking a specific point of the process relating to reviews for erotic works. First of all, it can be a particular challenge to obtain reviews for erotica. Getting reviews is never easy, but anecdotally, erotica typically attracts fewer reviews than do other genres. One possible reason is that some readers are too bashful to admit they have read something overtly sexual. Moreover, many reviewers and review sites will rule erotic work out of submissions.
Of those reviews that come to be posted, I have also observed a general reluctance by the reviewer to mention the obvious – yes, the storyline, character development, the plots twists (or lack of) may all be worthy of comment, but what about the obvious? The (whisper it) S-E-X. How was that for you?
Whether it’s an ‘alpha-billionaire dom sires secret baby’ romance, a classic such as something by Pauline Réage or Anaïs Nin, or a work of contemporary literary erotica, such as Monique Roffey’s moving novella The Tryst or Sylvia Brownrigg’s sensual Pages for You, proportionally few reviewers appear keen to focus on ‘the obvious’. Many reviewers take a delicate side-step from the issue. They will focus on the blooming romance, the likeability of the protagonists, the historical accuracy perhaps… But not the carnal element. Given that an essential quality of erotica is, by various definitions, to depict sexual love, to sexually arouse, even ‘to produce sexual desire and pleasure’ (Cambridge Dictionary), such reticence may seem a little odd.
It is a tendency rather than an absolute rule, of course. I have seen occasional reviews that praise particular books as great “left-handed literature” and, in one case, a reviewer admitting she had to break off during a steamy reading session to “go and sort myself out”, reminding us of at least one motivation for reading erotica. However, such frankness is rare. A lot of reviewers will note a book or character is ‘hot’ or occasionally ‘sexy’, and leave it at that. Some will précis an entire plot (not a habit I understand since a summary is usually right there in the book description) yet skip over the sexual encounters.
I mused on this myself recently when writing some reviews for erotic fiction*. I wanted to think I would be different. And I do insist in reviews, even where brief, on making some comment on the effectiveness of erotic scenes. Yet I found it surprisingly hard to be very frank in a review that was to appear in stark, permanent print. In my own writing I am not reticent on sexual matters at all, so why do I suddenly turn a bit prudish when reviewing?
True, one imagines the use of certain words or phrases in a review may raise a red flag with the host company (though I cannot find any guidelines on this for reviewers, only for those publishing content). However, it should be possible to use acceptable language for an audience of adults without being overly coy.
There may also be a particular problem where a book is not particularly well crafted and / or does not have a good story yet still proves a sexual turn on (or vice-versa). But again, it should be possible to separate out the factors of what one does and does not enjoy about a book in the course of a review.
All things considered, I will give myself a three-star score for ‘could do better’ for my own reviews of erotic work, and see if I can be more balanced in future.
* NB These reviews were not written in exchange for a review of my own stuff. Amazon’s review rules disallow this and tit-for-tat reviewing.