Raunch: Romance or Literary Fiction? Depends on the Protagonist

Raunch has a well-established and beloved place in the world of fiction, and it’s an ancient history, too. The Greeks produced their fair share of it, Shakespeare added to it, and authors today continue the trend in literature and other forms of pop culture. Humans have a deep love for raunch, and that need is happily fed by people who love writing and creating it. It’s notable that many of the most lingering legacies in terms of works of art and fiction are, well, rather raunchy. Even some segments of the Bible are pretty graphic.

There’s also a huge divide, though, when it comes to reception of raunch in fiction. If it’s written by a man and features a male protagonist, it’s usually classified as literary fiction. It receives an artful cover and arch reviews, and makes it on to the New York Times bestseller list. It’s heralded as bold, remarkable, and daring. A tour-de-force. The kind of work readers have been waiting for; this is high raunch, high culture, this is something bigger than the sum of its parts, this is a gift to the world from the author because it speaks to the universal human condition.

When it’s written by women, though, and features female protagonists, suddenly it is chick lit or romance, depending on the specifics of the storyline. The same kinds of narratives, like a character who decides to leave a dull office job and is whirled along on a series of adventures which include a variety of bizarre and graphic scenes, and lots and lots of sex, of course, are treated very differently along gendered lines. Raunch with women is considered for female audiences, something of interest to female readers, it is about girls, it is intended to be titillating for the women who read it. It is not for society at large.

This idea, that things about men are for society and things about women are for women, can be seen in so many aspects of pop culture, but it’s very irksome with raunch and sexuality in particular, because of the implications that go along with it. For men, sexuality is considered a sort of birthright; obviously men would go on sexual adventures as part of their coming of age, as part of a catalytic event in their lives, their sexuality would be taken for granted as part of the experience. Obviously this is an important part of the male experience, and it’s implied that this is the universal human experience.

Men read such books to see themselves but women should read them to understand men and all the things they live with, the logic goes, and for the purposes of the people making these divides, the rest of us don’t exist. Raunch for women, though, well, it’s a bit dirty. It’s not the universal human experience because it’s only for naughty girls, and thus while women can read it, perhaps to be titillated by a view of a life they will not live, there’s nothing of interest in there for men. No one wants to explore female sexuality, let alone encounter sexually aggressive, bold, daring female characters, or women who do raunchy things as part of an expedition to learn more about themselves and develop more fully as people and as characters.

This defaulting of male experiences as the universal human condition and female ones as ‘for women’ is dehumanising and belittling. There’s no reason that books should be called literary fiction when they’re about dudes, and romance or chick lit when the story is virtually the same, but it’s about women. Why should books featuring bonds between male characters, focusing on male friendships, be literary fiction, while books about women’s lives and friendships are considered saccharine wastes of time for all but female readers and thus subject to exile in the chick lit section of the shelves?

There is something deeper in this resistance to the idea that female raunch is for women only, and it revolves around the idea that women don’t have a sexuality of their own, but are instead pulled by the men around them. As participants in male-centric raunch, women may appear to enjoy themselves, they may even initiate some acts, but they are subordinate to the main character. Women who are sexually aggressive in such books are often pit stops on the way to true love. They are the dirty girls the male protagonist plays with to learn about sexuality and the world and then they are discarded when they are no longer useful because it’s time to move to the nice girl, the real woman of the piece.

Male raunch lands om bestseller lists and wins critical acclaim because it’s a ‘statement piece,’ and people talk about how daring the author is to write such explicit, in your face scenes, to create a book with violence and sexuality and tangled storylines and messiness. The same sorts of literary accomplishments by women are ignored, thrust to the back of the shelf. They are certainly not singled out for consideration for literary awards, or critically discussed in prestigious publications that can make or break awards nominations. They are quietly shunted to the back of the room because they’re for women—they’re about women, so they are for women, because obviously no one other than women has an interest in women’s lives and sexuality—and releasing them on the general public might have devastating consequences for social stability. Imagine a world where sexually aggressive women on voyages of self discovery get the same kind of critical acclaim that men in the same position do.