In an effort to read more erotica, my Hump Day Reviews have typically presented reviews of erotic books, or books with sexual themes in them, that I’ve recently read. But today I wanted to switch gears a bit and focus on the process of writing the reviews themselves, as I think there’s some confusion about what constitutes a good erotica review.
As an erotica writer myself, I’ve found it fairly difficult to find reviewers willing to take on the challenge of reviewing erotic books. The funny thing is that I can totally understand these readers’ hesitation. After all, writing erotica reviews comes off as a lot more deeply personal than reviewing, say, a cookbook or even another genre of fiction. People seem to equate reading and writing erotica directly with an author’s or reader’s sexuality or sexual preferences. And even though I know that reading tentacle porn doesn’t mean I’m attracted to squid, or that I want to be manhandled by someone sexually, I’m not sure that the average reader understands that.
So let me just say…
The first rule of reviewing erotica is that your review does NOT need to reflect your preferences in bed.
Frankly, I don’t really want to know what your preferences are in bed unless we’re sleeping together. Which we’re not, because I’m happily married. But thanks for the offer.
Whatever you thought of the steamy parts of the story may or may not be tangled up in your personal preferences, but I feel that the important thing is to try to remember that this is a review of a fictional book, not a laundry list of your likes and dislikes concerning sex. You’re supposed to be presenting your opinion of the book, and while that obviously includes sex, it’s not actually about you having sex. Even if you did rub one out while reading the book. (Which, by the way, is totally flattering to writers of erotica, so thank you for mentioning it!)
So how does one review a sex scene, anyway?
Personally, I like to read reviews that give a “spice rating,” as these offer readers a more generalized reaction to the sex scenes. Even if the book’s publisher has given it a “heat level,” to indicate the type of sex involved (for instance, Siren uses sensual, steamy, sizzling, scorching and sextreme), readers will have different reactions to the scene based on their own perceptions of how hot they found the characters and their bedroom interactions.
Some reviewers (like the Bangor Public Library) actually employ chili peppers to indicate how hot they found a certain scene, which I find both cute and apt. It’s slightly similar to star ratings, with more peppers being desirable, but doesn’t seem quite as negative if you only hand out one or two peppers. After all, tastes vary, and some prefer their dishes more mild than wild.
Other reviewers like to keep their reviews more focused, using rating scales for everything from character development and originality of the plot to the author’s sense of humor. Mary’s Ménage Reviews also rates an erotic book’s romance (“how they mutually react to each other, romantic, sweet”), equality (“in sex scenes, but also in the relationship”), credibility (“if I can relate to the characters and the story, if the story and characters are believable”) and BDSM levels, noting that sometimes what the publisher has labeled and what she has read differ. Mary also calls out typos and poor editing when it draws her out of the story, and will rate a cover if she finds it inconsistent with the character descriptions or is “plain ugly.” Preach it, sister!
Another thing I like to try to do in reviews generally is to try to focus on both the positive as well as the negatives. Even in books I’ve hated, there is usually something redeeming (with a few notable exceptions), so I like to give some credit for the bits I enjoyed, even if they were few and far between.
In addition, if my overall review is negative, I like to include suggestions for other similar books that a reader might prefer. Lots of people are currently writing lists of “books better than 50 Shades of Grey,” for instance, which I think is a good idea. After all, you may hate the characters in 50 Shades but really want to read more BDSM books. If you write a negative review of 50 Shades, then it makes sense to me to include two of your favorite BDSM books as recommendations at the end, leaving readers with something actionable they can take away from your review — as well as a short reading list to try out.
At the end of the day, I know that reviewing erotica will always be difficult, simply because people all have their own sexual issues and ideals, which bias their reviews from the get-go. And I certainly don’t expect — or want — the average reader to be able to write a totally objective review, either. After all, a review like “I came a lot in this book” is both hilarious and an awesome way of explaining just how much you enjoyed a work of erotica, precisely because you’re supposed to want to come when you read erotica.
But even if you don’t, I don’t think that necessarily means that the work was bad, or poorly done. Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!, for instance, didn’t make me come. But it did make me ponder what I thought about it, and about erotica more generally, and how to review something that is supposed to turn you on, but didn’t necessarily get me off — and, indeed, rather scared me to read in the first place.
For me, reading erotica is about challenging taboos, combating stereotypes and clichés, and really getting out of my comfort zone. Sure, we all love to read erotica that hits our pleasure points, but what about the stuff we find uncomfortable? That’s just as important to me as getting off physically, because ultimately it’s a kind of mental stimulation I think we could all use a bit more of.
Much the same as with sex itself, there’s really no “right” way to review erotica — just do what feels good.