What Do Our Readers Really Want?

By Pan Zador, author of Act of Love and Far From the Madding Crowd: The Wild and Wanton Edition

Far from the Madding CrowdWhat do our readers really want? I am genuinely curious about this. And I’d love to hear from any of you.

Writing romances is so much more complicated than it was when I was a girl. Since Fifty Shades of Grey, the field of erotica has widened [if you’ll forgive the term] and become less romantic, and more — erotic? What makes you open a book in a bookshop, and — having read what? the first page? the middle? —  decide to buy it? Is it sex on page one?

Because, for me, that would make me put it down straight away. As a reader, I like to see my characters work for their romance and earn their right to a sex scene by the usual obstacles of uncertainty about their beloved’s feelings, imagined or real rivals, making terrible mistakes, getting angry or hurt; their expression of lasting love is best saved until all confusions have been cleared up in the final chapter. Of course there must be erotic moments — a kiss, a glimpse of vulnerability, a variety of metaphors to describe the gradual falling in love of two people…

Or does it have to be only two these days? Would you want to read about triangles or communes of sex activity? What, in your opinion, would be going too far? If the world is ready for the weird gymnastics of Fifty Shades of Grey, is there anywhere we cannot go?

A friend recently recommended to me a great classic of lesbian love called The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall. When it was published in 1928, it caused a sensation, and was read, secretly, not only by gay people but by the same daring, boundary-breaking readers who bought copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as soon as it was released from its sentence of imprisonment in 1963 after a sensational court case where the judge asked the jury, “Would you want your servants to read this book? Or your wife?”

Act of LoveHow times have changed! Radclyffe Hall’s book is tastefully written — almost too tastefully. There is much agonised soul searching, and the story ends with a terrible, tragic sacrifice of love. The human condition is surely one we can all identify with. And is a lesbian romance something we would have no interest in as readers? I must declare my preference, as you will see from the dedication on the front page of Act of Love, the loves of my life have all been men, but I read the novels of Sarah Waters, herself a lesbian, who describes Victorian life particularly vividly, with fascination. All a romance needs, in my view, is to be well written.