Megan Hart’s Broken: What Erotica Can Teach Romance

I never read as just a reader. No matter how good a book is, no matter how engaging it is, the writer part of me is always alert and attentive, taking it apart, learning how it’s put together, admiring a turn of phrase, a twist of plot, some particular artistry to the characterization. In fact, I think the books I love most are the ones that are not just great stories but also lessons in how to tell a great story.

Megan Hart’s Broken was one of those books. I read it because I knew Hart a little bit from Twitter and I knew she was one of erotica’s best writers. I tend to be mercenary about reading—I want to read the people I know, I want to read a little bit of everything, I want to make sure I understand the world (and markets) I’m writing in.

I expected to like Broken a lot, but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect.

It blew me away. After I finished, I spent a long time sitting up in bed, trying to make sense of what I’d experienced. I felt like I’d been taken apart and put back together, not just emotionally by the story, but as a writer.

For those who haven’t read it, Broken is Sadie’s story. Every month, Sadie meets a man she barely knows, Joe, on a park bench and lets him tell her the story of his latest sexual conquest. Sadie relates each story in detail to the reader, putting herself into the story as its heroine—as the object of Joe’s conquest. The stories are sexy, sordid, sad, sometimes pathetic—stories that are as much about Joe’s inability to connect and stay connected as they are about his (incomparable) sexual prowess.

The stories are Sadie’s way of escaping her real life. She’s married to Adam, her first lover and the love of her life. Adam broke his spine skiing shortly after they were married and has been paralyzed from the neck down since. He is resigned, often bitter, and unable to love Sadie as completely or as physically as she needs him to. That she wants more from him than he can conceivably give is a source of endless guilt for her.

In her Amazon review of Hart’s book, Lauren Dane writes:

Whatever Broken is about, I can tell you what it’s not about – Broken is not about infidelity. I want to make that clear up front. Sadie loves Adam, her husband. But Adam has withdrawn himself emotionally after an accident has left him a quadriplegic. She’s lost him in many ways even though he’s there physically. Her entire being centers around his care and schedule – it isn’t that she hates him or wishes he didn’t exist, it isn’t that she wants to sleep with Joe behind Adam’s back. … [But] for that one brief time every month, she’s unfettered from all that responsibility and context and she gets to be a woman.

I know why Dane wrote that Broken isn’t about infidelity. If there’s one thing romance readers loathe, it’s infidelity. No one who deliberately reads book after book about monogamous relationships with happy endings can abide infidelity—it’s the antithesis of romance.

But I have to respectfully disagree with Dane. Broken is about infidelity. It’s about all the ways you can feel like you’re cheating when you’re not and all the ways you can be cheating even when you feel like you’re not. And that’s part of what makes Broken such an amazing book: It takes one of romance’s most beloved soft constraints and messes all the way to hell and back with it. It makes the reader have to live with and sit with and struggle with infidelity, and it still delivers one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever experienced.

That is why I would like to declare Broken utterly wonktastical. For me, the best possible wonk is a romance that doesn’t break any genre rules, it just wrestles with them and pushes boundaries and asks its readers to move to a different level of understanding.

Spoilers ahead!!

Unsurprisingly, given its title, Broken also bears another trademark trait of wonk: Its characters are damaged almost to the point of being unhealable. Certainly that’s true of Adam, for whom there is very little hope of redemption. But both Sadie and Joe are badly wounded, barely functioning—for large portions of the book it seems unlikely they will have anything to give each other. And yet Hart makes you believe they still do, and that’s the really satisfying part of an HEA: when love takes two people who are truly broken and manages to redeem them convincingly, so you walk away certain that no matter how bad things may have been in the past, they’re going to be okay from now on.

Strictly speaking, Broken is probably erotic romance, not erotica, even though it’s published by Spice. Ultimately, it’s love, not sex, that redeems Sadie and Joe. But it would have been far more difficult for Hart to sell the book as erotic romance because Broken messes so utterly with that no-infidelity soft constraint. Erotica makes Broken possible. It makes Joe and Sadie’s story possible. So it got me thinking about the role erotica plays for romance writers and why erotica and erotic romance are so crazily close to each other (they have sex sometimes, when they’re lonely). Some of my very favorite romance writers write very romantic erotica. And I think they do it not only because they like to write about no-holds-barred, no euphemism sex, but also because writing erotica lets them write romance without wrestling so constantly with the genre constraints. There are many fewer—if any—real genre constraints in erotica. Turn the reader on, take the character on a sexual journey, force her to contend with something in herself that can only be fixed or cured or elevated or remade by sex. But otherwise? Feel free to mess with the reader’s head in a whole variety of ways, and by all means? Surprise the reader.

For God’s sake, do not surprise a romance reader. We are mean and bite when surprised.

Lately I’ve heard more than a few people say that erotica is a good way of breaking into the romance market. That’s in part because erotica lets you ease yourself into the rules that constrain romance writers. You can prove yourself as a writer first and prove yourself as a genre adherent second. You can write stories that are sexy and redemptive and then worry later about whether they have accessible heroines and sufficient alpha heroes with good earning potential, or back stories that are just a little bit, but not too, dark.

As a result, erotica is a delight to write. And, when it’s done the way Megan Hart did it in Broken, it’s a delight to read. Not just because it’s a totally brilliant story. But because it’s also a whole lesson in how to write about love, redeeming love, happily-after-after (or at least happily-for-now) love, as it should be written. At the very edges of what we know, at the very edges of what we’ve experienced ourselves, at the very edges of what we can bear to experience. Because that’s how we learn—to write, yes, but mostly, to live in the world.


About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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15 Responses to Megan Hart’s Broken: What Erotica Can Teach Romance

  1. Linda Morris says:

    This is more a comment on erotica in general as I haven’t read “Broken” so I can’t comment on that book specifically. I’m beginning to feel alone in the world in that I find erotica, or non-comic erotica anyway, almost unbearably depressing. Your post helps illuminate why. I don’t think that sex *alone* can redeem anything, and it frustrates me when erotica writers try to convince me that it can. I don’t buy what they’re selling. In my view, “redemptive sex,” for lack of a better word, always comes combined with something besides just sex — something like love, freedom, trust between partners, or best of all, the feeling of that someone understands you and accepts you for who you are. Sex combined with those things makes for a very potent healing tonic, in real life or fiction. Alone, well, sex is a bit empty for me. I love reading about damaged characters, but I’ve never known a damaged person in real life to be healed by a great boink, if you know what I’m saying.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I’m right there with you. If it’s *just* sex, no matter how unusual or new or mind-blowing or kinky, it doesn’t resonate for me. But when it’s done right–as Hart does it, or several other of my favorite erotic fiction writers (Wonkomantics Charlotte Stein & Cara McKenna among them), and sex is combined with another potent force for redemption (love being the most common), then it *really* works.

      • Linda Morris says:

        Heehee, I had to read the word “wonkomantic” three times before I realized it wasn’t “wankomatic.” Toooootally different thing there.
        I’m just sort of thinking aloud on these comments because I’ve been wondering lately why I dislike erotica despite being a fan of sex in both real life and in romance writing. Maybe it just has something to do with the nature of erotica that makes me feel like someone is trying to pander to “typical” female fantasies, not letting me decide for myself what is erotic. Or maybe the pages and pages of sexual description take away from character-building and story-building in a way that I find fatal to the story. Or maybe my response to erotica is just like my response to most paranormal stories: no matter how highly recommended the story comes, I never wind up liking it, so it’s just not for me, I guess.

  2. Ruthie Knox says:

    Fascinating post! I haven’t read this book, but I was just yesterday commenting to an author who had an erotic romance manuscript that involved infidelity — sham marriage adultery, with the knowledge and consent of all players, so in that sense barely adultery at all — that she’d probably be better off calling it and marketing it as “erotica,” because infidelity is such a taboo subject in genre-adhering romance.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I understand the reason for the taboo but I’m simultaneously mystified by it, only because it seems to eliminate soooo many interesting plot possibilities from the romance world.

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        I think there’s an escapism problem. Too many people have been touched by infidelity/adultery in bad, bad ways to be able to let it into their escapist fiction?

        But nah. There are lots of bad real-life things that work their way into fiction and we let it slide. Maybe it messes with our belief in the HEA. Anyone who would cheat in a long-term relationship or marriage can’t be trusted not to do it again — that sort of thing?

        • Serena Bell says:

          I think it’s mainly that. I personally have a lot of trouble believing that a cheater won’t cheat again. And yet, we’ve all known cheaters who have reformed. I’d love to see a romance that dealt head on with that–trust, forgiveness, etc.

          • Amber Lin says:

            I know some readers who will avoid anything with cheating. They don’t care if it’s handled well, they just will not touch it. However, that’s not most people. From my observation, it seems that most readers are okay with the topic, but yes, it will be a struggle to make that HEA believable.

            If you want to read an example of where cheating was used successfully in a straightforward erotic romance (ie. focus on hot sex and fantasy), look at Toni Blake’s Tempt Me Tonight. That book was a bit angsty, but it was also a whole lot of hot, hot sex. I thought it was very well done, and totally believed in the HEA. But the key with that was cheating was the #1 conflict for them, and it took an entire book to resolve it properly. It can’t be taken lightly.

  3. Added to my to-read list. Hey, any more thoughts on the Wonk-o-mance book club idea?

  4. Brian says:

    Broken is fantastic! It has depth and nuance, vivid characters, and a smart structure. Megan Hart has an amazing ear for dialogue, and I’m equally dazzled with how she organizes her stories (use of flashbacks, the movement from chapter to chapter, etc.).
    I recommend “Tempted” and “Naked” — you won’t be disappointed.

  5. Amber Lin says:

    I loved Broken. In my opinion, it’s definitely Megan Hart’s best work, as well as one of the best books in erotica.

    But yes, as I read that quote, I was like huh? No! So I’m glad you disagreed as well. Yes, maybe it was intended to help encourage certain nervous readers to give it a shot, and since she is friends with Megan Hart, maybe she knows more about the intention behind the book than we do. However, it was SO MUCH about infidelity to me, and the other readers I talk to.

    I think it is a testament to Megan Hart’s skill that readers fall on either side of the line in terms of whether it was (emotional) cheating or not. Hell, even I switch sides on additional rounds of reflection. But even when I think, yes, it was cheating, I can’t even dislike her. It makes me think, and think and think, which is fantastic.

    I agree with you that even though it has to be termed erotica, for breaking all those rules, it’s not really about the sex. If anyone has a sexual breakthrough, it’s Joe. Sadie is just Sadie, when it comes to sex.

    • Serena Bell says:

      I was guessing Lauren Dane was trying to help readers come at Broken with fewer prejudices and a more open mind, and I think that from a less wonky-academic perspective, she’s right to urge readers not to see the book as “about infidelity.” There is so much more to it than that.

      Also interesting about Joe’s breakthrough. I’d probably still argue that it was love, not sex, that let him move beyond his narrow boundaries, but I can definitely see how they were more interconnected and complicated for him.

      I put Toni Blake’s book on my Kindle wish list, only to have Amazon inform me that it was already on my wish list and it would move it to the top. :-) :-) :-)