I remember reading a romance novel while on the treadmill at the gym. I got to a steamy scene, then became acutely aware that I was reading it in public. Of course, the people around me didn't know I was at a steamy scene, but they could see the romance novel quality of my book. I was 18ish at the time.
A few years ago I was alone at a restaurant between work meetings. I brought my book, The Lady's Tutor (one of the two erotica I have read). The title and cover were innocuous, so I was not worried about what passerby's might think. I was putting the book back in my purse as I left the restaurant when I noticed that it had "AN EROTIC NOVEL" written across the back cover in bold. Nice. I was a little embarrassed.
During the first example, I was very young and insecure in my right to be a sexual human. There were still a lot of questions and labeling and vulnerabilities. I understand my embarrassment at being perceived to be reading something 'smutty.' Of course, the covers were a little bit ridiculous then, so the perception of smut is more understandable. The covers now are much more elegant (Fabio = then, Eloisa James = now).
BTW, what is Fabio doing to her back? I hope he brought a towel.
As for the second example, well, it is embarrassing that it was embarrassing. I am an adult and I can read what I want to read. As
long as the cover image is not pornographic, it should not offend anyone in a public setting. I should be able to own my reading choices.
I bring this up because I recently read about a writer that was embarrassed to be known as an author of sensual romance. To each, their own, but I just don't get it. I am proud of my writing and I write romance. Unless you are a Shaker, passion is part of romantic love. That, and the passion is just a smidgen of the story. That's right, I said story. Romance novels have stories. Actual plots. Just like any other commercial fiction.
Then again, maybe the concern is that it is commercial fiction and not high literature. Hey, if you're writing something that is marketable and readers respond, CONGRATULATIONS! You are awesome and I envy you. Writing commercial fiction is nothing to sneeze at. Many of the authors I read are educated professionals who were successful in their careers before choosing to write romance. They were drawn into the field for a variety of reasons. There are professors of Shakespearean literature, bio-chemists, TV journalists, former models, and a lot of teachers.
So the question is, why would someone write something they were ashamed of? I'm not talking about using a pen name -- authors choose to do that for a variety of reasons. I'm talking about total embarrassment about the genre they love to create. Does society really judge people's reading and writing choices so harshly? Is there really such a stigma to the romance genre. 20 years ago I would have said yes... but now?
Addendum: In reading blogs this weekend, I came across this blog from Teach me Tonight. It's a great look at the stereotype of both the romance writer and romance reader along with addressing the stigma of romance.