I'm lucky in some respects because my work was online for a good year. I was able to garner opinion before I polished it for publication (not something I'll do in future--I did not anticipate the hundred ways a girl like me could abuse a dialogue tag [wince]--but still). The feedback I got told me that professional men and women, from their twenties upwards, liked my book. It was that kind of interaction that led me to first label it as commercial fiction; no particular "crowd" liked it, but it seemed to have a bit of mainstream appeal. If I had to describe it, I'd say it was a bit of Belle de Jour's sexual politics, a lot of Dexter's identity crisis and, erm...well. Let's just say that if Law and Order got really dark and sexy, it might be something like this. Whore and Order :P
Of course, it's not really commercial fiction, especially where romance is concerned. It deals with strong themes of infidelity, sexual identity, prostitution and, er...knives. Everyone's faults are on parade and cuddly chick-lit, it is not. But there is a lot of sex, and the plot centres on the heroine's relationships, so when it comes to reviews...the romance and erotica crowds seem like the obvious place.
Two issues, then:
1) Romance and erotica are different genres (sexual content aside, romance promises a relationship arc and a happy ending; erotica doesn't. They've blended a bit for erotic romance, which is romance with some rather loose morals). But romance and erotica tend, for the most part, to get reviewed on the same sites. By the same people. And this leads into number two...
2) I've often observed that men get away with way more than women in romance. The men can commit all kinds of sins, but many are not forgiving of a female character who does the same. In order for a book to work, you have to connect with the main character on some level, and without wishing to sound patronising at all, I have to wonder how a polyamorous whore(!) will work for a fan of romance--or indeed, a large swathe of people. My protagonist is pretty damn flawed; she's a tax lawyer working as a call girl on the side, and she's struggled all of her life to be faithful. The book really isn't about her being a call girl--that was more of a symptom of her issues and it's come to an end--it's about her figuring out who she is and what she wants, and how she deals with those things reflected in a partner. The guy she falls for is the most monumental prick in a lot of respects--he cheats, he manipulates--but he's perfect for her. And she is really not sure if she's comfortable with that. In book two, they confront their flaws head on, and a big mess ensues--but confront them, they do, and the end result is optimistic.
I see reviews all the time where characters get lambasted for their flaws, and in romance, yes, your heroine should be likeable. This ain't romance. But where the hell else do I send it for review, then? (There's also a difference between a deliberately flawed character and bad writing, but that's a whooooole other post). In theory I'd say, it's not romance, don't send it to romance sites. But it is erotica. It may appeal to some romance fans. And my head will explode soon. Duck!
I have been wondering for some time if there is room in the romance genre for intricately flawed heroines (if they can be called that). So often, in order to give the heroine a human element, she's given some past bad experience that has put them off love--it's almost a requirement these days. What about all the tiny facets of a person that go into shape them as an individual with issues? Why can't we strip those people bare and see how they tick in relationships? Real humans are so much messier, and the drama factor is so much higher*. They aren't as predictable; they make choices with their pants as often as their hearts and heads. They are normally cast as villains, which is sad. We've got anti-heroes, but we haven't got anti-heroines (and no, a kick-ass girl who has lots of casual sex is not an anti-heroine. She's another misogynistic pastiche). A lot of this goes against everything that is comforting about a good romance read, and yet...I find myself missing these guys. Maybe it's a personal preference. Can a good romance novel still push your boundaries, or do you look to other genres for that? I'm curious.
Have you struggled to find an audience for an interstitial book? Or have you read a similar novel, and what was your response? Do you like your protagonists to be inherently good people, or is it enough for them to just wonder about being good, to have a go? As a reader--especially if you read a lot of romance and erotica--just how tolerant are you?
*I'd say this occurs with chick lit or women's fiction, but you really struggle to get away with strong sexual themes in these genres. If you do, they tend to come from very detached protagonists.