Amatory fiction is term used by literary scholars and critics to refer to a category of fictional prose texts, written by female authors, mainly in the period between the late 1600s and mid 1700s. This era precedes the time period when the long works of prose fiction we know as novels became popular, and shows a move towards the consumption of prose fiction rather than poetry and drama. Three main authors are associated with amatory fiction: Aphra Behn (1640?–89), Delarivier Manley (1670?–1724), and Eliza Haywood (1693?–1756). All three wrote numerous pieces of fiction that focused on romantic and erotic love, presented from the point of view of a female character. The plots of amatory fiction typically focused on a young and inexperienced woman becoming romantically and sexually involved with an older and more sophisticated man. There is typically an element of disguise, mistaken identity, or deception, and the sexual activity is often forceful or coercive. Sexual activity also typically results in detrimental consequences for the heroine, such as pregnancy, desertion, or both. However, works of amatory fiction tend to be fairly ambiguous in their portrayals of sexually transgressive behavior, and female characters are usually not portrayed as sinful or fallen women. Rather, characters are usually shown to be victims of impulse, curiosity, or reckless naivety, all of which can create sympathetic portrayals.
Amatory fiction is sometimes viewed as a precursor to the genre of romance novels: while these texts are interested in the emotional elements of love and desire, they also do not shy away from frank and sometimes quite explicit representations of sexual activity. Moreover, women are usually portrayed as equal participants who are interested in pursuing their own gratification and pleasure. Especially considering that these works were written by women, they represent quite a unique and surprising cultural trend towards a subversion of gendered roles and expectations. As amatory fiction became less popular and more traditional models of fiction arose in the mid 1700s, heroines tended to become more chaste and less assertive. Another important contribution of amatory fiction is the way in which it foregrounded the role of women as authors, readers, and protagonists of prose fiction. The rise of the novel as a literary form is sometimes associated with a cultural shift towards literature becoming more concerned with the experiences and lives of female characters, and amatory fiction may be seen to represent one aspect of this evolution.
Despite its significance as a literary historical phenomenon, amatory fiction has not always been taken seriously by scholars and critics. Many early attempts to trace the history of the novel focused on male writers and disregarded works of amatory fiction as "trashy" or "popular," at least in part because these works would have been read by women, members of the working classes, and individuals with less education. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of feminist literary criticism, that more and more scholars pointed out how important it is to study amatory fiction in order to be able to understand how and why the novel became such a popular literary form.