I do Q&As fairly regularly in a bunch of different contexts, sometimes on blogs, very rarely live (like the lovely event that Cathy Berner was kind enough to host at the Blue Willow Bookshop recently) but the Q, or rather set of Qs, that I’m going to A today is one that seems to be coming up quite a lot at the moment. It gets phrased in a bunch of different ways and I’m going to try to address various aspects of it in this post but a broad summary of what you might call the ur-question goes something like: why do your books have a lower heat level now and is it because of pressure from your publishers and/or commercial expectations.
So this is going to be a mini FAQ about my books, sex, and the commercial realities of publishing as I understand them (which, honestly, probably isn’t very well).
Q: Why do your books have a lower heat level than they used to?
Short answer: I don’t actually think they have.
Long answer: To date, my back catalogue consists of Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake (technically this is front catalogue), Boyfriend Material, the 3 Ardy books, the four Kate Kane books, 3 full length novels and 1 novella in the Spires series, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Looking for Group, and 1 novel, a short story collection, and a novella in the Prosperityverse. Of these 16 novels, 2 novellas and a short story collection there’s one standalone novel, and one trilogy explicitly written in response to a Certain Very Popular Series About A BDSM Billionaire, that I would categorise as high heat. They also happen to have been my successful books prior to Boyfriend Material, which might account for perception that my work is, on average, more explicitly erotic than it actually is.
To break it down, because this wouldn’t be an AJH blog post if it didn’t get needlessly detailed, of the remaining 12 books, that is the other three quarters, and ignoring for a moment the two most recent ones because they’re the ones that people tend to feel are lower heat than the rest: The Affair of the Mysterious Letter has no on-page sex and virtually no on-page romance, Looking For Group has no on-page sex, Waiting for the Flood has no on-page sex, about half the short stories in Liberty & Other Stories contain no on-page sex, and neither Prosperity nor the Liberty stories include on-page sex between Dil and Byron Kae, the actual main couple of the series. Prosperity, Glitterland, There Will Be Phlogiston and Pansies have on-page sex in them but I don’t think they’re particularly higher heat than the sex in, for example, Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake. The Kane Kane books have a varying amount of sex of a varying level of explicitness depending on what’s going on in Kate’s life at the time. Sometimes she is too busy trying to avoid being murdered as part of a massive supernatural conspiracy to bang.
Anyway the overall takeaway is that the really “high heat” bits of what I (and I hope people realise this is ironic) might call the AJH canon actually come from a fairly narrow window kind of in the middle of my career and at least one of the two books that are seen as lower heat is—in my estimation—about on par with the rest of my work. And even Boyfriend Material I’d argue is higher heat than Looking For Group, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, Waiting of the Flood and several of the Liberty stories.
Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of commercial expectations?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: yes, but not in the way people mean.
When I started writing in this subgenre (the rant about whether it is appropriate to treat “books with LGBTQ+ people in them” as a subgenre I will save for another day) LGBTQ+ romance was, if not synonymous with m/m romance, then very strongly overlapping with it. And while I think that the characterisation of m/m in that era as being primarily by and for an audience of heterosexual cis women is problematic and to some extent false there was a set of commercial pressures that were very real and that steered books in a particular direction. Fans of the Kate Kane series are, I am sure, well-aware that my record of getting those books out on a reasonable schedule has been spotty and a big part of the reason for this is that at the time I started writing the series my then publishers—and, in their defence, the market as a whole—had a very strong sense what kind of books sold and that sense was “contemporary romances about two young cisgendered white men with explicit on-page sex”. And as a result of that commercial pressure that is where my energies went in my early and honestly mid career.
I’m very proud of For Real (insofar as I’m capable of being proud of anything I’ve done which, since I’m British, is to a limited extent) and I think there is a story in it that I really wanted to tell (and that specific story could not have told without the specific “heat level” of that book). But part of the reason that I made the choice to tell that story over one of the many, many other stories I could have been telling was that I knew my then publisher had a strong interest in publishing and promoting stories with a high level of kink. And, for whatever reason, until Boyfriend Material, For Real was my most successful book. So the commercial decision I made to prioritise the story that involves a lot of BDSM rather than, say, the story about two nerdboys playing video games or the story about the messed-up lesbian investing paranormal mysteries was validated.
But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that what I really want to be writing, deep in my innermost heart, is “books in which I write a lot of explicit on-page sex” and not “books that tell a range of LGBTQ+ stories across a range of genres and heat levels.”
If anything, my need to respond to commercial pressures has only lessened over my career. The more people who’ve heard of you and the more your “brand” is worth, the more you’re able to say “do you want this book I’d like to write” instead of “do you want this book, it’s a bit like a lot of things that have been very successful in the current market.”
Q: Do your books have a lower heat level than they used to because of pressure from your publisher?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: still no.
And part of this is because, as explained above, I’ve kind of deliberately pitched what I’m writing at where the market is throughout my career (otherwise I wouldn’t have a career). But I have never had a publisher say can you put more/less sex in this book.
I’ve occasionally had very early-stage conversations with putative editors whose initial feedback has been “this book needs another sex scene” (and, again, the trend has almost always been asking for more sex, not less sex) but that’s been in the “deciding if we’ll be a good fit” stage not the “actually working together” stage.
Obviously, I can’t answer for all authors and all editors, but in my now-coming-up-for-ten-years’ experience is that while publishers might have expectations about the amount of on-page sex in a particular type of book (it’d quite hard to sell an erotic romance with just kisses) they tend not to have strong opinions about the specific amount and type of sex there should be in a specific book. Obviously, editors give feedback on sex scenes as they give feedback on all scenes, but it’s usually about the role that the scene plays in the text and how the characters are interacting in it not about “heat.”
Q: Why is the sex in Boyfriend Material relatively off-page?
Short answer: because it felt right for the book.
Long answer: Actually quite a few reasons. I wrote Boyfriend Material specifically to evoke the Richard Curtis romcoms of the 1990s and early 2000s. And those, not to put too fine a point on it, are called Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, not Four Weddings and a Deep Dicking, Fisting Hill, and Fuck Actually. Of course there are romcoms, both within the romance book subgenre and the cinematic genre, that have more sexual content but it’s a big pool and I wasn’t swimming at that end of it.
More broadly, when I write a sex scene, no matter how “hot” or “not” it is, I’m primarily thinking about what role that scene plays in the overall book. It’s basically like a fight scene: you don’t have your heroine just walk up to someone in a bar and punch them to show she’s good at fighting. You might, if you wanted you wanted to show she was the sort of person who would walk up to someone in a bar and punch them. But those are different things.
For me, for a sex scene to earn its place in a romance novel, it needs to develop or demonstrate character, or show an aspect of the relationship or building intimacy between characters that can’t be shown better in another way. In LFG, they do a lot of kissing, and I think it’s implied they are having sex during the latter half of the book, but mainly they play computer games together because that’s what intimacy looks like to those two characters. In other words, it’s their love language. Similarly, Edwin in Waiting for the Flood, makes a cup of tea for Adam. He doesn’t go down on him. Because, again, different characters express affection, desire and connection differently.
To return to Boyfriend Material, I did actually try a couple of more explicit sex scenes but they didn’t work. They didn’t reveal anything about Luc and Oliver that isn’t communicated more successfully either elsewhere in the book or in the intimate scene leading up to the actual sex. And I realised that, because Luc has had the sordid details of his personal life splashed over the tabloids for years, it wasn’t right for him to be narrating the … no pun intended … ins and outs of a specific sexual encounter that actually meant a lot to him emotionally.
Q: Why is there no PIV sex in Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake
Short answer: this one is complicated
Long answer: I will say that this isn’t a question that I’ve been asked directly in these exact words. But I have inferred it from some of things people have said to me about Rosaline, particularly about the final sex scene. It’s often perceived as low heat or even closed door when, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a fairly explicit sex scene. It very specifically describes what bits of which people go where, it’s just that the bits being described are hands, vibrators, and mouths. Not, well, penises going into vaginas.
One of my very strong goals (and, as ever, I make no claim to have achieved it) in writing Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake was to write a romance novel about a bisexual woman who winds up with a heterosexual man but that nevertheless feels resolutely like a queer book. And, obviously, queer women can enjoy PIV sex (many of them do and, of course, conversely many straight women don’t) but it felt genuinely important to me that, in a book that nails its colour firmly to the “bi women are queer even if they’re in a relationship with a man” mast, to avoid defaulting to the assumption that sex only counts if it involves a penis going into a vagina.
A lot of the themes in the book are about sex and sexuality and heteronormativity and especially the way that heteronormative assumptions, or the perceptions of a heteronormative society, impact queer people. I don’t like to over-analyse my own texts but there’s reason why I included two scenes where Rosaline and her then partner are going to have sex where Rosaline says she hasn’t got any condoms, and one of them responds by immediately running to get condom so that they enact heteronormative sex the only way he feels is valid, and the other responds by saying “that’s okay, we can still do a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t need one.”
For me personally, and as ever perceptions differ and mileage varies, the sex scene at the end of Rosaline Palmer Takes The Cake is more explicit and “hotter” than, for example, most of the sex scenes in Glitterland. But because the sex scenes in Glitterland are … um … anal between two men I suspect they code as hotter to some readers. Which is a valid reading, it’s just not my reading.
Q: Will Husband Material have a higher heat level than Boyfriend Material?
Short answer: probably not
Long answer: still probably not. Pretty much everything I said about why BM is low heat will still apply to HM. If the book reaches a point where I or my editor really feel there’s something that could only be communicated with an on-page sex scene then I will include one. Otherwise I won’t.
Q: Will you be writing high heat books in the future?
Short answer: yes
Longer answer: I find this kind of thing difficult because I don’t think of my books in those terms. If I took a totally clinical/baseball metaphor approach then I could probably look through my existing books and say “well this one has kissing, this one has oral, this one has anal” but I really don’t like categorising books by what sex acts are in them and to me that breakdown doesn’t really capture the nebulous quality of “hotness”. Then again, I thought Rosaline was hotter than Glitterland, so what do I know?
I’ve finally had the opportunity to come back to the Spires series and I currently anticipate that the next Spires book will involve on-page sex of the kind that is more likely to code as conventionally “high heat”. Several of my other upcoming releases will also include on-page sex of varying levels of explicitness, although fair warning there is at least one more coming out that involves no on-page sex at all.
Essentially, I’m just going to keep doing what—from my perspective—I’ve been doing all along. Which is writing books that may or may not have sex in them depending on what type of book it is and whether it feels right the story and the characters.
Thank you. That was interesting and enlightening. I had been mildly wondering about differing heat levels and whether it had anything to do with publisher pressure. I am listening to the audio of BF for the millionth time as it is my go to insomnia comfort listening and of course Luc is not going to spell out the details after his history with the tabloid press.
Anyway. Haven’t read Rosaline Palmer yet but she is waiting in my kindle. Looking forward to it.
Alexis Hall says
Thank you for the kind words.
I do get why some readers might wonder if publishers are somehow leaning on me. It’s the sort of thing that does happen in a lot of industries and, indeed, in trad publishing on a lot of fronts: it’s just, for me, this isn’t one of those fronts. And I thought it was worth saying that explicitly I was beginning to suspect that “AJH toned the sex down because of publisher pressure” was turning into some people’s headcanon.
Greta Cherry says
Alexis, I thoroughly enjoy your books and find then extremely clever and entertaining. Keep doing you and I will continue to listen to them all.
Alexis Hall says
Thank you kindly <3
I wonder if Glitterland and For Real feel more “high heat” for some because there are different kinds of tensions explored in the relationships described in them beyond and in addition to sex, whatever that might include. For me, both of those books seemed generally more intense to me – like everything in them were heightened – than Boyfriend Material and Rosaline Palmer, though I freely admit that could have everything to do with my own readings, identities, and preferences.
Alexis Hall says
I think that’s also very possible. I mean, both BM and Rosaline are romcoms so while I feel they both have stakes, and they both explore the themes I want them to explore, they’re not framed in as intense a way as the Spires books. Honestly, I don’t think I could write every book at that intensity; I’d probably die.
Chris Zable (AmphipodGirl) says
Thank you! I had wondered this myself and I’m glad to hear that there isn’t actually a trend away from on-page sex as such. I mean, I’m hoping to get to read in detail about Dom the dom doing things to someone who really wants to be there.
I had definitely noted the difference in Alain’s and Harry’s responses to the absence of condoms. Along with their different responses to Rosaline’s life choices, I take it as a major signifier of Harry being Mr. Right and Alain being Mr. Wrong. I also find it interesting in a class context. Rosaline seems to assume that nice, educated, professional Alain will be liberal and tolerant and Harry who works with his hands and doesn’t have a cultivated accent will be prejudiced and judgmental. In fact, of course, Alain is a biphobic prick who exoticizes her sexuality and Harry is a flexible and attentive lover (who actually *notices* that she isn’t that into her tits, among other things).
In closing, I kind of want to use “Sometimes she is too busy trying to avoid being murdered as part of a massive supernatural conspiracy to bang.” as my twitter bio.
Alexis Hall says
Definitely no trend except insofar as I’m under less pressure to write a particular “type” of sexual content now, so I’m taking the opportunity to tell a broader range of stories. There’s definitely more on-page sex in some (but not all) of my upcoming books, although you should also probably expect the unexpected, especially where Dom the dom is concerned. He seems to, in general, be attracted to the wrong type of people.
Chris Zable (AmphipodGirl) says
PS …and the reason I want that for Dom the dom is that (in my opinion) a solid-gold sweetheart and deserves it.
Alexis Hall says
He is! And he will get his HEA/HFN, though it’s not going to look the way he thinks it should.
You are eternally interesting in everything you write.Always enjoy these sojourns into your world.
Alexis Hall says
Thank you so much <3
I’m a bisexual woman in my mid-thirties. Rosaline Palmer meant the world to me. That last sex scene was so fun and beautiful, and it thrilled me that you were willing to up-end the expectations of heteronormative, P-in-V sex in a fairly mainstream romance. The difference between Alain’s response and Harry’s to the condom dilemma is just perfect. My heart grew three sizes when Harry’s all, no problem, mate. It really mattered to me to see that kind of rep on page. That’s what we need more of. Thank you so much.
Having read your entire back catalog (Waiting for the Flood was my first), what I love most in your writing is that the sex (or lack thereof) always make sense for the different contexts, genres, and characters in each book. I’ve never felt squicked by something that shouldn’t be there, or for that matter, disappointed over something that should. What you capture is the tenderness and intimacy, whether that comes through in a conversation, a kiss, a bake, a threesome, a sex toy, or a cup of tea.
I’ve read other romances that have the highest of heat, but without that intimacy, it leaves me cold. The right conversation or the right kiss can be hotter than the kinkiest kink in the world.
I guess that was a rather long-winded way of saying your intentions come through loud and clear, IMO. The queer novels you’re writing are precisely the queer novels I want to be reading. Thank you for putting so much thought into the words and the worlds that you create on the page.
Alexis Hall says
Thank you so much – that’s all very lovely, and I’m hopelessly overwhelmed as usual <3
This, 100% this. I’m listening to Pansies at the moment after reading it some time ago and one of the most intensely stirring moments for me so far was the feel of Fen’s fingers on Alfie’s neck as he knelt on the bathroom floor, as they both grappled with the complexity of their relationship but started to open up to what was, is and what could be. The intimacy, humanness, fallibility and thoughtful kindness of your writing Alexis always takes my breath away. But also, nobody writes heat in all its forms quite like you.
I’m a straight woman in my mid-fifties, but aside from that: same, same, and same. 🙂
I’m happy to know that you’re writing what you want to write and don’t feel haunted by commercial pressure.
I think Boyfriend would be jarring with more explicit scenes because the narration is so amusing and self-deprecating that it would either have to change tone or it would have to describe sex that perhaps went awry somehow. I really endorse your choice there.
I also really really like that in your books the sex doesn’t follow the progression that one so often sees, where they do X and then Y and then Z. Instead it seems to be much more contextual to that particular couple and the circumstances, which makes a better story.
However, I do think that Pansies and Glitterland are higher heat than Rosaline (haven’t yet read Prosperity or Phlogiston), and upon reflection, the reason I think that or the reason that it may feel that way, is that those couples start purely as hookups and continue in that vein for quite a while, because they have very strong sexual attraction and because in Glitterland Ash doesn’t feel capable of a real relationship and in Pansies, Fen is highly skeptical or resistant to the idea of a real relationship with Alfie. Sex is a more prominent part of their stories. Whereas in Rosaline they already have a connection of being co-contestants and they start with conversation. So in those Spires books you’re portraying really five star sex that keeps both parties coming back for more against their better judgement, and that is hot, to me anyway. Maybe the level of detail is similar, but the impact is different. Just my thoughts about why people might see it that way.
Alexis Hall says
No, that makes a lot of sense to me.
I think because I tend to interpret “hotness” as being sex where the stakes are highest (regardless of what kind of sex is being had) sex with intimacy is always hotter to me than a casual hook up. Because, at that point, you’re putting more of yourself and more your own vulnerability into the sex and thus you have more to lose
I do see, however, that to some people it could code differently or, for that matter, exactly the opposite way.
Secret Alter-Ego says
I love your approach to whether and why explicit sex belongs in a story. (I’m striving for that in my own writing, with dubious success.)
I do want to say, though, that your “high heat” books have been really important to me. I came to the genre basically just looking for smut, then I changed my criteria to “smut with literary merit.”
The realism you achieve regarding how people feel, talk, think, agonize, and engage in sex is head-and-shoulders above anything else I’ve read. It would be amazing if you were to go there again like you did in For Real.
By the way, I attended the Blue Willow Q&A, and I was startled by the question that “othered” people with mental health issues. I thought you handled it really gracefully.
Alexis Hall says
I should say that I’m not disparaging my own higher heat work, or those who prefer it. It’s just not every book can, or should, be that, and I really wanted to respond to what I see as a growing perception that I’m somehow being “forced” to write lower heat books.
On the Blue Willow thing, for what it’s worth and from what I remember (though it was a bit of a blur) I think that question actually came from a mental health professional and I didn’t personally read it as othering. But obviously I didn’t want to go into details of which specific mental health issues I’m writing about in response to personal experience.
Secret Alter-Ego says
Oh gosh, I wasn’t reading you as disparaging them, and I totally got the point of this post! I just wanted to, y’know put my paw in the air and vote for more books like that in the future, if you feel like writing them, and all that.
Alexis Hall says
Oh gosh, I didn’t think that. I just didn’t want it to come across that I was disowning my own early work, or looking down on high heat in general.
No complaints from me – I’ve immensely enjoyed both, ‘high heat’ Ardy series and ‘low heat’ Boyfriend Material. I have Rosaline in front of me, waiting for the perfect moment so I can savour it (I know that’s weird) and I’m sure it’ll be brilliant!
I just about died laughing at: ‘Four Weddings and a Deep Dicking, Fisting Hill, and Fuck Actually’
You’re too funny!! 🤣🤣
Alexis Hall says
Thank you so much <3
I must say, you have such a sympathetic, unique and intelligent way of explaining things and your way of thinking. I like it so much. Thank you!!!
Alexis Hall says
Ah, thank you so much for reading <3
This was interesting, thanks!
I like a good sex scene as much as the next person but I actually didn’t even notice that BOYFRIEND MATERIAL was “low heat” while I was reading it because it worked for the story, the characters and the tone; I only realized later when someone else mentioned it. The intimacy between the characters is the point, and BM didn’t need on-page sex to convey that.
As for ROSALINE, I thought the scene between Harry and Rosaline, with its focus on Harry’s face, was extremely intimate and, yes, hot.
The expectations in the genre do seem to be changing (I hesitate to say “maturing,” but maybe that’s correct?) and expanding to allow different sorts of stories with different heat levels; sex scenes are becoming less a box to check and more about conveying something about the relationship (which is what they should always be, but). I definitely noticed what Kris Ripper is doing with sex scenes (or lack thereof) in THE LOVE STUDY and THE HATE PROJECT, for example, with great interest.
Alexis Hall says
Thank you for reading, and for your kind words about my work.
For what it’s worth, I’d also hesitate to use the word ‘maturing’. I think the expectations of the genre have always changed – like what was expected in 1970 wasn’t what was expected in 1990 wasn’t what was expected in 2010. I think it’s just more noticeable to me at the moment because I’m actually having to think about writing books as well as reading them.
On top which the shifting expectations in LGBTQ+ have changed quite rapidly from “doesn’t exist” to “exists but only as quite a specific thing” to where we are now, which still isn’t perfect but offers a lot more freedom than I would have had ten years ago, let alone twenty.
Please take these comments with a pinch of salt as it’s about 100F in the room where I’m writing, and trying to marshal a coherent thought is a bit of a challenge. Firstly, thank you so much for this post, which is both fascinating as an insight into your writing, and incredibly useful to me as a self-pubbed writer of erotic romance who is also interested in writing romance/sci-fi/fantasy that I could potentially aim at a traditional publisher. I wonder if, since the internet got going, more people have been exposed to fanfiction and are more open to/aware of kink as a result? Perhaps editors these days are less concerned with exactly what happens in a sex scene than they are with how it is described, and therein lies the difference?
I’ve recently (within the last month) come to the conclusion that I identify as greysexual. It’s taken me 47 years to encounter a term that most closely describes my experience. I have to say, it’s a bit of a non-event in most respects (I’m not even sure if it counts as queer? I think so? I have a lot to learn), but much like when I realised I have Anxiety with a capital A, this knowledge does help make sense of a lot of things, including why, what, and how I write the way I do sometimes.
I was kept up into the wee hours last night reading Boyfriend Material, and I thought Luc and Oliver’s sex scene was perfect for them. I also appreciated Oliver’s dominant moments! Oliver pinning Luc’s wrists had such impact because it showed how he was finally losing control, and at the same time, Luc needed that contact – to have Oliver insist he was wanted and worth it, and make Luc see himself through Oliver’s eyes, however briefly. As you say, there’s not really anything that explicit descriptions of ‘what went where’ would have added to a moment that had been building for so long, and was infused with such sweetness and significance. And the description of ‘Oliver reversed off me like a minibus in a cul-de-sac’ had me rolling. Suffice to say, Husband Material is on pre-order. As is anything you write, at whatever heat/explicit-ness rating you deem appropriate. 🙂
I think when it comes to the heat rating, as well as anything else in a book that may be catnip to one person and an absolute no-go for another, the best thing to do is as you have done – manage reader expectations by providing content warnings. Hopefully that will help each book find the readers that are right for it.
Thank you for the wonderful stories!
Alexis Hall says
Thank you for your kind words about my work – I’m so happy Boyfriend Material worked for you.
Very quickly in terms of labels, finding something that works for you can be really affirming and liberating, whether it’s a mental health thing or another identity thing. As far as I understand it, and bearing in mind that I am not an authority, greysexual is on the ace spectrum which falls under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella (the clue is in the A) but, as ever, only so long as you want to be there. And I do know quite a lot of people who fall under the less commonly referenced letters who struggle with the question of whether it’s okay for them to claim queer identity. I tend to come down on the side of ‘yes’ as long as it’s useful to them personally.
In terms of kink, I’m always a bit sceptical of giving too much credit to the internet because I think it’s very easy to overstate the importance of things that have changed within your own lifetime (you can make a reasonable case that the domestic refrigerator changed society at least as much as the personal computer). And I’m ambivalent in the most literal sense about attributing too much to the influence of fanfic. I think the thing is that there’s a lot of complex context there which makes it a bit hard either way: like I’m personally a huge supporter of fanfic and think it’s an excellent and valid way of responding to texts (hell, there are plenty well-regarded works of literature that are essentially fanfic). But because fanfic is quite denigrated in some circles I think some people over-emphasise the association between fanfiction and some other denigrated types of literature as a way of denigrating both.
I think it’s also just worth noting that there are always going to be trends and fashions and I think kink went through a phrase of being “in” largely as a response to 50 Shades of Grey (which, on the one hand, did start off as fanfic) but on the other hand got successfully because it was a conventionally published novel with a bunch of conventional marketing thrown at it.
I just wanted to say thank you so much for such a kind and thoughtful reply. Much to ponder there, and as for labels, this is only the second time I have told someone that this is how I identify, and I really appreciate your kindness and your reassurance as I try to get my head around it and become more comfortable with owning it. I realise my comment on your post got unsolicitedly deep really fast (I am British, how did this happen), so apologies for that. And thank you. I’ll go back to reading now!
Thanks so much for this post. Some of my book friends and I have been discussing. I’m also glad to hear you say that you’re writing in response to the chatter about getting pressure to go more mainstream. Good on you.
First, I love your books and I love your stories of flawed people finding love for themselves and someone else, whether they’re as hilarious as BM or as intense as FR. But honestly, even when you’ve had explicit descriptions of sex on the page, it’s never read as “high heat” to me. It’s all story and character development.
I adore Neve Wilder’s Extracurricular Activities, for example, but there’s barely any story there between the banging (and Wilder is one of a few who can hang a narrative on so much sex). There’s so much insert tab a into slot b; repeat in so much MM romance (and romance in general) that I love reading your books for the joy and the swooning and the despair and the nostalgia and the friendship.
I’ll follow you anywhere, as long as you keep writing such lovely stories.
Alexis Hall says
I usually feel quite ambivalent about responding to what you might call the wider discourse around my books and, honestly, I try not pay too much attention to it because it would massively get in head and I strongly feel that readers are entitled to their opinions and their interpretations (even if they don’t match my own).
But since this has been brought me up to me quite a few times directly and is more about me and the decisions I make than the books themselves and seemed to run the risk of developing into a kind of received wisdom I thought I’d say something about it.
I think I particularly wanted to respond to the implicit assumption that high heat books are somehow more authentic to me than moderate or low heat books, which I think is very not true.
And thank you for your kind words about my writing <3
Secret Alter-Ego says
“I usually feel quite ambivalent about responding to what you might call the wider discourse around my books”
That’s a shame, because when you do talk about your own work it is SO interesting. The discussion here in this comments thread had been really fun.
Jane F says
Thank you! So enlightening as always. I hadn’t thought to categorize your book in terms of heat, because the heat level, as others have said, is always exactly true to the story and the characters. (The way Luc gets shy about going into detail was absolutely lovely.) It would appear that the “first comes sex, then comes love” thing is my fave, since I too am on team Glitterland. And yet. I just love Darian and Ardie SO MUCH that the same characters in some PG-13 romp would probably also make me just as happy. Although it’s hard to imagine.
Alexis Hall says
I will say, I do have a fondness for, I suppose, fuck buddies to lovers if you want to call it that – although, conscious of my own fondness, I’ve been trying to explore other dynamics. And I’m especially conscious of reinforcing the idea that it’s the default dynamic for LGBTQ+ relationships, particularly mlm relationships.
Thank you for reading and for your kind words <3
Oops! Misspelled “Ardy”. That’s what happens when you read books with your ears.
I’ve always loved that your tag line is “genrequeer writer of kissing books,” and I love even more that you now have the freedom to queer more genres. I could see what you were doing with Boyfriend Material, in terms of it being romcom and not, say, BilDom, and I’ve assumed that the heat level had to do with the genre as much as the characters. I think that readers start to expect the same type of books from their favorite authors, and they don’t always know what to do when authors write other types of stories. It’s clear to me that you’re having lots of fun with genres, and I for one am here for it!
Jeanne Hurley says
Yes! Well said,
Alexis Hall says
I think that’s true, and I think it’s entirely reasonable for readers to expect a similar experience from book to book. And I will admit I’ve been a bit admit wilfully perverse in my now decade long insistence on writing almost completely randomly whatever comes into my head. I guess I have been counting on genre to signal to readers what they can expect but I do understand why someone who came to my work through FR and Ardy might have got the impression that I was primarily an erotic romance writer and to be confused why I’m now writing books inspired by silly movies from the 90s.
Jeanne Hurley says
I love your ramblings. I wasn’t wondering but this was interesting so thanks! I buy and enjoy everything you write and Waiting for the Flood is still my favorite. I find on page caring more interesting than on page sex and you write the different faces of caring very well (love, love the various friends). I’ve started to skim/skip explicit sex in some of my readings because the descriptive details actually take away from character illumination rather than contribute to it. I’m glad your brand is well known enough you can sell what you want to write. Grateful you keep writing and anxiously await whatever is next.
Alexis Hall says
My brand isn’t quite well known enough that I can sell *whatever* I want to write; I want to write some pretty weird things. Nano-tech fantasy Christopher Marlowe didn’t really go anywhere. Ace romance about a film star and a vicar didn’t really go anywhere. Dark fantasy novel about a plague didn’t really go anywhere and, with hindsight, that’s probably for the best.
Thank you for your support and your kind words about my writing. Basically I feel about sex scenes the same way I feel about fight scenes: super impressed and engaged if they come together, a bit bored and confused if they don’t.
I was so astonished by the idea that it is nearly 10 years since Glitterland that I had to check, and allowing for publishing schedules it just about is. How extraordinary.
I read Glitterland when it came out in something of a daze, having read nothing like it before, and when I finished immediately went back to the start to read it again. I can still remember the combination of disturbance and delight it invoked.
Thank you for an entertaining and enlightening almost-decade.
Alexis Hall says
Frankly, it boggles me too. And makes me feel quite old, especially because I think I ought to have learned way more about writing and the industry and everything than I actually have.
Cathy B says
You are candid and wise and brilliant as always. Thanks for this post – it made my think, nod in agreement, laugh and feeling wiser than when I began reading. ❤️
Alexis Hall says
You are so kind. Thank you so much <3
Thank you. For all of that, thank you
Alexis Hall says
Thank you for reading <3
Excellent post. As a hobby writer of queer fiction, I take pleasure in writing whatever I want. To have (almost?) the same freedom as a commercial writer must be great. Yes, it will keep your readers on their toes but that’s no bad thing, I think.
As a comparative newcomer, I still have plenty left to read. I love Arden’s story. The on-page sex is hot but also it illuminates the participants, enriching their stories and driving the plot forwards. Is that the only reason why I enjoy it so much? No – your honest, non-judgemental depiction of a relationship with kink at its core has made me think. Arden’s all-pervading queerness makes my heart sing – not some hetero-normative acceptable idea of what ‘queer’ is, but his lived, no-fucks-given experience.
Alexis Hall says
The truth is that as a commercial writer you’ll have massively less freedom than someone who is writing only to please themselves. I have scads of sample manuscripts, and even the occasional full, kicking around that nobody wanted. I think the trick, as always, is to find the place where what you want to be writing connects with what publishers want to be selling–and I’ve been fairly fortunate lately in that I love romcoms and romcoms are the thing at the moment.
It’s more that the freedoms one has and the pressures one faces tend not to be where people think they are. Possibly because for so long you genuinely couldn’t put explicit sexual content in books I think people tend to assume that an absence of explicit sexual content is still a consequence of publisher interference. And, in my experience at least, it’s not.
Thank you for the kind words about Ardy. He was a joy to write 🙂
You’re right, of course. 😉
I have a pool of potential readers (from the site I write for) but they don’t pay to read and I’m not paid to write. So if something I produce doesn’t fly, then there’s no loss apart from a little ‘reputation’. And some disappointment.
I quite understand that commercial publishing is about balancing risks and market demands. Here’s hoping you continue to find a way through that suits you, us, and your publishers. 🤨😄
It makes perfect sense to me the level of heat in each of the books. As each story is telling a love story between different people that love is expressed and shown differently. The Spires is so amazing because we are able to experience love from people who are scared, who are brave, who are tired, who are desperate, and people who are just longing to be loved. The heat within each story makes sense and I feel as though each time a love scene or sex scene happens it helps us understand the characters more.
All of us enjoy a good sex scene but for me if there is no purpose other to just tell me the characters are having sex I tend to get bored or will skim over it on my next reread… but with each of these stories and especially for For Real I feel like the sex scenes explain the inner workings of each character and allows the reader to be in the room with them…figuratively speaking of course.
Boyfriend Material was the absolute perfect level of “heat” Oliver was too reserved to be exposed like that and Luc deserved to have some privacy after having none for so long.
Looking for Group was so much more tender with the heat and it made sense… inexperience college guys who are figuring it all out but are also discovering love … not every single guy is going to just jump in bed in the first second so I love the pacing for their love story
I love all of your books and am so glad your reputation is going because everyone deserves to read your work and fall in love with these amazing characters!
The fact that Notting Hill is a source of reference for you makes me love you even more!!! It is on of my favorite movies and would definitely be a desert island movie.
Wendy Loveridge says
I read and listen to your books simply because they are brilliantly written, insightful, extremely entertaining and amusing. The sex, or lack of, is always perfect for *your* characters and not something I have ever given thought to.
However, I’m afraid you’ve now spoilt my relationship with every poor soul I know with the name Alex – he/she will forever have Twaddle tacked on regardless of their actual second name.
I’m looking forward to anything and everything you write in the future.
Jane F says
I really appreciated this post. Now I’m trying to use heat level as a way to understand why my favorite books of yours are my favorites. It’s not quite working, which illustrates how much other elements matter to reading a novel. I did know that – I just got sidetracked and fell down this pigeonhole. 😉
What I did notice is that while Looking For Group and Boyfriend Material are both “low heat,” they both had lines and moments that viscerally sparked my memory of being with another person. (It’s been a minute.) The way you capture moments like the shock and intimacy of skin on skin and sometimes not knowing what to do with your hands etc. has been incredibly powerful for me to read. (I’m getting a bit misty, which is unexpected.)
I’ve read and enjoyed all kinds of different heat levels but these scenes (and books more generally) felt like a hook in my gut. Being able to *feel* the “wanting,” let alone pursue things I yearn for, is something I struggle with. Boyfriend Material (also LFG, & Pansies) has allowed me to feel that. I even opened the dating app again. Those are the scenes and books I keep returning not some of the hotter ones even if I did enjoy books like For Real.
P.S. Not a gamer but used LFG to show off to my gamer friend. Or more accurately, squealed, “omg! I know what ‘tanking’ means – I read this book you’ll love called “Looking For A Group.”
“You mean Looking For Group?”
“LFG is a thing… not LFAG”
“… well, you should still read it”
Frankly, everything you write is like stardust that’s somehow found its way onto a page. Sex, no sex, whatever, the fact that I laugh and cry on the same page, most pages of your books is what makes your writing so special. Though I have to admit the ink bottle spillage sex scene in Glitterland has to be a fave. And I am an Essex girl by birth… so special affinity and all that!
Part of the reason I love BM so much is because it’s ‘low heat.’ It still feels incredibly intense at points which I adore. I definitely still appreciated the sprinkling of sexier scenes and do kind of hope for a little of that in HM but it was all about the shared intimacy and vulnerability for me.
My only complaint is that I now can’t find a new book to listen to (I prefer audiobooks) because it’s so rare to find a book like this. Joe Jameson definitely added another dimension to an already incredible story as well making it even more of a gem for me to find.
I have read too few of your books so far (one day i’ll fix this).
It’s hard for me to judge. But..
If I like a writer, I don’t just read sex scenes that he writes. And I don’t rate his books on whether they have sex or not ..
Sex is good, it’s cool. But the language of the author, his thoughts, the feelings of the heroes, the story about them are important to me. In general, it’s cool that your books are different. I would also die if I read a dozen very hot books one after another 🙂
Being asexual, I’m pretty indifferent to whether a book has sex scenes or not, and I definitely appreciate when the author does NOT include sex scenes that don’t serve the story. Because those kinds of sex scenes are extremely boring for me. And sometimes I can’t remember how hot a book is supposed to be after I’ve read it, since the sex scenes are exactly like other scenes, so then I recommend books to people who are actually sensitive to that and those people are maybe a little shocked by the extent of the sex. Oops.
I’m currently trying to write a story myself (for the first time). It’s fanfic, so I can experiment more than if I were trying to get it published properly. It’s got a character who is in two relationships at the same time, and one of the relationships definitely needs at least one sex scene, while the other… may require sex scenes, or maybe not. I’m not sure yet. But the relationship I haven’t yet identified as needing sex scenes is the one readers will expect to have a lot of sex scenes – unfortunately – just because the people involved are more conventionally attractive. And one of the characters in the other relationship is on the ace spectrum, and that’s the one that needs a sex scene, because… it’s a weird story?
For the record, and having been reading your books since January 2014, Looking for Group is quite possibly my favourite. Some of the scenes taking place in video games are so sweet (or whatever) I cry every time. And I identify with the characters because I spent so much time in video games when I was their age. But I’m also fond of For Real and the Ardy trilogy, and all of the spec fic because your worldbuilding and description are excellent, and your characters are ALWAYS excellent, and I really like fantasy/sci-fi. Actually, I like everything <3 And if you ever write a novel for Jasper – he’s my favourite Spires side character – that will probably have a lot of sex, but it isn’t the main reason I want to read about him. He’s just so flawed, and also cool. It would be awesome.
The first thing I read of yours was Boyfriend Material, because amazon recommended it I assume because I had just finished Red, White & Royal Blue.
So, I was surprised to find that you did write on page SEX sex because that wasn’t what Boyfriend Material was about at all, and it would have been so wrong in that story. I assumed that there had to be two Alexis Hall’s obviously. HA.
Then of course, the second book I read was For Real, so about as different as I could get right? But not really. It was so sweet, and intimate, and painful, and lovely in very different ways, (and disturbingly similar to a few of my own life situations to make me uncomfortable in the great ways that good storytelling does) I think people who are unfamiliar with actual kink in their own lives see it as something very different from those of us who are actually wired that way, and I loved this book for that reason. So for me, yeah, it had hot sex scenes in it, but they were never just hot sex scenes – AND – as you said, that story could not be told without that on-page sex.
You are writing to serve the story as any good writer should. You have to write for your audience to an extent, but not to the detriment of the story.
thank you 🙂
just a random comment. as with the previous commenter, i’d read _boyfriend material_ first (that amazon algorithm got me as well), and then _LFG_, and then picked up _for real_ randomly. MY BODY WAS NOT READY!! in terms of high heat i think i was a bit burnt to a crisp by that one, lol. also, i’m amazed (in a good way) that my network of libraries had a physical copy of it. anyway, looking forward to continuing to work my way through your “oeuvre”, past and future. 😉 cheers, etc.
I’ve reread this post and your other posts about sex a few times now, but haven’t commented before. They’re so refreshing and enlightening. I’ve been reading romance/erotica for decades and queer romance for a couple years now (not only in June!) and without going into any details, it’s really opened my eyes to a lot of things.
I adore that your books have a range of heat levels because it works so well for the characters (Ardy, Luc I love you). The more I read of your back catalogue, the more I love this range. Your casual representation and non-gendered naming conventions and attitudes are so thoughtful and considered. The kissing scenes in Boyfriend Material are very hot IMO even though they are fade-to-black. I wouldn’t actually want anything more. I can read your other books for that. 😉
Please keep doing what you do, and thank you for your creativity, wit and brilliant writing. There is no one funnier on the page.
This is genuinely the best thing I’ve read today, and some of the best advice I’ve seen on thinking about writing. As someone who’s an avid reader of all kinds of romance and who is just starting to conceptualise and write them, reading this has been insightful and helpful.
BM was the first book of yours I read, and while I briefly wanted a peek into what the sexy times were like, I quickly saw how your approach was much more filling, intimate, and authentic, and still sexy. I really respect that. Needless to say, I had a wonderful time reading BM. The next book of yours I read was Glitterland and I loved it very much because of the issues it dealt with (mental health + the resulting vulnerabilities + opposites attract), but I also really really enjoyed the smut. It was an intense book in many respects, but fuck buddies to lovers is always an interesting trope. And I do enjoy well-written smut. There was an urgency and desperation to Ash’s craving for sex that felt deeply true to his character. Glitterland is dear to my heart.
The most important thing in romance is to capture the intimacy (with or without sex). I have recently read some very intimate, very romantic and moving (asexual) romance novels with no sex at all (both on and off page). I even read one with no kissing! and the characters were very careful about non-sexual physical touch (and I’m someone who loves kisses and non-sexual physical touch). What surprised me the most was that it turned out to be among the most intimate and moving romance I’ve read in a long time. For those who care to know, it’s His Quiet Agent by Ada Maria Soto. It was enlightening and affirming to me in a really special way because I’ve realised (or accepted?) that I’m greysexual (shout out to the other grey ace who commented above). I’m 29 so not too old but not too young either. Seeing different explorations of sex and intimacy in romance novels has been fantastic for me both as a person and as a reader and budding writer.
Thank you so much, Alexis, for this detailed and thoughtful and wise post.
I should probably revise the “not too old but not too young part” to “not very old but not very young”, as I don’t believe anyone is ever too old, especially as far as these topics are concerned. Best regards to everyone.
I LOVE that your books are about so many different kinds of queerness. And IMO The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is an extremely hot book! Just think of the delectably upright Captain John Wyndham wandering into that confusing vampire den….