So I’ve got a new book coming out in August. It’s called Looking For Group and, fair warning, it’s nerdy as fuck. This is probably one of those things that people overstate on the internet but nerd chic seems to have become a bit of a thing recently. And, by recently, I mean in about the past five or six years. It’s increasingly common to have nerds depicted in the media in ways that are slightly more nuanced than “these people are giant losers, don’t be like these losers.” But, the truth is, a lot of things that aim to be explicitly about nerds, or nerd culture, often feel like they’re written from an outsider’s perspective. This is probably clearest in comedy where it’s very easy to tell when the joke is “these people play D&D” rather than “this person insists on playing a bard.” In the first example, nerds are the joke. In the second, nerds are the audience.
What I was trying to do with Looking For Group was write something that fit into the second category more than the first. It’s about two university students who meet in an MMORPG and there are elements of the book that will flat out make more sense if you know what a progression raiding guild is or if you’ve ever experienced loot drama. I should probably also say I’m very much aware that being able to write this sort of book is a privilege that comes from being a relatively well-off middle class person. Writing isn’t my primary source of income so I can, every now and then, write something that I’m pretty sure will speak mainly to a very specific group of people and not worry too much about how I’m going to pay my rent if nobody else buys it.
I’m actually writing this blog post because it’s getting to the point in the publishing cycle where early reviews are coming in. And, while I should stress that I am absolutely fine about people writing whatever they like about my books and that I honestly expected LFG wouldn’t be for everybody, some things have been brought to my attention that I find interesting and a little troubling.
A lot of the complaints about the book I don’t mind at all. Kirkus, for example, said that the actual videogame sequences were “dense and vaguely tedious” and, y’know what, that’s kind of fair enough. I mean, without wishing to pat myself on the back too much, if a relatively realistic portrayal of MMO raiding comes across to a non-gaming audience as “dense and vaguely tedious” rather than “just plain shit-boring” then I’ve probably done about as well as I can. I know LFG would probably be more accessible to non-gamers if the protagonists spent less time inhabiting a virtual world but the ways people interact in virtual words, and the reality of those worlds as spaces, is actually one of the big things I wanted to explore in the book.
What I’m less fine with are some of the complaints that seem to speak not so much to the reviewer’s feelings about the book (it’s okay if people don’t like my stuff, especially when my stuff is basically quite weird) as to their preconceptions about the sorts of people the book is about. Because, at that point, it’s about … well … actual people. And, obviously, this gets tricky because people in books aren’t real but for a reader who strongly identifies with a character in a book some sorts of judgement on that character can feel very personal. And it’s comments like these that I’d like to address.
At its heart, LFG is a sweet romance. I will admit that, branding-wise, going from For Real, which, not to put too fine a point on it, involves an anal hook to Looking For Group where there is no on-page sex at all is probably a bit jarring for some readers. And, again, I absolutely do not mind that some reviewers have been disappointed that this book does not contain any of what they consider to be “the good stuff.” Where it gets more problematic is when reviewers start suggesting that the book fails as a romance or, even worse, that there is something wrong with the characters as people because, while they have what I hope comes across as a convincingly romantic relationship, they express their feelings for each other in the text by talking, cuddling and playing videogames together, instead of by fucking on-page.
I’m not sure but I think that some of the more problematic criticisms of the book come from reviewers who feel it is genuinely unrealistic, inappropriate or—at the risk of using very loaded language—developmentally subnormal that the protagonists are more interested in their hobbies than they are in sex. I will admit that this is probably partly a genre thing. After all, there’s a bit of a cliché in romance that romance protagonists tend to be more interested in sex than pretty much anything, up to and including the imminent arrival of mafia hitmen, the need to save the president from terrorists, or a full on alien invasion. But I think part of it is also grounded in some fundamentally unhelpful social assumptions about the kinds of attitudes to sex people are allowed to have.
Obviously we’ve come a long way since the 1950s and it is now generally accepted that sex is something that it’s okay for people to do and talk about doing. But it sometimes feels like we’ve reached the point that society expects all groups of women to be the characters from Sex and the City and all groups of men to be, well, there isn’t the same iconic example but that’s only because sitting around drinking beer and talking about what girls you want to have sex with, has basically been the stereotypical male interaction since the death of Queen Victoria. And maybe I move in unusual circles, or maybe it’s just a British thing, but that isn’t my experience. With my work colleagues, I talk about work, with my friends I talk about the things we’re interested in, and with my partner I talk about … the things we’re interested in. And, obviously, I’m aware that this is now me writing a response to what I perceive to be the underlying assumptions behind a set of sentiments in reviews I’ve fairly consciously avoided reading but these are assumptions that are definitely out there and are actually part of why I wrote LFG the way I wrote it in the first place.
I know it’s considered very bad form for authors to respond to reviews directly and that’s why I’m being quite cagey about which specific reviews I’m talking about but I thought it was important to bring this up because I’ve had conversations with readers who feel like there are people out there who think there’s something wrong with them because of the ways they express their sexuality. And that’s really not okay.
I’ve always tried to be quite a sex positive writer but, to me, what that means is that people shouldn’t be made to feel bad about their sexual choices or sexual expression, whatever those may be. I think a lot of people feel that sex positivity means all sex all the time and that anybody who has other interests or other priorities is a hidebound lackey of a bygone era. To me absence of judgement about sex is far more important than enthusiasm about sex. If you want to bang anything that moves and is up for it, that’s great. If you don’t want to bang anyone at all, that’s great too. And I’m not going to try to convince the all-banging-always person to settle down in a monogamous relationship or the no-banging-ever person to try banging if they don’t want to.
Part of the reason I followed up a kinky erotic romance with a book that has no on-page sex is that, to me, they both come from the same place. Heck, Toby in For Real is even the same age as Drew and Kit. It’s just that Toby chooses to express his sexuality by having anal sex with a much older man and that’s okay. Drew and Kit express their sexuality by holding hands and playing Planescape Torment, and that’s okay too.
Ultimately this isn’t about reviews except in the most general sense. I am completely fine for people to enjoy reading books that have a lot of sex in them and I am completely fine with reviewers to say that they didn’t like LFG because they didn’t think there was enough sex in it if all they’re talking about is their personal preference. I think it gets much more problematic when people start suggesting that the characters are immature or unrealistic because they don’t immediately start doing anal. At that point, probably unintentionally, it becomes a judgement about the way actual people live their lives and that’s something I feel crosses a line, whether you’re writing a book, a review or a blog post.