another difficult post

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.

romancelandia, writing
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32 Responses to another difficult post

  1. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Bravo <3

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Okay, I will now ruin my Shortest Comment to One of your Posts Ever 😉 by saying: Thank you so much for saying this. Because I am absolutely a person who falls more on the, err, Drew and Kit side of things, with regard to sexual expression. And that would have been *particularly* true at their age. So I did find that aspect of certain review(s) personally offensive & hurtful for that reason. And I’ve had that reaction to reviews in the past, where I felt a line was crossed, between talking about what someone didn’t like in a book, and denigrating real people as *represented* by events or characters in a book.

      Sigh. I just wish some people could learn to differentiate those things a little better.

      Anyway, <3

      • Thanks, Pam.

        I think it is really easy when you’re reviewing something to cross a line between talking about fiction and implying things about reality, especially in informal spaces like GR, and I think especially with romance reviews, where what you’re essentially is whether a relationship feels plausible to you.

        I mean,y’know, if I was to say that I thought Jon Snow was a terrible military commander (in the TV show rather than the books) because he allowed his personal concern for his brother to override his commitment to his battle, that could theoretically be offensive to any actual generals reading my blog who had been in a put in a position of having to balance their concern for people they personally cared about against wider strategic goals.

        But there are far fewer people who fit that description that there are, say, people who’ve ever been in a relationship ever.

        • Pam/Peejakers says:

          Well yes, that’s true, of course 🙂 No doubt I’d be much less conscious of in my own reviewing, if it weren’t for feeling stung by this sort line-crossing in the past.

    • so THIS ……… #love
      I recently went on a mini reviewer rant when i found myself reading WAY too many reviews that down rate a book based on the reviewer’s expectations and wants from the characters rather than what the characters actually were written to be!

  2. Gwen says:

    Oh Joy Sex Toy had a great comic about this…

  3. Laura says:

    Yes, to all of this. I think I’ve said this before, and if I haven’t, I’ve definitely thought about it; but I love how you express yourself and get your point across. I was really uncomfortable with some of the reviews, and one of them was even hurtful. I keep hoping people will learn to talk about what worked or didn’t worked for them in a review, and just leave it at that.

    • For what it’s worth, I think a big part of it is that GR is a very informal space and so you sort of forget its public and that anyone who posts to it is, in a small way, a journalist and has a responsibility to either pay attention to their audience (who could be anyone) or consciously accept that they don’t give a fuck about their audience.

      • Laura says:

        You have a point there. I always try to be really respectful in my reviews (whether I liked the book or not) and express clearly that everything I’m saying is related to the book and just my opinion. But that’s the way I look at life, too, so some reviews sometimes really baffle me.

  4. Lennan Adams says:

    “To me absence of judgement about sex is far more important than enthusiasm about sex.”

    Anyone who knows your work gets this about you. I am so sad that reviews about a book where people are feeling weird about not being normal (I assume, not having read it yet) are contributing to people feeling weird about not being normal.


    You are the best. (((hugs))) I cannot wait to read this book. Like really might die waiting. Gahhh. All the love.

    • Obviously it’s a tricky one because it’s patronising to take too much responsibility for things people do in response to stuff you’ve done … but I do feel quite bad about that particular review because it seems to have upset an awful lot of people.

  5. Wollstonecrafthomegirl says:

    I’ll start by saying I haven’t read this book (I’m assuming I would’ve needed an ARC) but I’ve added it to my to-read pile even though this kind of gaming is not a thing that I am into (give me a Sims family to run to army-standard precision, or a hospital to whip into shape though, and: I’m there) and the nerd culture [‘high nerd’? ‘uber nerd’? ‘proper nerd’?] you’re talking about is not one I’m involved with even a little. I appreciate an author-warning that a book might be too off the beaten track for their usual readership. It’s a welcome piece of honesty, particularly in romanceland where there’s a lot of heavy marketing, which is pure puff and actually bears no relationship to the final product.

    All of my reviews on Goodreads (pretty much) comment on the quality and quantity of the sex in the romance books I’m reading. Sex, in my romance reading, is important to me. It takes a pretty special author to get a five star rating without sex. For example, I raved about Waiting For the Flood but dropped it to four stars largely because I really, really wanted sex and it left me unsatisfied that I didn’t get it. I have given five stars to a couple of Carla Kelly books which were ‘clean’ but they are two rare exceptions to a general rule and with CK you generally go into the book knowing not to have expectations of ‘the good stuff’.

    But, as you say, this is personal preference. I like to think I would be able to discern if the lack of sex was because of the way the characters interacted and chose to relate to one another. However, it doesn’t mean I won’t be disappointed and it doesn’t mean I won’t express that disappointment. I don’t want it to be a judgment on the way people express their sexuality and I hope it wouldn’t come across that way. My view IRL is very much: you do you, people of the world (be legal, be safe, obviously). The insistence our culture has about setting up ‘normal’ sexual paradigms is pervasive and dangerous and overwhelmingly favours a [straight] male perspective on sex. I think it’s great and important that people are writing romance books that challenge that perspective and make room for everyone.

    However, when I buy and read a romance I am not doing so to change the world. I like what I like and I’m probably going to be frustrated that there isn’t any sex in this book and I’m probably going to say so. I hope I can do it in a thoughtful, careful manner.

    • That sounds entirely fair and I think it’s probably also important to recognise that the people who have written hurtful reviews probably weren’t going out of their way to make people upset. I think it’s just that everyone has blindspots and people tend to assume that the average experience in a particular area is close to their own. And, obviously, that’s especially true if people’s experiences map roughly onto the experiences society tells them that they’re supposed to be having. As you do, as you say, is talk about what works for you and do your best to be sensitive to other people out there.

      In terms of book content, I do try to fairly honest about what’s in them and who they’re likely to appeal to. I’m always grateful when people are willing to read outside their comfort zone and give me the benefit of the doubt (even if they wind up not liking the book in the end) but I genuinely don’t see the point of trying to pretend that something will appeal to people it probably won’t appeal to. Again, this is probably because I’m lucky enough not to need this to be my primary source of income. I have this problem a lot with blurbs in that my publisher tends to be quite keen that I write blurbs which won’t put anybody off whereas I tend to be quite keen to write blurbs that properly encapsulate the spirit of the book, thereby giving the reader a good idea whether or not they want to read it.

      Props for a Theme Hospital reference though 😉

  6. I kind of wish the phrase “pro choice” wasn’t so firmly linked to female reproductive rights, because really it’s pretty useful for a lot of societal issues. Being “pro choice” re sex seems a bit more nuanced than “sex positivism,” right? (Just like “pro choice” doesn’t mean “pro abortion” in the reproductive world.)

    Pro freedom, pro individualism, non-judgemental, inclusive, open-minded, accepting. And in real world circumstances, a great big serving of not-really-your-business-anyway.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Alexis!

  7. Anne says:

    Yes, that. And Carla Kelly too.

    In the past five years in particular, it’s become nearly required to add a bunch of erotic/explicit content to romance books. So much so that I see some writers who are not comfortable with it awkwardly shoving it in anyway which is embarrassing reading; many writers shoveling it in formulaicly (if the page ends in the number 5, there must be cock play) which is boring reading; and too often, writers mistaking sex for romance, which is hollow, lazy and misleading.

    I also believe strongly (probably inspired by Jennifer Crusie) that the *only* reasons explicit content should appear in fiction that is not primarily erotica are to (a) move the plot forward or (b) illuminate or move a character forward and/or (c) substantially move the relationship between characters forward in a way no other plot device would suffice for. if you can remove the scene and it doesn’t affect the story, leave it out.

    What’s sexy and hugely powerful about a romance to me is the growing connection between the people. However they chose to express it. From anal hooks to group knitting. If it’s well written, it’s genuinely equal and heart palpitating to me.

    But, market forces. Bah!

  8. Sophie says:

    Thank you for this.

    Our society has a lot of very pervasive assumptions about how men do and should think about sex and express their sexuality–see the punchline of nearly every dirty joke ever–and that tends to completely deny the fact that there’s a whole spectrum of attitudes and beliefs about sex. I can’t think of the stereotypes about what it means to be a man who never thinks about sex or a man who never stops thinking about sex as anything but enormously damaging, especially when I see their effects on the men in my life. But a lot of people believe in them, and a lot of people carry them with them when they read and review m/m.

    There’s huge freedom in the (still relatively new) idea of sex positivity, especially, I think, for women, who can have a complicated relationship with sex due to societal ideas about virginity, penetration, possession, etc. and what they mean. Not that men don’t also have complicated relationships with sex. But sex positivity also comes with huge pressure to have and act on certain ideas about sex, which is why I love that you say, “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.” It’s dehumanizing to insist on one Correct Way To Think About Sex, and it’s even more dehumanizing to insist that those who don’t share that attitude are somehow wrong or unrealistic. Thank you for upsetting those expectations and showing the diversity of our world, even at the risk of lower book sales.

    (By the way, the three-line scene before the fade-to-black that one reviewer was so frustrated by was absolutely adorable. I smiled. And sighed. And wanted to read the book. To each her own.)

    Your books are so important to me, for so many reasons, but especially because they articulate ideas about gender and sexuality and love that I need to have expressed. Laurie’s realization that it’s not what you do that matters, it’s what it means really changed the way I thought about sex and intimacy, and I had similar revelations when reading your other books as well. So thank you for that too.

    And, in the end, the effect of the Looking for Group reviews is that now I’m even more excited to read Looking for Group, and Nettlefield, and basically anything you write ever. 😉

  9. EmmaT says:

    I appreciate how conscientious you are of people and what they are taking away from your books and the ways other people respond to them. My sexual experiences at 19 are similar to the way you described your characters interactions. It’s frustrating for other people to use their own experiences not as a way to relate, or explore differences, but as a means to judge.

  10. cleo says:

    This idea that all 19 year olds must be having hot sex all the time is one of the reasons I’m a little gun shy about NA romance. It just doesn’t fit with my experience as a 19 year old.

    When I taught 18 – 21 year olds I didn’t like reading NA because 1- it wasn’t exactly escapism and 2 – I felt like reading them encouraged me to fetishize / sexualize my students and that just felt uncomfortable. I’ve read more NA since I’ve changed careers but I still feel like a lot of it fetishizes young adults – and I feel like that’s especially true in mm NA. Not all of it of course.

    In short, I’m always glad to read sweet NA romances about my people – the shy, the awkward and the nerdy.

  11. Ingela says:

    Thank you for this, and I’m going to add something from a couple of other perspectives – 1) the “unwanted” in a world where men are supposed to want anything that moves, and 2) how we can never get at (for want of a better word) rape culture if we don’t even believe that some people can be anything other than sex robots.

    To illustrate my first point, I have to get a bit personal. I wrote a (boring, semi-autobiographical, teenagey and thankfully never published) book a long time ago about a crush on a friend who just wanted to be friends. Well, my sister read it and couldn’t believe in the story because “no straight guy would be offered sex that many times without caving”. Which, um… it actually happened. But basically, her view was that if it was on offer, any guy would jump at the chance to get some free nookie and then move on, being biologically wired to not give a flying fuck about anyone. I never told my sister that the ‘no thank you’ part of my story was actually true, because I was so ashamed that the heroine (me, ugh) was apparently so hideous that not even an organism that has evolved for the sole reason of having sex wanted it in this case. Not the highest compliment. :-/

    But the problem also extends to things like sexual assault, because we sort of expect half of the population to be predators. In theory, a person can say ‘no’ at the exact moment it’s, ahem, ‘going in’ (excuse my crassness), but in reality, do people believe it can happen? Well, it can, and it does. Sometimes it’s even a male who decides to stop at this point because it doesn’t feel right. :O Stop the presses! And yet, if you put that in a book, many readers would probably feel yanked out of the illusion, because ‘it just doesn’t happen’.

    So, okay, people have different experiences, and maybe my sister spoke from a position of having to fend off unwanted attention at every turn. I don’t know. But societal narratives shape our views too, even when our own experiences clash with them. So a person like my heroine might still believe in the ‘guys are predators’ story, even though she constantly meets people who don’t fit the stereotype, so what does she do? Well, blame herself, of course.

    There’s so much harm in these expectations that I can’t even be coherent about it, but these were some of my thoughts, anyway. Thanks again for addressing the issue.

  12. Cristin says:

    For me, beautiful writing is beautiful writing, no matter what the characters are doing. The building of a relationship and getting readers to care about the characters is one of the things I love most about your books. I think I am looking forward to this book even more now because I am confident I will finish reading it with a sweet sigh<3

  13. Apeiron says:

    Ohmygod Planescape Torment? Whoever thinks that playing that game is not romantic doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Also, it’s definitely a game that leads to cuddling. And ugly crying.

    And thank you, so much. I’m always so grateful when someone acknowledges people like me and fights for our sexual expression (or non-expression). I’ve read the review you were not-alluding to and it made me feel absolutely revolted. At some point of the sexual revolution, lack of enthusiasm about sex became somehow identified with repression, or sometimes reactionary oppression. Pursuing a quiet, traditional love life doesn’t mean a huge sacrifice and self-flagellation for everyone.

  14. A.B. Gayle says:

    Thanks for this blog. If you read my review you will see that all my family are gamers and my children’s partners are gamers. Their relationships are not typical. Each relationship is based on friendship more than sex. Yes there is a tendency to wonder whether this is “normal” but it works for all of us. None of my siblings or my husband’s siblings can understand this interest. And I accept that.

    You captured the scene perfectly. Multiple conversations going at once. The drama! The histrionics. The friendships that can span continents and decades. Online you are judged by what you do. Not what you look like, what language you speak, how old you are etc etc. I think that’s one of the aspects I like most. Now I must go so I can log on to BDO and get my daily reward! 🙂

  15. Nikki says:

    Unfortunately, in the genre fiction world, and perhaps in fiction in general, readers are often looking for brands they like. The Nora Roberts Brand. The James Patterson brand. Et cetera. There are even certain expectations for a Johnathan Franzen novel. And no matter how clear an author makes it that a work is “off brand,” if there is such a thing, and whether that news is communicated in a nuanced manner or not. readers are disappointed/annoyed anyway. Someone might actually get irritated if Johnathan Franzen peopled his next book with nice, well-adjusted people.

    You have created a work from your creative imagination, not bottled a Coke. And yet people want Coke anyway, even if they are told they are buying something a little different. They probably will get over it, but not before they are a little pissy and take out their pissy-ness on anyone around. Chalk it up to not getting a Coke.

  16. Kamala says:

    Two years late but whatever.

    I fucking ADORED Looking for Group. I read it last week. I thought I wouldn’t like it as I have troubles reading anything that it not in standard paragraph and dialogue form. In other words I have always, ever since childhood, skipped over the songs and poems embedded in a story. I remember vaguely some book I read, oh crap, 5-10 years ago, that didn’t have quotation marks around the dialogue. It seemed to me that the characters were thinking loudly at each other and must have had esp or something. It annoyed me all the way through. So anyway I wasn’t sure how I’d respond to the in game speech but I had no issues or annoyances.

    I am not a gamer but I think I could be if someone sat down with me and walked me through stuff. My last real video game extravaganza was went I spent an entire summer (in the 80’s) with my friend’s little brother playing Super Mario Brothers on the first Nintendo thingy. So naturally I didn’t understand completely what people were talking about and I didn’t discover the glossary until the end. However, what tripped me up the most was not the gaming terminology because really you don’t need to understand it all to understand what’s happening but was the more texting slang like ffs. Which was used a lot.

    FFS, Kamala!

    What I really adored about this book was that it was a romantic romance. It seems to me that a lot of genre romance isn’t really that romantic. It’s just sex and some sort of miscommunication near the end. I do like genre romance though.

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