reviews, ratings and issues of identity

So I’ve noticed something recently that’s been troubling me. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts.

A recent trend that I am overall pleased about is an increasing diversity in queer romance. We’re seeing more stories featuring protagonist who are trans*, asexual, genderqueer or otherwise possessing queer identities that go beyond ciswhitegaydude. This is very cool and I very much feel it’s the right way for the genre to evolve. I’m starting to see publisher websites where m/m has actually been replaced as a category by LGBTQ (or equivalent), which suggests that—although m/m still dominates—there’s greater awareness that there’s a whole rainbow out there and it deserves to be represented.

Unfortunately, you pretty much never get change without backlash and as I’ve seen more reviews of non ciswhitegaydude books I’ve also seen more reviews that seem to explicitly mark books down for having protagonists that fall outside of the reviewer’s experiences or expectations.

Now, obviously, people are entitled to read what they read and like what they like and they don’t have to apologise for that.  And I understand that reviews are personal spaces and it’s important that reviewers be able to express themselves freely, honestly and safely. But at the same time I think reviewers, especially ARC reviewers, do need to realise that they occupy a position of some influence and if what a reviewer doesn’t like about a book is, um, somebody else’s identity then they have a responsibility to be really careful about how they express that. And it’s even more complicated and tricky with romance reviews because so much of one’s response to a text hinges on what one is, for want of a better phrase, “into”.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the complex intersection between personal response and social rejection.

Suppose I am reviewing a fantasy novel. Suppose that this fantasy novel is set a world that has gunpowder technology. Now there are genuinely people out there for whom that would be a dealbreaker. A surprising number of people don’t like firearms in their fantasy because they read fantasy novels in order to experience stories about horses and swords and wizards, not about matchlocks and muskets. When I was writing this review, I would probably have to make very clear that a) the book contained gunpowder technology, which I’m aware some people aren’t into and b) that I was aware that there were plenty of people for whom it wouldn’t be a problem at all. If I was giving the book a numerical rating, I would probably do my best to divorce my distaste for black powder weaponry from my feelings about the rest of the text because it would feel, to me, unfair to mark a book down (particularly if it was on a site like GR that averages numerical scores) simply because it contained as part of its premise something that I personally didn’t like. If I did actively mark the book down for having guns in it then that would, to me, constitute an assertion that it was flat-out wrong for guns to be fantasy at all. It would be turning my subjective preference into a normative statement about the genre. And I would consider that inappropriate.

Of course, the thing about gunpowder is that it’s … well … an inanimate chemical substance. While I wouldn’t want to trash a book’s average rating on GR merely because I’m a bit of a fantasy purist, I wouldn’t have any particular problem starting my review by saying something like “The protagonists in this novel use guns. That doesn’t feel like proper fantasy to me. I don’t like firearms in my fantasy literature.”

If, on the other hand, the element I objected to was not a volatile compound used in arms manufacture but a human being’s identity (be that their race, their gender, or their sexuality) then I would want to be even more careful with the way I expressed my preferences. Not to put too fine a point on it, starting a review by saying “The protagonists in this novel are women. That doesn’t feel like proper fantasy to me. I don’t like women in my fantasy literature” would be … let’s just leave it at troubling.

And, obviously, I’d be well within my rights to say it. And there might even be people who shared my (I should stress purely hypothetical) belief that women had no place in fantasy (in fact, I know these people exist, I’ve read articles by them) who would consider it a useful and pertinent feature of the review. But it would, I think, also be sending a fairly clear message that I felt certain people were unwelcome in the genre. And those people, or indeed any people, would be well within their rights to be upset with me.

And, again, I should reiterate that I’m fine with free speech and I don’t believe everyone should be forced to be “politically correct” all the time (although I would echo Randall Monroe in pointing out that when we say “political correctness” we basically mean “considering other people’s feelings”). I think what worries about a lot of the reviews I’ve seen recently is how casually and off-handedly some reviewers are willing to dismiss other people’s sexualities or gender-identities as icky, unattractive, unexciting, bewildering or, in extreme cases, grammatically incorrect.

I think what troubles me here is that while I accept that a person may not be into a book for a variety of reasons I feel that people are genuinely failing to consider the mapping between the traits they have trouble with in fiction and the traits of real people who might read their reviews. To take a concrete example, I recently read a review of a book with an asexual protagonist in which the reviewer seemed to express genuine bewilderment that a person could have satisfying romantic relationship with an asexual partner. And, on the one hand, if that was the reviewer’s personal response to the book, fair enough. But on the other hand, one has to accept that such a review is not commenting only on the book but also on asexual relationships in general. It would, I think, be unacceptable in the 21st century to express incredulity at a happy relationship existing between two people of the same sex or of different races. And it worries me that we do not extend the same courtesy to less visible minorities.

I also wonder if part of the problem isn’t simply a clash of expectations arising from the shift in the genre from the relatively focused “m/m” to the more broad spectrum “LGBTQ”. To take another example, I’ve seen a number of reviews in which readers have expressed shock or disappointment at discovering that genderqueer, gender-fluid or gender-ambiguous protagonists had vaginas. Again, I can see where people are coming from here because if you have been reading in this genre specifically because you were interested in reading books about two men then it might not occur to you that you … err … might not be. Again, to draw the analogy from a different genre, it must be a little like stumbling across science fiction elements in the middle of a fantasy novel (like when Titus Groan leaves Gormenghast and there’s suddenly all this high technology stuff ). But to stick with that analogy, I feel it’s important to remember that if I say I was upset to find a spaceship in my dragon book I’m not rejecting anyone personally. Whereas if I’m upset to find a vagina in my gay book, then I sort of am.

And, once again, I’ve written a thousand words in which I’ve come to no real conclusion other than shit is complicated y’all.  I respect people’s right to like or dislike books for whatever reason they like or dislike them. I just hope we can get better at finding ways to express those likes and dislikes without telling other people that they’re confusing and icky.


34 Responses to reviews, ratings and issues of identity

  1. darla says:

    Spot on Alexis–brilliant and very thoughtful post. Thank You!

  2. Great, thoughtful post, Alexis. I do struggle with this because I’m hugely concerned by anything that curtails freedom of speech, and I’ll be honest: over the last couple of years I’ve seen some silencing being framed around sensitivity issues which is troubling for various reasons. Having said that, I agree with your central point and have been reflecting recently on just that. It’s tricky, balancing important competing principles. It requires a lot of open – and civil – discourse.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I actually think freedom of speech is a bit of a red herring here. I’m not saying people aren’t allowed to write reviews were they express their disgust about vaginas or asexuality or women or black people or anything else, just that it’s important to recognise that being dismissive of someone’s identity in fiction can be upsetting to people. I mean, to me, freedom of speech is being curtailed if you argue something should be literally banned. It troubles me that the people seem to think their freedom of speech is curtailed when someone gets upset because they said something upsetting.

  3. Sophie says:

    I think a big problem with the way many readers react to LGBTQIA+ literature is that they expect it to be titillating and taboo instead of, you know, about people being people. Asexuality, especially, really shocks a lot of people because most societies operate on the assumption that everyone likes sex. So I can see why the reviewer was confused that there was asexuality in a romance novel–while simultaneously thinking she really should have phrased her confusion some other way.

    After seeing the Twitter debate about the review I went and read it, and besides that unfortunate comment it’s a very positive review. But the way the reviewer treats asexuality as “strange new territory” is troubling, to say the least. For some people, it’s their everyday reality. Like you said, if a male reviewer was to say that having women in books is “strange new territory”, there would be an outcry. But then also, like you said, to think you were reading a book at the end of which two men would get it on–and then they didn’t–would be disappointing. I don’t think the reviewer meant to offend anyone by her comment, however bad it sounded, but only express her confusion.

    So I think the main problem is not the review itself, but what the review uncovered–that many people are unaware that asexuality (or other minorities) exist and also don’t think of them as minorities whose lifestyles need to be respected. There was a very sweet asexual commenter on the review who said it was nice to be represented in a romance but that she understood lack of steam wasn’t for everyone. The other commenters than piggybacked on liking the lack of steam but totally ignored the issue of asexual representation she raised.

    So–what’s the solution for a society-wide problem? Is there even a solution? I don’t know, but thanks for another great post which made me think. 😉

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Just to clarify that I wasn’t necessarily addressing that particular review specifically – just using it as an illustrative example. And, for what it’s worth, I agree that I don’t think that reviewer was intending to be hurtful – and I’ve specifically not linked to it because, as I say, it’s not about specific reviews.

      But you’re right, this is a complex and deep-seated issue and I think when you hang out in very right-on on parts of the internet it’s easy to forget that things you take very much granted (like asexuality and non-binary gender identity) are extremely strange and new to a lot of people who don’t hang out in the circles. And this isn’t ‘oh I hang out in awesome places’, it’s just you very quickly get acclimatised to the circles you move in.

  4. Ellie says:

    Very thoughtful post on a really sensitive and complicated (what a surprise!) issue! As a reviewer myself and a reader who reads lots of other people’s reviews I have clear preferences what kind of reviews I like to read (and try to write).
    I agree that saying I don’t like that (kind of character) in my romance is rather hash and can be seen as insensitive. But I want to raise another point – why read/review said book in the first place when you know it’s not something which you would enjoy. I think most blurb and trigger warning (thank God for those!) give a very good idea what the book will be about so that if it’s not your thing, you just shouldn’t read it. I review lots of ARCs where I don’t have the option to check other people’s opinion on the book beforehand and I try to be careful with what I request or accept for review. I’ve made mistakes thought, for example requesting billionaire/CEO romance when I know these stories don’t work for me. I didn’t rate the book though and tried to explain in my review that it was my bad for picking a story which I was well aware might not be my cup of tea.
    Basically, I think if you don’t like certain types of characters (be it because of their gender/sexual identity, profession, social standing, ethnicity or whatever) you shouldn’t pick their stories for review.
    I also agree with Joanna, that sensitive issues should not be avoided in reviews but rather should be treated with care, keeping in mind other people’s feelings. On that note, sometimes the reviewer might not be aware of being offensive/inconsiderate, a quick comment or a personal message (on GR, especially) could be really useful and appreciated.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think these are all very fair points, although in defence in reviewers at large, I suspect that a lot of reviews don’t come from people deliberately picking books they know they won’t like, so much as not being quite prepared for what they get. And I think some of it might genuinely due to people trying to expand their reading horizons – which is obviously a good thing.

      For example, the review I mentioned about the book with an asexual protagonist. The reviewer seems to have specifically picked that book specifically because they were interested in reading an asexual character but then found it didn’t work for them. And that’s does create a difficult sensitivity issue. Because obviously it’s fine for something not to work for you — and it could be as much the book itself as the nature of the characters — but it’s just about expressing that in a way that won’t accidentally hurt other people or minimise their experiences.

      I think also there are some books, and I especially think books with genderqueer protagonists where people genuinely don’t seem to know what they’re getting into. I could way be way off base with this but I think a lot of people assume that genderqueer or non-binary is just code for “effeminate gay man” and then get taken very much by surprise when they discover that actually the genderqueer character they’re reading about has female anatomy. Similarly, I’ve seen people respond bemusedly to books with genderqueer protagonists where the character’s non-binary identity is taken as read rather than being a specific issue that has to be addressed – which, again, strikes me as being a problem with familiar rathe than anything else.

  5. jeannie says:

    like Ellie I read a lot of ARCs and can’t always find much info on them but the LBQT tag is always on those at Netgalley where I get most of my books. I’m all for free speech too but there’s a balance between that and being a bigot.
    I like LGBTQ reads and notice recently more being labelled LGBTQIA to widen the scope and include more people. I’ll be honest – I knew the basics but have read books that very much opened my eyes to just how variable sexuality is. Not just in the mental but actually in the physical, where babies are born with both sex parts and sometimes with none. I’ve no idea why people get so upset over same sex lovers or someone being born one sex but choosing to identify with the other, its an individual choice and so long as noone else is affected they shouldn’t have any influence. That’s an ideal world though * sigh* we live in a real one full of bigots of all descriptions…Reviewers need to take care what they write – and if books like this aren’t for them then Just Don’t Request. Its that easy. One I recently read really opened my eyes to my own opinions, where I think I’m a liberalist but didn’t realise how I’d been thinking, how narrow some of my parameters were, not in a bigot way but just that I hadn’t ever though outside the box so to speak. The book that made me stop and think, and think and think, and still keeps prodding at me some time after I read it was the wonderful Uncovering Ray by Edie Danford. I like books that make me think about them long after I’ve finished.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Incidentally, I’ve read UNCOVERING RAY and I really like it 🙂

      I agree with what you’ve said here and I think what’s really important is to approach a surprising or unexpected element book as an opportunity to examine your own assumptions and preconceptions. And obviously it’s important for people to be able to review honestly and to express their feelings whatever those may be. But I agree that the internet would be a slightly nicer place if people’s instincts leaned more towards ‘gosh the world is more diverse and fascinating than I had hitherto imagined’ and less towards ‘do not want’.

  6. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Excellent post, as always, Alexis <3

    Yes, what you’re talking about here ↓↓↓↓ is something that has really been bothering me too:

    “I feel that people are genuinely failing to consider the mapping between the traits they have trouble with in fiction and the traits of real people who might read their reviews.”

    And you’re probably right; this has roots, at least in part, in the genre shift from strict m/m to LGBTQ+.

    But, I also think it goes further. I see this rejection of identities as extending beyond devaluing sexual or gender identities. Clearly there’s still resistance to greater racial & body-type diversity in romance, in het as well as m/m, though I think it’s improving with time & less likely to be admitted to in a review. But, what I *do* see in reviews is a rejection of certain personality types & traits. I’ve read several reviews criticizing a book because characters are perceived as some version of “not strong enough”: Too weak or damaged or sad or scared or emo, etc. And, again, those reviewers don’t seem to get that rejecting characters for these traits, equates to rejecting real human beings for these traits too.

    Which does not feel good when you recognize yourself in the rejection pile. And can go beyond mere hurt feelings to being emotionally harmful to people already either marginalized or in some other way devalued by others for those traits.

    I do think that, within m/m, this often has to do with that old bugbear, socially constructed – or shall I just say *warped* – ideas of masculinity. But I think that spills over into a definition of strength, even for female characters, in both queer & het romance, which is based on those same warped conceptions.

    Also, to be honest – and I realize I’m crossing a precarious line & heading down a slippery slope here – but I think this devaluation of humans also happens *within* the framework of literary criticism itself, when it’s expressed in terms of “bad writing” or “bad writer”, rather than just “didn’t work for me” or “not to my taste”. I mean, yes that’s different, as authors are (presumably) less likely to be reading their own reviews than other readers are, & to an extent I guess you can say “if you can’t take the heat don’t go into the kitchen” about those who choose to do so. But *readers* looking at those reviews may also be writers or aspiring writers, recognizing themselves in what is being condemned in someone else, & feeling shamed or constricted by it.

    Sigh. I know, it’s kind of like, where do you stop though? I mean, am I saying, nobody should ever say anything that isn’t nice about anyone or anything? Um, in which case *deletes entire comment*

    But, it just bothers me because I see it as another symptom of a central issue. Which is that all of these things come down to intolerance for what is different. Different from ourselves, from our taste or preference, unfamiliar.

    Which, okay, I guess that’s kind of stating the obvious, so: Duh! But it’s like, we only seem to learn not to do that in piecemeal fashion, never seem able to apply in a more general way. Never get that we are doing the same thing in other areas.

    As in, exactly what you were talking about before I went off on my sidetrack: The fact that someone recognizes it is *not*, uh, very nice to say “I don’t like this character because they are not white”, but doesn’t realize it is equally not nice to say “I don’t like this character because they are asexual.”

    So, it’s really difficult. I am absolutely for free speech, but I do think there’s a difference between what we are *allowed* to say & what we *should* say, as a decent human beings. Plus, I think it’s worth saying that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism for what we say. Though, even there, we have to be careful not to cross the line from criticism to silencing.

    Gah. It’s so . . . okay, we *seriously* need more synonyms for “complicated” 😉

    In any case, it’s not a matter of not expressing certain opinions at all, so much as being careful, of *how* we express them.

    And that is, um, kinda what you already said. Geez, I could have saved a lot of time (and space here!) just saying: “Ditto, AJH” 🙂

    But then, this other thing you said really got me thinking (sorry!) in another direction:

    “If I did actively mark the book down for having guns in it then that would, to me, constitute an assertion that it was flat-out wrong for guns to be fantasy at all. It would be turning my subjective preference into a normative statement about the genre. And I would consider that inappropriate”

    So, this got me thinking about, what, really, *should* be the criteria of a book review? Something I’ve been ruminating about a lot lately.

    The thing is, in the past, I’ve always considered that a book review – a reader review, not an ARC review which I think demands “higher” standards – *is* allowed to be, about subjective preference. I mean, let’s face it, even critically evaluating the quality of a book is necessarily subjective. But, I always thought, going beyond that, evaluating a book purely based on whether you liked it, for reasons not necessarily having anything to do with quality, was perfectly fine.

    And that it was also fine to evaluate purely on the basis of perceived quality, utterly divorced from whether or not you found a book enjoyable.

    Or to evaluate on both those things.

    But lately I keep thinking about this. I mean, I’ve always known that this can have the result that, the hottest porn you’ve ever read, even if terribly written on any scale of literary quality, could be a 5 star book, right up there next to a book you think is the greatest literary masterpiece of all time. And that someone looking at the star rating can’t tell what you’re rating, unless you also do a written review. Which I most often don’t do, because reasons, including but not limited to time.

    But, in the past, I always thought, oh well, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t really care if someone thinks I’m saying this piece of porn (or whatever) is a literary masterpiece by rating it 5 stars.

    Only recently, something else occurred to me. That when I downrate something on the basis of personal enjoyment/preference, I may be – probably *am* – communicating something about the *quality* of the book that I don’t intend.

    This hit me recently, because I realized that I’ve given a lower star rating to a couple of books, as compared to other books by the same author, despite the fact that if I think about it objectively, the quality of writing is probably the same. And for that matter, I adored all the books equally, just just *differently*. What I did was, 5-star the books that were more dramatic/emotional, and 4-star the ones that were more fun/funny/adventurous. And I suddenly understood, I did this because I *prefer* dramatic/emotional to fun/funny/adventurous. So, when this epiphany his, I was like, well, what the heck is wrong with me? Because, I suddenly saw that, by giving a lower rating on that basis, I'm saying that emo books are better or more important than fun books. And by implication, that this is also true of life? What?! That is . . . just nonsense! Not to mention, potentially damaging to the perception & sales of some books I actually loved.

    So, I have no idea whether or not this is cool, but I went back & revised my star ratings accordingly. And now plan to revisit some of my other reviews as well 🙂

    Going forward, I’ve decided I need to think very carefully about subjective rating. I really can’t stop using the star ratings, because I do want to give my opinion on books I’ve read, especially those I’ve liked or loved, & I just cannot do written reviews of all of them unless I clone myself. But, I’ve decided (& this is just for me, not saying anyone *else* should do this) that henceforth, just as I would 5-star a piece of literary junk-food if I *loved* it on the basis of reading enjoyment, I should also (try to) 5-star things I think are exceptionally well written but which I didn’t personally *love*. Maybe this is crazy; It's will be difficult to judge, because enjoyment colors subjective perception of quality. But, I’ve decided to have a go at it 🙂

    In other words, I will try not to make book value judgments that are the dog show equivalent of downrating a Poodle for not being a Sheltie, just because I happen to prefer Shelties 😉

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Oh dear. I feel bad now that I went so far off the track in my comment here 🙁 I didn’t mean to detract in any way from the importance of the original issue & derail it into . . . all those other things. Sorry! Possibly I *do* need to sometimes learn stay inside the/my box 😛

    • Alexis Hall says:

      We do indeed need more words for complicated.

      I agree that it can also be hurtful when people respond badly to a fictional character with whom you personally strongly identify, although (and I recognise I might be channelling my inner conservative here) I do slightly wonder where one draws the line. I mean, there are fictional characters who I find annoying or whiny or self-obsessed or just plain dull, all of whom I am sure have at least one reader who identifies with them and I do think there is a slight difference between disliking a fictional person because of a nebulous set of traits that fictional person has some of which real people might share and disliking a fictional person because of a clearly defined feature of their identity, which real people share and on the grounds of which experience systematic prejudice. Although this gets complicated because while I think it is okay to just think a particular fictional character is irritating, I find much don’t think it’s okay to think a fictional is irritating because they don’t conform to, for example, your ideas of what a man or a woman or three-toed sloth should be.

      So, yeah, blah. Meh. I’m not sure I have a clear conclusion on that one.

      The stuff about the purpose of reviews is tricky as well. I’ve got to admit that I massively dislike numerical ratings, although I completely see why people like to use them, especially if you have a lot of books to review and can’t write detailed comments about each one. Honestly, I might just be over-thinking it because it’s clearly absurd to imagine that we can correctly categorise all texts that exist or could ever exist as being either 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 stars.

      For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem if you give a really hot piece of porn 5 stars, a transcendent literary work you didn’t get into 3 stars and cook book with a couple of duff recipes 4 stars because those texts are obviously impossible to compare anyway. I think it becomes a bit trickier when you’re looking at texts that are definitely comparable (like your example of books by the same author were you would rather dramatic books higher than fun books) because there you can make a reasonable case that there’s a meaningful loss of information. If I see a 5 star review for Porny McPornson’s Big Book of Porn and a 3 star review for Lars von Properwriter’s debut This Book Won All The Big Prizes I’ll have plenty of other contextual information to allow me to decide between the and I’ll probably pick Lars if I want to read something literary and Mr McPornson if I want to read something porny. Whereas if I had to choose between two seemingly similar books and one had a five star review and one had a four star review, I’d assume the five star one was just like the four star one would better.

      That said, I should stress that this mostly an intellectual exercise and that there is absolutely no right or wrong to review and/or rate anything. I think what this quite long and complex discussion reveals is simply that reviewing is a very lossy system and that it behoves readers to recognise that a rating is an almost unhelpfully homogenised amalgam of a complex and conflicting set of reactions, responses, priorities and preferences.

      What’s really weird is that I know this in theory but the moment I see a 3 star review on a book, I assume it’s good. The moment I see a 3 star, I assume it’s mediocre.

  7. EE Ottoman says:

    Ah! bless you Alexis for thinking calling someone’s pronouns grammatically incorrect is extreme 🙂

    I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about this.

    I’m not a reviewer so I don’t have any stake in the how to review or how someone should review. I am very aware of the backlash against diverse fiction though and wish people would be more aware of the impact of what they say.

    I think I agree with you that it’s a clash of expectations. People assume m/m means sexual cisgender man/sexual cisgender man and read ‘queer romance’ or ‘LGBT romance’ as meaning m/m romance. I’ve also seen people be upset when an androgynous or genderqueer character turns out to be not assigned male a birth. I’ve also seen people get upset at books with a trans man character when there is a mention of his vagina. I’m not getting into the old can a book with a trans man or two trans men be considered m/m because I really don’t give a shit anymore. But I think it’s worth noting that large number of m/m readers do not consider anything other than cisgender man/cisgender man to be m/m. So I think there can be a disconnect between publishers/authors that would consider any male identified person falling for another male identified person sexual or otherwise to be m/m and readers who very much don’t think it’s defined that way.

    I don’t know if I’d frame this as a freedom of speech issues though, or the idea that ‘political correctness’ can/has silenced real and substantive criticism/discussion within the romance community. But if someones wants to make the argument that it has I would be happy to hear it.

    I guess bottom line, I agree with you and it’s is complicated 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      What can I say, social injustice upsets me but language policing makes me genuinely furious 😉

      I very much agree that perceptions within the m/m community about what ‘m/m’ should be and, by yet more problematic extension, what LGBTQ fiction should be seem to be a big part of the issue here. As you say, it’s an old argument and one that I think we’re both a little bit tired of and part of the reason I’m so glad to see publishers moving towards LGBTQ as a label rather than m/m as a label is that pretty much undercuts that whole question. Even if you did want to argue that two transmen or a transman and a cisman (or a tradesman and a cistern as auto-correct insists) weren’t m/m you can’t remotely argue that they’re not LGBTQ.

      Of course the problem here is that that there now seems to be a disconnect between the labels and the market in that a lot of people (for quite understandable reasons) are coming to LGBTQ looking for the same sorts of things they were previously looking for in m/m. And, as we’ve both sometime seen, getting a little upset if they find something else instead.

  8. Chris says:

    I have to say that the ‘OMG! It’s a vagina! Run away!!’ thing didn’t used to bother me. I was too burned out on most m/f stories, and I’m not someone who personally finds vaginas all that attractive. I got why someone would not want to read a book with that in it.

    And then a couple years ago I started to really question my gender identity. Well, actually I’ve been doing that for a bit longer, but it was in a more “I can’t really be /that/” kind of way. It wasn’t until I started to find books that seemed to be telling stories an awful lot like the one I was living, that I started to be more comfortable with the idea that I identify more male than I ever did female. Those books, few as they were (and damn am I glad that there seem to be more written these days than a few years ago), helped me feel more comfortable in my skin–especially on days when there didn’t seem much point in bothering to acknowledge my issues since all everyone was ever going to see when they looked at me was a woman.

    That is when all those ‘he is not masculine enough’ or ‘ewww, lady parts!’ comments really started to come to my attention. Because I would look at these reviews, from people I have been following for quite some time–and genuinely like–and start to think that if I were to ever tell them that I was questioning the whole “am I really female” thing, that their response probably wouldn’t be all that great. And I know that they were not intending to harm anyone with those comments. They just didn’t like the books. I get it, because I used to do the same thing.

    But when you have made your online community one of the main anchors in your life, and it looks like for all their claims of wanting ‘equality’ they find the idea of a man with a vagina beyond gross, you can be left feeling a bit lost. I’m left trying to figure out if I ever do really come out, will I have to justify myself to these people? If I don’t tick as many boxes in their ‘is he really a guy’ list, does that mean that they will never accept me as I really am?

    So, yeah. I get where they are coming form. And I don’t think they intend to harm, but they should also realize that harm can be done, even by accident.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thanks for commenting. Basically experiences like yours are pretty much why I find this situation so difficult. Because, as you say, these people aren’t intending to be hurtful (and would probably be really upset if they realised they were being) but obviously it isn’t okay for you to be made to feel rejected by your community.

      For what it’s worth, as I said in the post, I suspect there’s a bit of a disconnect going on here between fiction and reality. Maybe I’m being naive but I think people go to particular types of fiction to get particular types of experience and can be very thrown if they don’t get the experience they’re looking for. I sincerely hope they don’t react quite the same way when interacting with actual human beings. But nevertheless I can completely see why this sort of thing makes it more difficult for people to disclose or come out or feel accepted.

    • EE Ottoman says:

      Thank you Chris for saying this 🙂 I’ve definitely had a very similar experience ::hugs::

  9. jeannie says:

    found which book specifically and just been checking my review in case I’d put something that could be misconstrued, or cause unintended offence. I don’t add my reviews til publishing dates – that’s what most publishers request and I value getting ARCs so I’m careful….
    So, to my amazement, as I recalled the asexuality well, I didn’t even mention it in my review. I recall it being there but there’s so much more in the story and I seemed to have focussed on that. Good or Bad? I don’t really know. I read books then write review the next morning, putting down my thoughts and then trying to tidy it. I’ve given it a five star – its a series I love, with romances based around real people, real stories and tender romances. I like those with some hot sex, but I also like those where its just gentle romance. Story is the most important to me, anyone can find “stories” that are just page after page of sex,( yawn – boring – to me – not everyone I know) but I need more, need a real story, and to feel I could know the characters, that I care about what happens to them.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think everyone reviews in their own way and that’s perfectly fine. It sounds like you have clear ideas about what you’re looking for and if you can communicate that to your readers, then all the better 🙂

  10. Jill Sorenson says:

    I’m torn on this one. I’ve had readers criticize an unexpected type of ménage in one of my books and say I needed a content warning for it. I guess I feel like I have to take my lumps, because I’d rather not add a content warning. If a book has an asexual character and the reader wasn’t expecting it, I can see how that might lead to mixed feelings from readers. The author might mention or “warn” (I hate the idea of warnings for this kind of thing!) about the lack of sex scenes.

    I don’t know that “strange new territory” is an insult. It reminds me of a book I read, Unbound by Cara McKenna, which has a submissive hero. I didn’t know this going in and I might have passed on it if I had (which is one reason I’m against warnings/labels–we miss good things). I actually loved the story, but I also said that the hero was into some “weird shit” in my review. In retrospect, that was not a polite way to put it. He fantasizes about aliens and a thing called cock worship and tbh I’d never heard of either. It was strange new territory for me.

    Basically I think that some kinks and pairings and sexual identities ARE unusual. “Weird shit” is not a good thing to say. “Strange” is a little iffy. I’m on the fence about how to express this. I like honesty and frank wording in reviews but I get super annoyed when readers say f/f is icky. I genuinely didn’t mean icky when I used weird. I guess I’d say it’s fine to express confusion, discomfort and lack of familiarity–but no “eww gross” please.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think I basically agree with this. And, as you say, it’s a tricky one because confusion is an understandable response to the unfamiliar. I think this one of those situations where I err on the side of I statements and ideally I statements that relate specifically to one’s own experience. That is, “I found this weird” is a lot better than “this was weird” but I think “I hadn’t previously experienced this” is preferable to either.

      I think it also gets tricky because there’s not a sharp dividing line between, for want of better terms, fetish and identity. A great cosmic truth is that there are people out there who are into things that you would never imagine a person could be into – and the difficult balancing act, to me, is in expressing something that you had not previously considered without giving the impression that this was the fault of the unconsidered party.

  11. cleo says:

    I agree that it’s tricky. I honestly would rather have people try a LGBTQIA romance that’s out of their comfort zone and maybe not know how to talk about it in their reviews, or frankly stick their foot in their mouth in their review, than have everyone only read what they know and are comfortable with. But it’s definitely important to talk about how we talk about queer romance, and be more mindful about reviewing it.

    I know that some romance readers insert themselves into the text – I don’t read like that, but I can see how a straight woman looking for her next book boyfriend might be surprised to find out that he’s trans or gender queer or might find f/f unappealing. But the vaginas-are-icky thing still really bothers me.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I agree that it is overall a good thing to be reading a more diverse range of books and to be looking outside their comfort zones. And that obviously a necessary consequence of this is that people will occasionally encounter things that just don’t work for them. I think the issue (as pretty much everybody here has been saying) is finding ways to expression that that don’t belittle or marginalise people. As you’ve pointed out yourself, “I’m just not into f/f” is fairly easy to accept, whereas “ewww girlparts” just feels unpleasant.

  12. sofia says:

    Talking about very very fine lines here and how to walk them.

    Some points:

    Reviewing has it’s traps, totally. It is a reality though that strongly worded reviews get more attention than the nicely worded ones which is a point to be considered if popularity is being sought.

    Often I find that my sticking point is not who, what, how a character is but rather how this is conveyed by the writer. some writing can totally get me to really gel with a character even if I don’t like him/her or what’s being done. Other writing does not. How did I say ‘i did not like how that was written’ in a loving manner?

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Sofia, hope it’s okay if I jump in? If it was me, I would probably try to say something like, “the writing style didn’t work well for me & I think this made it more difficult for me to engage with the characters”, or something along those lines? And you can soften it even further (if you want to) by specifically stating that this isn’t to say it’s bad writing, just that it didn’t click with you, or whatever – if that’s what you mean to convey.

    • cleo says:

      I think “I did not like how that was written” is pretty respectful, although you could soften it more – but it uses I language, making it about the reviewer, instead of saying something like “this author can’t write”. I personally use a lot of variations of “such and such is not to my taste” when talking about other people’s work. And when I read a review talking about liking or disliking the writing style, I like to see a quote so I can judge for myself.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      For what it’s worth, I don’t have anything against strongly worded reviews and I genuinely don’t mind if people say my books are badly written or that they just plain suck. Obviously I don’t like hearing this, but it’s a judgement of the artefact, not of me or, perhaps more pertinently, people who might see themselves reflected in the text.

      Maybe this is a double standard, but I genuinely don’t believe reviewers have any particular responsibly to the author.

      To me, “your book is bad and you should feel bad” is an unhelpful but unobjectionable response. “Your book is bad and you should feel bad because genderqueer people are weird and scary” is significantly more problematic.

      I think we do get to a difficult point of overlap here because a reviewer might feel that an author failed to adequately justify something that it is not their job to justify if that makes sense. For example, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to write a book about a genderqueer or trans* or, indeed, asexual protagonist that does not in any way dwell on the mechanics of their identity and behaviour. And, obviously, this gets into very subjective territory because I might feel that a reviewer is objecting to a character’s identity whereas a reviewer might feel they’re reacting to a legitimate weakness in the text. To put it another way, if I was reading a straightforward m/m novel and the reviewer said something like ‘To me, the author didn’t adequately explain why Steve was attracted to other men” I would consider that to be a unhelpfully heteronormative thing to say in a review.

    • sofia says:

      That’s sound like something I write in my review Pam and taking a look at other reviewers I see them using that kind of language as well.

      As I’ve always used books to travel (place, time, situations, characters) it makes sense that the writing (mode of transport) is than something important to me. This is not so for all though, some people are more set in their needs and they have a sort of list that has to be adhered to. That is why their are readers who complaining that ‘that character is not supposed to be like that, or his not supposed to do that’ like meeting a friend (book character) and saying that friend should not dress like that or say that etc. Total denial of that person as he or she is, likewise in books.

  13. AD says:

    Alexis, if there’s some sorta simple way to explain this, you did it here:

    “But to stick with that analogy, I feel it’s important to remember that if I say I was upset to find a spaceship in my dragon book I’m not rejecting anyone personally. Whereas if I’m upset to find a vagina in my gay book, then I sort of am.”

    And EE, I think you’ve landed on it here:

    “I think I agree with you that it’s a clash of expectations.”

    I visualize it, the continuous struggle to widen the genre expectations and definitions, like we’re inside a giant bubble, constantly pushing out against the edges, trying to expand and include.

    People are gonna read and review what and how they want, but being more thoughtful, more aware in doing the latter is never a bad thing. Doesn’t mean free speech is at risk of being infringed upon, just means people taking the time and second thought about what they say.

    I haven’t read the review in question but, if nothing else, it spurred conversation like this, providing opportunity to probably stretch the bubble.

    One of the best stories I’ve read recently that includes a main character who is asexual was a fan fic. The courtship, the building of a family, the humor and struggles that come with everything, basically regular ol’ life. T’was beautiful and silly and hopeful.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I should probably start off by saying that while i make one semi-concrete to a review in the article, this post very much isn’t about that review, so much as a general trend I’ve noted. And I wouldn’t anyone to go looking for it or in any way think negatively about the person who wrote it.

      I think the bubble analogy is quite an apt one but the thing about bubbles is if you push too hard at the edges they can sometimes burst and I think some of what we’re seeing is people worrying their bubble is bursting.

    • Ellie says:

      AD, I got curious about this fanfic. I haven’t read anything with an asexual character and this sounds like a good place to try it. Can you share the link?

    • jeannie says:

      AD, you wrote “T’was beautiful and silly and hopeful.” and that kind of sums up everything I love about romance. I enjoy when there’s sex in it but what I want is the romance, the tenderness, the build up to two people falling in love, and sex or lack of it isn’t necessary for me to enjoy the story. Its what draws me to this genre, as the stories are often so moving, whereas though I love hetero romance sometimes its just OTT, or the romance gets lost in plots that overtake it.
      Asexuality is new to me, but then so are many of the LGBTQIA groupings, and really so long as people are in love I don’t care who with, or what they do. I’d rather have no sex than pages of it that don’t fit the story. I’ve only been reading this genre a couple of years and I’ve learned a lot, and wonder if the widening of the genre to encompass so many groups is new or has always been there. we come in all shapes and sizes and I like to feel there’s a love to suit everyone whatever their preferences.

  14. AJ Pina says:

    I like it when you write one of *those* posts. They always take about an hour to read because they make me think a lot. Longer with all the comments.

    I believe that a lot of this, as you and others have said, is down to habit and expectation. Not to say many people don’t look for books about people like them, or insert themselves in the story and expect the characters to be “appropriate” for that purpose, but I don’t seem to do either of those things really. It is indeed complicated. For instance: 1) I’m probably asexual (not sexually interested in anyone so far, and no particular reason to think that will change); 2) I’m trans male and recently out, so, yeah, a bit touchy IRL about the vagina thing; 3) the sort of thing I’m “into” (because asexual people can be into sexual stuff in theory) isn’t what one generally finds in a romance novel, whatever the nature of the protagonists; but for some reason, 4) going by my actual reading history, I like to read mostly romance and other genre fiction about sexual male-bodied people who like men, and I don’t often read erotica, even the sort I might go for. Since I don’t seek out stories that match my personal real-life identities or sexual(?) tastes unless I am being really self-aware and pro-active, I think what I usually read these days is probably down to force of habit: I continue to read the same kind of thing I started reading 10 years ago, and now, even though more options are available, I do not stray often enough outside of my comfort zone. (Although it’s likely that gay men resonated with me back then because I felt queer and male on some level, even if I didn’t know why or how, and so my tastes may be personal in that way after all.)

    That said, I have by this time read romances or other types of stories about trans men, trans women, lesbians, genderqueer people, an asexual (although that word wasn’t used in the story), and even an m/m/f story (which I normally avoid like plague) that I loved, because they were well-written and they had great characters. So, again, it’s probably just habit for me and a lot of other people to avoid or dislike certain themes, and if I can find and read enough good examples, the habit will change. (I avoided books with gay content like the plague as a teenager, after all—conservative Christian sensibility at the time—and that certainly changed.) So I’m very happy about the increased diversity in queer genre fiction. And on the rare occasions when I review something and it contains a thing I have weird subjective feelings about, I either try to disclose this subjectivity before discussing it (either positively or negatively), or I leave it alone and focus on other things in the book that worked or didn’t work.

    And that is long enough, I guess. Probably a bit off-topic, too. I hope it’s at least interesting.

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