Tag Archives: authors

Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

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My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

Copyediting: the agony and the… whatever.

This month, I have got no writing done whatsoever. This is because I’ve been copyediting someone else’s book. Well, copyediting sounds a bit posh; what I was actually doing was reading it and marking comments in the margin like: Terry Pratchett says using more than one exclamation mark is a sign of insanity. And: Meteorology is the study of weather; metrology is the study of measurements. It is important not to confuse the two.

The interesting thing here is that my friend had already edited it himself and given it to someone else to edit, and he thought that two passes through would have got rid of all the stuff that needed getting rid of. This proved not to be the case, and I made enough comments to justify my continued existence. It was, however, a learning experience all round.

The most important thing my friend learned, of course, was that he hadn’t caught all the errors. When you’re self-publishing, this matters. You can blame your publisher if you like, but when that’s you, it’s a bit counterproductive. If you’re an indie author, when a reader spots the error, he doesn’t say “Poor author, why couldn’t his publisher pay for a decent editor?” – he says “Why is this bloke publishing a book? He’s clearly illiterate.”

Take home lesson: three sets of eyes is good. (Different people, obviously. Otherwise it’s… unusual.)

For me, I learned:

  1. Two people can read the same sentence in quite different ways. (“Oh, so that’s what you were after. I get it now.”)
  2. You have to concentrate more when you get to the climax because you’re more likely to miss things. (“This is a flying saucer battle! And you expect me to concentrate on whether a comma or a semicolon would be better?”)
  3. I’m quite good at spotting errant commas, and I have an unnatural love of, or possibly obsession with, semicolons.

I also learned some things about writing; copyediting someone else’s work forces you to slow down and think about what you’re reading. Pacing was the main one: my friend’s book was beautifully paced. Everything flowed naturally, the plot cantering along, until it accelerated into a gallop for the climax, and all the threads came together. It’s something I shall have to try to replicate in my own writing, if I can.

All in all, it’s an experience I would definitely recommend to anyone else thinking of self-publishing. If only because once you’ve checked someone else’s, it should be relatively easy to guilt them into doing yours…

Setting up the kill

Skull and crossbones pictureSometimes, it has to be admitted, a character’s only reason to be in the book at all is to die; their death is the event that pushes the protagonist into doing something, or not doing something. Or, even more depressingly, their purpose is simply to be cannon fodder.

There’s even a name for it – redshirt. A character who has no past, hardly any present, and a future that consists of a grave or – in science fiction – some particles or a burned mark on the floor. John Scalzi even wrote a book about what happens when these poor blokes realise what god (i.e., the author) has in mind for them.

Then there’s the guy (or girl) who isn’t quite the poor no-name walk-on character whose one role in life is to die, but is just as surely marked out for an untimely demise. You know the ones. The grizzled old cop who is a week away from retirement after forty years’ honourable service. The young man, or girl, who just got engaged, or just got married. Or, if a character manages to make it past the honeymoon period, the last few months of pregnancy can be deadly for both partners. Another sign of circling vultures is the character whose life has been irredeemably crap… until they meet the protagonist. Just now, things are starting to look up… until, guess what?

You can see it coming from the time the character first walks onto the page, and the author tells you about his retirement date, her pregnancy, his new fiancee. You just know that this character isn’t going to make it to the end of the book.

As a proto-author, I found myself asking how. How do you have that feeling that a character is destined for an early grave?

I came up with some rules:

  1. The character is at some point in their life where it would be especially cruel to kill them off (retirement, marriage, new baby etc).
  2. The character doesn’t get enough page time for us (the readers) to really bond with them.
  3. The author tells us a lot about the character rather than showing it. This one was quite interesting when I figured it out. Telling is a quick way of giving the reader a lot of information about a character without giving that character much page time.
  4. The character isn’t necessary to the plot.
  5. The character is actually inconvenient to the plot. The protagonist has either moved on, or needs to move on.

The whole thing spoils the book: the reader doesn’t connect with the character so well (because what’s the point – they’re only going to die), and may also feel annoyed because the author is trying to manipulate them. After all, what is introducing a fiancee (that you never otherwise meet) other than a cheap-and-easy way of attempting to increase the emotional payoff when you kill the character? To me, this smacks of clumsy writing.

The question is, how to avoid it?

George R. R. Martin does it brilliantly. All through A Game of Thrones (the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire), you think Ned Stark is going to be the series’ hero. Until – and if this is a spoiler, you must be the last person on earth to not have either read the books or seen the TV series – he gets executed at the end of the book.

Either Martin is a closet psycho and we should all be grateful that he turned out to be an author, so he can kill made-up people instead of real ones, or he’s a sadist who enjoys making people care and then killing off the object of their affections, or he’s just a really, really great author.

Whichever one it is, Martin makes all his characters real – he makes you care, then he swoops in for the kill, just when you’re not expecting it. Oh, he won’t kill X; X is too important to the story, and too great a character to lose…. oh.

This, I think, is his secret. You can’t tell who’s going to die because Martin treats all his characters the same (i.e., equally sadistically), so we get emotionally invested in all of them, even if we hate them and want them to die. In fact, Martin manages to reverse the “red-shirt” phenomenon, by introducing characters whom you want to see die a painful death even though you’ve got a nasty suspicion that Martin might let them survive (Joffrey, that’s you).

So in order to get the reader to invest in the character and be honestly shocked/sad/glad when a character dies, I think the author has to invest that time, thought and emotion first (or else fake it really well). If the author cares, the reader will too.

Power, weakness and vulnerability

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

The Drafter, Kim Harrison

I’ve just finished reading Kim Harrison’s new book, The DrafterAnd damn, it was good. I stayed up later than I should have reading it, and that hasn’t happened for a while. Harrison had me practically from the first page, and it was her main character – Peri Reed – that did it.

Peri is an elite government agent; she’s tiny, gorgeous, and can kick serious ass and travel through time just enough to correct mistakes. So far, so pedestrian. How many gorgeous kick-ass heroines do we have in urban fantasy/sci-fi now? Probably enough that it’s standing-room only. Peri, however, is different. When she changes history (“drafts”), not only she not remember the history she has wiped, but she can’t remember the new version either – and the memory loss can extend backwards, sometimes for months. Peri, in fact, has lost large chunks of her life that way. She nearly always keeps a pen on her person so that she can write notes to herself. She has her habits and routines, to give herself something to cling to when she doesn’t know where she is or what she’s doing there. Her partner (“anchor”), Jack, is supposed to bring the memories back, at least partially, by telling her what happened – but for that, of course, he has to be present. So Peri is never alone, just in case she drafts and loses part of her memory that can’t be brought back.

Harrison says that she wrote The Drafter as her own commentary on Alzheimer’s Disease, in which sufferers gradually lose memories until they lose themselves entirely. On that level, it works brilliantly. Harrison shows Peri’s strategies for coping with the memory loss that goes with her profession; the routines, the precautions, and the little tactics to try to avoid letting anyone know that she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. We’ve probably all been in that conversation with someone who clearly recognises us, but we have no idea who they are: “I know I’ve met you before but I don’t know where or when.” For Peri, it’s not just the social embarrassment of being really bad with faces; she can lose months or years, and not recognise her own partner. So, from a reading point of view, The Drafter was a great story of a woman trying to solve a major problem while losing major – relevant – parts of her own life, and while being lied to, deceived, betrayed, and manipulated by practically everyone around her, with even the people nominally on her side taking ruthless advantage of her weakness.

From a writing point of view, The Drafter was just as interesting. Peri could have been yet another cookie-cutter action heroine, but by tying Peri’s weakness to her power, Harrison made her a whole lot more attention-grabbing. Giving the protagonist’s special advantage a matching price gives the protagonist a reason not to use their special power. If you can just wave your hand and fix the problem, why not do it? But if there’s a price involved, then the decision is that much harder; the protagonist – and the reader – have to be sure that the prize is worth the price they will have to pay. It ups the ante; in order to win, the protagonist will have to give something up that matters to them. How far will they go? At what point is the price of victory too high? Do you get to the point where the person with special powers is in the same position as mere ordinary mortals, because their special power has such a high price tag that they might as well not have it at all?

In the case of The Drafter, Peri’s special power almost comes full circle – she has abilities that most other people don’t, but the consequences make her into a pawn in other people’s schemes, easy to manipulate because her inability to remember her own past makes her reliant on others to remember for her, and to try to put her memory back together. Is her power a strength, or is it a weakness? Is she a player, or a pawn?

The ambiguity of Peri’s position has an effect on the way the rest of the story plays out. The usual structure of hero-and-sidekick(s) vs villain-and-sidekick(s) doesn’t work. Not only does Peri’s memory loss make it very difficult for her (and thus the reader) to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are, since they are all manipulating her for their own reasons, but her weakness means that the secondary characters have relatively greater power in the story.

It all adds up to a much more complex story than your average sci-fi thriller, and one that leaves you with something to think about long after you’ve finished the last page.

Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

View all my reviews

Character connections

I haven’t had much time lately for either reading or writing – I’ve quit one job with long hours and low pay, and got a better one with less work, more money, and a better doughnut quotient. Hence lack of blog, complete lack of any writing, and hardly any reading.

One book I have been reading, though, has made me think about connecting with characters – both the connection between the character and the reader, and between the characters in the book.

I was really looking forward to reading this book: it seemed like a really interesting premise. The main character is a prostitute in a sort of alternative steampunk 19th-century America, and – as was pointed out in another blog – that’s the kind of character who generally exists as wallpaper. Prostitutes tend to either get walk-on roles for local colour, or get killed. They don’t really appear in many books as characters in their own right (although there are some: J.D. Robb’s Charles Monroe, a male “licensed companion” in her Dallas books, for one). So I was looking forward to reading one as a main character. When I got into the book, I also discovered that she was a lesbian. Also unusual – although getting less so nowadays – unless you deliberately go looking.

However, I didn’t find myself getting really into the story, to the extent that I kept putting it down. I still haven’t finished it – I moved on to reading something else instead. Now, when a book really grabs me, I tend to devour it in one sitting (with an ebook reader, eating isn’t an obstacle at all, and sleeping takes second place). But not this one: it just didn’t grab me. So I wondered why not.

Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that I didn’t care enough about the main character to keep reading. I just didn’t feel that connection to her. To take an example at the opposite end of the scale, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books are one-sitting reads. I also have them all as audiobooks. Harry Dresden can be a bit annoying at times, but I do kind of like him. Even if I sometimes want to smack him, I care what happens to him. He’s also an interesting enough narrator that he keeps the story going at a cracking pace (Butcher’s habit of ending every chapter on a cliffhanger probably doesn’t hurt, either). Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion books also have protagonists that keep me reading: the world-weary and wounded Cazaril in Curse of Chalion and the embittered Ista in Paladin of Souls.

If I look at the protagonists who did make me care, they are not limited by gender, age, or sexual orientation. Harry is – at the beginning of the series – a young, male, white heterosexual wizard. Ista is in her forties, a white widow and mother. In Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, the main character (Peter Grant) is young, male, heterosexual and mixed race. Vanyel in Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage books was white, very young, gay, and male. I didn’t particularly like him, but he was a compelling enough protagonist for me to read all three books straight, one after the other.

So why didn’t the character in the book I haven’t finished grab me? Thinking about it, I think it was because the author just didn’t tell me – or show me – enough about her to let me get to know her as a person. I know she’s a prostitute because it was pretty much the only career option open to her, but I don’t know how she really feels about it. I don’t know what the life involves. I know she’s a lesbian (or bisexual), but I don’t know whether the girl she falls in love with in the book is her first, or whether she’s always been attracted to girls. I don’t know whether homosexuality is acceptable in her world, or whether she’s taking a big risk if she lets her sexuality be known. She’s sixteen in the book, but to me she came across as older – in her twenties, at least. Is that because of the life she’s led, or is it just that the author didn’t make her voice young enough?

It’s one thing to make a character’s background mysterious, or to drip-feed the details to the reader to avoid an information-dump, but if you go too far the other way, you risk not giving the reader enough information about the character to make the reader care. A major way of letting the reader get to know the character seems to be to let the reader know what the character is thinking; after all, if you’re inside someone’s head, you’re going to get to know them pretty quick. However, if you can’t do that, another way is to show the reader how the character interacts with the other characters in the book. In the book I’m reading at the moment, there’s a lot of action, but not a great deal of people just interacting on a day-to-day basis: “Look out! He’s got a gun!” really doesn’t tell you much about anyone. However, “Hey, he’s got a Purdey side-by-side – get a load of that!” conveys a lot more (principally that the speaker can identify a Purdey side-by-side, assumes the listener knows what one is, and thinks that a Purdey side-by-side is the shotgun equivalent of Colin Firth. And how the other character responds tells you even more: “Yeah, whatever,” or “What? Where? Get out of the way and let me look!”

And if I don’t know much about a character, I can’t connect to them, and I’m not going to care what happens to them enough to spend precious minutes of my life reading about it. I’m going to do something I care about more, like the washing up, or the ironing.

So I’ll go back to the book – eventually. It’s got enough of my interest that I’ll devote a few more minutes to it. Just… not right now. And, having been disappointed once, I’m less likely to read any more of that author’s work in future.

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.

Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.