Tag Archives: love

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.

The ‘Black Jewels’ series, by Anne Bishop

Daughter of the Blood

Daughter of the Blood – first book in the Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop

This series is interesting. Firstly, I would say, do not read these books if you are prudish. Even a little. Or if you are squeamish.

If you do not fall into any of those categories, and you like a complex story with interesting characters and a unique fantasy world, then you’ll probably enjoy this. Greatly.

Firstly, the general premise. Bishop’s human population is divided roughly into two parts: those who have magic, and those who do not. Those who have magic are generally higher-status, and are further divided by power-level. Females, on average, are more powerful than males.

Reducing the story to its bare bones, you have the Evil Queen who has spent several hundred years consolidating her evil power (one race of humans is extremely long-lived); then you have the heroes (who, being male, are in a position of subordination); and you finally have the Saviour, the prophesied Witch who will be born with almost unlimited power and will (hopefully) save everyone from the Evil Queen. OK, so that’s the bare bones, and it doesn’t look very different from any other kind of traditional fantasy. But what’s interesting is what Bishop does with this.

Bishop’s society is matriarchal, but she’s actually put some though into how a magic-oriented, female-led society might be like. It also has a significant BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) element. If this offends you, don’t read the books.

This book is very relationship-oriented; it’s not about big battles and the movement of armies; it’s about the actions and interactions of individual people, and how they change outcomes. It’s also about power corrupting, and what the result of that might be, if allowed to proceed unchecked.

Bishop doesn’t pull any punches, and she hasn’t fallen into the trap of making her female characters all nice, or, if not nice, then misled. Remember the mean girls at school? The girls who took cruelty to whole new levels without ever laying a finger on their victims? Now, imagine those girls with carte blanche to do what they liked, physically and mentally, to anyone else? Bishop graphically illustrates what anyone who’s been bullied by girls knows: women are just plain nastier than men.

She also illustrates what happens to the vulnerable in society when those in authority choose to look the other way rather than confront the wrongdoing they know is going on – so if you don’t want to read about child abuse, don’t read these books. If you don’t want to read about parents ignoring the fact that a member of the family is abusing their children, because that’s easy, way easier than having to deal with something so unpleasant (of course, that couldn’t happen in the real world, at all, could it? Yeah, right) then don’t read these books.

Bishop manages to portray a society gone horribly wrong in a way that is very plausible; after centuries of top-down corruption, this is what you get. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Nazi Germany – individuals who, in a different society, would probably be upright, honest and caring are twisted and corrupted until they participate in acts that are wrong by any standards of morality. Good books, eh?

But one of the things I like the best is Bishop’s BDSM angle. She never refers to it as that, but if you know anyone who’s into the Dominance/submission (D/s) lifestyle, you’ll recognise it instantly. Bishop has described it accurately in two forms: the healthy, and the dysfunctional.

Now, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and I don’t intend to; the excerpts and reviews I’ve read have convinced me that not only would it bore me rigid but it’s written by someone whose research was done by reading Mills and Boon romances and The Story of OThat is, her understanding of BDSM is pretty limited and stereotypical.

The typical image of a D/s relationship is a bullying dominant who runs the relationship and gives the orders, and a weak, rather pathetic submissive who does what s/he is told and acts as a sort of physical and emotional punchbag for the dominant – and, worse, gets off on being treated so badly. Or, alternatively, the dominant is as I’ve just said, and the submission is just too weak and confused, or too beaten down, or too powerless, to get out of such an unhealthy relationship.

Now, those are not D/s relationships. Those are abusive relationships. There are plenty of them in the Black Jewels books. (At the start, it’s kind of fantasy-dystopia – or had you figured that out?)

A healthy D/s relationship is consensual and respectful on both sides. The dominant generally takes the lead, but there’s very much an element of the old military advice: “Never give an order you know will not be obeyed.” Or, alternatively, don’t order your sub to do something you don’t already know that he is willing to do. Both sides of the partnership – and it is a partnership, and a partnership of equals, at that (no matter how much the participants pretend it isn’t) – gain from the relationship. It’s not about one side getting all the rewards at the expense of the other. And Anne Bishop clearly understands this. She has thought about, or researched, the ways in which such a dynamic works, and how the submissive half of the relationship makes his or her wishes known, and even forces the dominant to change their mind, or behaviour, without once stepping out of the submissive position.

It’s a complicated dynamic, and Bishop captures it perfectly.

Of course, the story starts with trouble and strife; otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good story. But that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom and angst and horror. There are some brilliantly funny scenes, and these serve to lift the books out of the potentially wrist-slittingly depressing and into the realms of being a great read that you don’t want to put down. You get to know the characters, and you cheer the good guys on and you desperately want the Witch Queen and her minions to get what they so richly deserve.

So if you want to read fantasy that’s a bit out of the ordinary, and you’ve got the ability to cope with the sometimes pretty edgy stuff Bishop throws around with gay abandon (that’s, ‘light-hearted’, not ‘homosexual’, by the way… although the latter isn’t totally absent), then read the books. They are some of the most original fantasy I’ve ever read.

Love yourself

Love yourself.

This is a simple recommendation, but surprisingly hard to do (and it is not referring to anything one might get up to with a bottle of baby lotion or a Rampant Rabbit, although that’s good too).

In the media, we’re constantly bombarded with images and recommendations of what we ought to look like, what we ought to achieve, who we ought to be. If we believe what we’re told, we should all be supermodel-beautiful, with gorgeous clothes, fantastic jobs and equally desirable partners. And somehow, we have failed as people, let alone as successful members of society, if we don’t achieve all this.

But it’s impossible; the standards are too high, and include things that we can’t possibly achieve (I, for example, am never going to be supermodel-beautiful; I’m too short, for one thing). But constant repetition ensures that we frequently, deep down, believe that we have failed, or that we are ugly or unsuccessful or unloveable, if we don’t measure up to these impossible standards.

It’s not just about teenage girls starving themselves because they believe they’re too fat after seeing size-zero models; it’s more insidious than that. It affects even otherwise well-adjusted, sensible adults, of both sexes. Women are encouraged to believe that if they’re not utterly gorgeous in every way then they are ugly and undesirable; men are encouraged to believe that if they’re not earning loads of money, they are somehow unmanly and thus undesirable (and yes, this is sexist).

And so we strive to meet impossible standards, working longer hours to earn more money, worrying about wearing the right sort of clothes, spending hours agonising over weight and hair and skin, feeling as if we don’t measure up, and being miserable. Then our boyfriend/girlfriend/pet cat leaves us for the next-door neighbour and we wonder why. And, we don’t have far to look. They left us because we weren’t beautiful enough or successful enough or well-dressed enough, so we need to try harder…

We need to stop this destructive cycle. We need to really look at ourselves and our lives, and evaluate dispassionately. Are you really too fat? Or are you just fatter than a supermodel who is a size zero and subsists on a total diet of one celery stick a week? Are you really too tall or too short, and who decides what is the right height, anyway? (An ex-boyfriend once said to me, “You’re not short; you’re compact and bijou.” I always remembered that. And that ladders and tall people were invented so that they could get things down from high shelves for me.) Are you really so unsuccessful in your career, or is it just that you keep comparing yourself to the Fortune 500?

We are none of us perfect. But we need to be able to look at who and what we are, and first accept it, and then learn to like it and finally to love it. You may never be supermodel-beautiful, but that’s not to say that you’re a total double-bagger (that’s where you have to wear a paper bag over your head, and so does the person you’re with, in case yours falls off). Appreciate what you have, rather than concentrating on what you lack.

What will this do for you? Well, it’ll make you a happier person for a start. Dwelling on your successes rather than always on your failures is guaranteed to produce a more cheerful mood.

Secondly, happy people are nicer to be around. Of course you should always support your friends through hard times (someone who dumps their friend just because she’s going through a bad patch is no friend at all) but we’ve all met those people who are constantly dripping about how ugly they are, or how they’ve nothing to wear, or they can’t meet a decent man/woman/cat. Not only do you find yourself sometimes thinking “I’d kill to have your…. you ungrateful bitch,” but also “For Pete’s sake just stop the pity-party.” Self-haters are not, generally speaking, people you want to spend much time with; conversely, if you’re happy with yourself, other people will be happy with you too.

Thirdly, the propaganda-artists will have less power over you. They will not be able to say “Buy this, and become the person of your dreams,” and have you believe it enough to fork out. Or “Do what I say, and you will be a valuable person.” Instead, you’ll think, “Actually, I quite like myself the way I am, thank you.” So many of those who try to force us to do things their way rely on the fact that we don’t like ourselves very much, or we don’t trust our own judgement. My way is better; I know better than you – follow my advice, do as I say. But if you know and love yourself, you can see this for what it is, and you’ll find it easier to structure your life according to what you want, rather than what other people think you ought to want. Thus leading to further happiness, and the feeling of confidence that comes from knowing that you are in control of yourself and at least most bits of your life (except your pet cat).

This carries over to writing as well; as a reader, I pay attention to the characters in the books I read, not just to the plot. A little angst in a character is good; it drives that character to new efforts, new challenges, makes them just a bit insecure, and that can be a good thing. But too much angst? Not good. A character who is written is gorgeous but is always (for some reason totally incomprehensible to the ordinary-looking reader) unsatisfied with her looks does not invite sympathy and understanding: she invites comments like “Get over yourself already!” and “You should try being me for a week and see how you feel about mirrors.” Characters in a book are like everyone else we meet in life: the ones who don’t like themselves aren’t the ones we want to spend time with. And if you read book reviews, particularly about books that are part of a series, you realise how important the reader liking the character actually is. What drives the reader to buy the next book in the series often isn’t the complex plotting or the brilliant use of prose, but that they have formed a personal connection with at least one of the characters, and want to know more about what happens to them.

So loving yourself is good for real people and imaginary people too; go on, try it. I dare you.

Sex!

Well, that got your attention, didn’t it?

So, what do you think of it? Personally, I’m all for it, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

This post, however, is going to be entirely devoted to sex in novels.

You’ve probably figured out by now that fantasy is my favourite genre, particularly urban fantasy. I do like a good romance, too (and yes, I believe in love at first sight – well, first decent conversation anyway – and in the existence of Mr or Miss Right). However, one can get rather sick of sex being inserted into a book in the following way:

Plotplotplotplot – STOP!!! [Insert sex scene here] GO! Plotplotplotplot….

Why is it, too, that urban fantasy heroines seem to either have no self-respect, appalling taste in men, or an inability to do the decent thing and pick the one they like and let the other one down gently – or all of the above?

It would be a pleasant change to read an urban fantasy novel with a heroine who isn’t a complete idiot where the opposite sex are concerned. Or one where she’s able to get on with her life without angsting over the lack of a man.

However, I’m certainly not against a love interest. I’d just like it to be a bit more complicated. I mean, when it gets to the point where you can identify the man the heroine is going to end up in bed with before you start reading, and, indeed, two-thirds of the way through the book, yep, sure enough, there’s the creak of bedsprings…. well, it’s a bit predictable.

Where’s the development of an actual relationship (guys, a relationship is about more than sexual attraction)? Where’s the development of sexual tension? Where’s the anticipation? Where’s the will-they-won’t-they?

Examples of ‘good practice’, for me, are Kim Harrison’s Hollows series; although the heroine, Rachel, can be irritating at times, Harrison has actually managed to keep the sexual tension between Rachel and one of the male characters ratcheting up throughout the series – and so far, they haven’t even kissed (although I haven’t read the latest book, so I don’t know what happens in that). Surely they’re going to end up together? You can see the relationship between them changing – come to think of it, there’s something almost Pride and Prejudice about the way they each have to acknowledge their own prejudices and re-evaluate their impressions and opinions of the other. And we still don’t know whether they’re going to get together.

Another is K. E. Stewart’s Jesse Dawson series that starts with A Devil in the Details. Astonishingly, Stewart has done something almost unknown in urban fantasy novels – his hero (male!) is actually happily married with a daughter. This gives the books an interesting extra dimension, as Jesse has the additional worries of supporting his family – he’s not the usual single guy/girl with no dependants.

Oh, yeah, and I may have mentioned before – please don’t assume that all your readers have the same turn-ons as you, the author, do. Laurell Hamilton, for example, is obviously turned on by men with long hair and thigh-high boots. While these two attributes are OK (although I do not admire long hair on men in general) it is possible to get tired of them really quite quickly when every allegedly-sexy male character in the book displays them. Let’s have a bit of variety, please!

For me, the following points are important:

  • There has to be some kind of development of a relationship that’s not just about sex – you know, romance like in Georgette Heyer.
  • It must not be obvious from page 1 (or before) who the main character is going to hook up with.
  • The two characters must actually be suited – it’s not satisfying if it’s obvious that shelf-life of the relationship is (as someone has said before me) somewhere between milk and yoghurt.
  • It’s OK for the course of true love not to run smoothly (obviously) or even for the two characters to look like they might not do well together – but we, the readers, should be able to see – not necessarily immediately – that in the end it’s all going to work out right.
  • And, of course, a love interest as a major plotline isn’t actually essential at all. Don’t try to shoehorn one in where there truly isn’t space. It only bends the whole plot out of shape and makes it look awkward.
  • OK, rant over. Well, that’s my opinion as a reader. What do you think?

    Romance

    They say romance is dead. Well, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the shelves in the local bookshop. I’ve never seen so many bared manly chests and swoony-looking young women.

    Or do they mean, romance in reality is dead?

    Well, if they do, then that indicates an extreme lack of effort on the part of those who are complaining of romantic insufficiency. Where do they think it comes from? Do they think it falls from the sky like rain? Or that the fairies bring it? Romance is like toast: if you want some, you have to make it yourself.

    Or are they complaining about the lack of suitable partners?

    Well, if you’re waiting for a knight in shining armour to come and sweep you off your feet, it’ll probably be a long wait. With the weather the way it is, any sensible knight is staying at home keeping his armour out of the rain – that stuff rusts like you wouldn’t believe. If you want to meet him, you have to track him down. Then you get to the hard part.

    As I mentioned, romance – or at least sex – is all over the place in books. But it comes in different forms, and the partners are chosen more, or less, well.

    My favourite literary couple is the pair who are friends as well as lovers – their relationship isn’t based just on mutual physical attractiveness and lust, but also on shared interests and outlook. You can tell that when they finally get it together, they’ll be happy. Think Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Intellectually and emotionally, they’re well matched. They respect each other’s opinions and they can stand up to each other when needed. They think similarly – although not necessarily identically – on important issues. Miles Vorkosigan and Ekaterin Vorsoisson in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Komarr and Civil Campaign are another match-made-in-heaven. The path of true love may not be smooth, but you can tell that they’ll be happy together, and anyone who tries to interfere is going to get annihilated. And not just by Miles.

    Sometimes, though, authors are clearly trying to set up the match-made-in-heaven, but they don’t quite achieve it. I saw the film of Sense and Sensibility, but I haven’t read the book – partly because I didn’t like the film. It left me feeling that Jane Austen had got the couples the wrong way round – I thought that Elinor would have been far happier with the intelligent, mature Colonel Brandon than with the weak and ineffectual Edward Ferrars. Equally, Marianne would bore the Colonel, who would soon regret tying himself to a silly child, and she herself would become equally bored with the Colonel’s calm and measured approach to life, but would likely be more in tune with Edward Ferrars. Possibly I ought to read the book to see if the film skewed the characters.

    Vicki Pettersson’s The Taken is another example: Griffin is a 1950s PI; almost a caricature of everything you think a 1950s PI ought to be (strong, silent, tough but protective of women). Kat is a reporter on her family’s newspaper, endlessly bubbly and cheerful, and who lives the ‘rockabilly’ lifestyle. You find yourself wondering whether Griffin is only attracted to Kat because she measures up to his 1950s-era yardstick of feminine beauty, and he is so taken in by her 1950s-retro lifestyle that he fails to appreciate that she is, in reality, a 21st century woman who is unlikely to fit in with his 1950s mores. Equally, is Kat attracted to Griffin because he is everything she thinks she wants – good-looking, strong, masterful, honourable. But will she find that such a man is compatible with her outgoing nature and independence of spirit? In some ways, for me, this mismatch between the two main characters who were obviously (right from the off) supposed to become a couple, spoiled the book for me. Maybe, however, Ms Pettersson will pull off a save and have them develop to be more compatible in future books in the series.

    Then, of course, there’s the unfortunately increasingly common story of the career woman who is unhappy with her successful career and life, and wants A Man to achieve fulfilment. This makes me want to throw the book across the room for two reasons:
    1. It assumes that no woman can be happy and/or truly successful unless she has a boyfriend/husband. In this type of book, there is no hint that the heroine is lonely, or that she misses the companionship of a soulmate. No, she just wants ‘a man’ because once she has that box ticked, she will feel validated. How depressing – take away all the modern trappings, and you have the message that a woman’s job is to be a wife and mother, and no woman is successful unless she has achieved these roles.
    2. This is equally disrespectful to men. The heroine might be seeking validation in society’s eyes rather than true love, but she is also treating men as a commodity, like shoes or handbags. She simply wishes to possess A Man; it doesn’t really matter which man, as long as he’s presentable and she can show him off to her friends. Even worse are the books where the ‘heroine’ is not even really seeking a man – what she really wants is A Baby (another fashion accessory) but finding A Man is only a preparatory step to acquiring A Baby. This is man-as-sperm-donor.

    Sex is easy; romance is hard. A durable relationship is beyond hard. But when an author manages to write a pair of characters whom you can imagine still being in love fifty years in their future, you know she’s got it right.