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When Queers Read...!

...which is something straight writers seem to forget that we do. Like Brent Weeks, and every other writer who made their villain a sadistic pedophile without stopping to think about the Unfortunate Implications involved. Because with the exception of Orson Scott Card, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and venture that no, they're probably not raging homophobes, they're just grandly oblivious. If you tried to pin them down on it, I expect they'd protest that their villain isn't gay, not the way that Elton John and Tim Gunn and I are gay, he's a pedophile, which is totally different and self-evidently evil.

Well... yes and yes, but thanks to the way our society has tended to conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, that's roughly analogous to calling Michelle Obama "uppity" and then insisting it had nothing to do with race. Just be told that queer readers are going to take it personal when the only gays in your book are rapist villains.

But I digress. I've talked about gay villains before and I'll talk about them again soon (when I review Gemma Files' A Book of Tongues, which was ~amaaaazing~), but today's topic in Things That Alienate Queer Readers is...

Boy meets girl and I don't give a fuck

I'm sure you've been here before:

You're reading a book, usually with a male protagonist, and he's all ~in love~ with some girl... and you're not. Not that you necessarily hate her (although sometimes, yeah, she's a worthless waste of calories), she's just not that great. She's insipid. Or mouthy-but-not-all-that-bright. Or a black hole of character development in a low-cut dress. Or heck, she might be amazing, but the protagonist doesn't know her well enough to know that.

And yet he's willing to go to great lengths for her. Fight for her. Die for her. The entire plot hinges on him being willing to do anything for this chick, while I'm just like, Huh, I wouldn't.

Or if you're going to go for bildungsromans, a love interest of the unattainable perfection personified type is practically mandatory. Of course he loves her! Of course you're totally interested in him loving her! What's not to love?

This came up in a discussion about Murakami Haruki's Norwegian Wood, the most boring and derivative of all his novels, which also happened to be the one that catapulted him into international fame. And I'm really not surprised, because that was his story that best fit the rubric of what's considered Serious Business literature -- of course it was his "boring schoolboy nurses a boring crush on schoolgirl who never loves him back" novel that won him all the critical acclaim.

My theory is that the people doing all the acclaiming are straight dudes who have personal experience with that plotline. It resonates with them; in reading it, they remember their own agonizing experiences with adolescent love. They project their own memories and emotions into the story, fleshing it out in their heads, filling in the gaps with their own memories, and they don't notice that it's not actually that good on its own merits.

And as soon as I thought that I went, "omg I think I'm totally right. o_O" and then a moment later, "Okay, so what books have I liked on account of me projecting into it, rather than the book itself?" Hard to tell, but given my preference for understatement in fictional romance, probably a few. I'm guessing that this is the crux of it whenever one reviewer is gushing about the romance being "soooooo sweet and hot and romantic," and another is like, "meh, I wasn't feeling it" -- how much are you-the-reader able to project into it?


Now it's happened before, that I'm talking to a straight person about the lack of gay protagonists in fiction, and they say,

"Why can't you like books with straight protagonists?"

These themes of love and loyalty and vengeance and kin and whatever, they're universal right? Why do gays need books to be ALL ABOUT THEM before they can appreciate their merits? Doesn't that mean they're being the close-minded ones, for being unable to identify with straight characters?

To which I say, check your privilege, children. Moving on.

Because I like plenty of books written by straight authors about straight protagonists. (Hail, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, Lois McMaster Bujold.) It's just that when it comes to romance, queer readers take more convincing, and I for one would rather they left it out altogether than do a half-assed job. I can get behind heterosexual romance, and I do, when both characters are interesting and you can really see why these two people came to feel so strongly about each other. "Default straight" -- assuming that everyone in your audience is totally behind your het pairing just because they've both got the right plumbing -- doesn't cut it when it comes to queer readers. That's not us; we're not going to be projecting ourselves and our experiences into your story, which means that you have to provide all the urgency for this romance, we're not going to be doing half of it for you.

And some stories hit that out of the fucking park. Taking examples from television, I am all about Peter/Claire from Heroes and Teyla/Michael from Stargate: Atlantis. (An explanation of what I find so compelling about those pairings would derail this essay, but I'd love to discuss it in comments.) Not only do they have so much chemistry, but there is so much about both of those relationships -- attraction and commonalities warring with irreconcilable differences -- to make them endlessly fascinating. Chrissakes, the only other fanfiction I've written was Michael/Teyla.

(THIS FIC is my head-canon for what Teyla was thinking through that episode. This fic is a very plausible (and hot) version of how it could go if Peter and Claire ever got together. And, okay, my incomplete SGA fic chapters 1 and 2. It's a few years old so my writing is kind of dated, but it's got the ideas I wanted to explore.)

Similarly, one of my complaints about Bujold's Curse of Chalion was that the romance was poorly-developed, which was especially disappointing on account of how I know she can do better. Her four-book Sharing Knife series (which I found out later was deliberately weighted toward the romance) is lovely and features a relationship that I was totally onboard for -- she really made you feel how much these two people loved each other. By contrast, the designated love interest in Curse of Chalion is perfectly inoffensive -- pretty and compassionate and intelligent -- but she's designated before she's shown to be any of those things. Moreover, she does and says all the right things, but she's not unique or interesting in any way. Generically perfect, and perfectly boring.


So yeah, food for thought for all writers, perhaps -- that sketching the outlines of a relationship and leaving the readers to fill in the details themselves only works as long as your readers are just like you.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2012 10:06 pm (UTC)
Norwegian Wood is the only Murakami book I've read once. I waded through it, and it isn't even that long, but the only thing I really remember about it is thinking that it's almost over. Maybe it's because the majority of the novel doesn't even have any scenes with the female the protagonist has that huge crush on, and instead focuses on another girl altogether, but I just could not care. About him, the girls, none of it. As an example for badly written romance, it's excellent, especially when compared to Murakami's other works. Perhaps because in his other novels a great deal of the romance is left to interpretation, or implied, so we can look at any romance however we like, or even believe that there isn't any, if we so wish. Of course, that rather fits into the self-identification prevalent in romance novels, so that can't be the only reason. I think the other point is that he makes excellent characters in their own right (or he usually does) that have believable chemistry with each other.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 2nd, 2012 03:33 am (UTC)
I read YA when I was a YA myself, then left it for genre fiction and didn't revisit it again until just a few years ago. And I was.... not so impressed. I read Holly Black's New Tales of Faerie, the first of Cassandra Claire's books, and then a couple others that I can't remember the titles of, and in every case, they left me wanting MORE. More plot, more character development, more time spent on the romance, anything more than the cursory attention they'd paid to it.

My favorite of Holly Black's books was Valiant (which is, notably, NOT the gay one), because apparently my predilection for monsters-as-love-interests trumps my predilection for gay romance. Val's attraction to the troll was different, and thought-provoking, but then they exchange all of like six lines over the course of the book (I wanted to see more), and yet he's still the ~love interest~ because... whatever, just because.
Sep. 3rd, 2012 09:28 pm (UTC)
Did you ever happen to read Patricia Wrede's "Dealing With Dragons" series? YA books that I liked a lot when I was a kid, but haven't read since I was a kid.
Sep. 3rd, 2012 10:46 pm (UTC)

Don't know if I would now, but over the past couple years I've had an aimless sort of side quest to collect the YA novels that I liked as a YA and hold onto them until I have YAs of my own. The first three of that series were ones that I grabbed.

Did you ever read William Sleator as a kid? He is an excellent gateway drug into sci-fi. :D
Sep. 4th, 2012 04:53 am (UTC)
No, although looking back on it, Bruce Coville's Aliens series and Paula Danziger's This Place Has No Atmosphere were probably some of the earliest sci-fi I've read. ETA: And Sleator does look quite interesting-- never too late, I guess!

Edited at 2012-09-04 04:54 am (UTC)
Sep. 4th, 2012 05:28 am (UTC)
Eh, don't know how well he'd hold up as an adult. But then, I have no patience these days for the superficial treatment that YA literature gives stuff.
Sep. 4th, 2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
I was just reading the new Garth Nix book, A Confusion of Princes, which is more YA than his usual children's books and was really frustrated by the romance. He usually writes books either without romance or with very understated "maybe the main characters start dating in the future but that's not what the book is about." The book was going so well, then Love Interest gets introduced pretty late on and everything goes from being about the main character's character development as a person to revolving around her and his sudden fixation on her. And the remaining plot would have still worked perfectly well with other, existing reasons for his actions other than romantic love. I hate that so much.
Sep. 5th, 2012 07:22 am (UTC)
I think Garth Nix started writing YA just as I was graduating from YA to general fiction. I read Sabriel and was pretty whatever about it; I started Shade's Children and found the premise much more interesting, but I was reading it in a bookstore and then couldn't buy it and never tracked it down to read the rest of it, etc. As you do.

YA is even worse than adult literature about expecting readers to come up with their own reasons for being interested in the romance. Maybe there's a genre-convention/stylistic reason for that, but I'm inclined to chalk it up to standards being lower for YA lit.
Sep. 1st, 2012 12:45 am (UTC)
Don't you think that holds true for any book, het or gay? I really, really dislike romance novels (Yes, straight white woman speaking here), where the protagonists are too insipid or stupid to live -- heroes and heroines. The best stories are about interesting people, no matter what gender or orientation. There is nothing more boring than perfection. Flaws are what make characters real and sympathetic.
Sep. 1st, 2012 03:24 am (UTC)
Oh aye, that's just called having standards. :D

I think it probably depends more on the reader than the book. For every teenybopper sighing over Twilight, there's another reading it and going "what is this shit?" For all that I like and pursue gay fiction, I hold it to (nearly) the same standards that I hold anything else. I dislike insipid, too-stupid-to-live protagonists in my gay romances as much as you dislike them in your straight romances. (And heterosexual romance certainly has no monopoly on boring, implausible relationships -- I used to translate yaoi here, I would know.)

Totally agree with you about perfect = boring though. That's why the men in A Book of Tongues are terrible people and I love them anyway, because their flaws are fascinating.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )