The title of this post refers to the most frequent criticism I’ve had from readers of romance novels. I’m going on record saying I agree, but here’s why: I don’t write romance.
Well, not really. I do like a good love story, but real life is not about lonely people finding their soul mates and having oodles of hot, hot sex. I suppose that must happen at least some of the time, given how many people are married or partnered with at least one other person. Still, the world does not operate in the following steps:
- Find TrueLove™
- Hump like bunnies
- Find out some horrible secret/have some horrible event happen
- Believe TrueLove™ has been lost
- Finally resolve the emotional drama and live happily ever after/happily for now (probably with more humping like bunnies)
I admit, I’ve tried to actually follow that formula in my writing, and this is probably why (some) readers think it’s not sexy. It is damn hard to write like that! I keep getting distracted by other important things.
In a recent online conversation with several other authors, I learned a few things I hope to take into the future with me.
I’m a person who loves slice-of-life books with a lot of plot. I don’t actually care much about the sex. I’m more invested in the characters and their situations, and I’m interested in their lives outside of any budding romance. I’m much happier reading about friendships and families, and I prefer the love story to be secondary—in fact, I don’t care if it’s not there at all.
I don’t write great sex scenes, nor do I enjoy writing them. One reason is that I think there needs to be a good reason for them to be there or they distract from the story. So I don’t see a huge need to build chapters and chapters of sexual tension and then get two hot people in bed together. If they’re intimate, it’s because it makes sense to the story, and that’s typically less “sexy” than when getting them together is the goal.
I’m invested in making sure lgbtq sex isn’t fetishized. I’m bothered by how many women say they see “no point in reading m/m romance if there’s no sex.” It goes right along with how many women also don’t want to read about femme men and prefer women be absent or minimal in the story (or reduced to the plucky BFF). I was absolutely appalled recently at the dismal reviews for one of the best books I’ve read in ages—and all the ranting was about “glossing over” the sex and not having an “alpha male” type character. Sex wasn’t an integral part of the story, and the characters would not have made sense as culturally macho men. What some straight readers want is a very heteronormative version of gay and bisexual relationships. I understand that it’s “just a story,” and I don’t need to read or write it. But I wonder how many women with such preferences are invested in being genuine allies outside of making their Facebook profile pictures rainbow-fied. (For a great video on what it means to be an ally—bisexual-specific, but relevant to other communities—see here.)
I want more from my lgbtq books. I don’t think all of our books involve relationships and/or sex, but a lot certainly do, in all genres. That’s not a terrible thing—for too long, we’ve been considered to have “unnatural” lusts, and our kind of sex has been taboo (or fetishized). It pleases me no end how many straight guys liked my first novel, despite having sexual situations between two men. These readers were invested in the story, and the sex didn’t put them off or distract them. That said, a lot of what I see is about romantic relationships, and books heavy on other storylines are not always well-received. There’s a lot of non-romantic speculative fiction (SF, fantasy, etc) featuring lgbtq characters, but what I want is more literary genre lgbtq books. Some mainstream authors of literary fiction already include lgbtq characters, but I’m looking for something beyond “I wrote a gay character once!” There are some lgbtq authors whose books are shelved as literary, for sure. I just crave more, and I don’t want my fellow authors, especially writing m/m, to feel locked into romance or romantic relationships.
I’m probably approaching my own work all wrong. Okay, maybe not completely, but at least in some sense. I’ve been invested in writing a story around a “pairing”—a romantic couple and how they got there—because I’ve had the sense it’s what people want. Except the things I want to say keep getting in my way, and I’m doing neither romance nor literary genre any good, as evidenced by accusations of “not sexy.” I want to write about intersecting lives and friendships and family and couplehood at multiple stages, not just the falling in love part. I’d like to write young adult books and stories about women and novels on the way faith and identity intertwine. In short, I want to free my own mind from trying to write “romance.”
Allow me to reinforce that despite my view of what I want to read and write (and aside from my concerns about how lgbtq people are viewed by straight readers), I don’t see anything wrong with reading or writing romance. So much of what’s out there is personal taste. This is about where I want to go, and I’d like to return to my desire to write compelling stories without worrying about how “sexy” they are. If someone chooses not to read it because it’s not romantic or steamy, so be it.