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Month: August 2023

A Court of Jealousy and Haters: ACOTAR chapter 3 or “Girl, you’re gay.”

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As promised, I’m importing the A Court of Thorns and Roses recaps here from Patreon. These were originally written beginning in August of 2020, so there will be references to upcoming or seasonal events that won’t fit with our current timeline. I am not a time traveler and you’ll never be able to prove that I am. I will also include editors notes like this every now and then as we go, mostly to amuse myself but to give re-read value to those who’ve already been on this awful, awful journey with me.

CW: mention of rape in the analysis (not the book itself).

A Court of Jealousy and Haters: ACOTAR chapter 2 or “Woe is me.”

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As promised, I’m importing the A Court of Thorns and Roses recaps here from Patreon. These were originally written beginning in August of 2020, so there will be references to upcoming or seasonal events that won’t fit with our current timeline. I am not a time traveler and you’ll never be able to prove that I am. I will also include editors notes like this every now and then as we go, mostly to amuse myself but to give re-read value to those who’ve already been on this awful, awful journey with me.

At what point in a book do you usually want to slap a character and tell them to quit whining? To slap all the characters and tell them to quit whining? Because it’s chapter two and from past experience, when I feel this way in chapter two, it’s all downhill from there.

A Court of Jealousy and Haters: ACOTAR, Chapter 1 or “You’re starving because you suck at hunting.”

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As promised, I’m importing the A Court of Thorns and Roses recaps here from Patreon. These were originally written beginning in August of 2020, so there will be references to upcoming or seasonal events that won’t fit with our current timeline. I am not a time traveler and you’ll never be able to prove that I am. I will also include editors notes like this every now and then as we go, mostly to amuse myself but to give re-read value to those who’ve already been on this awful, awful journey with me.

How is everyone? Judging from the comments here and on social media, you’re either a) hoping I rip this book to shreds and film myself defecating on a hardback copy in my driveway, b) planning our BFFs trip together to the tattoo shop where we can get matching full-sleeve tattoos of the cover over my existing sleeve illustrating the last chapter of Moby-Dick because this book is life-and-tattoo-changingly better, or c) just kind of curious.

Since the first chapter is so short, this is going to be a short recap, mostly with me complaining about how the hunting is depicted. I checked and they do get longer. Also, as with Crave over on the Trout Nation blog, this book is much, much better written than the other books we’ve recapped. So, breathe a sigh of relief on that one. ed.don’t listen to past Jenny. Past Jenny lied.

ACOTAR, as the cool kids call it, and as I will call it, is the book with the title I most want to punch in the fucking head, if titles have heads. Every god damn book on the shelves right now is, “A [noun] of [noun] and [noun].” I have this theory that the reason ACOTAR got its name is that it was released during the height of the Game of Thrones frenzy on HBO. After all, if people were super into a series called A Song of Ice and Fire, publishing is going to look to follow that trend.

And trend, it did. Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Children of Blood and Bone. Girls of Paper and Fire. Girls Made of Snow and Glass. The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Even the ever-derivative, utterly-talentless succubus wrote a book called From Blood and Ash, which has, of course, been described as “knock-off Maas.” And most of those books? Have sequels that keep going with the same naming convention, to the point that I have no idea which book is which.

So, after making sure a second time that I am, indeed, recapping the correct book here, let’s look at ACOTAR.

Chapter one opens with our first-person POV narrator in a tree, in a snow flurry.

Hunger had brought me farther from home than I usually risked, but winter was the hard time.

This sentence really stuck out to me as a good example of how you don’t have to tell the readers everything. That’s one thing I really enjoyed about this chapter; all the details you need about the world, the character, and the character’s whole situation in life get doled out, rather than smacking you right in the face.

I wiped my numb fingers over my eyes, brushing away the flakes clinging to my lashes.

Look at that! Description beyond, “I’m cold,” or “it’s cold.” Did I wander into the wrong book club?!

And see:

Here there were no telltale trees stripped of bark to mark the deer’s passing—they hadn’t yet moved on. They would remain until the bark ran out, then travel north past the wolves’ territory and perhaps into the faerie lands of Prythian—where no mortals would dare go, not unless they had a death wish.

This is exactly the type of thing I need to see in a fantasy book. Where are we? It’s not enough to create some kind of secondary-Earth (I love Bertrice Small with all my heart but the fact that she named the setting of her fantasy novels “Hetar” still makes me cringe), you have to tell us what kind of world we’re in. In a contemporary romance, for example, you know you’re on Earth, Earth functions the way it functions all around us, it is what it is. A horror novel? You’re gonna probably be on Earth, and it’s functioning all around us like it does, it is what it is, but there are ghosts. Once you get to fantasy, however, all bets are off; the reader needs to know where they are, what’s happening, and most importantly, how Earth-like is this place we’re reading about?

From just a few paragraphs so far, here is what we know about the world we’re in:

  • There is a winter, so we’re in a world with changing seasons.
  • There are deer and they survive and migrate the same way as they do in our world.
  • There is dangerous territory nearby.
  • There is a conflict between Prythian and mortals.

We know already that the world we’re in is dangerous and cruel and that our protagonist is just trying to survive. On page one.

It’s difficult for our protagonist to see through the heavy snow, so they get down from the tree. It is important for continuity’s sake here to note that she unstrings her bow. From this, we know that her bow is a common recurve bow, the classic “Robin Hood” style, if you will. Those must be unstrung and restrung because carrying a strung bow can wreck it up, especially if it’s wood. And I’m reasonably sure this bow isn’t fiberglass.

As someone who grew up in hunting country, I really appreciated that detail.

Our protagonist has to get home before it’s too dark because wolves and worse, faeries, are waiting out in the dark to possibly eat her up.

Still, I would have rather spent another night with a hungry belly than found myself satisfying the appetite of a wolf. Or a faerie.

This is where one of my first moments of confusion started. I was like, oh, cool, the danger is that faeries will eat you. Just remember that we talked about this for later.

Not that there was much of me to feast on. I’d turned gangly by this time of the year, and could count a good number of my ribs.

You may have noticed, Dear Patron, that we have yet to learn what the gender of our protagonist is. I didn’t realize that at first because this book being the huge hit it was, I know that we’re listening to a female protagonist.

I knew the expression that would be on my two elder sisters’ faces when I returned to our cottage empty-handed yet again.

Not having read up a lot on the background here but knowing that this series is based on fairytales, I’m gonna assume this is Cinderella?

As the protagonist is walking, they find a clearing with a brook. And this is where my hunting criticism begins:

A few holes in the ice suggested it was still frequently used. Hopefully something would come by. Hopefully.

A brook is moving water, so if it freezes there are naturally going to be spots that are still open. Yes, the local wildlife is going to come drink from it (although deer do eat snow for hydration, they’re not dummies) but that doesn’t mean it’s a great spot for hunting. A communal watering hole in a clearing where there isn’t much cover is dangerous for any animal. Combined with the smells and tracks and scat of the dozens of other species in the woods, even predators would be on high alert there and watching their backs. Deer are prey animals; they’re going to be extra wary in this setting.

If you really want to stake out a spot near the water to nab a deer, look for a spot where their tracks cross water, for example, a narrow, placid part of a river or swamp. If a deer path is good and tramped down, it’s basically a highway. They’re going to travel that way again as they’ve likely picked what they believe to be the safest spot to cross.

We wouldn’t last another week without food. And too many families had already started begging for me to hope for handouts from the wealthier townsfolk. I’d witnessed firsthand exactly how far their charity went.

Okay. So, eat the wealthier townsfolk. Problem solved.

As the protagonist is waiting for forest food, they think about how life used to be different:

Once it had been second nature to savor the contrast of new grass against dark, tilled soil, or an amethyst brooch nestled in folds of emerald silk; once I’d dreamed and breathed and thought in color and light and shape.

Again, I’m a bit confused here by this description. Am I supposed to take “amethyst brooch nestled in folds of emerald silk” to mean a clover or thistle or something? Or was the protagonist once rich like the wealthy townspeople?

Sometimes I would even indulge in envisioning a day when my sisters were married and it was only me and Father, with enough food to go around, enough money to buy some paint, and enough time to put those colors and shapes down on paper or canvas or the cottage walls.

This doesn’t make it any clearer to me. The ultimate dream is to own some paint but still live in the same cottage? This is why I can’t figure out what’s going on with the protagonist’s situation. If the family had silk and jewels before, why would the ultimate dream be cottages and paint? Or were the silk and jewels metaphors for stuff in nature, since that’s how the sentence started out? I’m having a difficult time placing what this character’s life is like now versus what it used to be.

Stolen hours in a decrepit barn with Isaac Hale didn’t count; those times were hungry and empty and sometimes cruel, but never lovely.

Because I’ve heard enough about these books to know that my following statement is absolutely true and I can say it with confidence: YA fantasy around this time was so overwhelmingly heteronormative that mentioning a traditionally masculine name in this excerpt was an intentional clue that we’re reading about a female protagonist.

To back this up, I think it’s important to note that later in the chapter we learn that the heroine’s sisters are named “Nesta” and “Elain.” The heroine herself is named “Feyre.” So, there’s a theme of fantasy world names here, but a traditionally masculine name from the Bible was used so that everyone could be clear that he’s a dude and the heroine is a girl.

I mean. Isaac? Really? Like from the Old Testament? They have the Old Testament in this world of fantasy, then? It’s little slip-ups like that which makes writing fantasy so. effing. difficult.

So, she’s watching the snow:

Mesmerizing—the lethal, gentle beauty of the snow.

Perfect line, I love it.

Then, the deer hunting happens.

See, here’s the thing. She sees a doe described as small but “not yet too scrawny from winter.” And she (the protagonist, not the deer) draws her bow…

but never strings it.

Pretty sure I found your number one food-hunting problem right there.

A deer like that could feed my family for a week or more.

And there my brain goes scritchety-record-scratch because I hunt. And I would like to tell you a story.

The biggest doe I ever seen was 160lbs. That was unusually big and no, she wasn’t pregnant, she was just a large and lovely lady. Average, you’re probably going to find them in the 100/120lbs range. The kind of doe I would describe as small would weigh in around 80lbs. Since it’s winter but the deer isn’t starving, let’s assume this doe weighs 70lbs. After dressing it out, skinning it, and processing it, you’re looking at probably around 40lbs. of meat. If they keep the organs, they’ve got those to eat, as well.

Are you guys really eating ten pounds of meat per person, per week?! How do you shit without rupturing your colon and/or the blood vessels in your brain?

IDK, I just feel like if you’re poor and starving, you make that deer last longer than a week. And I know this because I have experience with hunting while poor and starving.

So much food—such salvation.

If you didn’t read that in Doge-speak, you might be too young to be on the internet.

But there was a pair of golden eyes shining from the brush adjacent to mine.

Whoops. Uh-oh.

The animal is revealed to be a wolf “the size of a pony” and our protagonist is terrified:

We mortals no longer kept gods to worship, but if I had known their lost names, I would have prayed to them.

I mean, Isaac was one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites and you’re banging his namesake in a barn, so at least someone remembers Abrahamic religions.

The wolf doesn’t seem to behave like a wolf, according to our protagonist:

No animal that massive could be so quiet.

Tigers would like to have a word with you.

But if he was no ordinary animal, if he was of Prythian origin, if he was somehow a faerie, then being eaten was the least of my concerns. 

If he was a faerie, I should already be running.

Remember earlier, when she was concerned about being eaten by faeries? So, is this or is this not something that faeries do to mortals? Because at first, it really seemed like that was the danger.

More hunting nitpicks here: she mentions that she could put an arrow through the wolf’s eye, then:

I had a hunting knife and three arrows. The first two were ordinary arrows—simple and efficient, and likely no more than bee stings to a wolf that size. But the third arrow, the longest and heaviest one, I’d bought from a traveling peddler during a summer when we’d had enough coppers for extra luxuries. An arrow carved from mountain ash, armed with an iron head.

Even if it’s the size of a pony, a full-on fucking arrow isn’t gonna be a bee-sting to this animal. That doesn’t make sense. If you shoot a pony with an arrow, you’re gonna seriously wound them. But absolutely, you want the first arrow to be fatal or at least, totally incapacitating. If she can put an arrow through the eye of a wolf, she doesn’t have to worry about not making a fatal or incapacitating kill.

Now, let’s talk about the bigger arrow. The reason she ends up using it isn’t just because she thinks she needs a bigger arrow to kill a bigger animal (which is true; there are different types of arrows, just like there are different types of shotgun shells, that you might prefer based on what you’re hunting) but because she’s still not sure that it’s a wolf and not a faerie in wolf’s clothing.

And if it was indeed a faerie’s heart pounding under that fur, then good riddance. Good riddance, after all their kind had done to us. I wouldn’t risk this one later creeping into our village to slaughter and maim and torment.

Keep this part in mind, too. Because I’m gonna touch on it later.

I glanced from the doe to the wolf and back again. At least he was alone—at least I’d been spared that much. But if the wolf scared the doe off, I was left with nothing but a starving, oversize wolf—possibly a faerie—looking for the next-best meal. And if he killed her, destroying precious amounts of hide and fat …

If I judged wrongly, my life wasn’t the only one that would be lost.

Here’s where the author goes wrong. She’s writing a person who is poor and starving without understanding the mindset of someone who is poor and starving. There are two animals in front of her. One of them is a small deer. The other is a wolf the size of a pony.

There’s this weird idea that eating an obligate carnivore is inherently dangerous but all wild game carries the risk of parasites or disease. Probably the only reason we don’t eat obligate carnivores is because their populations are smaller and who the fuck wants to farm obligate carnivores in an agricultural situation? It would be ridiculously expensive.

Also, their meat tastes gamey but it’s not fully unedible.

Pretty much all the seafood you eat comes from obligate carnivores. We eat lots of omnivorous wild game like alligator, bear, and boar. And as for domestic pigs? If you eat a lot of pork, you might have eaten an animal that’s eaten a human. No foolin’.

What I’m driving at is, this is a starving person who hunts for subsistence being faced with a choice between two animals, one far larger than the other. You’re starving. You go for the bigger one, even if it’s less tasty or there’s a slight danger of intestinal parasites.

While deliberating,  the wolf springs out and grabs the deer, and our protagonist shoots the ash arrow into the wolf.

But the wolf merely looked at me, his maw stained with blood, my ash arrow protruding so vulgarly from his side.

That’s a weird choice of words. Vulgar? To describe an arrow wound?

He looked, and with a sort of awareness and surprise that made me fire the second arrow.

And she hits the wolf in the eye with one of those useless non-heavy arrows.

The bee sting ones?

His legs were twitching as a low whine sliced through the wind. Impossible—he should be dead, not dying. The arrow was through his eye almost to the goose fletching.

This is another one of those, “Eh…” hunting moments for me. Animals twitch, even after you destroy their brain with a headshot. And sometimes a headshot won’t be enough to totally kill them, but even after you kill them, it takes a second for them to stop twitching. It doesn’t mean they’re still alive, it just means their brainstem is somewhat intact and causing a bunch of involuntary spasms.

Blood gushed from the wounds I’d given him, staining the snow crimson.

Earlier in the chapter, she mentions her two sisters whose needs get met before her own, basically, so I was like, ‘kay, this is Cinderella. But that line and the whole wolf thing? Is this Little Red Riding Hood?

He pawed at the ground, his breathing already slowing. Was he in much pain, or was his whimper just his attempt to shove death away? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

Again, an experienced hunter knows that this animal is already dead. She would have seen death throes like this time and time again while hunting. And while she should (and did) exercise caution when approaching a kill (especially when it’s still moving), this one is clearly, clearly not gonna spring up and get her. My only question now is why she doesn’t use her knife to put it out of its misery if she’s not sure.

She watches until the wolf stops moving to make sure it’s not a faerie? I guess? That part isn’t really clear to me, but she seems to decide that it’s definitely just a wolf after it dies.

At least the ash arrow had proved itself to be lethal, regardless of who or what it took down.

But…it didn’t prove itself to be lethal. The headshot with the regular arrow is what killed it. You were still in danger from the wolf after the shot with the special arrow.

A rapid examination of the doe told me I could carry only one animal—and even that would be a struggle. But it was a shame to leave the wolf.

Yes! It is a shame! If it’s going to be a struggle to carry the doe, here’s what you do.

  • Dress out the wolf; best to stay away from his organ meats.
  • Dress out the deer; you’ve got a whole wolf, you can sacrifice the organs.
  • Alternately: Dress out the deer; keep the heart, liver, and lungs. Carry them home in your clothes.
  • Decapitate both animals; the head is unnecessary weight. Keep the tongues if you’d like.
  • Drag the animal with the least desirable pelt on the ground behind you.
  • Put the other animal on your shoulders.

Dressing an animal makes it so much lighter; the internal organs and genitals take up a surprising amount of weight. Since she’s not trophy hunting, she doesn’t need the heads, either. If she had just one animal, she’d want to keep every single part. But abandoning a what, 200lb. animal? Larger? to retain the stuff that requires more processing? Nah.

And then, there’s this:

Though it wasted precious minutes—minutes during which any predator could smell the fresh blood—I skinned him and cleaned my arrows as best I could.

Yo, it would not take “minutes” to skin an animal that big. Especially one that’s just laying on the ground and would have to be manipulated around into various positions when you’re working by yourself. There is a really thick membrane connecting that pelt to the skin underneath. It takes a lot of time and patience to skin without compromising the hide and isn’t something she’d be able to do in minutes, no matter how long she’d been hunting.

Grunting against the weight, I grasped the legs of the deer and spared a final glance at the steaming carcass of the wolf. His remaining golden eye now stared at the snow-heavy sky, and for a moment, I wished I had it in me to feel remorse for the dead thing. 

But this was the forest, and it was winter.

I love, love, love this chapter hook. And this is absolutely true: if you kill an animal for food, you can’t really feel remorse about it. Not to get too philosophical about it, but when you hunt any animal or really, even take plants for food or medicine from the wild, you start to understand real fast that the natural world has zero sentimentality around death.

That’s a cheerful way to end this first recap! Next week there will be no recap because I will be without internet at the good old family cabin, deep in the woods of the Upper Peninsula.

ed.—Would that this desk were a time desk. I could go back and punch myself in the face for saying anything good about what turns out to be one of the worst books I’ve ever read in my life. Was I fairly evaluating the prose? Yes. Should fairness come into play when forming an opinion on ACOTAR? No. Because it certainly doesn’t come into play for the book’s fans.

This thing was free, but now it’s not. This other thing wasn’t free, but now it is!

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Hi there, Trout Nation! I have some updates to Trout Nation pricing of things!

First, the thing that was free and no longer is: The Boss is no longer a free ebook. This isn’t the exciting ten year anniversary news, by the way. Back when I first published The Boss as an ebook, I said that it would always be free. And I believe that it’s that strategy that kept the book alive for so long, to be perfectly frank. As of this morning, it was ranked fiftieth in BDSM Erotica on Amazon. It actually had an unbroken streak of like eight years before it dropped out of the top one hundred in that category.

But every decade or so, I do a reset. When I published The Boss, I was pretty sure my career was over. I was in the mindset that I needed to beg people to read my books, that I didn’t deserve to have someone read them, and I certainly didn’t deserve to be paid for them. Now, ten years later… fuck that. I love that book, I’ve loved giving it away, but I’d also love to make some money on it. When I first posted it on Amazon, I told everyone to wait until KDP got with the program and made it free there, as it was free on all other platforms. I’d priced it ninety-nine cents.

In the two months prior to the change taking effect, I made $20k off that book at that price. And I turned that tap off because I made a promise to readers that it would be free, a move that pretty much everyone in my life disagreed with. I’m not regretting that choice or kicking myself now for honoring that promise, but I do think that after ten years, it’s okay for me to make a couple bucks off the book.

TL;DR, I’m proud of The Boss, I no longer feel people are doing me a massive favor by tolerating my prose, and I’m changing the price of it. I think it’s worth $3.99. I think it’s worth $9.99 but let’s not get too excited, here. It’s $3.99.

Second, the thing that no longer costs money?

You’re going to want to sit down for this.

As you may have noticed, the Crave recaps have ground to a halt. You guys, the book is so boring. But you know what’s not boring? I mean, the book is boring, it’s very, very boring, but it’s not boring to hate-read it?

A Court of Thorns and Roses.

My Patreon patrons voted to see the previously patrons-only recaps of A Court of Thorns and Roses posted here on the main blog. The poll is still open until tonight, but at this point there is no way for the Patrons who haven’t voted to overcome the thus-far unanimous votes in favor of sharing those recaps with everybody here. Reasons given were that it’s easier to read posts on the blog than trying to navigate the Patreon interface, and people want to have a free resource to direct their ACOTAR-loving friends to in the vain hopes that an in-depth examination of the book will somehow knock loose something in their brains and make them see reason.

Another big plus? They’re already written, so they can be posted regularly and not at the whim of the truly weird streak of luck I’ve had for the past few years. Those recaps will start as soon as I figure out what’s happening with this weird medical thing I’ve got going on that… you know. My luck.

Reminder: I’m still recapping The Missus on YouTube, and a new chapter will post today (good lord willing and the internet don’t suck), and over on Patreon we’re reading Modelland, which has turned, at least, to me, from a hate-read to a lovefest. And as always, you can find My Brother’s Billionaire Best Friend and Taken by The Alpha King on the Yonder and Radish apps respectively.

The How vs. The Why

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Grey’s Anatomy is terrible. From every single angle, it is objectively bad. There isn’t a single character that’s legitimately likeable. When presented with the chance to protect their careers, their hearts, hell, their own personal safety, the characters always decide on the obviously wrong option, often while other characters point out to them how obviously wrong that option is. And don’t get me started on the hospital protocol and medical procedures; my working theory is that the consultant hired to oversee that aspect of production was just some guy who went to the E.R. for a headache one time and who is really good at remembering things he kind of overheard in the next cubicle.

But despite all this, despite the fact that the CPR performed would kill someone quicker than saving them, despite the fact that McDreamy gave off big, shiny red color guard flags embroidered with HE’S MARRIED in glittering thread all through that first season, despite the fact that season three should have opened with Izzy facing homicide charges, I am addicted to this show.

I don’t know how it happened. The best way I could explain it is to steal a quote from Community: “What? You fall into it.”

I’ve been thinking about that quote, issued by Annie when she joined Abed’s obsession with Cougar Town. Grey’s Anatomy is something I’ve fallen into, without logic or reason. It’s everything I dislike in stories, but I can’t stop watching. And that has truly helped me to understand the popularity of other objectively bad things. While I walked around for a long time thinking, “How could anyone like A Court of Thorns and Roses?” or “How could anyone possibly enjoy reading Fifty Shades of Grey?” I kind of get it, now.

Note, though, that I understand how people like those things. Not why. The why of the massive popularity of unforgivably awful things like Zodiac Academy or The Mister still eludes me, but honestly? So does my enjoyment of Grey’s Anatomy. I am routinely outraged by the events in the show. McDreamy, why did you take Meredith’s panties home? Why is Addison costumed and styled like a Disney villain on her day off throughout the first half of season two? Is there a reason that Izzy was not immediately arrested and charged with first degree murder after the events of season two? But I’m not hate watching. I’m obsessed. I’m fully immersed in the ridiculous drama of a hospital where a surgeon just moved in and made a hip little apartment with nobody noticing. I’m actively rooting for Meredith Grey, easily the worst, weakest, most indecisive main character on any television show in the history of the medium. And I’m so attracted to Derek Shepherd, a guy whose man-pain drives him to hateful behavior toward the woman he rejected.

I know how I can like this show: it clearly fulfills some need in my brain. It’s that simple. Something in me needs this, even though it’s bad. That need overrides my ability to be critical or accept criticism of the show, even while I’m being critical of and receiving other people’s criticisms of it. It’s the why that eludes me.

I understand how someone can like A Court of Thorns and Roses while they insist that they recognize that the writing is bad and the characters are insufferable. I understand how. Now, I can’t understand how they excuse the many problematic elements of it, or why they defend it and even try to elevate it as a shining example of diversity and high literature. I will never argue that Grey’s Anatomy is a flawless classic, a template for all other shows to follow in its wake. But at least now I have an understanding of what people mean when they say they “turn their brain off” to enjoy media. I understand how they get locked into something that they know in their heart is just bad.

It doesn’t bring me a lot of comfort to understand the how and not the why, but hey.

Comfort is what binge watching Grey’s Anatomy is for.

Prove that it’s gay enough.

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“I liked it,” a straight acquaintance said of Gideon The Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. “But everyone said it was Sapphic and it wasn’t Sapphic.”

I, in the middle of listening to the audiobook, wondered if we were talking about the same Gideon The Ninth. Admittedly, I’m not finished; I listen to audiobooks in forty-minute chunks while I drive to my physical therapy appointments. But so far, and from the very first chapter, it’s been clear to me that the title character is a lesbian.

“There aren’t any sex scenes, though,” that same reader argued. “So, how do you know?”

How do you not know? I thought, but quickly moved on from that particular point, begging off the conversation by saying, “I’ll get back to you, I don’t want spoilers.”

Because what I wanted to say was, why do you need an explicit sex scene as proof that a character isn’t straight?

And they wouldn’t have liked the answer I would have supplied for them, the only real answer to that question when straight people complain about a lack of sex scenes as a lack of overall queerness in fiction: because the heteronormative mind equates queerness with sex, divorced from a total state of being, a straight default with a slight deviation of genital smashy-smashiness.

I had a view, peeking out of the closet, at attitudes of the ’90s and the ’00s, wherein any non-straight representation in mainstream fiction was the cis gay male, always flirting at the gym but never burdening a hetero reader with icky gay sex details. The rise in popularity of M/M romance novels written by straight cis women brought sexuality into gay “representation,” in the most painfully heteronormative way possible. Most of those books read like traditional straight romance novels clobbered with the find/replace stick: find “pussy”/replace “ass”, find “breasts”/replace “pecs”, find “Erin”/replace “Aaron”.

The ’10s continued the trend of authors, who identified as straight in public, putting out heteronormative depictions of queerness. Readers criticized fiction that didn’t have queer representation while somehow maintaining that blatant homophobia wasn’t enough reason for criticism. During E.L. James’s disastrous Twitter Q&A, a prominent author and internet darling took me to task for submitting the question, “Are you as homophobic in real life as your books are?” The very suggestion that the author of a book in which a running joke was that the romantic hero was far too manly and sexy to be mistaken for gay could possibly harbor some toxic heteronormativity in her brain was an indication of professional jealousy and not a valid argument. The main qualification for evaluating queerness in fiction was straightness, as queer voices were intentionally and forcefully pushed from the conversation if they were saying anything but “yaaaaaaaas, queen!”

Some opportunists embraced this attitude, with great success. Romancelandia cycled through a seemingly endless parade of pet gays who remained in favor just as long as they agreed that straight cis women could write M/M stories as authentically as any gay man, and that lesbophobia in publishing was just a trivial sales issue. These men usually fell out of favor by failing to embody the stereotype of the romcom gay roommate, getting “too political,” or being uncovered as a catfishing straight woman.

Now, in the roaring ’20s, the field of mainstream LGBTQA+ rep in genre fiction has grown. Queer authors are telling stories about queer characters that don’t center around the physical act of sex as an entire identity. LGBTQA+ characters aren’t just straight people who do something different when the bedroom lights go out. They are allowed to feel queer, to be queer, to inhabit a mindset that is completely alien to what straight readers are used to seeing, and those straight readers are tagging it as bad or inauthentic because it doesn’t match up to the heteronormative framework they’re used to. How can you tell if a character is gay if they don’t tragically die in their lover’s arms? How do you know a protagonist is non-binary if he’s using male pronouns and not wearing dresses? When the representation isn’t written specifically to educate straight readers, if the normal, every day parts of gay or trans lives aren’t shaped into something that appeals to a straight reader’s understanding, is that representation?

And that representation we see from big name, straight mainstream authors, which often rely on the homosexuality-as-tragedy vibes lingering in straight minds from the height of the AIDS crisis, is endlessly praised for being bravely queer, while true representation is dismissed as not being queer enough. When Sarah J. Maas, a straight author, intentionally writes homophobia into her fantasy world in order to keep a lesbian side character wallowing in closeted torment, a chorus of straight readers sing praises for her groundbreaking representation. When Tamsyn Muir, a lesbian author, writes a lesbian main character who hoards tittie magazines and gets a gooey crush on the equivalent of a wilting Victorian doll, those same straight readers criticize the representation because… there’s not enough scissoring to make it obvious, I guess?

In the same conversation with my aforementioned straight acquaintance, she mentioned another book we’d both recently read and mutually enjoyed: the very straight The Serpent and the Wings of Night. Acquaintance asked what I thought about the lack of LGBTQA+ representation in the book. I pretended not to understand. “The only straight people were Oraya and Raihn,” I argued. “Everybody else was queer.” When Acquaintance had no idea what I was talking about, I explained, “I never saw any of them having straight sex.” Which I hope drove the point home with this person.

The lack of LGBTQA+ representation in The Serpent and the Wings of Night or the heteronormativity of Ice Planet Barbarians don’t cause harm. Those are simply written with a straight audience in mind, regardless of what the authors’ sexuality might be. What I find more harmful are the attempts at representation made by authors who very clearly are not at ease writing queer characters or scenes of queer sensuality. Sweeping romances with highly explicit sex scenes between straight characters that suddenly become closed-door, fade-to-black only when it’s time for the icky gay sex to start are far more insulting and damaging than sweeping romances with highly explicit sex scenes between straight characters that have no LGBTQA+ characters or romances in them at all. If a straight author is uncomfortable writing outside of their straight experience, what, exactly, is compelling them to write the queer experience? Certainly not queer readers.

We often see authors bemoaning the fact that they have to write diverse casts of characters in order to avoid social media mobs or to remain competitive in the market, but I don’t see that being the case, at all. If a straight author can’t write an LGBTQA+ character without relying on outdated stereotypes or depictions of queer pain and death, how on Earth is that book meant to be competitive or exempt from criticism?

Very rarely do I see queer people clamoring for straight authors to write more queerly, or bemoaning the straightness of books written for straight audiences. That seems to be the exclusive purview of straight allies. Queer readers will seek out queer books from queer writers who are writing them authentically. They’re not absolutely salivating to read the latest heteronormative romantasy with a few queer characters tossed into die or live tragically chaste lives. Instead of calling for straight authors to write more queer characters, allies need to boost the profiles of queer writers.

And that starts with understanding that LGBTQA+ people are not solely defined by scenes of explicit fucking.