Passionate Reading Update

Reading Outside the Lines

A number of posts in the past couple of days have made me want to read more adventurously:

  • Sandy at All About Romance asks “Are You an Adventurous Reader?” Like a lot of commenters, digital reading and audiobooks have widened my horizons.
  • Jessica wrote a great post applying the idea of hard and soft limits to reading fiction; now I’m thinking about where my limits are and how I can push them (does that make me the sub and books my Dom?).
  • January reviewed a book outside Dear Author‘s soft limits; both she and Jane liked it despite disturbing elements, and I wondered if I could enjoy something so far outside my own comfort zone.

Like a lot of readers I know, Jane and January are trying more self-published books in a search for something new and different. I’d like to, but I’ve barely ventured (only to authors whose traditionally published work I’ve already liked). Part of it is that competent grammar and editing are “musts” for me. 

But I like the idea of discovering a book all by myself, without anyone’s recommendation, and having it surprise me. I’m just not sure where to start in finding them. I’ve felt a bit “flat” about my reading lately, and I think stretching myself would help. But I’m a coward, too. I have trouble with books that harrow or shock me.

In the beginning, romance reading was limit-pushing for me. First I regarded it as trash, read now and then in secret (even as I sought out literary fiction with a courtship plot and happy ending). Then historicals were OK, but I would never read those cheesy contemporary romances. OK, OK, but nothing with vampires. You get the picture. I’ve pushed a lot of limits. But now I mostly read romances in my comfort zone, and it’s time to redraw the lines again.

Passionate Reading Update

I got so many great comments, here and elsewhere, on my passionate reading post. Part of what I was asking for there, it occurs to me now, were books out of my comfort zone. I decided to start with suggestions already in my TBR, which I am trying to whittle down. That sounds like cheating. I’ve already bought these books, so how are they outside my usual limits? But I haven’t read them yet, so something in me is resisting (my twisted relationship with my TBR pile/files is way tl;dr, and I don’t fully understand it myself). So these are the books I’m moving up the pile, in no particular order:

Laura Kinsale, The Shadow and the Star (SonomaLass and Janine)

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series–I’ve got several on audio, and have read Cordelia’s Honor (Victoria and Merrian)

Marie Sexton, Promises and K. A. Mitchell, No Souvenirs (Kaetrin)

Martha Wells, The Cloud Roads (Victoria)

And, totally cheating because not already in my TBR, but I’ve been wanting to read these for years and realized they are now e-available, Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles (Rohan)

I’ll keep other suggestions in mind! Thanks so much, everyone, for your wonderful comments on that post.

Let’s Talk About Sex

Today’s Globe and Mail seemed a bit conflicted about Valentine’s Day. On the one hand, the Style section featured pricey red gifts, fuchsia nail polishes, and chocolate dessert recipes for the holiday. On the other, there was Margaret Wente’s column proclaiming romantic love overrated and arguing that women in their 30s need to give up fantasies about The One and settle for . . . well, I’m not sure what she was arguing. For the record, I can’t stand Wente and any opinion of hers on post-secondary education is guaranteed to make me Hulk Smash Angry. While I’d agree that the fantasy of One True Love can be a problem, I didn’t like the way Wente wrote as if her own experience would apply to everyone. I’m here to tell you, Ms. Wente, that if you’re lucky, a lightning bolt at 21 can lead to lasting love. There are many ways to get there.

Then there was the Books page. The cover teased: “What gets Scott Turow hot under the collar–plus other blush-worthy erotica.” Inside, giant letters scream “Hot Type” and I’m promised writers (and Globe readers) will “weigh in on their favourite sexy and sensual works of art” and “steamy favourites.” You know where this is going, right? Read for yourself

A lot of the books mentioned did not sound in the least bit erotic. I noticed on-line that some readers suggested romance novels (Meredith Duran, for instance), but none of those made the cut in the print paper, though some actual erotica did. Look, I’m as annoyed when genre readers bash literary fiction as I am when the reverse happens (we’re not totally separate groups, for one thing). And people can find all sorts of books erotic, so I’m not saying these writers were lying.

But I do regret that literary fiction is so often less able to be frank about sex than romance fiction is, and that when asked about “steamy reads” so many writers seemed to bend over backwards to find non-erotic books about sex. How about Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who chose Lolita? Not, thankfully, because he found it sexy, but because “it is the first book I know of to show the terrible consequence of child sexual abuse.” That is what you come up with when asked for a sexy read? WTF?

Are people so afraid to talk about what turns them on? Do these writers never read something just because it will turn them on? Or, as a wise reader-friend said, “to see what will turn me on”? Or will they just not admit to it in a national newspaper?

For ages, I’ve been pondering a post about the sexy side of romance reading, but I’m not sure exactly what I want to say, or how to say it without going on way too long with way too much information. I’m not comfortable talking about these things. I’m still working on it. But for now, I’ll say this: I’m uncomfortable when readers say things like “hubs was glad I read book X” or “this book saved my sex life.” That’s TMI for uptight WASPy me.

But. Sometimes what I’m reading turns me on. Sometimes I choose a book on purpose to get turned on. Reading romance has helped me feel more comfortable acknowledging my own desires, to myself and my partner (apparently I still needed help with that at my advanced age). Because it’s helped me see them as normal, not shameful. You don’t even have to read the books. Skim a few erotica blurbs at All Romance E-Books, and you realize that your sexual imaginings are definitely no stranger than other people’s.

So for that, Happy Valentine’s Day to romance fiction, and to the many, many writers who are unafraid to depict sex frankly in their books and to create characters who are unashamed of their sexuality, and Happy Valentine’s Day to readers who are unafraid to discuss books that give them all kinds of pleasure.

Feel free to share your own steamy favorites, literary or otherwise, in the comments. If you dare.

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18 Responses to Passionate Reading Update

  1. willaful says:

    “now I’m thinking about where my limits are and how I can push them (does that make me the sub and books my Dom?).”
    I’d say the reverse. ;-)

    • lizmc2 says:

      I’m not sure I know enough about BDSM to really figure out how the analogy should work. There is a way in which readers have to submit to going where the book wants to take us, though. Or at least we can. I am sometimes a resistant reader.

  2. willaful says:

    Hottest book I’ve read recently: Str8te Boys by Evangeline Anderson. Wonderful tension, which seems to be what works for me.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Is that a “gay for you” book, as the title might suggest? If so, I’m thinking that the yearning/sexual tension is a big part of why that trope is so popular in m/m romance. I agree with you that (in fiction at least) tension is often far hotter and more interesting than consummation. I wish some romances were less quick to get to the sex these days, because a lot of writers have trouble maintaining tension once that happens.

      I wonder, too, if that is part of the appeal of BDSM Merrian mentions: it maintains a feeling of tension and uncertainty during sex (what will happen next and how will the partners react?). I’m not sure; I haven’t read much BDSM erotica, because I’m not fond of the Super Sekrit Sex Klub thing that seems to be an element of so much of it. But what I have liked has that element.

      • willaful says:

        I believe it is considered one, though not quite in the way I initially encountered the term — the characters do identify as gay by the end of the book.

  3. sonomalass says:

    I need to read something from my TBR recommended by someone else for the TBR Challenge this month. I reason, as you did, that if it’s in my TBR but I haven’t read it, it is probably something that pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone.

    I’ll be curious to hear what you think of the ones you’ve chosen!

  4. Merrian says:

    “Reading romance has helped me feel more comfortable acknowledging my own desires, to myself ” applies to me as well. I would be interested on you posting about the sexy element of romance reading Liz, because I am conscious of this outcome for me.

    I think romance intentionally or not, is always about the whole person – that is the person who is embodied (without getting into fat/thin, poor representation of disabilities) and has multiple roles to play in our lives. I think of the romance genre as telling stories about how we seek agency in the gaps and opportunities of these realms of being and through them as well. I also think one of the many reasons why the genre is so disparaged is becuase it denies the mind/body split of enlightenment thinking that is valorised in the public sphere.

    I have wondered for example if the rise in BDSM sex in romance stories is not just pushing the edge in stories for the sake of it but also because BDSM involves talking about sex and acknowledging ones own desires with words.

    • lizmc2 says:

      You’ve touched on so many things I’ve been thinking about with this comment, and given me new ideas, too. I agree about the embodiment. There’s a lot to explore there in terms of the status of genre romance. It’s something I really appreciate about romance.

      Your point about BDSM in romance/erotic romance is a good one. I am always hesitant to mention it as an example,what with one thing and another, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussions of the popularity of 50 Shades. The point a lot of people made, that its fan fiction origin helped give it a boost, because it came on the published scene with fans who talked it up, is probably a fair one. But all the suburban moms who are apparently sharing it with friends and reading it in their book clubs are probably not part of the Twilight fandom. I really dislike the tone of some of the press about this (like the Huffington Post “Porn for Mommies” story) but the comments from women about how it has made them more open in their sex lives/marriages, I believe. And it would make sense that the explicit contract/discussion of boundaries is part of what’s inspiring and empowering about that.

      I also might connect BDSM in fiction to the “exaggeration” that’s part of a lot of romance. I think sex always has an element of power play in it (maybe always is too big a claim?). We are surrendering ourselves to something, and another’s desire for us gives us power of a kind. BDSM plays that out in a bigger, more explicit way. So even people who don’t engage in that kind of sex can identify with elements of it, I think. And honestly, I think most people have tried at least a little BDSM. That’s the impression I get from the media, at least. So the extreme versions are boundary-stretching for some readers, but the idea of tying your hands with a scarf,say, is hardly shocking.

    • willaful says:

      “I have wondered for example if the rise in BDSM sex in romance stories is not just pushing the edge in stories for the sake of it but also because BDSM involves talking about sex and acknowledging ones own desires with words.”

      That’s certainly what draws me to erotica. Descriptions of people having sex are dull. Descriptions of how people feel about the sex they’re having are interesting.

  5. Janet W says:

    I feel as if I’ve been around the world and back again when it comes to stretching my reading boundaries. If I can only remember not to reader shame — not back on myself or out to others. Because the craziest, most whack-job books can strike a chord within us. I hope I never reach a point when I feel as if I’ve read it all — but with all my friends making recommendations, that seems very unlikely.

    Trying to get some distance from Fifty Shades of Grey because I’m not a fanfic fan (Twilight still a closed door to me, sorry, just not interested) and I’m a bit beyond the yummy mummy group that were the early adopters … I think other than the elevator pitch of “love story w/kink” explanation, what hooked me was the story of two people negotiating a life together. That interests me. And more and more, I want the story of a couple past the initial HEA. Does that mean I don’t need an HEA, no, probably not, but couples continuing to grow and evolve interest me … for now :)

  6. I tried to leave a long comment here earlier – but my computer crashed leaving me gnashing my teeth – so I’ll go for the abbreviated version.

    This post really spoke to me. Firstly, your comments about your evolving approach to reading romance – that really chimed with me. Realising that I’d been searching for romance in literary fiction was quite a big revelation for me.

    This links to something I’ve pondered a lot recently (and might cause me to finally get round to blogging about it): that satisfaction in romance reading requires a degree of sincerity. And actually, that sincerity is kind of at odds with the general (wise-cracking, cynical) flavour of modern culture. It was when I finally accepted that I sincerely loved reading romance, that I began to take it seriously i.e. not regard it as trash (and indeed, it was that revelation that ultimately led to me beginning to write, something I’d always wanted to do). This relates to your comments about sex in romance too actually. I think the reason sex in romance novels is different is because, for all the talk of purple prose etc., at its best it’s sincere and – well, naked is the only word I can think of.

    • Merrian says:

      Your thoughts ring very true for me.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Now I’m regretting missing that longer comment! I think you are further down the road to sincerity than I am. I worry that I often hold something back when I read romance. I love this point, and agree that it is something that often puts romance fiction out of step with culture. It is very very hard for a lot of people to talk sincerely about sex–or love for that matter. So much of what we see about it in culture is leering/demeaning, or mocking/joking, or euphemistic/purple, or in other ways uncomfortable. I’m glad more and more romance seems to be able to move past the purple and into the sincere and naked.

  7. Please, please, please DO post about the Lymond books as you read them. They are so much fun when it comes to group discussion.

  8. Some thread necro while I’m being an insomniac tonight.

    When I think about a book that’s sexy, one that I read and really got a thrill out of, it’s usually because the book has managed to intertwine the sex and the character development so that seeing the characters get it on is to see them grow as people. For example, Cara McKenna/Meg Maguire writes my favorite sex scenes. In Ruin Me, she tied up so much of the heroine’s development with her desire for another character that seeing that attraction finally consummated was like seeing the Bruins score an overtime goal. It tied all of the earlier awesome encounters together for her. She had the best sex of her life when she finally took charge of her desires. I get turned on, for lack of a better term, by the vicarious thrill of fulfillment. She’s finally deliriously happy, so I am too. Go team!

    It doesn’t need to be my kink, and in fact it usually isn’t. The key to good sexy writing is to show me a couple using sex to find something about themselves or to show me how their sexual fulfillment makes them happier people. Being comfortable, happy and complete while naked with someone else is what it’s all about. You show me that, and my joy for the characters bleeds into my own life.

    Make sense? It *is* 1:40am…

    • lizmc2 says:

      I totally agree with this, and it’s only 10:45 here. I agree with the general principle and that this was my experience of the one Cara McKenna book I have read so far.

      I have been thinking about this a lot lately–sex writing in romance and erotica, what’s there and what’s not. I think of the erotica writing I enjoy as “romantic erotica” because it involves an emotional arc, if not always a love story. Without that, it is “porn” to *me*, mechanical and not very appealing.

      • “Without that, it is “porn” to *me*, mechanical and not very appealing.”

        And this is why James Deen is so appealing. Regular, vanilla porn bores me because it may as well be acted out by robots. Neither party looks like they’re having any fun. Throw him and the cheeky smile he gives the women into a porno and I’m suddenly charmed down to my toes. He’ll be thoroughly debauching an actress in all the standard porny ways but it’s all I can do to not melt into a pool of D’aawwwwwwwwwwwwwww! A silly, sly smile for the woman and her answering grin, and I’m emotionally invested, even though there’s little or no plot.

        Good sex, I think, involves being naked – literally and figuratively. It involves earnestness and honesty. Seeing people comfortably nekkid together, saying or doing things they’d never admit to others and having fun doing it imparts an infectious joy.

    • willaful says:

      This expresses it so well. She is my favorite erotica author also, even when the type of sex being written about doesn’t particularly arouse me — it still fascinates me. From my review of Curio: “Story is always the most important part of a book to me — it’s just that in interesting erotica, the story is about how people feel about sex.”

      I have RM in my TBR and must get to it soon.

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