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Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

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With the RT awards handed out and the RITA awards coming up, I’m struck by the omission of romances that don’t hew to the one man-one woman formula. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed, let alone felt annoyed. While I’ve read erotic and BDSM novels for at least a couple of decades, I didn’t read gay romance at all. Then ebook publishing took off, I started reading Joan/SarahF’s reviews here at Dear Author, I noticed discussions about them more and more across blogland, and I thought maybe I was missing something good. My awareness of m/m coincided with my increasing difficulty in finding enough books and authors in my usual genre (historical romance) to keep me occupied, so I decided to try one and see what I thought. That was dozens of books ago, and it’s the best impulse decision I’ve had in a while. Sure,  there’s bad writing in m/m, as there is in every other romance subgenre. But there are also many excellent authors and excellent books, and they took me right out of my reading doldrums.

When we have conversations about expanding our reading horizons, the message can sometimes be that readers should be reading other genres, as if our reading tastes are supposed to reflect and communicate our ideological positions and our hopes for the world. I want to suggest a different rationale for pushing the boundaries of one’s reading, a rationale that is completely selfish: the longer you read, the more likely you will be to run out of books in genres you’re used to, so reading outside your comfort zone will help you find more books and authors that you enjoy. Sure, thousands of romance books are published every year. But unless you’re Harriet Klausner, you don’t want to read them all. Most of us are considerably more selective than Ms. Klausner, whether we read 5 or 50 or 100 books a month. And eventually, either you will be down to a few autobuys in your genres, or you will find that your previously reliable genre has morphed into something else (just take a look at the changes in the books that have won the RWA award for Best Regency over the years).

When you get to that point, if you’re like me, you start thinking about ways to expand your reading list. As a result, I am now reading some lines which I ignored a few years ago.

(1) Gay (m/m) romance. I started by reading books that Joan/SarahF and others had reviewed here at DA, and which seemed in line with my plot/characterization preferences. Free ebooks from Samhain, Amazon and the like helped me find new-to-me books and authors without making a financial commitment. After that, I started looking for review sites that focused on m/m and found comprehensive lists of recommended books. Once I had read a few good books and a few duds, I started figuring out what I enjoyed reading. It turns out that I don’t care whether there’s a lot or a little sex, as long as the sex is integral to the storyline and/or characterization (the same preferences I have in m/f romance). I find that I like stories which remind me that there are differences in the way men approach romance and relationships, so I avoid books where the men talk about their feelings a lot or generally sound like romance heroines. And in addition to discovering a lot of very good contemporary romance stories within the m/m genre, gay romance features one of my favorite combinations: mystery-meets-romance. I’ve read cozyish mysteries, police procedurals, gritty serial killer mysteries, historical mysteries, you name it.

(2) Harlequin’s Kimani imprint. Like many non-African-American romance readers, I hadn’t read many AA books, even though I read AA lit fic, mysteries, and mainstream fiction. No good reason motivated this behavior, they were just not in my default comfort zone. Discussions online in the early 2000s made me aware of how exclusionary I was being, and how indefensible it was (in the sense that I had no reason for it, good or bad, except laziness), and I also realized I was probably missing out on some very good novels. So I read a couple of contemporaries by Monica Jackson and then a historical by Beverly Jenkins and I liked all three, but I didn’t love them, and it takes work to find AA romance books in a lot of bookstores, so I lapsed again. Then came the Rise Of the Ebook and Harlequin’s one-stop-shopping website. I picked up a couple of Kimanis that looked interesting and found that while they weren’t perfect, they had aspects I liked and which were missing from a lot of mainstream romances. For one, there were a lot of normal heroes and heroines, which was a nice break from Dukes and Billionaires. Second, the hero and heroine usually had families and friends who provided a support system for the central couple. Given how many novels isolate either or both, and then hit the reader over the head with The Relationship Is What They Need Above All message, the presence of a realistic community made a refreshing change. I’m still figuring out which Kimani storylines, characters, and authors work best for me, but I’m enjoying the journey.

(3) Harlequin Presents (and HP Extra). Yes, I know this is the biggest selling romance line on the planet. That doesn’t mean I used to read it. When I started reading categories many years ago, I gravitated to Nice Stories About Nice Girls. I avoided alphahole heroes. My prejudices against HP were implicitly upheld in the early 2000s by the lack of reviews at the online sites I visited most, but then new sites like DA began to review them regularly and Harlequin became a big online presence. I starting reading the Medical line again and discovered that authors there also wrote for the Presents and M&B Modern Heat lines, and I suddenly had more HPs I wanted to read than time to read them. Somewhat surprising to me, I also discovered that my tastes had changed over the last couple of decades. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I have become more interested in how authors worked within and pushed the boundaries of the category format, and authors whom I’d avoided in the past became must-reads. I’ve developed a new appreciation of old-skool HPs and the authors who wrote them, and I have a a number of current HP authors on my autobuy list now. There’s quite a range within the HP imprint (especially when you add in the Extra books), and while there may not be something for everyone, it’s not the case that if you’ve read one Sheikh or Billionaire book, you’ve read them all.

In each of these cases, reading a book in a new subgenre required me to take a leap of faith and to think about the implicit and explicit prejudices about subgenres that were shaping my choices. I don’t think that not reading m/m means you’re anti-gay any more than not reading YA means you’re anti-teenager. If a subgenre really isn’t for you and you know it, then that’s one thing. But if you’re not reading it because you read one or two bad books or because years ago you didn’t like it, you might want to try again. It’s much easier to find new books today than it used to be. In addition to review sites, there are discussion boards like those at Amazon and Goodreads, and the contributors there are knowledgeable and happy to help you find something you’ll like. I found perusing the old threads really helpful as well. Many authors have excerpts at their websites, which will give you a sense of their writing styles. Amazon and Smashwords encourage you to download samples. You have nothing to lose but a little time, which you’re not spending reading anyway. And when you find an author, or better yet a whole group of authors, you get to experience that fabulous sense of discovery that comes when you realize you’ve found something new, you love it, and you’ll be able to read it for the foreseeable future.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

40 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    May 17, 2011 @ 07:56:30

    oh yes, very much so, especially the Harlequin trope. My interest is the same – how much an author can push the envelope, and with the newest books from the Mills and Boon Modern (will be Harlequin Presents) line, they are pushing mightily. I’ve read an Indian heroine (not in the “ethnic” lines, but in the main Modern category), a disabled heroine and a book about a couple still deeply in love but who can’t live together, and the book is about them learning each other.
    But the best Modern I’ve read this year has a traditional plot. Caitlin Crews’ new one for the “Bad Blood” series, “The Shameless Playboy.” It’s the good girl tames wild man thing. But she makes it special by delving into the characters of the people involved, and showing them falling for each other. Amazingly good book. And yes, I’m so pimping this one.
    I do think that if an author can write a good category romance, given the strictures of the line, then she can write anything.

  2. RachelT
    May 17, 2011 @ 08:17:30

    I also have taken some decisions to extend my range – to some extent to find out what everybody is talking about. I always avoided anything remotely paranormal or sci fi, but all the talk about JR Ward got me into her Black Dagger Books which I loved and have led me to a few other vampire books including the True Blood series. Talk about Nalini Singh and later Patricia Briggs/Mercy Thompson took me down the shape shifter route. While I still don’t read hundreds of these books, I do look out for the new releases which are a change from my usual fare.

  3. Keishon
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:08:05

    My motto has always been that if it’s good, I’ll read it. However there are a couple of things that I simply won’t read ever.

  4. Writing romance is harder than it looks | VacuousMinx
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:21:38

    […] way behind on my Dear Author reviews, but in the meantime we’ve posted one of my essays there today. It discusses why veteran romance readers should look outside their normal reading […]

  5. Joy
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:30:19

    I really only started reading a lot of contemporaries and category romances in the last year–before, I predominantly read historicals or women’s fiction (like Barbara Delinsky) although there were 1-2 contemporary writers I liked (like SEP and Nora Roberts). There’s a lot of really good stuff I’d been missing. I haven’t moved into m/m yet, but this sort of things comes in spurts, so to speak, for me.

  6. dick
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:35:34

    I’m simply not interested in some sub-genres included in the class romance fiction, so I’ll probably not, stick-in-the-muddish as it is, branch out much. As for the categories, I actually began reading romance fiction by sifting through my wife’s Harlequin stash, which was pretty extensive, after reading Sandra Brown’s “Unspeakable,” which I had bought thinking it a mystery which it was. I was a little flummoxed when my wife told me she was a romance author.
    As for the categories, I’ve encountered some really good writing in them, especially the Intimate Moments and Intrigues. As Ms. Connolly suggests, they make demands on writers, and if those writers can meet those demands, they have to have skill. In fact, some of the first-list writers, IMHO, ought to have stuck with them; their single-title efforts are simply not as good.

  7. Lisa J
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:35:56

    One of my favorite authors, Dana Marie Bell, has two new books coming that are both M/M. I don’t normally read M/M, but I will read them if she writes them. Maybe it will change my thoughts on the genre.

  8. It's Me
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:41:14

    Good Reads has helped me a ton when it comes to branching out and finding/reading new genres. For me, once I branched out, it’s easier to do on a regular basis.

    I love being introduced to new authors and genres.

  9. Sirius
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:48:27

    Gay romance (and gay romantic mysteries and historicals, and fantasy, you name it) made me a romance reader again. I run away from het romance quite a few years ago and did not feel compelled to ever come back, but now at least when I read reviews here, once a month or so I pick up het romance and usually am happy with it too :) As to being surprised with the omission of romances that do not include that formula, I am not at all. I remember once trying to explain on Amazon forums that the fact that the book pictures two men as romantic leads does not, does not automatically make the book an erotica (not that there is anything wrong with erotica of course, I certainly read it when I am in the mood). My point is that I think (no proof at all, just speculation of course) that a lot of het romance readers operates under the same misunderstanding and would not even think of gay romances as romance, just as erotica. I mean “Whistling in the Dark” by Tamara Allen (I always name this one, because I love it so much, but I can name so many) contains one or two kisses between the guys and no sex scenes at all. Erotica? Not in my book.

    Of course there are plenty of steamy gay romances books out there, some with good storyline, some not, but as I said, I just think that this generalization of thinking about all gay romances as erotica only is out there.

  10. SH
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:52:45

    Cherise Sinclair and Kitty Thomas have got me reading things I never thought I would read. Unfortunately there’s no other BDSM I can find that I even kind of enjoy. When an author can get into the minds of characters in those stories it’s unbelievably good. But most just copy a few paragraphs from the BDSM article on Wikipedia, and then ask us for money to read it.

    I’ve definitely expanded my horizons. While I still find most Harlequin Presents books to be awful, there have been some fantastic books there.

    My brother is gay and I am close to many other gay people, but I do not and never will be attracted to M/M or F/F romance. It does nothing for me, and frankly I’m sick of it appearing in almost all erotica these days.

    I’ve definitely tried a lot of new subgenres, but I guess my problem is (as with BDSM and HP), that there’re some brilliant authors of the subgenres, but still mostly it’s stereotypical, unengaging and poorly-written.

  11. Maude
    May 17, 2011 @ 09:55:05

    If I am reading romance for my comfort reading, why would I want to choose something out of my comfort zone? You seem to be suggesting that this is some sort of failing on the part of readers like me.

  12. Sunita
    May 17, 2011 @ 10:05:24

    @Maude: I definitely do not think of the decision not to read specific genres as a failing on a reader’s part. That’s why I specifically said

    I want to suggest a different rationale for pushing the boundaries of one’s reading, a rationale that is completely selfish: the longer you read, the more likely you will be to run out of books in genres you’re used to, so reading outside your comfort zone will help you find more books and authors that you enjoy.

    as well as

    I don’t think that not reading m/m means you’re anti-gay any more than not reading YA means you’re anti-teenager. If a subgenre really isn’t for you and you know it, then that’s one thing.

    For me,”comfort zone” has two possible meanings: (1) reading within a certain range and never going outside it because of lack of information; and (2) reading only things which you enjoy and make you feel good. When you don’t have enough of (2), (1) can help you find more that qualifies. I found that (1) failed to include individual books and whole subgenres that it turns out I did enjoy.

  13. Sunita
    May 17, 2011 @ 10:22:59

    @Sirius: I share your frustration, to the point I’ve drafted a post about it for DA, and I look forward to your comments when it’s done and posted.

    @SH: There is dreck in every subgenre, and the harder it is to sort through, the more the reader is likely to avoid that subgenre entirely. That’s why I’m so happy there are more review sites, goodreads, and twitter to help me dig through and find the kind of book I want to read.

  14. Tina
    May 17, 2011 @ 10:24:22

    I am a pretty open genre reader. I read romance, Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, etc. But yeah I do have some places I tend not to go and places I normally would not go and have opened myself to more.

    The Gold Kryptonite class (otherwise known as ‘just won’t go there’):
    YA – I don’t like YA on the whole. I wen there once (Hunger Games) but overall I am simply not interested in teenager angst.

    Harlequin Presents. I used to subscribe to just about every line in Harl and Sil at one point or another back during my teens/twenties. But HP has morphed into a line I simply can’t get behind. I tend to like my books to feature regular people. The whole pregnant virgin and billionaire sheik just doesn’t resonate with me. And honestly, I just can’t respect the titles.

    I do still like to read Superromances and some of the Blaze titles but these days it is mostly author driven. Sarah Mayberry and Karina Bliss are big draws for me.

    F/F romances Weird but the L Word on showtime was appointment tv for me. So I have no problem watching lesbian romances. But reading them. Crickets. Just does absolutely nothing for me. I pass right over them. Not even interested in reading a review.

    In the category of Red Kryptonite (I’ll stick my toe in an may get unpredictable results):

    Chick Lit. I confess I hate Sex and the City. So whenever I read any chick lit it always felt like they were trying to do SATC redux. vomit. But I learned I like British Chick Lit. Hester Browne’s Little Lady Agency is cute. Also Dorothy Koomson does a one-two combo chick lit and Interracial romance. Actually I love to read IR romances it was just the chick lit part.

    I also actually just discovered Jill Mansell and am reading her.

    M/M romances. This is a case where it 100% depends on the writer. Stuff that I can gloss over in het romances I get super nitpicky about in M/M romances. This is especially true of M/M erotica. Purple prose take on a whole new hue when you use words like ‘meat pole’. But Emma Holly writes great M/M stuff. I am also liking Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English mystery series. Also some mainstream novels have some nice B-plots that involve M/M romances.

    Literary Fiction Important books by important people. All things considered I’d rather read a so-called “Trashy” romance. But once in awhile I come across a lovely book. Kiss of the Spider woman, Beloved etc. But I don’t seek these out. Usually my husband forces one on me. LOL.

  15. Sue T
    May 17, 2011 @ 10:31:32

    Na, not going to read out of my comfort zone. I’m not reading to explore deep seated issues or to solve the world’s problems and/or perceptions. I’m not going to read m/m, m/m/f, f/f or any of those alphabet mix ups beyond the pure m/f relationship despite my frustration with romance being so similar these days. When that happens, I turn to science fiction/fantasy, young adult and other popular fiction. That’s how I keep reading. But within romance, I want my comfort food – m/f, beautiful, kick-ass heroine and hunky male. And I’m sad to see so many authors moving toward alphabet soup.

  16. Sunita
    May 17, 2011 @ 10:57:45

    @Tina: Awesome. I wish I’d thought of Kryptonite classes!

  17. Sirius
    May 17, 2011 @ 11:04:05

    Sunita, I look forward towards reading your post.

  18. Kate Pearce
    May 17, 2011 @ 11:26:16

    I deliberately read outside my comfort zone because I really don’t like being hemmed in by romance conventions and I like to introduce different elements into my erotic romances and my more mainstream ones.
    I read and crit inspirational romances because that it the opposite of what I write, and I’m fascinated by how an author can introduce all the necessary romantic elements without the sex. I also love to read literary fiction because the language can be so beautiful. Basically I’ll try anything once. :)
    The only thing I don’t read is YA because with 4 kids in the house, I have enough teenage angst around me to last a lifetime. :)

  19. Janine
    May 17, 2011 @ 12:18:08

    I would love to read more out of my usual reading range but between all the genres I read regularly, I find it hard to keep up with the books I most want to read.

  20. Ridley
    May 17, 2011 @ 12:22:16

    Personally, I’m pretty iffy on m/m romance. I can’t quite get comfortable with the fact that it’s het women writing about gay men for a female audience. It feels icky and exploitative.

    That said, I do read some when it’s reviewed well. Goodreads is actually a *terrible* source for m/m, I’ve found, since its readers have loyalty poisoning and won’t rate anything less than four stars. The grade inflation there is just embarrassing. However, if Sarah F loves it here or some of my friends from social media land rec it to me, I’ll grab it. I read and adored Brooke McKinley’s Shades of Gray and my mother and I are on a buddy read of Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series. There are some gems, but good christ the dreck is just frightening.

    There are some sub-genres I’ll never, ever touch. Christian romance is a big no-no. When Tell Harlequin sent a Love Inspired title out as their holiday gift, the company fell a few notches in my estimation. Religious proselytizing is an extremely inappropriate gift when the religious backgrounds of the recipients are unknown. We’re not all Christian, and are perfectly happy with our own belief (or non-belief) systems, thank you.

    As a rule, I don’t like romantic suspense. Everything I’ve read seems to feel incomplete to me. Either the romance or the suspense or both feels undeveloped. I just haven’t found that a whole suspense arc and whole romantic relationship arc can fit effectively into a 90k word novel. I’m a much bigger fan of mystery/suspense series with recurring characters where the relationship-building spans multiple books. They feel better balanced to me.

    As for RWA and the Rita, I can’t think of a less relevant book award out there. They’re completely out of sync with reader favorites, for one, and inexplicably ignore extremely popular categories like m/m, erotic romance and AA romance while highlighting the niche Christian market. It feels like an agenda is afoot there, and I don’t care for it.

  21. Isabel C.
    May 17, 2011 @ 12:22:39

    I’ve found that I’m willing to read outside my genre comfort zone–mostly–but not outside my trope comfort zone. I tend to go for historical fiction, historical or paranormal romance, and fantasy–adult or YA–but if someone I trust recommends science fiction, mystery, or mainstream lit, I’m glad to give it a try.

    What I *won’t* do is read books with certain elements: no downer endings, no rape, no excessive bleakness or whiny protagonists, no virgin/whore binaries, no excessively naive heroines.

    M/M and F/F…I have no problem with them. But part of why I read romance *is* the sex, and neither form of same-sex sex does a lot for me, so I’m as likely to skip books focusing on that. M/F/M and F/M/F, on the other hand, I’m good with. Mostly: another thing that I won’t read is jealousy issues.

  22. Lynn S.
    May 17, 2011 @ 12:48:00

    I don’t have a reading comfort zone although I will admit to a preference for romance in general; a love of traditional regencies in particular; difficulties with fantasy/science fiction; and an avoidance of anything Patterson. Although people have different reasons for reading, it does seems a shame to miss out on a wonderful, enriching book simply because it isn’t what you normally read.

    @SH: Regarding BDSM fiction, have you tried Joey W. Hill? She would be my first recommendation to any reader interested in exploring the subgenre.

  23. Charlotte
    May 17, 2011 @ 12:57:22

    I read almost all sub-genres of romance, and enjoy them too.
    But there is one subgenre I simply won’t read and that is inspirational romances. Two things make a book a wallbanger for me: a) headhopping (which can occur everywhere and ambush you unexpectedly) and b) when I get a sense of the author. When I read I am of course in a relationship with the storyteller, but sometimes the author as an individual and not merely the storyteller peaks out and I absolutely hate it!
    An example: reading Terry Goodkind. He put his hero through a lot of pain and I suddenly got the feeling that the author enjoyed the pain. That i suddenly was involved in a man writing his own fetish… Yuk! The author had appeared in my head and that was it for me.
    And that is why I will never read inspirational romances. The author is right there preaching to me, because the religion comes before the characters. I have no problem with religious characters at all if that grows from the character. But if the character grows from religion, I’m out.

    I absolutely heart m/m romance -when it’s done well (like Urban/Roux). Some of it is not that great, though. Painfully ‘not great’ sometimes :)
    And I tend to stay away from menage as well, because I simply cannot believe in a HEA. I just don’t have enough faith in mankind to believe that it won’t end in jealousy and misery. Entirely my failing. Also, it tends to be heavy on the sexing and I get bored with that fairly easily. I have to be really invested in the characters to enjoy the sex scenes, which is also why I stay away from all but the highest recommended erotica.

    But I will try anything once. I will find the highest recommended book in the genre and give it a try to see if I like it. That’s how I ended up reading (and loving) m/m. And I did precisely because I wanted more really good books. Staying in a limited number of genres forces you to read so-so books.
    The more genres, the more great books with great characters.

  24. dm
    May 17, 2011 @ 13:07:21

    @SH

    Unfortunately there’s no other BDSM I can find that I even kind of enjoy. When an author can get into the minds of characters in those stories it’s unbelievably good. But most just copy a few paragraphs from the BDSM article on Wikipedia, and then ask us for money to read it.

    I share your frustration. I’m always searching for BDSM reads with real characters and genuine emotion, not just a stroll through someone’s safe, sane, consensual role play. I have heard good things about Cara McKenna, though, and plan to try her, and can heartily recommend Darah Lace’s Saddle Broke. And there are some Black Lace titles from Kristina Lloyd you can now get electronically, including Darker than Love and Asking for Trouble. Black Lace probably put out as much dreck as the newer erotic imprints, but I enjoyed the risks they took.

    @Sunita

    I think the hardest part about branching out is finding the good stuff, because it is not always the best selling stuff, it is not always the most recent stuff, and it is not always what Amazon thinks you’ll like down in the “readers with similar taste” bar. But it is always a lack of good books in my favorite categories that pushes me out the door to read others.

  25. SAO
    May 17, 2011 @ 14:04:30

    The problem with Amazon is that they’ve programmed the wild cards out. Years ago, I was moving to Bulgaria and buying Christmas presents. I bought a biography of Truman for one person, a book on Japanese handicrafts for another, plus some books on Bulgaria for me. It turned out that other people who bought what was in my basket liked The Joy of Sex and The Italian Kitchen. I figured it was one person, probably also Christmas shopping. Now Amazon spends more time trying to sell me new editions of books I already have and it’s still trying to interest me in learning Serbian, Croat, and Slovenian because I bought more than one Learn to Speak Bulgarian books.

  26. rebyj
    May 17, 2011 @ 15:13:38

    HP and other Harlequin’s have some good books. I generally buy stand alone ones and not one’s in a series. They are still affordable in e book form for the most part. A lot under $5.
    Since I got my kindle right when prices went up I’ve been reading WAY out of my usually preferred genres just because that’s what is out there that’s affordable to me. And I’m finding some good reads!

    I find bargains in general fiction, sci fi , fantasy but the lower priced romances tend to be either inspirational or erotica. I prefer something in between. The independently published or the romance authors that are publishing their own backlist affordable are also what I read.

    I read daily and I get my fix somewhere that fits my budget. The higher priced books (over 7.99) get put on a list to look for in used book stores.

  27. Angela
    May 17, 2011 @ 15:35:16

    I tend to branch out when I’m looking for something new, fresh, and interesting. Many years ago my comfort zone was small – fantasy only. Then I branched out into Anne Rice. Harry Potter kept me open to looking in YA for new books. Then someone gave me a Nora Roberts (Carolina Moon) and my love affair with romance was started. Actually for a long time I only read Nora. Talk about stuck in a comfort zone – LOL. When I ran out of her stuff to read, and as prolific as she is, she couldn’t support a 3-book-a-week habit, I reluctantly started looking at the other romance genres. I was amazed. There was so much I had been missing out on!

    I’ve just started getting into m/m because – like so many have pointed out here – it’s tiring going through the dreck to find the gems. So I have one friend that recommends the stuff she’d rank 10 out of 5. This system seems to be working for me so far :P

    I tend to avoid category romances because I’ve run into too many that don’t deliver the depth that I need in the shortened amount of time. I’d rather another 100 pages than less character and story development. I think it takes a real gift to write a good category…unfortunately I just don’t have the time or inclination to search for them.

    But I read in almost all genres, as long as it catches my interest.

    @SAO: You can make Amazon stop using those purchases to recommend you other things. You can either tag them as ‘this was a gift’, or simply ‘don’t use for recommendations’. When you go to your recommendations page, click on ‘Improve my Recommendations’. That takes you to a page with your purchases or things you said you own. Over to the right there’s the two options I mentioned – just click the boxes.

    I do that for all the free kindle books I download. I download them because they’re free, and I’ll eventually read them, but I don’t want new recommendations until I’ve read them and I enjoy them.

  28. Sunita
    May 17, 2011 @ 16:17:43

    What great comments, thanks! And so many interesting ways people describe their personal comfort zones and how they manage them. I’m getting lots of ideas for where to go next.

    @dm:

    But it is always a lack of good books in my favorite categories that pushes me out the door to read others.

    This, exactly. It’s not that I don’t read in the genres I’ve always liked, it’s that they change enough that I don’t have the same level of autobuys. The hardest thing, as you say, is separating the wheat from the chaff, not just in terms of the subgenre but according to one’s personal preferences. This is where being online has helped immensely (although as Ridley notes, you have to watch out for the sockpuppets and internal wars).

  29. Jaclyn
    May 17, 2011 @ 16:44:08

    I’ve found that the advent of ebooks has led me to read more outside my comfort zone than ever before (excepting school and work). This is a combination of lurking and participating in online reader communities that are suggesting new-to-me segments of books, and easier/faster access to the many books being discussed, so I actually go get a copy versus carrying a list around in my purse for months and months.

    I find a similar frustration with Amazon’s recommendations that @SAO mentions. I find they often suggest more of the same (which I do want, to some extent), but they are not necessarily intorducing me to something unexpected, or unknown from different sub-genres. This is where community has be key for me–you all have introduced me to books that I wasn’t reading before.

    One challenge I find when reading outside my comfort zone is that I don’t know the “code” and some things are lost on me. There are stereotypes, tropes, and other things that consistent reading in a sub-genre will bring forward. Sometimes I can tell I’m encountering subtext, but I don’t have the always means to decode it and understand. If I keep up with a sub-genre I start to get it, but it can take several books. I guess that’s part of the fun, but it’s also part of the frustration.

  30. Sunita
    May 17, 2011 @ 18:05:46

    For anyone who wants to dip their toe in the m/m genre, Dreamspinner Press is giving away freebies all week. Today’s offering is Cut & Run by Madeleine Urban and Abigail Roux, and tomorrow’s is Promises by Marie Sexton. I haven’t read either, but both (all three) authors have received good reviews and word-of-mouth. More info at dreamspinnerpress.com

  31. Sirius
    May 17, 2011 @ 19:36:12

    Sunita, I love both series – Cut and Run now have three books, Promises is the first book of Coda series and recent (supposedly last one) book in these series was released recently. Personally, although both books are self contained, I would suggest that if anybody wants to try some mm for the first time, they would try Promises. Not because I dislike Cut and Run series, quite the contrary, I *love* them. I just think that writing in Promises is much stronger. Cut and Run is the first book and the guys there will either grab you and never let you go, or not. If they would grab you as they did me, you will overlook technical deficiencies, as I did, if not head hopping for example made me a little dizzy. They really did get much better in next two books, but I would hate for somebody reading it and not wanting to try anything else if they disliked the writing. But personally I got so attached to the guys in Cut and Run that all three books are often reread material for me.

  32. k reads
    May 17, 2011 @ 21:19:17

    I’m not sure that I have a defined comfort zone when it comes to romance topics. There are tropes and themes I don’t particularly care for but in the hands of the right author, they can still work for me. And it’s exciting when an author can suck me in emotionally even though intellectually I find the story a little disconcerting. Keeps me from getting bored.

  33. Kerensa
    May 17, 2011 @ 22:37:42

    I think this one word says it all: LIBRARIES. I have tried many-many new books, authors, genres, etc., via my library, then gone on to purchase full price books by those authors, or in those genres. I’ll try almost anything once, which is why I love the free reads on Amazon and other websites. But those freebies are limited, few, and far-between. Libraries (at least used to) have a much bigger selection. I really hope we (as a society, and also members of the publishing industry) don’t keep shooting ourselves in our respective feet by shutting libaries down, limiting e-book access (or number of rentals per book), etc. */end soapbox/* :)

  34. lazaraspaste
    May 17, 2011 @ 22:43:16

    Once upon a time when I was a young(er) woman and read for my own pleasure only, I had a voracious appetite. I read everything. Literary fiction, YA, mystery, horror, romance, historical novels, philosophy, history, children’s, etc. etc. I tried everything. I finished all the books I read, even the ones I hated. Then I became a librarian. Then I went back for MA in English Literature. That pretty much curbed my appetite. I now have a comfort zone when I read for pleasure, because I can’t have one for when I read professionally.

    My comfort zone is as follows: does this book allow me to actually escape from my own thoughts? Will it shut up the Voice In My Head (I call it Earl)? I will try anything in search of this mysterious effect. If after the first chapter I have not fallen into the story, I abandon it. This is not an exact science. It sometimes has nothing to do with quality. It entirely has to do with what the book provides me. But it happens very rarely. Instead, I nearly almost always become annoyed by page 3 for sadly, I have become a picky reader.

  35. k reads
    May 18, 2011 @ 00:14:39

    @Kerensa:
    Libraries had a big impact on the breadth of my reading growing up. I pretty much worked my way through the dewey decimal system. My sister had a part time job at the local library when we were in high school and she discovered a lot of interesting genres for the two of us. The first gay romance I ever read was a book she brought home from the library. I don’t remember the name or the author but it was a teen romance, similar in style to those Silhouette First Love romances that were popular at the time.
    It was about a boy who moves to a new school and gets involved in the drama club. He develops a crush on the dreamy senior who plays all the leads in the school plays but never imagines that a guy like that could fall for him. Then lo and behold, it turns out dreamy senior guy reciprocates new kid’s feelings and they become a couple. Openly. And none of the other characters seemed to have any issues with it, IIRC. This was in the mid 80’s so it was a bit of surprise to find something like this in my suburban library. It was waaay better than the Sweet Valley High books. The only other YA books with gay relationships that I had read up to that point all ended tragically so it was cool to read one with a HEA.

  36. LG
    May 18, 2011 @ 09:02:49

    I started reading more outside my comfort zone when I took a readers’ advisory class in my library science program. We were required to read at least one book in whatever genre we were covering, and some of the genres were not genres I was at all familiar with. I not only read books I’d never even thought about reading before, I heard about the books my classmates read, and I realized there were some things I might really enjoy. For instance, this class was how I learned about the existence of Christian romance and got over my knee-jerk “no” reaction to it. I might be more cautious when moving into genres and subgenres that aren’t in my comfort zone, but that’s why the library and free or cheap books exist.

    Reviews also help me out. I found a review site that positively reviewed some things I had already read and enjoyed and started reading favorable reviews for things I had never read before…and discovered a m/m romance writer who delved into areas that are usually not my cup of tea (BDSM, dubious consent, etc.). This particular author had some works for under $3, so I decided to try her out despite some reservations and really liked her stuff. Now I’m working my way through her backlist.

    My TBR pile is big enough that I don’t really need to read outside my comfort zone to make sure that I still have something to read. Instead, I read outside my comfort zone so that I have palate cleansers available when I’m in a reading slump with the stuff I usually read.

  37. RachelT
    May 18, 2011 @ 11:47:07

    I’m not sure about the etiquette of referencing other book review sites, but I would like to recommend the list of readers’ favourites compiled by the ReviewsbyJessewave site which reviews exclusively m/m books. This list is updated annually and is the source of some excellent recommendations:

    http://www.reviewsbyjessewave.com/2010/10/05/readers-favourite-gay-books/

  38. Sunita
    May 18, 2011 @ 12:07:27

    @RachelT: I don’t think DA has a policy of discouraging links to other review sites. I thought about linking to Jessewave’s and others but decided not to because I was sure I’d leave someone important out. I found the list you’ve referenced very useful when I was new to m/m.

  39. Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity ah-choo!
    May 20, 2011 @ 02:03:20

    […] on reading outside your comfort zone (and don’t miss the cool comic about how hard it can be to write […]

  40. WTF is wrong with the NY Times? & other musings on Pride month | VacuousMinx
    Jun 25, 2011 @ 10:42:42

    […] books. I talked about how and why I started reading m/m at DA a while back in a post titled “Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone.” It’s squarely in my comfort zone now, but the reasons endure. Yes, there’s a […]

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