Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone
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.