Criticism, Reader Shame, and Problematic Books

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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May 29, 2013

Shame grafitti

No reader should ever feel like this.

The speculative fiction community has been having, for many years now, conversations on how to be a fan of problematic things (too many posts to actually link, hence the LMGTFY link–I promise, I am not being an asshole–it was either do that or spend all evening vetting links and not writing this post; however if you read only one link, read the first one). In fact, there was a panel on this subject at WisCon this past weekend.

I’ve been thinking about this issue because of this post over at Dear Author–Robin takes a close look at E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey and Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man. For the record, I have only read the first two James books and I have never read Ashley and I likely won’t for a variety of reasons.

I thought Robin’s analysis of the two books was really interesting, especially her insight into how the books are about control and negotiation of control–and the post sparked a bit of a discussion on Twitter about reader-shaming and liking problematic things.

The idea of reader-shaming is really interesting and the first thing I thought of was Shelley’s great post about librarianship and reader advisory at Wonk-o-mance, specifically this part:

 There is a great debate, repeated endlessly in the profession, about whether we should give the public what they want, or give the public books that are “good for them.” As if we, the educated readers, are the only ones who can decide what makes a book great. This isn’t to say that I don’t think there’s plenty of room for critique, and I think it’s very important that romance not be exempt from cultural study. In fact, I think popular books need to be at the heart of cultural studies, because those are the books that reflect and shape our societal values. However, it’s vitally important that we remember that there is no one right way to be a reader, even if that’s what we learn in school.

And then I thought about my post from a few months ago about the id vortex.

Then I thought about problematic books that I have loved.  Two specific books, both by Anneke Jacobs, came to mind: As She’s Told and Owned and Owner.  Both of these books are erotica and on the very extreme end of the spectrum–they deal with hardcore BDSM, specifically total power exchange (TPE) and dehumanization. Both these books are intense, difficult to read, extraordinarily problematic, and yet: they are beautifully written and they each are complete stories with a narrative arc and characters that I found myself fully invested in.

These books aren’t endorsing TPE as a lifestyle–except when they are for people who have thoroughly interrogated their desire for this type of lifestyle.  In both books, it is not a normalized behavior and, in fact, in Owned and Owner it is presented as deeply deviant (and in a SFnal context which was consistent enough for what it was; parts of the worldbuilding made me think of Bujold’s Ethan of Athos, to be honest). The reason I haven’t written about them in more detail is that it’s hard for me to explain why I loved them  and because I know that they are books with a very specific audience–and that they have the potential to be very upsetting to readers who are not part of that audience.

Stories are a fundamental part of human nature. We have always told stories to each other. Not every story is going to be for everyone and there are always going to be stories out there that someone else is going to find problematic in one way or another. No story is perfect in that respect. And not everyone is going to be willing or able to look at works through a critical lens–and that’s okay.  It seems to me that The Distress of the Privileged is a good thing to point people towards right now.

Because one thing that is brought up almost every time there’s a blog post or essay that’s overly critical (or perceived to be overly critical) about a romance or erotica novel is the idea that those who are being critical are trying to shame readers for liking the work in question. In my experience, this is not the case–the interaction between reader and text is often  act of transmutation and is very difficult to predict.  If it could be predicted, well, publishing would be a more profitable industry.

To steal a phrase from Shari Slade, not every story has to be an after-school special. I think it is definitely possible to choose to not look at a book too closely–I know I do that with some of my reading and other media consumption (I adore NCIS; enough said). However, for me, it’s not possible to do that for all the media I consume which is why I tend to seek out books–particularly romances–that are aware of their problematic aspects and attempt to interrogate those aspects, even if they’re not always successful. But again: that is my personal taste and someone else may make different choices in reading material.

It is important that we have these discussions about books. We all make mistakes and have the potential offend or upset other people. It’s how we react that’s important–do we learn and move on to the next set of mistakes or do we dig in?  It seems to me that this is one of the ways that we grow as writers and as readers–by questioning what we’re reading and writing.

I don’t believe anyone involved in this particular conversation is saying that people who consume stories uncritically should be ashamed of themselves–instead, they are saying that there is another way of reading and that this way of reading may help explain why some of these stories are so popular and why they resonate with so many readers.

I also think this is a conversation that the romance community desperately needs to have–it’s an important conversation and one that should be ongoing. I think it’s fantastic that the community is becoming more critical of itself–it doesn’t do the genre any favors if the only voices are those that are relentlessly positive about everything.

Our reasons for seeking out stories are complex–the human appetite for stories is deep and boundless. Criticism doesn’t diminish that, it can only enhance it.


And on a completely different subject, writing this post made me remember that I was going to put out a call for crit partners a few weeks ago and then forgot. I’m looking for 2-3 people willing to read drafts of blog posts like this one and give honest criticism.  I would, of course, be willing to read your drafts as well.  If you’re interested, let me know!

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  1. Rosary

    I’ll volunteer to be a crit partner, if you don’t mind a very lowly academic soul whose tastes are suspect depending upon pov 🙂

    Maybe it will get me off my ass and get me blogging.

    • Cherri Porter

      I’m happy to be a critique partner too. I’m looking to expand my circle beyond my own brain.

  2. Shelley

    Natalie, I think you’ve encapsulated my thinking on this subject pretty well here. Cultural study/critique is not the same as shaming readers, and is vital and important. On the other hand, I do think that some readers feel their responses to books are so deeply personal that any criticism of a book they loved is a criticism of them.

    • Natalie

      I think you’re on to something here with the idea that sometimes people connect so deeply with a book that criticisms of the book become, by proxy, criticism of the reader.

    • victoriajanssen

      And connects with arguments about criticism of fanfiction, which some writers/readers are virulently against.

    • Natalie

      Ooooh, yes. Fan fiction is where readers interact and transform the text in often very intimate ways.

  3. Isobel Carr

    I don’t know if this will make sense, but as I struggle to understand the appeal of what Robin has dubbed “extreme romance”, I am finding that “reader shaming” appears to be being used to shut down the discussion. And yes, I do see the occasional commenter wailing about how these dreadful books shouldn’t exist, but mostly I see those of us who are baffled by the appeal trying to get to the heart of what it is about these kinds of stories (and these kinds of heroes) that obviously hold mass appeal*. But if those who love and embrace the stories don’t participate openly and fully, and retreat to “don’t shame me!” when they become uncomfortable, I just don’t see how any discussion is ever supposed to happen.

    *Note: I think mixing erotica and romance in the same discussion is problematic, as the two genres have very different goals and make entirely different commitments to their readers. Things that don’t faze me in erotica are utter deal breakers in romance.

    • Natalie

      Yes! Which is one of the reasons why I linked to the Distress of the Privileged piece–not because those readers are necessarily privileged in the way its defined in that piece, but they are unwilling to engage with the text in a more critical way, possibly out of fear that it will become less appealing to them and they don’t want to lose that.

      I think you have a great point around the idea of reader shame being used to shut down and derail the discussion–that was something I was struggling to express in my post and obviously didn’t do it very well.

      And I agree completely about the goals of erotica and romance being different. Would I want to read a romance that had TPE as a theme? Probably not.

  4. jillsorenson

    One thing that continually bothers me about these conversations is the idea that readers must admit to liking problematic things. But we don’t all agree about what makes a book problematic or offensive. We don’t all have the same standards for writing quality and character behavior. I’ve read a number of comments asking why readers can’t just admit the writing in X book is terrible.

    It’s because those readers don’t agree that the writing is terrible. Either they don’t see the errors or they don’t agree that the errors are there. Instead they see style differences or author voice. Same goes for problematic themes and offensive content. Some readers don’t see the problem. Some see it and enjoy anyway. Some see & don’t agree that it’s a problem.

    I’m not saying that all interpretations are equally valid, or that typos/grammatical errors are up for discussion. I’m saying that two careful readers can come away with two very different, valid opinions of the same text. Reader A finds 5 problems, Reader B only finds 1. Is A a better reader? Should B give in and admit to missing the problems she didn’t/doesn’t see? Or can we just respect the opinions of both?

    My impression is that the most critical opinion is often considered the most valid, and that is frustrating to me. It dismisses the possibility of multiple valid interpretations.

    • Natalie

      But we all like things that are problematic! No work is absolutely perfect in every way. That’s my default starting position–I go into a book knowing that it’s not going to be perfect. Some books are going to be a better fit for me than others–and what’s good for me as a reader may not be good for you.

      There is room for you and me (and everyone else!) to come to different conclusions. We are different people and we each have traveled our own path to come to this place where we meet, over this book and this genre. Of course our perspectives are going to be different. And maybe if you see 5 problems and I only see 1, if we talk about it I can learn why those 4 things are problems for you–and maybe once you point them out, I agree. That agreement doesn’t have to diminish my enjoyment of the book. Or maybe I don’t agree and we talk about it and can’t come to agreement but because we were both open to having the discussion we each learn something. Or maybe you’re just tired of talking about why something is a problem for you and you tell me to go educate myself–I learn something then, too. There are a lot of ways readers can disagree in a way that allows a diversity of opinion. It’s not a contest with only one winner.

      I think this review of Emma Chase’s Tangled is a great example of someone enjoying a book they know is problematic (the comments are good, too).

      But I also think that when people say, “Portraying this kind of character/situation in this way hurts me because it’s wrong/reinforces stereotypes,” that it is our responsibility as fellow readers and writers to listen and do our best to learn so we can go forth and make new mistakes the next time. To fail better.

      What it comes down to, for me, is that we are all works in progress.

    • Rosary

      To fail better..I like that. I am fascinated always by people who feel there is only one right/correct way to interpret something. Reading is part of the act of communication, but our readings are always influenced by the person we are and the baggage we bring to our readings. So every interpretation is pretty much valid for that individual, if they can back it up with textual and personal evidence. If I want to say a spaceship is a symbol of lust, I have to show that otherwise I’m blowing smoke out my butt. Then again, I find it’s like saying there’s only one way to read, and as someone who spends most days trying to point out that we read for different reasons and purposes–all of us all the time–the idea of the “correct” way to read is silly.

  5. jillsorenson

    I agree that we all like problematic things and that no book is perfect. What I’m struggling against is the idea that two different readers should be able to pinpoint the same specific problems.

    The Chase book is an example of a redeemed hero. Those who find him too jerky will not enjoy it. I have a theory about redemption and problematic themes. I think there needs to be a balance or an undoing of wrongs in order to satisfy romance readers. A book that is problematic or offensive overall, like your erotica example, might not work as a romance.

    • Natalie

      I think the interplay between problematic themes and redemption requires a lot of skill on the writer’s part. Some writers are more skilled at handling that than others.

      I keep coming back to Northrop Frye’s concept of the “Green World” when thinking about this tension between redemption, problems, romance, readers, etc.

    • Rosary

      To me–it only makes sense that different readers would have different problems with a work rather than focus ont he same problem. All readers bring their individual baggage to a work, and it’s that baggage that allows them to see problems.

  6. Liz Mc2

    This is a great discussion. The comments raise a couple of points for me:

    1. In some ways, it’s easier for Romance to take on race/class issues (not that we are always good about those discussions, by a long shot). There is a responsibility to listen respectfully to someone who says, for example, “I am African-American and I found this portrayal offensive because X” and it’s important not to dismiss those responses (especially when those of us who didn’t see the problem have white privilege). When it comes to gender/power issues, it’s more complicated, because most readers are women, so in a sense we are ALL members of the group being represented and our interpretations and responses are on a more equal footing. I think this goes to Jill’s point about “why is the more problematic reading always right?” I don’t think it is, because these often are issues of interpretation. So everyone has to listen respectfully.

    2. In a Twitter conversation, Natalie, you were talking about the importance of allies. When we talk about gender and power in romance, I think we all need allies, or need to be each other’s allies, if we’re going to get anywhere. I thought Robin, who doesn’t like 50 Shades, wrote as an ally in her piece, respectful of the ways in which it is more complex and sophisticated than it is often given credit for. You were saying on Twitter re. allies that it’s not fair for the “minority” view always to have to be the educator, and I agree. But who is the “minority” in these romance discussions is often hard to identify. If you like a super-popular book like 50 or Motorcycle Man, how can you be a minority? But in some venues of Romanceland (in the case of 50, many venues) you may be a minority voice.

    I don’t think it is fair to *demand* that these readers engage in discussions and account for their enjoyment: “How can you like this! Explain yourself!” I do think it’s fair to hope that they either engage productively or walk away, rather than stopping critical discussion by crying “reader shaming!” On the other hand, a lot of critical comments veer perilously close to shaming, or cross right over, because they assume a lot of things about readers who like these books–including that they share the critical person’s reading and are too awful to care about the problem (and I think this goes to Jill’s point too) or that they are too stupid to see it. So if we have a problem with a book, or haven’t read it for good reasons, we need to stop making assumptions if we’re going to do our part in creating a space for dialogue.

    I’d love to see this: Reader A: “I have real issues with this book because I read the dynamic as abusive, for these reasons.” (This reader may or may not have experienced abuse, and doesn’t need to refer to her personal experience to justify her interpretation). Reader B: “See, I read it differently, because I focused on these issues, so I saw the heroine as empowered.” These people cann agree to disagree: I see what you mean, but still think my reading is valid (this is the way academic literary criticism mostly works).

    Those discussions do happen, but often the signal is almost drowned out by “Oh, these books are so badly written. And I worry about less experienced readers not seeing the problems.” “How can you shame me and try to censor my reading.” The latter will get us nowhere good. The former will.

    Annnnd, I see I should have just written my own post. Sorry.

    • Natalie

      No need to apologize–this is a great summation of what we’re talking about.

      I like the idea of creating space for dialogue. Sure, some books may not be very well written or be full of icky stuff but there’s clearly something happening in them that works for some readers–and that’s worth exploring. To not acknowledge that they work on some level seem fundamentally dishonest to me.

    • Maili (@McVane)

      “I’d love to see this: Reader A: “I have real issues with this book because I read the dynamic as abusive, for these reasons.” (This reader may or may not have experienced abuse, and doesn’t need to refer to her personal experience to justify her interpretation). Reader B: “See, I read it differently, because I focused on these issues, so I saw the heroine as empowered.” These people cann agree to disagree: I see what you mean, but still think my reading is valid (this is the way academic literary criticism mostly works).”

      That would be wonderful, but I’m cynical enough to believe it’ll not happen. How does that work when

      a) some reviewers/authors/readers feel obliged to, for various reasons, defend author of the said book? Most likely to happen with a long book series as it tends to inspire loyalty. How does one deal with this?

      b) some may feel protective enough to defend a book they had emotionally invested in? As in perceiving criticisms of a book as attacks on their own taste and judgement.

      For example, when Reader A says “I couldn’t get into this book because I didn’t like how a gay character is portrayed. It seems homophobic at times.” Reader B is likely to think “Wait, I loved this book, but I’m NOT homophobic!” and will dispute Reader A’s interpretation until Reader A retracts its interpretation. Where favourite books are concerned, most are unlikely to be respectful enough not to dismiss to voices of a minority.

      c) some demand authenticity from readers or reviewers, e.g. personal experiences or similar, but only as long as their views support theirs.

      d) we all are centric enough to view the world from wherever we are, so we forget people’s own worlds outside our viewpoint, e.g. a Canadian reader doesn’t share the same cultural perspective and personal experiences of social issues with an Australian reader. So when they share interpretations of social issues from a book, there may be some cultural clashes. Not all recognise the actual crux of those clashes, so some may perceive those as personal clashes.

      When I criticised Outlander, for instance, while laying out my issues with it, my focus was on the book alone. Yet readers and authors came out in force, usually in a tidal wave, to defend the damn book, which involved questioning my stand as a reader, as a Scot and as a POC (some insisted I couldn’t possibly be a REAL Scot since I’m, you know, “not white”). It didn’t take long to see that a), b), c) and d) applied in those discussions.

      I did my best to focus on the book, but of course, it eventually got personal after dealing with waves of disagreement, scepticism and insults and a series of realisations (including realising most do love the Romancelandia version of Scotland, which I felt was an insult), which evolved through years to me saying “I can’t stand Scottish historical romance. Authors and readers who support that sub-genre can go fuck themselves.” And I meant every word of this utterance. (That was from the darkest period, mind. 😀 I worked through my issues and I’m mostly okay with it now.)

      How does one engage in a fair dialogue when one has all those four factors working at full blast? I really do want solutions to resolve this dilemma, but having seen so many trying to make some potential solutions work, I don’t see how.

      I also don’t think it’s fair to apply the framework of academic literary criticism to genre fiction in this respect, because genre fiction revolves around escapism, which requires emotional investment, intimacy and in some cases, loyalty. Of course, it doesn’t mean these don’t exist in literary criticism but I think as a whole, genre readers have pretty nothing to lose. I may be wrong, though.

    • Liz Mc2

      Yes, you’re totally right that the different context (genre fiction blogosphere) make it much harder to have this kind of discussion. That was my starry-eyed idealist comment, and I mostly try to do my part in creating space for such conversations, but I don’t expect them to blossom everywhere. I hate it when people pull out their academic credentials as if that gives them more standing in these discussions, but I do think my training has made it much easier to have critical discussions of things I love and accept varying interpretations without being too emotionally invested. Other people get to that point other ways, and many people never do. Which is OK, too–there’s a loss in being able to be dispassionate about your beloved, as well as a gain.

    • Rosary

      Liz wrote: “I’d love to see this: Reader A: “I have real issues with this book because I read the dynamic as abusive, for these reasons.” (This reader may or may not have experienced abuse, and doesn’t need to refer to her personal experience to justify her interpretation). Reader B: “See, I read it differently, because I focused on these issues, so I saw the heroine as empowered.” These people cann agree to disagree: I see what you mean, but still think my reading is valid (this is the way academic literary criticism mostly works).”

      Exactly. I don’t dabble much in the book blogosphere world–is it really stuck in the 1950s world of New Criticism? Is it ruled by Harold Bloom or something?

    • Natalie that’s one hell of a visual!

    • Brie (@racblog)

      “b) some may feel protective enough to defend a book they had emotionally invested in? As in perceiving criticisms of a book as attacks on their own taste and judgement.”

      I think this is the biggest obstacle we face when trying to discuss problematic content. When we’re emotionally invested, it’s hard to divorce criticism of the book from criticism of the person who enjoys it. So the reaction is: “I liked this and I’m not racist/homophobic/etc. therefore this book can’t be racist/homophobic/etc.” It’s also a form of denial, because if we ignore or dismiss criticism, we don’t have to look closely or from another perspective and risk ruining or tainting that original reading experience that gave us so much pleasure.

      But if we want to take part of critical discussions, we’re going to have to learn how to listen and grow thicker skin. Ultimately we may disagree, but we should respect and consider dissenting opinions. If criticism makes us uncomfortable, we’re not ready to engage in the discussion, so it’s better to walk away rather than try to silence or dismiss those voices.

      Also, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that something we liked is problematic.

    • Shelley

      Yes, Brie! I think you are spot on.

    • jillsorenson

      “If criticism makes us uncomfortable, we’re not ready to engage in the discussion, so it’s better to walk away rather than try to silence or dismiss those voices.”

      I don’t think discomfort is necessarily a bad thing. I often learn the most from uncomfortable conversations and have made many important realizations directly after putting my foot in my mouth! I agree that trying to silence or dismiss voices is wrong, but I’ve seen thoughtful disagreement called out as silencing.

    • Aisha

      As someone who has felt silenced, I think that this is largely a question of perception. I do not like, and do not like to deal with, cliques and in-groups, and I honestly felt that I was being positioned (and maybe I hold some responsibility for this positioning as well) as an outsider. Maybe its simply my ignorance – I didn’t know that there were these boundaries and I still don’t know exactly where they are and how and by whom they are constituted.

    • Rosary

      I’m too lazy to care about the boundaries and the boundary makers. Nearing 50, I also don’t give a darned about them. Then again, I view my job as helping people to find their writing voice, so I’m a tad orney and obnoxious about such things.

    • jillsorenson

      At Dear Author, you mean? Sorry you felt that way. I remember seeing your first comment and looking very hard for an Africa-set romance from a non-colonialist perspective. It was an unusual request and I hope you find something you like.

      Some of the comments there have been very defensive. I can’t say that I’ve felt silenced or shamed. I’ve felt looked down on for liking sexy books and being a “placeholder” reader, among other things.

    • Selki

      What is a “placeholder” reader (imputed to be)?

    • Natalie

      That’s when the readers see themselves as the heroine.

    • Selki

      Thanks, and now I have read the rest of the comments and see the fuller explanation, too.

    • Natalie

      I was on my phone. Long comments are hard on a tiny screen. 🙂

    • laurakcurtis

      Liz, I think your comment is spot on.

      I had a fairly extensive discussion the other night with a friend of mine who really liked KA’s MM. This is a book I tried really hard to read, much as I tried to read FSoG. Like Isobel, I feel that as both an author and a publishing professional, it’s sort of my duty to try to understand the appeal. And then there’s the geek in me that just wants to understand *everything.*

      Anyway, back to my phone call. Because of the mutual respect she and I have for each other, we could have that conversation without acrimony or defensiveness or even really trying to convince each other that the other one was wrong. We come at these books from different places. She could not explain the appeal to me, nor do I buy Robin’s explanation necessarily, but I do think the conversations are very important. What she could do was help me to clarify what drives me so crazy. If I put all that stuff away, I can see how someone else might like what they’re reading. It probably still wouldn’t be my cuppa, but I can understand it a little better now.

      Unfortunately, all too often on the net, what you’re dealing with is people who don’t know each other or don’t respect each other’s opinions. And then, too, there’s a hit-and-run aspect. I know I am guilty of this at times–I post a comment and forget to go look to see if anyone has replied. So clarification doesn’t happen. And that original comment irks people and then they irk others…it’s a widening gyre of outrage.

      But there’s another aspect to this, which is the “is it poisonous to society” question that always seems to be conflated with discussions of enjoyment. I try to stay away from that, though I feel quite strongly about it with respect to my nieces and nephews. That is, there are books I would never, ever want them to read without sitting them down first and being sure they understood what was going on and why people found it upsetting. But do I think those books should not be published? Nope.

      I think of reading much like food. We all consume things we know are bad for us, but we have different classes of poison. My husband drinks too much alcohol. I eat far too much cheese and chocolate. Neither of us is unaware of the perils. Nor do we think it would be good to ban those things. It is, however, important to be able to parse what’s healthy to eat and what’s not, to be able to make educated decisions. That’s why I prefer reviewers who point out problems and then say “but this didn’t interfere with my enjoyment” rather than giving star ratings or saying “this couple was full of hot!” Looking critically at anything you consume before/while consuming is a good thing, I think.

      And now, I should have written MY own post!

    • jillsorenson

      “On the other hand, a lot of critical comments veer perilously close to shaming, or cross right over, because they assume a lot of things about readers who like these books–including that they share the critical person’s reading and are too awful to care about the problem (and I think this goes to Jill’s point too) or that they are too stupid to see it.”

      Yes! This.

    • jillsorenson

      Sorry, I was quoting Liz there. 🙂 Just ditto her whole comment.

  7. Isobel Carr

    No, that was a great summation. I’d love to a discussion of the themes/topes/issues in extreme romance with an eye towards why/how they work for readers, beyond “I found it sexy” and “I was offended” (but I’m selfishly trying to understand the appeal because as a writer I feel like I should study successful books).

  8. Kaetrin

    I agree with many of the comments, particularly Jill’s and Liz’s. And, what Laura said about people having different classes of poison. There are some things which we can fairly much agree are objectively “bad” but there are others which (I feel) are very much a YMMV thing.

    I come at it from perhaps the other side of the fence. I perceive myself to be one who is liking the problematic thing or being personally criticised in some areas of romancelandia for my reading tastes. For my part, I am happy to learn that a thing I may have missed could be construed as problematic for some readers and if (when) I find that out, my guilt (if I have it) about not getting it myself is entirely my own responsibility to deal with and not anyone’s fault. Someone pointing out a problem isn’t the issue. I am happy to talk about it. I want to talk about it and gain greater understanding and knowledge.

    I *try* to point out issues that could be problems for other readers and I *try* to explain why I was able to get past them (if I was). I don’t get it right all the time. I feel very much a newbie in this area, with a growing social awareness which has been informed by some of the amazing people I have met online (many of whom are commenting on this very post) and the books I have read and the discussions had about them.

    However, what I have seen lately is more like this:

    Reader A – I liked this book very much for reason a) b) and c)

    Reader B – This book was problematic for me because of x) and y)

    Reader A – Thank you for bringing those things up. Yes, now I see etc etc


    They weren’t problematic for me because… but I can see how they are issues for others and this book will not be for everyone.

    Where it falls down is when Reader B insists that Reader A change her view of the book because she was WRONG, to not recommend it or give it a good grade, etc. That there has been discussion and the views of both sides were aired isn’t enough. That problematic themes have been acknowledged as problematic isn’t enough. Reader A isn’t ALLOWED to think it’s a good or worthy book.

    It seems to me that the “Reader B types” then say “Reader A won’t engage with me” when what is really happening is “Reader A doesn’t AGREE with me” or “Reader A won’t respond THE WAY I WANT HER TO” both of which are DIFFERENT. (Please note Reader A and Reader B are generic and not any one person in particular).

    Where it also falls down is where Reader B says that all books in that genre are crap and/or problematic and “who reads this crap anyway?” (I have seen this particularly re New Adult and I gather that there is history of similar with E-Rom a while back). I’m sorry, I don’t know how that can NOT be perceived as personal. But if I respond to that I am merely being “defensive” or I’m told to “dial it down”. Because I am WRONG. AGAIN.

    I want to reiterate that I am all for open and robust discussion. But I’d like to do it where I’m not feeling beaten up all the time or like I have to apologise for everything*.

    *possibly I am feeling overly grumpy today

    • Ridley

      Where it falls down is when Reader B insists that Reader A change her view of the book because she was WRONG, to not recommend it or give it a good grade, etc.

      Yanno, I was disappointed that Dear Author made the Raybourn book a Recommended Read, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t be. I can see reviewing and enjoying something that you acknowledge is flawed in a problematic way, but putting what amounts to a seal of approval on it? Especially after some commenters who are part of the group portrayed poorly pointed these issues out? It seemed an odd choice for a blog that weighed in on RaceFail and has had past essays on privilege and portrayals.

      And that’s the only time I’ve seen the scenario you describe, honestly. What I tend to see a lot of is:

      Reader A: I noticed this book contains problematic elements x,y and z.
      Reader B: Those didn’t bother me, probably because I’m thicker-skinned.
      Reader C: It’s just fiction. Lighten up.
      Reader D: So, what, we can’t ever have stories about x, y, or z anymore? Maybe stereotypes exist for a reason, hmm?

      And so on. I’d love it if we could stop taking criticisms of books we love as personal insults. Think dubcon erotica is morally bankrupt rubbish? That’s fair. Think everyone who reads it has no experience with rape in real life? You’re talking out of your ass.

    • sharislade

      Yes, to not feeling beaten up!

      I usually don’t contribute much to these discussions (beyond a snarky tweet or two) because I worry that I can’t articulate my reasons for enjoying “problematic” books. I’ve read the FSoG trilogy and Motorcycle Man. I reserved the Twilight books at the library as they came out. I don’t want Edward/Christian or Tack (ohmygawd I hated Tack) to be my “book boyfriend” but I ripped through them at a rollicking clip. They were entertaining? I couldn’t put them down? I have an affinity for trainwreck-y wtf character choices? My tolerance threshold for dodgy grammar is embarrassingly low?

      Did I have issues with some of the content? Abso-freakin-lutely. And I love all the debate regarding these issues!

      I think what makes me most uncomfortable–what triggers my personal “shame” reflex–is when the analysis moves away from the text and becomes a study of *those readers* who like *those books*.

      It’s kind of how I’d feel if I ordered a steak, only to find out that my dinner companions were vegans. I respect vegan. I still like steak. But I’d feel weird nomming my rare filet while they side-eyed my plate and politely stifled their involuntary retching noises.

      I think it’s important to think about/discuss why these books appeal. But I also think it’s good to remember that the subjects of that discussion are sitting at the table too…squirming.

    • Cherri Porter

      All of the above?

      “They were entertaining? I couldn’t put them down? I have an affinity for trainwreck-y wtf character choices? My tolerance threshold for dodgy grammar is embarrassingly low?”

    • jillsorenson

      Great comment, Kaetrin. To me “who could read this crap?” and “How could this book possibly be recommended?” are pretty much the same. It suggests that there is only one valid interpretation, a right and wrong way to read.

      On twitter I used Ruthie Knox’s How to Misbehave as an example. The DA review mentioned a stereotypical portrayal of the working class. I thought the portrayal was accurate, and I’m a member of that class. Am I automatically right? I mean, I think I AM right. But the reviewer didn’t change her mind based on my educated opinion. Nor should she, unless she feels strongly about it. But I prefer that reviewers stick to their guns, for the most part. If they are easily swayed by the opinions of others, the review process loses meaning.

  9. Cherri Porter

    The idea of reader shame is whole mess of things I haven’t quite sorted out yet. At the start of this conversation, I thought it was about personal shame; those things that make individual readers feel shamed as they read books. But, what we’re really talking about here is the act of shaming another because of their choices and preferences, which is ultimately a function of post-modern capitalism.

    Shaming groups/factions within the readership of romancelandia because the books they choose to like or dislike are wrong/problematic/bad is very much like what happens in academia between and within departments. Stake a claim. Establish and legitimize the discourse of said claimed area. Engage in battle for power and resources with those around you. If you look at it through the Marxist lens, what it is is relatively powerless people fighting each other for some sense of legitimacy and agency against “the system.”

    In a sense, this kind of shaming is about lack and fear, and comes back to the question of “will there be enough.”

    • Mary Ann Rivers

      This resonates for me. Possibly because I’ve spent a lot of my working life in academia, possibly because I spend a lot of my time working with underserved populations, but yes, there can be a sense that anything worth doing is a zero-sum game. As if the more attractive and worthwhile an enterprise is, in this case, reading and writing romance, and the more people who seek to contribute to the enterprise, the fewer resources there are. When, in fact, we fail to understand that more effort simply makes more room.

      Shaming is absolutely a way to sequester resources. No question. It’s a lesson we learn early on–if something feels good, temper how you broadcast that because there will be someone who works to make you feel badly about it, because there is not enough good in this world for everyone to feel. I also think it’s a lesson that women internalize due to institutional sexism–if there is little good to go around in the world, there is even less for women. So if it feels good, protect that feeling from those who would shame you, or if you notice someone else’s glow, seek out the spots that are dim and press and press and press on them until it’s dark. There’s not enough. You’re not enough. There won’t be enough. Hoard, and shame, and hide, and protect.

      If readers and publishers and merchandising pour money and attention and love into FSoG, there will not be money and attention and love to spend on what makes me feel good. Except, we know, we do, this is a kind of blindness, because now there is money and attention and love that wasn’t there before. There are readers who weren’t there before. There are writers and reviewers and thinkers who weren’t there before.

      The actual resources are these–literacy, time, freedom of the press, imagination, gender equality, and experiences. Protecting these resources has proven to exponentially increase them, the goal being, until they are without measure. Shame diminishes all of them. It’s such a hard balance, too, protecting true resources increases them meaning that necessarily, a portion will be spent on things that don’t make me feel good. It seems reasonable that finding lenses through which to look at those things that don’t make me feel good that transform them into things that make other feel badly, is a solution. Meanwhile, this effort has diminished my resources of time or imagination, say, and so it is all diminished. Nothing I love will ever come to bear on the enterprise.

      It can be hard to tell. Am I protecting gender equality when I shame this book out of existence? Am protecting imagination when I shame how a book was written or declare it derivative? Do my experiences with this trauma mean I am protecting them when I say this story does not represent them?

      Literacy is an incredible and active and creative and dangerous undertaking. This is why we see fit to keep it from everyone. This is why it’s only been recently that women have been considered fit enough, in the Western world, to undertake it. This is still not true for the majority of women worldwide. It is hoarded from them, it is shamed from them.

      Impossible questions that we are asking here, protect it, so that these women can join us as readers and writers, and that THAT I really think, is what will make the resources seem immeasurable. When we are truly, ALL of us, in it together.

    • Natalie

      As I read this, I kept on thinking about Twilight fangirls. And teenage girl enthusiasm in general and how it’s something to be made fun of while teenage boy enthusiasm is not. And how there seems to be something inherently dangerous about an enthusiastic girl/woman to our culture, so much so that enthusiasm must be quashed if at all possible. And how women are socialized to be quiet and to listen and how we sometimes have to fight for our voices to be heard.

      Lots of connections being made. I appreciate all these comments so, so, so much.

    • Robin

      Because female enthusiasm has historically been equated with hysteria, and we all know the historical construction of THAT term.

      When I first entered the Romance community, a lot of the criticism of readers was coming from those who didn’t want critical reviewing and book discussion — because it wasn’t “nice.” I also felt there was a good deal of slut shaming — criticism of books because the heroine didn’t act in a sexually appropriate way. And, of course, the criticism of forced seduction and the readers who love it has been ongoing, as well.

      What I’m wondering is if the judgments levied against readers that we’re seeing now are coming from the same reader perspective or from a different, well, side isn’t exactly the right word, but that’s how it seems to be manifesting. Like instead of slut shaming, we’ve got a different kind of genre policing — one that IMO seems to mirror a lot of the external criticisms we see directed at the genre — that it’s poorly written trash, that it’s promoting female submission to patriarchy, that readers are being shepherded into non-feminist fantasies — especially a resurgence of the type of backlash against forced seduction (and what some IMO mistakenly call “old skool” devices and tropes) that has flowed through the reading communities.

      It’s kind of an interesting phenomenon, because it seems to be coming from a different place than the other stuff, even though it may ultimately all dovetail.

    • Aisha

      I came here from the link on your post, and that made me think of other trackbacks on earlier posts that I had looked at, especially this: The criticism here is harsh, strident and perhaps more implied than clearly stated but despite that (or maybe because of it?) it resonated/resonates with me. By positioning romance readers as other as it does, I would assume this site is one of the external critics, but I think that the emerging internal critical voices you are referring to here raise similar issues (although maybe less universally applied to the genre as a whole)? Its entirely your prerogative if and how you choose to engage with that, but for me lumping it in with earlier types of criticism (even if only as a possible outcome) does not make for constructive engagement. Its not, as you say, coming from the same place, and I think it is feasible that the desired end-point is also different and reflecting the hope for something that is ultimately maybe more (responsibly) diverse and inclusive?

    • Robin

      You know, I was headed in a completely different direction with my comment, but now that you’ve brought up Requires Hate, I think she’s a really good example of the difference between dissonance and destructiveness, which I think is part of what’s at issue in these “shaming” discussions.

      Requires Hate and I are clearly dissonant in our perspectives. But for me, at least, she doesn’t cross a line into destructiveness. That is, she’s not IMO trying to undermine either the Romance community or conversation about/in it. She’s got her perspective; I’ve got mine, and we can co-exist and co-speak, and either engage each other or not, while others have their own position, as well as a variety of perspectives to read and compare and discuss. I tend to be a fan of the open and inclusive “marketplace of ideas,” in which all exchange views in a respectful way and evolve our understandings (not that everyone will ever universally agree, so I don’t want to suggest a “right” or “wrong” direction of that evolution). But that’s not everyone’s ideal, either. Still, I don’t really have an issue with Requires Hate in terms of the way she articulates her views; I’ve also debated her directly and enjoyed it.

      Now, if she were showing up in every discussion and telling other readers they were obviously racist and anti-feminist, etc., telling them that what they’re reading is bad and wrong and awful and is warping their impressionable female mind, etc. — that would IMO NOT foster or even appear to be tolerant of discussion and dialogue, but would rather be more characteristic of destructiveness, in the sense of actively fostering a disruption of those things.

      Not that you can’t have dissonant views in a conversation; there are a number of them in the comment thread on my latest post, some of which are pretty strong, but for the most part I think people are making an honest attempt to engage discussion and not try to undermine that difficult process (the higher the issue stakes, the more delicate this balance is, of course).

      I think dissonance is an essential and fundamentally valuable element in any robust community; attempts to disrupt and discourage engagement and discussion, however, are something else entirely, IMO. The latter is commonly categorized under trolling, of course, although I don’t think that term reflects the potential seriousness of the activity.

    • Selki

      I find your comments about dissonance v. destructiveness chewy and delicious. Especially as a music-lover who thinks some dissonance is wonderful (starts thinking about types of music which do, or do not, embrace occasional dissonance).

    • Cherri Porter

      We were having a mini-convo about Enthusiasms and Shame on Wonk-o a few weeks ago. I hadn’t thought of that in Marxist terms, but it’s just so true.

      “Shaming is absolutely a way to sequester resources. No question. It’s a lesson we learn early on–if something feels good, temper how you broadcast that because there will be someone who works to make you feel badly about it, because there is not enough good in this world for everyone to feel.”

    • Natalie

      I wrote about enthusiasm and voice and drawing boundaries in SFF last month in response to another issue: Sexism, SF, and Me. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of sequestering resources–I don’t know a lot of Marxist theory, can you recommend a book for someone who isn’t good with theory to start to learn?

    • Cherri Porter

      Mary Ann might have better recommendations, but I’d just start with the wiki / definition pages. They lay out the basic terms and concepts you can build on.

      Most of what I know about class/econ theory comes from growing up working class and moving into the educated class. This was my RL lens for analysis before I understood it in a theoretical sense.

      I have found Jameson, who isn’t a purist and has lots of wacky ideas about postmodernism, to be very helpful in understanding the modern world as well.

      This whole discussion reminds me of this, as well:

      Impostors in the Sacred Grove:

  10. Aisha

    For me, its really about the quality of the discussion, which is affected by so many (often arbitrary) factors. In part, this is made up of the presuppositions each individual brings, influenced by her own experiences, beliefs, sensitivities, etc. Related to that, it may also be affected, as Kaetrin indicates above, by our particular emotional state(s).

    I really don’t think though that it’s possible to have a discussion about books that removes the reader from the equation, even if that is desirable (and I’m not sure that it is). The act of reading is ALWAYS active and engaged, even if what we are reading is considered escapist. The analytical lens we apply in this case *may* be muted and forgiving but I doubt it is non-existent. What I’m trying to say here is that we all engage with the world and therefore with books differently because we are all unique, and therefore all readings are, in the first instance, subjective. We may attempt to then address those subjectivities through a process of self-reflection, but, again, even this process is going to be subjective. So for me, it is better to acknowledge and accept those subjectivities and then be open to discussion and differing interpretations. (Please note that none of that means, for me, that there is no common ground).

    The key, for me, is to recognise, like Socrates, that true wisdom lies in knowing what we know not.

    Re Marxist theory, I am an advocate for going to the source, so why not read Marx? You could use this site as a companion –
    But linked to that discussion, I’m not sure I agree that “Shaming is absolutely a way to sequester resources. No question. It’s a lesson we learn early on–if something feels good, temper how you broadcast that because there will be someone who works to make you feel badly about it, because there is not enough good in this world for everyone to feel”. Perhaps I am reading this wrong, but it seems to place too much emphasis on a historical materialist analysis and, to me, can be seen as a little too… cynical (? not quite the word I want, but sort of) in this context. I would prefer to think that *shaming* or what is interpreted as shaming is more a function of people either being uncomfortable with change (with narratives that push boundaries for instance) or genuine concern about the content (eg. where narratives are seen as perpetuating harmful stereotypes) – these may be expressed in exaggerated terms (like “that book shouldn’t exist) but its far less materialist than this analysis allows for.

    And sorry to be pedantic but, Mary Ann, “This is still not true for the majority of women worldwide” is factually incorrect. Many women, certainly more than men, are illiterate, but it is not the majority – see

    Sorry for the long comment.

    • Mary Ann Rivers

      Not at all pedantic: the unesco numbers give us a great place to start. I’m thinking more of functional literacy, in regards to access–to media, to freedoms of speech and press. Until access is universal, a majority of us are not participating in the total enterprise of literacy.

      I love your comment, though, and how it clarifies and works towards precision in so many of the ideas in the discussion (including mine).

    • Natalie

      You never need to apologize for the length of your comments here. I appreciate you stopping by and thanks for joining the conversation–the more voices, the better!

  11. Aisha

    (Edited by Natalie: This comment is in response to Robin.)

    Can you be more specific? What/who are you referring to as disruptive? Its fine if you prefer not to, but I really don’t like insinuations.

    Was I one of those who were disruptive and discouraging engagement and discussion? Because that was kind of the message I was getting which confused me since that definitely wasn’t what I was trying to do.

    Is Ridley (and sorry Ridley for speaking of you in the third person – I don’t know if you’ll see this but please call me out if I misrepresent you)? I never read her as doing that. She might state her position strongly and lay claim to the ‘troll’ label, but I read the latter as pre-emptive defiance, as a kind of defensiveness since she knows she will be labelled as such. In terms of teh former, I believe that her interactions (like mine to some extent) arise out of her desire to build something better.

    Are you referring to yourself with the whole “privilege as a naughty stick” thing?

    What is ‘better’ of course is subjective but that is a discussion that follows and is ongoing.

    And I’m sorry for leading your thoughts away from your original trajectory, and sorry to Natalie, since this isn’t/shouldn’t be a space to work through what happens/happened elsewhere.

  12. Aisha

    (Edited by Natalie: This comment is in response to Mary Ann.)

    Ah right. Well that is a differently complex from basic literacy which is pretty damn complicated itself. For some reason you make me think of this article I read a few weeks ago. Its not directly related but it points to some of the ways, and the topics on which women are silenced and/or shamed, and the broader consequences of that silencing –

    And sorry my comment below is in response to Robin above but something went wrong with the nesting.

  13. Aisha

    Sorry Jill, I forgot to respond to your comment. You know in that first comment I wasn’t actually asking for recommendations if I remember correctly, but that’s how it was interpreted, which is cool(although I can easily find romances set in my context if I want them, even if they are not as easily accessible to people in the North, since they are rarely published by the traditional New York based publishers). It was more about how “Africa” is dealt with even when it is a fleeting reference and by writers I otherwise admire and enjoy. And if anyone is interested in such tales, I found this,0,645452.story – I am currently re-reading Half of a Yellow Sun but this new book seems to have a stronger romantic element.

    I’m sorry for your negative experiences too – what does being a ‘”placeholder” reader’ mean?

  14. Aisha

    oops the reply button and nesting thing doesn’t seem to be working so the 1st of the 3 comments above is to Robin, 2/3 is to Mary Ann, and 3/3 is to Jill.

    • Natalie

      Nesting only works so far; I think I need to turn it off and figure out how to get numbers on comments. That’s my plan for next week. 🙂

      I’ll go into your comments and indicate who they’re for.

  15. jillsorenson


    Placeholder theory in romance is about the reader’s identification with the heroine. Many readers sort of inhabit the heroine’s space, experience the story from her POV and “fall in love” with the hero. I think it relates to this topic b/c it seems to suggest a less critical type of reader, the type who squees over book boyfriends and superficial hotness. But I’m that type of reader and I don’t consider myself uncritical.

    This whole convo reminds me of readers who say “I wouldn’t want to marry a jerk alpha hero, but I sure love reading about them!” I don’t read that way. I prefer to read about people I might actually like in real life. Maybe that is part of the reason I have issues with describing something I like as problematic *overall*. As I said above, if a book is hugely offensive to me (hero too jerky, rampant stereotypes) I can’t enjoy it. I can overlook some issues, not all. So I’d rather say “this book I like has flaws/problems” than “this book I like is problematic,” which to me means offensive and negative without enough redeeming qualities to recommend. I can’t think of a romance novel I’ve enjoyed that I would call offensive. I doubt I’d enjoy the Emma Chase book, for example.

    Good talk, everyone. 😉

  16. Beth Bernobich

    To do this topic justice, I would need to take all weekend–in other words, all my writing time–to frame a reply. So I’ll limit myself to the thing that bothered me about this post. You talk about shaming of romance readers and shaming of those who like problematic things. (And by problematic, I don’t mean, “badly written.” I mean books that include sexist or racist or ableist elements.)

    You talk about how criticism of these books, and sometimes of the readers, is rooted in shaming and silencing of women in general. This is good. This is important. Women get too much shame from the male-centric world.

    But then you say “not every story has to be an after school special.”

    That is pretty condescending. Books that try to go beyond the hot mess of racism and sexism that is our western European culture are not boring lessons. They are *better books* because they include a richer experience.

    I’m also bothered by the implication that criticism = shame. Especially since a lot of this criticism comes form women and minorities who are finally, finally able express themselves enthusiastically about those problems. In other words, it’s a form of silencing.

    I know that’s not what you meant. But that is what I heard.

    • Natalie

      Beth, thanks so much for commenting!

      Shari said it in the course of a conversation on Twitter; in context it worked, out of context it is a problem. Thank you for pointing it out.

      Criticism of BOOKS is not shaming. Criticism of READERS is.

      There are books and other media I really love that have serious issues in them–criticism of those issues allows me the space to pull back and think about what I value in those books and it allows me the opportunity to grow as a reader and a person.

      However, it’s not like that for everyone. Some people aren’t able to separate themselves from their reading material for a variety of reasons and I think they really do feel that they’re being personally attacked–instead of hearing “I think X part of Y book is bad and this is why” they hear “This book is bad and so are you.” I’m not sure how we negotiate around that without a clear set of ground rules–and right now, spaces like that simply do not exist in the romance community. At least I don’t know of any.

    • Beth Bernobich

      Or maybe we don’t try to tell critics to play nice. After all, why should someone who is POC, who constantly comes across racist tropes in romance or SFF or whatever genre, restrain their reaction? Why object how they express their pain or outrage, even if that hurts the white straight reader?

      (Note: This comment does not apply to the white straight men who shame women’s writing. But I think we need to acknowledge the difference.)

    • Natalie

      Or that. I agree. Marginalized communities have many reasons to be angry and I support that expression (even if directed at me!). Anger is uncomfortable and I think the comfortable should be made to feel uncomfortable.

      But I also think that many of the people who do feel shamed don’t see themselves as critics, they see themselves as fans and readers. To me, that’s an important distinction. To others it may not be.

    • Beth Bernobich

      My opinion: We should not privilege the feelings of white cis abled readers over those who are oppressed.

      We can say, “I love this book for X, even if Y and Z are problematic.” Or we can say, “I haven’t thought about it yet.” But we can’t say, “Oh, well, it’s okay because I just don’t think about these things, and I’m not going to, and you can’t criticize my reading choices because I’m a woman.”

      Again, you are not saying this. But I’ve seen plenty of readers who say exactly that.

      Note: I might not come back here for a few days, because I really do have to concentrate on the current WIP, but I will respond to comments. Er, eventually.

    • Natalie

      In this, we are in violent agreement.

      I also think that the romance community is at different place in this conversation than the SF/F community is, too. We all have to start somewhere.

      Now go write stories. So I can read them. 😉

  17. Aisha

    Thanks Natalie 🙂

  18. Alex Hurst

    What a great post and what an interesting array of comments. I never really thought of that before– the shaming culture of the reader, especially those who read romance/erotica. It certainly has introduced a new perspective, so I thank you for that. I never really thought about how romance/erotica readers are treated differently from those in other genres until now, but it is very true. I enjoyed the post very much.

    As an aside, I would absolutely love to be a crit partner, if you’d have me. I’m relatively new to blogging, and I am as of yet unpublished, so I don’t need you to do any critiquing on by behalf. I would simply enjoy learning from you. 🙂 Feel free to contact me if you’re interested. -Alex

  19. Aisha

    Ok the nesting reply thing doesn’t seem to work for me (probably my own system at fault), so I’m just going to do this.
    @Jill: I thought that’s what it meant but [BEWARE: possible display of ignorance and/or misunderstanding of romance genre ahead], isn’t that the default assumption? That all readers are “placeholder” readers? Isn’t that why, supposedly, the majority of romance heroines are written to a recipe (with a few flavour variations), in order for the reader to be able to identify with her? So that criticism doesn’t make sense to me, unless the critics are claiming to be more evolved or something? Sorry…I’m not arguing your point of course, just kind of, sort of… standing in solidarity with you?

    @Beth: As a non-white woman located outside of the traditional centres of power, I am uncomfortable with the notion that simply by virtue of a few (and only a few) markers of my identity, my opinion may carry more weight than someone else’s. I don’t know if this is what you’re saying, but its the way I’m reading you. I know myself to be prejudiced in various ways, which I work to eradicate of course, but there are likely to be others that I am, as yet, unaware of. So I don’t believe that I hold any moral superiority or special knowledge a priori. The fact that I was a child in South Africa during apartheid, and that the transition to democracy coincided with my teenage years may *seem* to convey some authority to speak on issues of race, but I don’t know that it automatically does. What *may* give me some authority here for instance is the fact that I studied race and race thinking at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, although it was never my primary focus.

    And this is all a little jumbled up in my head so please bear with me, while I work through it and try to make it make sense (and Natalie, I know you said I don’t need to apologise for long comments but nevertheless this is likely to be long and I do apologise).

    The point above may seem to contradict my initial comment that argued against overvaluing apparent objectivity, especially when it comes to such a fundamentally subjective arena as reading. But what I’m trying to do is come to some sense of what lends itself to productive and constructive discussion and what serves to “disrupt and discourage engagement and discussion” as Robin says above, or to use her terms, what is dissonant as opposed to destructive. And in doing so, I think it might be useful to go back to what was the second comment I posted at Dear Author a few months ago, about my dislike of the prevalence of the military ‘hero’ in romance (especially American but also Australian). There was a post at Wonkomance recently on the competent hero and one of the points made was that one reason for the over-representation of certain careers in Romancelandia, including in the military, is because this is a shorthand for competence, for the majority of readers at least. You know what I see when I read military ‘hero’? I see an 8 year old child watching her father being threatened with an assault rifle by a white boy (and he was a boy) in military fatigues at a traffic check-point because he (the father) was tired and had swerved a bit on approaching the barricades. I see her mother sitting in the passenger seat holding her baby sister, crying and praying in terror… Its over 2 decades later and I am weeping as I write this.

    Ok, sorry. So obviously I am not in any way objective about this and my response is conditioned by a very particular set of circumstances that are not likely to be shared by the majority of romance readers, but does that invalidate my perspective? Would raising it, possibly very strongly, be considered destructive especially if I do not feel it is necessary to share all the motivations behind it? Should I instead keep silent (which I actually did on this issue since that initial post, possibly because I was getting an inkling of those largely unstated boundaries)?

    Does it come down to personal experience then? But I cannot say that I have ever personally been the victim of racism or sexism for instance(either because I never have, or I am oblivious when it affects me personally, or I have blocked the experiences from my consciousness – I really don’t know – and this leaves out the whole issues of collective dispossession of course), but I have seen it too many times (and addressed it where I felt I was able to).

    And if the claim is that the issue is more the form rather than the content of discussions, then again, I don’t believe that the two can be seen as clearly distinct, and again, subjectivity is central here.

    So as I wrote above, this is all mixed up in my head and I don’t really know if this is just confusing the issue even more…

    @Selki: I don’t know if this could be seen as dissonant music, but it might be interesting – – its called ‘Ghetto’ by The Muffinz

    • Selki

      @Aisha: Oh, I like that song! A few short bits of dissonance that act to accent (kind of like percussion). I also like dissonance that seems to stretch/bend then resolve. It’s also somewhat relative — some folks find music from other cultures dissonant/”just noise” when more experience shows the patterns/flow (or we just get used to the sound) — for a trivial culture-appropriation? example, “We Are Siamese” from *The Lady and the Tramp*. Disclaimer: I’m just an occasional singer, not a music theorist.

      Re: “As a non-white woman located outside of the traditional centres of power, I am uncomfortable with the notion that simply by virtue of a few (and only a few) markers of my identity, my opinion may carry more weight than someone else’s.”

      I tend to think that folks located outside traditional centres of power get both the mainstream (inescapable) POV and their own sub-cultures’ POVs, so although that doesn’t mean they’re always right, I probably do tend to give their opinions a little more weight as far as being important to listen to b/c more likely to be different from what I’ve been hearing on my own. I actually think that may have been what now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was talking about in her ill-received remark: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

    • Kaetrin

      Hello Aisha. I can only speak for myself also obviously, but I’d like to try and share my perspective. Your example of your dislike of military heroes seems completely understandable to me. If I had your experience I doubt I could enjoy a romance novel with a military hero. I’m sorry that happened to you.

      I don’t read you as saying however that no-one ought enjoy a romance with a military hero or that military romances should never be written or that ought not be recommended to anyone. You and I can have an interesting discussion where I can come to a greater understanding of where you’re coming from and I can still like to read a book with a military hero. And, in my opinion, that would not mean that I did not understand your position or sympathise with it.

      I wrote a much longer comment but I have decided to post the rest of it over at the relevant DA thread. I don’t want to hijack this thread and I’m uncomfortable discussing another blog here – it feels (to me) too much like the blog equivalent of a subtweet. Others are of course entitled to their own views, but I’m going with what fits within my comfort level.

  20. jillsorenson


    Well, this placeholder thing is complicated. The definition I gave is the common understanding, which is often considered a misinterpretation. We don’t all agree about what the term means, and most of the smart, critically engaged readers I know from the romance community say they don’t read this way. So it is maybe my own insecurity to feel that placeholder readers are looked down on. Moriah Jovan wrote an interesting post about this for Dear Author. Another issue is that the “placeholder heroine” (like Bella from Twilight) is seen as bland and personality-free, supposedly easier to identify with. There are negative connotations to placeholder IMO.

    And I’ve strayed so far from the original topic, I’m not even sure how this relates anymore! I think it’s just the idea that there are many types of readers, many ways to interpret, many levels of engagement.

    As far as the rest of your comment, I don’t find your opinions destructive. I admit that I brush off most criticism from non-romance readers (like Requires Hate, though I follow her blog) because it’s generally sweeping and uninformed. An outsider perspective. There is definitely an us. vs. them attitude among romance readers, brought on by years and years of being “shamed,” for lack of a better word.

  21. Aisha

    @Selki – I do take your point, but there are larger social questions of whether cultural heteroginisation/homogenisation/hybridity most accurately reflects society today and my own bias is towards the hybridity argument. In other words, I don’t think its possible to disentangle ‘mainstream’ and ‘other’ cultures in our global context. That said my own hybrid culture is the default/mainstream one to me and my awareness of others is influenced by my varying exposures to them. Of course some cultures (American/Western European) appear to be more hegemonic than others and their level of influence/exposure in that sense would be disproportionate, but the particular hegemonic expressions of those cultures also conceal the existence of sub-cultures and alternate cultural expressions within those particular societies. So again, I take your point, but it is incredibly complex, and I am wary of essentialising cultures and identities even if the essentialising is apparently positive. I do however completely agree that its generally a good thing to hear and be exposed to alternative perspectives even if those conflict with ones own.

    I’m glad you enjoyed the song 🙂

    • Selki

      Yep, I understand about the dangers (stereotypes, deficient understanding) of essentialising cultures/identities even when intended as positive. I don’t agree 100% with Sotomayor or assume anyone from a less-dominant culture/gender/whatever has a lock on The Truth (not that I think that’s what she was saying), but I do think it’s easier for folks in dominant cultures/groups to live in bubbles and be dismissive of others’ POVs.

  22. Aisha

    @Kaetrin, 🙂 thanks. Its not like anyone close to me was imprisoned, tortured, killed and had their bodies hidden (and that only because those who were actively part of the armed struggle were never caught), but there was no real TRC process for all the less dramatic, everyday ways in which apartheid devastated our country.

    I am not saying that no-one should enjoy that of course, but at the same time I don’t think I can really relate to your enjoyment (which makes far more open in this than me), so I don’t know how productive a discussion would be. And that’s partly maybe my point. If I were to weigh in on a review of a book that unproblematically presents the military protagonist as heroic, I’m not entirely certain what my intention would be, maybe just to problematise it but this is all hypothetical so who knows.

    And that is kind of what I’m asking here. How do you/we distinguish between dissonance and destructiveness? Like many of these things, its probably in the eye of the beholder. So who the beholder is in this case is core, at least in my understanding. And then, I think that (sorry) what I was trying to say at DA is implicated here, in the sense of what are the roles and responsibilities of the people who are in that position.

    I am also uncomfortable with discussing another blog, since it feels like speaking behind people’s backs (is this what you mean by sub-tweeting? I don’t tweet and am unfamiliar with the terminology). Unfortunately, since DA is the only place (other than this)where I have interacted with the online romance community, it is my only point of reference and if I am to speak to my own experiences, I’m not sure how else to do it (and like I said earlier, I really prefer to refer to and engage with things openly and directly, rather than making what to me are oblique references).

    I will look at your comment on DA when I have a little more time.

    • Kaetrin

      Yes, Aisha, that is what a subtweet is – talking behind people’s backs and usually in such a way as you know that they will hear it/see it. Imagine standing right next to a group of people at a party or whatever and talking about them so they could hear, but never addressing them directly.

      As for your contribution, I think other perspectives are important and it’s good to hear them.

    • jillsorenson

      Eh, it’s not a subtweet unless we don’t say who we’re talking about. It might be rude to Natalie to carry on a discussion here that started there, but I also think it reflects well on her site as a place some are more comfortable speaking up.

  23. Aisha

    @Kaetrin I hope that that is not what I’m doing or perceived to be doing?

    And sorry Natalie /abashed

    • Natalie

      I don’t think that’s what you’re doing. It’s clear who y’all are talking about–and you haven’t crossed what I would consider to be the line (other folks would draw the line in a different place).

    • Kaetrin

      As I said in my comment, I went with what was comfortable for me. I meant nothing more than that.


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"It's chaos, be kind."
Michelle McNamara