Wouldn't you know it: After stating that I was mostly staying away from reading challenges in 2014,  I then spent most of January doing a reading challenge. A chance comment of mine during a conversation prompted my friend Sig to hold me to something I said in a reading report post several months before, about doing some research into gay romances with a view to finding some good ones. I'd read a few since then, but had not been too impressed.

Sig happens to love this genre and considers herself an expert on the subject. In the second week of January she handed me a Kindle loaded with a bunch of gay romances in various subgenres, including some of her favourites with various other stories thrown in for variety. She challenged (or rather ordered) me to read at least 10 of them, preferably at least one erotica story and one BDSM subgenre story.

By the way, I should say that by good ones I meant romances that have the qualities I like in a good straight romance: an interesting or thrilling story with strong emotions, engaging characters that undergo plausible development in the course of the narrative, no "sex instead of character development" scenes, no more than one sex scene per every 60-or-so pages and preferably only one long sex scene.

I have, in the past, been able to ignore an over-abundance of the last two items, but only when the first three items were in place. I usually get around them by skimming, and I can tell you: I did a fair amount of skimming through some of these stories. It seems that in gay romance - usually referred to as M/M romance - there must be sex in at least every other chapter. I found a handful of books that had less, and another handful in which the frequent sex scenes were short and written with enough skill and variation not to make me suspicious of an overuse of the "cut, shuffle and paste" technique, because, face it: there are only so many ways in which you can write a sex scene before they start getting repetitious.

Generally speaking, the fewer the sex scenes, the better the character development and story were, with the sex being used for verisimilitude and extra flavouring, rather than being the main focus of the story. Some, however, were just sex scenes strung together with the barest hint of a story and lead characters with the (admirable) physical charms but also unfortunately the plastic personalities of Action Man dolls.

All of these stories fall into the "all dessert and no main course" category of literature, although some are apple pie while others are meringues.

What I do find refreshing about M/M romances is that in the sex scenes, the authors tend to call things - both body parts and actions - by their names. Not necessarily medical names - penis is not a common word in these books - but rather the terms used in everyday talk. If you've read straight romances you will be familiar with the flowery evasive language and metaphors used in the sex scenes in about 95% of them. There aren't a whole lot of those in use in these books, and the language tends not to be as purple as in straight romances. For example, I only found one mention of the "velvet covered steel" kind in 20 books, which, had I been glomming straight romances, would have been a record. This plain language, of course, means that when taken out of context many of these sex scenes could easily be read as porn. It's the context, the story, and the feelings that temper them and make them erotic rather than pornographic.

A final interesting point is that of the 20 books by 14 authors, it seems only two authors are male. They, and about half of the others, go by gender-neutral author names - either initials or unisex names - while the rest go by recognisably female names. I have no way of knowing how many use pseudonyms and I didn't feel like going into the research to find out, but since this type of literature is out of the literary mainstream (although it seems to be slowly paddling towards it) and has certain associations some would consider shameful, I am assuming most of these names are pseudonyms.

So, will I continue reading M/M romances? I think I can safely say 'Yes' to that, but I will be careful in my choices before I start buying rather than borrowing them because, if you didn't already guess, I f***ing hate it when romance authors use sex to replace character development or to stuff plot holes, and I will need to find out which reviewers I can trust to help me avoid such books and which authors write the kinds of stories I like.
I'm working on the reading report, will post it later this week.


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