One year ago today, Erin published her first review for The Smut Report.
This could be something I’ve said so many times I just believe it now, but: I don’t think I’ve read anything but smut since my first child was born, unless I accidentally picked up a non-qualifying ebook from the library. If I’m being really honest, it’s possible that I should extend to before my first child was born. And yet, in the year since we posted my first review for The Smut Report, my reading has been next level. It’s still all smut all the time, but there has been a lot of smut, I’ve read outside my original comfort zone, and I had to think much more critically about the reading as I went.
My reading this past year, I’ve come to realize, is only a drop in the bucket. But I still learned something about the genre and about myself as I read and reviewed.
There’s more out there than Regency romance
I used to defend my reading of romance by saying I was extremely particular. What I was, was lacking imagination. Sure, I have a low tolerance for poorly constructed writing, but the world of romance is immense, varied, and full of delightful treats if you’re just willing to take a nibble.
If I am able to accomplish one thing with this work, I hope it’s that I can convince at least one person who thinks romance looks like this:
That, while those beautiful clinch covers are a component of the wide world of smut (and those books are classics), romance actually looks like this:
Because of The Smut Report, I deliberately sought out new books in sub-genres or time periods – or, to make this shorter, just many of the different places on our browse by topics page – and I challenged myself. Was it always comfortable? No. Did I love every book? No. But I found Urban Fantasy, which is what my High Fantasy skeptic self has always wanted (they have magic, so why can’t they figure out how to invent guns?). I found shifter romance, which is rollicking good fun because shifters are kind of ridiculous (there are quite a few dog jokes to be had). I found cinnamon roll heroes, which are really good when you’ve overdosed on possessive, emotionally shuttered, alpha-type heroes. And I got out of my very white, very straight, very aristocratic, very rich, very milky-white-bosoms (maybe with some freckles) world of smut.
It is a truly beautiful world out there.
That said, I also came to realize that there is a certain type of book that makes my heart go pitter-pat, and it should come as no surprise to those who know me. Case in point:
Husband: Do you want to watch The Witcher?
Me: Will I like it?
Husband: You’ll like the hero.
Me: Because he’s hot?
Me: Because he’s emotionally closed off and sexually irresistible?
Husband: Yeah, that.
Sarah MacLean verbalized the feelings I didn’t know I’d been having in an episode of Fated Mates discussing alpha heroes. To paraphrase: I want the hero to be absolutely crushed by love, completely and utterly wrecked, convinced that his life is destroyed because the heroine he’s lost is everything, and to rise from the ashes with a love for the ages. Please see Dreaming of You for reference.
Upon review of my recommended reads in 2019, I was actually somewhat surprised to see a reasonably okay smattering of the variety of reading I’d done. They were the books that made me happy, either because the romance was flutter-inducing or because it was meltingly sweet but always because I was captivated by the story. But let’s be honest, I will always get the greatest thrills from the heroes who can’t figure out they have feelings, have an outrageous amount of power, and are unable to stop themselves from succumbing to love. Do I need breaks from these books sometimes? Yes. Is there sometimes problematic content in these books? Yes. But that’s where my second life lesson comes into play.
Please get over yourself, you’re not perfect
Sometimes I use too many words. (Example: this post) This was the case even before the TL;DR world in which we now exist. So, when reviewing, I now try to be brief and to focus on factors important to me. Sometimes I realize after I’ve written a review that I forgot to point something out. Sometimes I don’t realize something is an issue at all until someone else flags it for me. That’s why it’s particularly fun when more than one of us reads a book and we can discuss it.
As I’ve read other reviews, I’ve noticed that other reviewers pick up on things that I either didn’t care about or didn’t notice, but when they’re brought to my attention, I consider if I agree with the assessment. I now value reviews more because I know that, even if mine isn’t perfect and I miss something, another critical reviewer will probably flag it, and the potential reader is still served. Do I get anxiety about failing to catch things? Yes. Does it matter in the big picture? Probably not that much. I’m still refining my craft. It’s not like I think people are out there hanging on my every thought. But it’s fun to read and review, and it’s fun to receive free copies of books. And because I know authors are effectively small businesses, I feel good contributing to their success by writing reviews.
And even if I never get another free book, I’m still having fun reviewing the books I’m exploring from elsewhere. I also am now exposed to a world that I previously didn’t know existed – Romancelandia. Because I’m the de-facto social media liaison for The Smut Report, I’ve really enjoyed engaging with our readers as well as with authors and other reviewers on our platforms (not WordPress, which is Holly’s fiefdom). I’ve found some new-to-me authors, I’ve had lovely interactions with authors who enjoy our work, and I’ve found community in the Romancetagram world in particular. I’m looking forward to building our presence more in the coming year, but it is a lot for an Introvert like me.
I’m here for a good time, but that doesn’t excuse bad writing
I’ve read some poorly written (or, often, poorly edited) books this year. Historically, I wouldn’t even try a new book without some glowing recommendation (usually from Holly…or her sister, because sometimes the stuff Holly reads is P-R-E-T-T-Y special). But this year, as I forced myself to branch out, nothing was out of the question. And I realized that I am totally willing to have a good time. It takes very little for me to determine a book was enjoyable: coherent, succinct, engaging writing; a plot that doesn’t have me scratching my head; and a good love story with sex that doesn’t make me harumph (alternatively, sex not required, but if it’s not Inspirational romance, let’s be honest – there’s going to be sex).
Point the first: Coherent, succinct, engaging writing
Authors should be wordsmiths! Yet some authors use words in really weird ways that I don’t understand at all! And I’m not talking about using “each” when there are only two objects (please use “both”) or “oldest” when there are only two children (please use “older”). I have even refrained from noting improper verb conjugation, and I am talking about basic -ed past perfect, not “lie” vs. “lay” or other tricksie irregular verbs.
What I am talking about here is head-scratching, Inigo-Montoya-is-all-up-in-here-with-me word use.
Any moment that I’m jarred by weird language is a moment that I’m taken out of the story, so is it any surprise that this is hard for me?
Also redundancy is really challenging. Broadly speaking, I have noticed that this isn’t so much a problem in books with an external plot conflict, like there’s a Very Bad Man doing Very Bad Things. It is more likely to be a problem in books in which the conflict is entirely based on the protagonists’ personal feelings. Because there are only so many times anyone can think, “I just can’t overcome this personal problem that I just can’t talk to my lover about even though it would utterly and completely solve all our problems if we have a meaningful conversation.”
That said, if the story is engaging and most of the words are generally strung together in a sensible way, I’m usually happy as a clam.
Point the second: No nonsensical plots please
This is pretty basic. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for all kinds of nonsense. Are these people ever actually at work? Fine, we’re only looking at their off time and they have weird schedules. That’s not how law firms work? Fine, as long as it makes sense in context. There’s no way a royal family would ever actually do that? Fine, we have a tale to weave here. Besides, maybe I’m full of biases, and I can accept that and consider it while reading.
You needed to drive an hour to have a conversation in a cafe when you could have just discussed your suspense plot updates over the phone? NOPE.
You’re asking a question about something that was just addressed two pages ago? NOPE.
Short story: whatever world building an author is doing, I am usually ready to dig in. But if I am left scratching my head because something straight up doesn’t make sense, there’s almost no recovering from that.
Point the third: Good love story with good sex
I’m still working on why love stories or sex scenes do or don’t work for me, so maybe next year I’ll have an update for you. Right now, it seems to boil down to – I can’t simply read and believe that there’s electricity between the protagonists, especially if we’re dealing with an enemies to lovers trope. It’s fine for one or both of the characters to think that the other is the stuff wet dreams are made of, but that’s appearance-based thinking. If I’m going to have all the feels, I need more than that, and saying there was a frisson of electricity when hands touched without giving me a notion of why that’s the case is problematic.
The authors who really succeed in this arena for me are the ones who are able to nudge my thoughts in a certain direction, creating moments in which we can infer that there’s something building between the protagonists. Slap me in the face with it and I’m already emotionally removing myself from the story.
Likewise, good sex is important. It can can even be super kinky. It just has to be good. I have written reviews in which I specifically said there’s too much sex. I have also written over-the-moon reviews for books that seem to consist of at least 50% sex. Am I inconsistent? I argue no, because good sex is important in a relationship, and when it’s well incorporated, I am here for it. (I discuss this in my review of The Half of Us.) When it feels like the sex is just there because the book is all about sex and nothing else, I am not here for it. There are also stories that seem to shunt in a sex scene or two because this is romance and we need sex, rather than making sex an important component of the development of the relationship or story. (I discussed this in my review of One Night with the CEO.) Sex needs to move the plot forward or it needs to be an important emotional component of the protagonists’ journey. If it’s not doing that, if it’s sex just for the sake of sex, the book isn’t doing it for me.
What does the next year look like?
- I’d like to keep branching out. If I do, I think I’ll be more likely to get that one person to accept that Romancelandia is not composed of white, cis, het, clinch-covered, 1990s smut. Right? Pretty sure. Also, if I had never read Prudence or Burn for Me or, I’m gonna be straight with you, Dirty Billionaire, my life would be a much sadder place and I wouldn’t even know it.
- I need to tackle my TBR and also stop using NetGalley as an alternative to the library, especially when I get into a slump and only want to read very fluffy smut. It is completely out of control and stressing me out a little bit. But I want all the books!
- Actually finish some smut reporting. Holly, Ingrid and I have set goals to do at least one piece per month, so we’re more consistently putting out original content. Let’s make my writing brain work a little again, so many years after college! Because I was pretty much all historical romance all the time, I’m going to start by focusing on some things I’ve noticed as I’ve started reading more contemporary romance. Differences between aspects of historical romance and contemporary romance. First up – heroes.
- With a very few exceptions, I haven’t gone back and written reviews on some of my oldest loves. I’ve had so many new, wonderful books to read! But it would be fun to delve back into the stories that made me fall in love with the genre in the first place – beyond My First Smut, I mean. Also, wouldn’t it be fun to beef up our throwback tag a little bit? Holly can’t be the only one pulling that weight.
- Because I am going to continue to be all smut all the time (I might read the book my grandma gave me as well, but besides that…), I am going to keep brainstorming theme activities for our posts. We’ve talked about featuring specific tropes and other promotions that fall in line with national months (we’re featuring black authors in February, for example). We’ve generated enough content that we can make listicles now! Although, I will say, Holly has done most of the heavy lifting on that front. I am ready to step up, though! Stay tuned. We’ll see how it all goes.
- Finally, I’m going to keep doing this as long as it’s fun. Thanks for choosing to join me!