Motorcycle Monday

MC Romance: Oh, Brother!

If there’s one thing that’s universal about MC Smut, it’s that The Brotherhood is the most important aspect of the club. What that means for romance is that the hero has a readily available cortege of badass bikers to get fierce when the action goes down. How they all know how to handle themselves like commandos, I have no idea…but a lot of them do have military backgrounds, so maybe that’s it.

Perhaps the best way to think about The Brotherhood is in terms of the old familial double standard: I can say whatever I want about my sister (etc.), but if anybody else says shit, I will fight to the death to defend her. In the books, this translates as: it doesn’t matter what kind of disagreements or infighting is going on in the club, every single brother will drop everything to defend…the club’s property. As it were.

For examples of this, I’d refer you to Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley or Reaper’s Property by Joanna Wylde, as both of those books involve direct conversations between the hero and heroine about how The Brotherhood is involved in the protagonists’ lives. (Primarily because both heroines are citizens, which we’ll discuss further when we get to the post about the women of MC smut.)

In Motorcycle Man, Tyra is kidnapped, and after she’s retrieved by the entire club roaring down the highway, Tack lays it out for her that everyone who belongs to Chaos is *safe*, because if they’re not, the club will rain down retribution the likes of which will make baddies think twice. In this instance, “rivers of blood” is the promise Tack makes. And it doesn’t matter that, at this point in the story, Tyra only belongs to Tack and barely knows the rest of the members of the club. She’s Tack’s woman, so every man in the club has Tack’s back to protect and avenge her.

Reaper’s Property goes in a slightly different direction, because Marie becomes Horse’s woman when her brother steals from the club, and Horse manages to negotiate that Marie become collateral instead of the club outright murdering her brother. (Because Horse wants Marie, not because he’s altruistic.) So the explanation about The Brotherhood comes more in the form of Horse trying to explain club culture to Marie when she’s horrified by the property patch, the relevant aspect of that conversation here being: no one will dare to mess with the club’s property, or – again – vengeance will be swift and brutal. It doesn’t matter that everybody in the club doesn’t agree with the approach the club has taken in dealing with Marie’s brother – they voted, the decision was made, and Marie was absorbed into the fold.

So, to sum up, The Brotherhood acts as an extended family, with the brothers in the club standing in for the hero when he’s not available to protect (or care for, but most specifically protect) the heroine. Buuuuuuut not for the other club women, necessarily (about whom more anon). When the brothers of the club talk amongst themselves about women, that’s usually the time that a whole lot of misogyny comes out. Which brings us to…

That’s one aspect of The Brotherhood. The other aspect is the male friendships/relationships that exist on page. In theory, this is really cool, because it’s not always easy to find romance with good male friendships. The connections between these men of the club can be really important and meaningful, and it’s nice to see men having friendships and support systems in books! Especially macho men who would rather be eaten by fire ants than admit that they have feelings. 

In practice, I find that The Brotherhood is an odd juxtaposition of a family in which everybody understands and supports everybody else and a loose association of individuals without deep emotional connections. We’ll probably get into this a little bit more when we talk about the men of MC smut, but toxic masculinity is basically an absolute must in these books. There is absolutely no room here for men who enjoy pink or tea or who talk about their feelings with anything other than revulsion. Ergo, I have a hard time believing that we’re achieving that really deep male friendship connection if men are running around telling their *best* friends that expressing feelings means that a man is “growing a vagina.”

Like I said, the toxic masculinity is REAL. 

So, to wind this down, I’d summarize all this by saying that The Brotherhood is essential to MC smut as both a cultural foundation generally and as a social foundation for the hero. There is nothing for the hero more sacrosanct than The Brotherhood. So, its existence is self-reinforcing, and it’s for the heroine to conform to the culture, not for the hero to break out of. Not that the hero wants to break out, but we’ll talk about heroes next week. 


Previous Posts in this series:

Motorcycle Monday

MC Romance: Setting the Stage and Setting the Mood

If I go to the trouble of remembering my grade school English lessons, I recall that setting does many things for a story. Sometimes setting acts as its own character, but most often it sets a scene and a tone that evokes certain thoughts or feelings in the reader. It is no surprise, then, that most MC smut is set in a world where it’s not so difficult to envision cowboys riding wild and free, because riding and living free is a central aspect of most (literary) MC culture. 

Most of the books I’ve evaluated were set in the United States, but those that weren’t were set in Western Australia, which has a very similar vibe to large swaths of the US west of the Mississippi river (an east-west divide, for those not so familiar with US geography). There are several different ways to geographically divide the US, but I decided to go with a simplistic version because MC setting didn’t really need to get refined to the point of distinguishing between the Pacific Northwest and Southwest as distinct from the rest of the West. We’re not talking microbrews vs. Kokopellis here. 

For reference, this is the US geographical division I’m looking at:

Image credit: WorldAtlas

With this in mind, the breakdown of these books by setting goes like this:

Notes on this distribution: 

  1. The book with multiple settings was set for about ⅔ in New York and ⅓ in Montana, but the club where the protagonists belonged was in Montana, so I didn’t choose to pick one or the other for this chart. 
  2. I did read a few series in full or nearly in full, and of course most of those had the same setting. Had I opted to read more of the Lost Kings MC series by Autumn Jones Lake, for example, the number of books set in the American Northeast would have been greater. HOWEVER, I did read about thirteen (13) different authors and over forty books (not accounting for books I DNFed), and the books that I DNFed and still have in my TBR queue would reinforce the distribution above, so I feel comfortable arguing that these books are primarily set in a space where we can readily envision wide expanses of land and sky, long and clear highways, and a general culture welcoming fierce independence. 

The setting in MC smut is even more important when we evaluate where outlaw MCs actually originated. I found a list of outlaw MCs on the interwebs when I was trying to understand what the reality vs. fiction that I’m dealing with actually is, so I’m not going to act like I’m some expert in outlaw MCs, but it is interesting to note that in real life, if this list was even remotely on target, most outlaw MCs originated not in some Wild West scrubland, but in urban centers:

I didn’t drill down this far in the chart, but the locations become more interesting when we consider that about 25% of the American West settings in MC smut were set in California (so I didn’t bother to separate it out up there), while 80% of real outlaw MCs sourced from the American West originated there. And in cities like LA and San Francisco, not in the more rural northern or western parts of California. Likewise, the Midwest has a much greater representation in real outlaw MC location, but even there, we’re talking about places like Chicago, Detroit, and cities in Ohio, not South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska, which have more of a Great Plains western vibe. (Nobody in the Great Plains is going to think that they’re living in the same sort of place as Ohio, even if they’re both technically in the Midwest.) Similarly, Eastern Australia (or really just New South Wales) has much greater representation than Western Australia. 

In MC smut, we absolutely do not get a sense that MC culture is urban, or even that it resonates with the culture of the American south, because the primary sense of setting in these books evokes feelings of isolation, independence, wildness, and freedom. The promise of the American West in a nutshell, I would say.

Even in series or books in which the setting is actually in a city, as with all of the Chaos MC books by Kristen Ashley, or the Wind Dragons MC books by Chantal Fernando, we’re still looking at a city set in the broader space of an oasis of city surrounded by empty land. You don’t have to drive very far out of Denver before there is legit nothing around you. So even with a city like Portland or Denver coming into play in the book, we are aware of a bigger setting informing our understanding of where the MC is. 

We also have to acknowledge the world building that goes into most of these series. The primary physical setting in most MC books is the MC’s clubhouse, whatever that looks like. Typically that looks like some kind of isolated compound or large building that is either physically removed from other buildings, like in a wilderness space, or is surrounded by gates and fences. The clubhouse tends to reinforce the feeling that the MC is an island within a bigger world, but that bigger world isn’t necessarily populated. Even if the author only describes the clubhouse itself and does not describe any fencing or surrounding buildings, the feeling that the clubhouse is an island is impossible to miss. 

So as we’re moving into this discussion of MC smut, keep in mind that the setting provides a pretty solid baseline for where these characters exist and what the mood of the story is supposed to be.

Next time, we’ll talk about that essential component of MC smut culture: The Brotherhood


Previous Posts in this series:

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: Road Trip Romances

This week, we’ll be featuring romances that are all about the road trip. To get us in the mood, we chatted briefly about the trope and our own experiences on the road.

A preview of the books we’ll be reviewing this week

Bottom line: Do you like the Road Trip Trope?

Erin: To be honest, I was kind of surprised when I realized it’s a trope that I need to categorize, so I guess I never paid much attention to it. 

Holly: I LOVE it. It’s my favorite type of forced proximity. 

Ingrid: I haven’t read too many road-trip books but then I did…and I really liked it.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: It’s a playful trope. An author can take any pair of characters, from enemies to strangers to old acquaintances and put them together for a journey in which they kind of need to figure out how to be together or have a terrible time. Plus, it’s a perfectly reasonable forced proximity situation, whatever the excuses were to get in the vehicle together in the first place, so there can be plenty of opportunities for misadventures and tension that don’t feel like the author is putting the characters together unnaturally.

Holly: So many things! Sometimes the set up for forced proximity stories feels like there’s too much emphasis on the “forced” – but not road trips. You have to get where you’re going, so why not travel together? Road trip stories work in basically any location or time period. Spending a lot of time in a car or carriage is a great excuse to have deep conversations with someone, so the characters developing a connection by sharing confidences is believable. And since you’re traveling, there are plenty of opportunities for shenanigans. Oh no, there’s ONLY ONE BED at the hotel! Oh no, we were just attacked by bandits! This trope is just so versatile. 

Ingrid: I think it sets the characters up for just exactly the right amount of drama. You’re stuck together and things are going to go wrong. And you’ll see things that take your breath away. And you’re also stuck in a box within hand distance of a person you’re attracted to. What’s not fun about that?

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: I don’t think it’s particularly problematic at all, but typically a road trip doesn’t last a very long time, so maybe it isn’t for people who don’t enjoy stories with a fast-paced romance that happens over only a few days. 

Holly: Nothing. There is nothing problematic about this trope. I mean, obviously, sometimes the execution works better, and sometimes a book featuring a road trip doesn’t work for me, but not because of the trope. Maybe if your worry about global warming extends into all areas of your fiction reading adventures, you’d be like, “Man, all that time they’re spending in the car is creating a lot of pollution.”

Ingrid: I guess the only thing I can think of is that it’s kind of unusual having a mobile setting? Secondary characters end up being more in the far periphery than in a book with a more fixed setting. But while that might create challenges for the author I’m not sure I’d call it problematic for the reader…

What’s the most epic road trip you’ve taken? Have your own road trip experiences influenced the way you read road trip romances?

Erin: Well I was going to say that my most epic road trip was my around the world trip, or at least going overland from Nairobi to Johannesburg all over southern Africa, but then my husband said that doesn’t count as a road trip, which bummed me out. In which case I guess it was even we were really not smart in our mid-20s and (twice!) drove all night to get to Titusville, Florida in order to watch a shuttle launch spur-of-the-moment. So for me road trips have often been times of quiet and reflection or dedicated times that I have been removed from any other kind of responsibility. Other than that round-the-world trip, my road trips have all been pretty uneventful and low-key, so sometimes I might roll my eyes when the protagonists hit road bumps that seem like stock problems. But also I’m the “That didn’t go as planned, I guess we’re having an adventure!” to my husband’s “Everything is falling apart, this is a disaster!” so I love finding that sort of grumpy/sunshine dynamic in road trip books.

Holly: Most epic road trip is a tough one. Maybe the time my sister and I borrowed Grandma’s giant Buick and drove around the Southwest for two weeks. This was pre-smartphone, but post-Mapquest, so we had printed out directions for our route every day. Not all of them were entirely accurate. Also, it rained while we were in Vegas, so the one day we stayed in a fancy hotel instead of camping, the pool was closed. Lame! 

However, my reading of road trip romances is probably more heavily shaped by the many times my husband and I drove from Chicago to the East Coast, because we were those people who got a dog and then had to bring him everywhere with us. All of our trips included hours of just talking and checking in with each other. (And listening to the Savage Lovecast.) So the idea of a road trip as a time set apart from real life, where you can build connections in ways that aren’t usually possible – I completely believe it.

Ingrid: Well, I bailed on Maryland after living abroad and decided to move to Colorado on a bit of a whim. I drove myself all alone the whole way, my car had no air conditioning, and I was stung by a stowaway bee while driving. I think I made it there with $200 to my name. But it was liberating to be that alone, and I loved it. I think road trip romances maybe feature one person too many, based on that experience!! 

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: The best book for this trope has got to be A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare. Other books are also great, sure sure, but Colin is a whole mess, and Minerva pretty much kidnaps him so she can go to a geology convention in Scotland. There’s a lot of that standard rake/bluestocking histrom business in this book, but Dare plays with it in ways that are light and fun, so the whole book is just delightful.

Holly: Good rec, Erin! A Week to be Wicked is hands down my favorite Tessa Dare book. But road trips work in all time periods, so how about a Western? The Gunslinger’s Vow by Amy Sandas is excellent, in part because the perils of the road allow the heroine to reveal herself – both to the hero, and to herself.

Ingrid: Well, Hairpin Curves was absolutely delightful because it took estranged best friends and provided a really gradual but tense unfolding of what went wrong while new romantic tension was building. It felt like a lot of emotional and sexual development at once, which I think makes sense in a road trip—it’s a lot of time to think and talk, and you’re so physically close!! 


What do you think? Do you love the road trip trope? Is there something about it you hate that you’re dying to tell us about? What’s you’re favorite road trip book? Let us know in the comments!

Smut Reporting

Illustrated Covers and Marketing Romance

I started thinking about illustrated covers last year, when a) everyone was all in a tizzy about the new wave of romances with illustrated covers hitting the shelves and b) I read The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory.

My initial take boiled down to: I don’t really love illustrated covers. Give me a good clinch any day! I am not ashamed about my smut reading habits!

Smutasaurus Rex agrees with me, y’all! Roar!

However, I acknowledge that there are good reasons for using them. Representation is the big one – with an illustrated cover, you can create that perfect image of your characters, which may not exist in stock photography if you’re writing about queer people or people of color or disabled people or fat people. Plus, it turns out that you can illustrate anything, even a good clinch. 

That’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about marketing, and how some types of illustrated covers work in combination with other marketing tactics in ways that are not awesome. I finally decided that my take on illustrated covers and marketing was needed after reading a review of Get a Life Chloe Brown by Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. She makes some good points about how Chloe was portrayed, and some arguments about the focus on the hero that I frankly disagree with, but my main takeaway from the review is that she felt lied to by the marketing. 

Continue reading “Illustrated Covers and Marketing Romance”
Motorcycle Monday

Erin Explores the World of Motorcycle Club Romance, Or, “What am I even reading right now?”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: branching out in the world of Romancelandia has been eye-opening in many, many ways. I’ve read books I never thought I’d ever read. I’ve seen opinions, hot takes, and rants I probably could have lived without. I’ve seen some lovely things, too, of course! 

Ergo, much of the time when something new comes across my “desk”, my interest is piqued. Case in point: Dragon shifters.

Which is to say that I had several influences that piqued my interest and guided me over time to biker smut: A little bit of exploration of alpha-holes when I was working on a project last year. The book Under Locke when I was listening to Mariana Zapata’s backlist, which was absolutely one of those “He is so bad, and I should feel like this is so not okay, but I really don’t hate it” situations. And one or ten Twitter hot takes that I struggle with, because I frankly agree with the sentiments or the underlying arguments, but also I am not looking for any kind of perfect reading materials, aside from the perfect thrill. 

I was curious. What is this MC smut all about? What about it makes people talk about it like it’s a trope? Why is it a dirty secret pleasure? Why is it bad news? WHAT IS GOING ON?

So I read one and I was like, “Okay, so that was a thing that I just read.”

And then I read another one and I was like, “This is pretty messed up, and I am scandalized and also delighted by the fact that I am scandalized.”

And then I just started binging books because, once I started, I had to know why some of these books and authors were so popular. (Pro tip: Kristen Ashley comes up quite a bit. Don’t start with Wild Like the Wind like I did.)

So, instead of writing a bunch of reviews, I decided to prepare this series of pieces that discusses biker smut and explores my experience of reading it. Over the course of the next weeks, we’ll look at the settings, characterizations, romance, sex, and politics of MC romance. 

This smut is not for everyone, in no small part due to some of its extremely problematic content. But since we’re about matching readers to books, a conversation about what exactly this content includes might be useful to someone somewhere. Or just useful in that I’ve done all the reading for you, and you can enjoy the rubbernecking. In which case, you’re very welcome.

Next up, we’re starting off easy with a discussion of setting. But fear not, gentle readers. There will be charts.