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Puzzled by reader feedback

April 17, 2010

Recently, I’ve been puzzled by some of the feedback from readers that I got.

But before I start explaining, let me say that this is not about a writer whining about negative or critical feedback. I appreciate constructive criticism, and I try to learn from it. In fact, if sites such as Amazon provided e-mail addresses I’d contact readers who pointed out flaws in my books and ask them to test read my works in progress.

So let me explain what’s so puzzling about the feedback I got.

I stumbled across a review of Conflict of Interest on Amazon. One reader titled her review “Too Bi-Sexual,” and complained that the book is predominantly about bisexual women.

And a reader review of Backwards to Oregon on Amazon (not by the same reader) said that there’s too much “implied (short of graphic) m/f intimacy.” The reader suggested I should have cut the first thirty pages of Backwards to Oregon — that’s the part that shows Nora’s life in the brothel.

Another reader sent me feedback, saying she enjoyed Conflict of Interest “despite the hetero sex” in it. I asked the reader to what she was referring, but she never answered, so I’m left wondering. Is she referring to the fact that a few of the characters were in relationships with men before? Or — and I hope that’s not what she meant — does she see being raped at gunpoint as “hetero sex”?

I also had one e-mail from a reader who said she would have enjoyed Second Nature more without the heterosexual romance.

All of that made me wonder if someone is adding hetero sex scenes / romances to my books while I’m not looking 🙂  There are no heterosexual love scenes in any of my books. None.

So, I have two separate issues with that kind of feedback:

Exploitation of women (Nora’s work in a brothel) and rape should never be confused with sex. Sex always includes a choice. If a woman is raped or forced to work as a prostitute, she has no choice — not if she wants to survive. It’s in no way “hetero sex,” and it’s not an indication of her sexual orientation.

I’m aware that I chose to write about sensitive subjects, and I can understand if readers don’t want to have any mention of rape or prostitution in their romance novels. Many of us read to escape the hard reality of life, after all. But if a reader reads the back cover blurb and buys the story, she (or he) knows that my characters’ lives are touched by that kind of violence and hardship.

Should I have cut the first thirty pages of Backwards to Oregon and merely mentioned that Nora had worked in the brothel?

My answer is no. I wanted to SHOW her life in the brothel, not just TELL the reader about it. In my opinion, it was needed to explain her motivation for marrying Luke. If Nora hadn’t been desperate to change her life, she never would have agreed to marry a perfect stranger.

So, there is no “hetero sex” in any of my stories.

But yes, there are men in my books, and there are bisexual women, and sometimes I have heterosexual couples in my books.

There aren’t as many bisexual women as the “too bi-sexual” review implies, though. If it takes a character a while to figure out that she’s gay, does that make her bisexual? In my opinion, the answer is clearly no. Personally, I see Dawn, Aiden, and Jorie as lesbians, even though they’ve been with men. Just because they’re not gold-star lesbians doesn’t mean they’re any less lesbian than Del, Griffin, or Luke.

Kade and Tess are clearly bisexual, though, and Nora might be bisexual too. I don’t see anything “wrong” with that. Isn’t there a place for bisexual women falling in love with a woman in lesbian fiction?

And why shouldn’t lesbian romances have male supporting characters? Or heterosexual couples? I assume that most lesbians have male and/or heterosexual friends and family members. We’re surrounded by at least 90% straight people. Good people, if they are there by our choice. So why should I write a book about just lesbians, with not even one straight acquaintance? And why do all the straight characters need to be either single or in unhappy relationships? Why can’t I at least mention happy straight relationships? It makes no sense to me.

In Second Nature, I have one of Griffin’s sisters be gay and in love with a wonderful woman. So what’s so wrong about showing that her other, straight sister is in a happy relationship too, as long as neither of the subplots takes over the novel?

I also don’t want to portray men as the bad guys in my novels. Yes, there might be villains or antagonists who are men, but I always try to have some good guys too.

So while I know it won’t please some readers, Hidden Truths will have all of that too: men who are great friends, bisexual or lesbian characters who have been with men before, and heterosexual couples who pick flowers for each other after thirty years of marriage.

Readers, how do you pick the books you read? Does it matter to you if there are male / straight / bisexual characters in the book?

Fellow writers, what kind of characters do you choose for your novels? Have you ever had similar reactions from readers?

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25 comments

  1. my jaw just dropped when I read your post above…I thought we’d all grown up! Okay, I admit to cluelessness when I was young but I never looked back once I made the decision.

    Some people simply see things in black and white and won’t allow any grays to exist in their lives. I know a few people like that but they are way in the minority.


    • CP,

      glad to see others are just as baffled by this as I am. Here’s to the shades of gray!


  2. Welcome to the club. You can’t please all of the readers all of the time, and leave it at that. Just tell the story you need and want to tell.

    There will be lesbian readers who balk when an author, in depicting a female character’s whole life (influences, bad and good relationships, both romantic and platonic), gives interactions with men the same weight as her eventual relationship with a woman.

    I had a review for “Turning Point” (you can find the 1-star review on Amazon) that declared that TP was NOT a lesbian romance, because there was too much (in her opinion) male-female interaction. The fact that Brenna AND Cassidy were coming from previously hetero-identified lives, the transitioning being the main plot of the story, and therefore such contextual content was necessary, never seemed to cross that reader’s mind.

    So, again, Jae, I say, “Welcome to the club of whole woman writers.” There are many, many readers who do appreciate the depictions. We’ll just write for them (and ourselves, of course). *smile*


    • Lara,

      then it seems I’m in good company. I read TP, and I count it as a lesbian romance. To me, every romance between two women that ends with them in a committed relationship is a lesbian romance, no matter how they started out, no matter if they have or had meaningful relationships (platonic or otherwise) with men.

      And I always welcome it if characters have interactions with friends, foes, and family members. Their lives didn’t just start when they met each other. They come to each other as products of the sum of previous experiences, good or bad, straight or lesbian, romantic or platonic.

      I believe in that, so I represent it in my stories.


  3. As a reader, I have no issue with male / straight / bisexual characters in a book. In fact, I prefer that there are such characters, because, *shockingly* such individuals exist in the real world. 🙂

    As a lesbian woman, I probably wouldn’t pick out a book that’s focused on a gay romance, simply because I still have a long list of lesbian romance books to get through first. 🙂 But I certainly wouldn’t object to it being a secondary relationship in a book I’m reading.


  4. Yay!


  5. Same here. I don’t actively seek out gay romance novels or straight romances, but a good book is a good book and interesting characters are interesting characters.


  6. A while back Blayne Cooper asked the readers on Susan Meagher’s yahoo group if they would consider reading a book written by her that was focused on straight characters. I was astounded by the number of people who said they really wouldn’t even try it. These were people who had read her previous work and really liked it. I’ll try anything by an author that has proven to be interesting in the past, but that’s just me.


    • Good point, I’d also read try any type of book by an author whose writing I’ve enjoyed in the past.


    • I think authors of lesbian fiction do themselves a huge disservice by reading only within their own categorie or genre. There’s so much to enjoy and to learn in all the other areas of fiction too.


  7. […] characters and even a bit of heterosexual romance in lesbian fiction. After getting some puzzling feedback on Amazon and in e-mails that told me my writing is “too heterosexual” or “too […]


  8. […] The most read blog post in April was… tatatata… “Puzzled by reader feedback.” […]


  9. […] Puzzled by reader feedback April 2010 12 comments 3 […]


  10. Me I prefer lesbian romance, but do not limit myself to just that.
    Because that is just what you are doing limiting yourself. A good book is a good book period. And to show the hardship faced by women of that time adds to the story. As does straight sex or relationships. It is life! There are all kinds of people in the world, bi, gay, straight. Many shades of grey. How boring to see things as only black and white IMHO.
    My favorite line in an old movie is this.
    “Life is a banquet, most poor sons of bitches are starving and they don’t even know it”
    I am new this site so I am kind of a johnny come lately.
    Cindy


    • There’s no time limit on adding comments. And I completely agree with yours.

      While I wouldn’t put lengthy scenes of graphic heterosexual sex in my books, I think it’s perfectly fine to have straight, bisexual, gay, and lesbian characters and relationships in my books.


  11. […] Puzzled by reader feedback. […]


    • Thank you for writing such a wonderful blog post!


  12. I too do not understand this. Not all lesbians hang around other lesbians. Some have hetero friends and even gay guys. I don’t understand what the fuss is about when you bring it up in your books. To me some people are set in their ways and it was said before but I will say it again, you cannot please everyone. You write your stories the way you write them and because they feel right to you and in the end that is all that matters.


    • Thanks for commenting. I understand that readers read lesbian fiction to read about the lives of lesbians–I want the same. But a somewhat realistic portrayal of lesbian characters should probably also include a few heterosexual family members, friends, or colleagues.


      • Yes I agree completely.


      • I agree 🙂


  13. I read all sorts of stories, so I’m a bit baffled by this as well. I will say, I’m not keen on hetero sex scenes in lesbian novels (especially if the scene involves one of the main characters) but I don’t mind hetero couples, gay couples etc being depicted. In fact a trope that annoys me greatly is a lesbian novel (or series) where the only couples are lesbian or where as the series goes on all of the main characters friends pair off into lesbian relationships. As you say, my world is largely straight, and I find books that reflect that to be more realistic.

    I’ve read all of your novels and enjoyed them, I also love that you write fleshed out characters, who have flaws. I saw a review of Something In The Wine on Amazon that complained about the lack of sex, and was amused because one of the things I love about that story is that it shows how two women can build a relationship without falling into bed first (much as Dawn and Aiden did but for other reasons), we don’t see that very often in lesbian fiction, so kudos for that too.


    • Thanks for your comment, SW. I couldn’t agree more.

      While sex scenes and love scenes have their place in romance novels, but all novels call for it. Considering Annie’s personality, I felt that she wasn’t in a position where she’d have sex with Drew at the end of Something in the Wine. I actually got a few mails from readers thanking me for NOT ending the book with a love scene 😉

      I did write a love scene for Annie and Drew, though, published in the short story “Seduction for Beginners.”


      • You can add me to the group who thought it fit the story and the characters. And I’ve read the sequel and liked that you held the love scene until that story, it seemed more organic that way. Now I’m off to read the revised Conflict of Interest.


  14. Definitely more organic! That’s a good term for it.

    I hope you enjoy Conflict of Interest as well.



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