This post is a response to M/M Romance author Kevin Klehr’s “Stories Should Have Conflict”.
In which century were powerful tales not needed? Storytelling has endured through thousands of years because it is a type of power for humans.
At this time, we have more humans than ever in known history. We have storytellers. We can spread stories through a wider variety of media. This leaves readers have a surplus of powerful stories available.
That also results in a wider diversity of readers.
The old saying in publishing is “conflict is King”. (The saying might even predate Stephen King.) Writers are told to “dig deep” and to add as much drama as possible before building up the dreaded Melodrama. We’re supposed to break our readers heart and make y’all keep giving the pieces to us, the authors, to smoosh up and return in different condition. That’s art, yeah?
I can’t argue against that. I’m not exactly a gentle storyteller.
But I do have an argument about Kevin Klehr’s closing assertion that “the last thing we need are readers scared of tales that open them up to new concepts just because they want safe stories.”
Out of all the things writers don’t need, peers dismissing readers’ fears might be one.
Certain readers really do want–and maybe need–stories that are safe, at least sometimes. A reader doesn’t always realize it’s time to step back for works that are cute and fun, or they’ve already over-committed to emotionally heavy works. These readers might be looking for example of good friendships in fiction and get tired of seeing characters behaving as badly as real people who are intimately familiar.
Adultery is common, but I suspect that people hope for more honesty in same-sex relationships, fictional and real, than is expected in opposite-sex relationships. That’s a stereotype that, yes, needs to be trampled on occasionally, but… not everyone can handle that. The last thing we need is to be cruel to readers who are already bombarded with terrifying new concepts every day.
The beta readers are doing their job, explaining what they do and don’t like about a story. Complaining that their goals for reading don’t align with yours as a writer doesn’t make sense when you think it through. My advice to Kevin and every writer who initially agreed with his assertion is to either prepare for reviews that mention the same issues or find new beta readers who’ll respond how you want. You’ve got choices. Just like readers do.
Now, okay, yes, it’s frustrating when your betas don’t get what you were going for. I’ve been in the same position. My stories aren’t fluff. My poetry in Strange Horizons might come closest, and that’s about a relationship that endures the destruction of home, featuring technology that could destroy a community.
Yet… I was surprised at first when I got the same feedback as Kevin Kehr and Kevin St. John (in Kehr’s post):
- My romance stories don’t belong in Romance.
- My stories’ plot twists have given readers nightmares.
The Romance genre is huge. Where are the boundaries? Is that where my potential audience looking? That first point I’ll have to continue mulling over.
The last point is a bigger issue. The thing is, I don’t want to trigger anxiety in readers. A few minutes with breaking news here in the US can do that. Too many people I know are ill from anxiety already. I want readers to go to bed thinking about my stories, not waking up in terror from what I wrote. That crosses a line between storytelling and threatening words, because my aim here is to write queer romance and erotica, or at least fantasy and science fiction–not horror.
So, I try to give my test readers warnings about content that might be a problem for their health. That’s a show of respect. I know that people willing to read my unpublished drafts to give honest feedback aren’t going to trust me again if I disregard their feelings to try push myself on them. There’s, like, a consent issue there.
For those who are confused about this exchange… the purpose of beta reading is to get responses from a different angle than what the author’s perspective before the work goes out into the unpredictable world of reviews and social discussion. Maybe authors out there want only reassurances that the story is 100% perfect before sending it out. (I don’t know why. The reality of what happens next is too much to deal with?) Either way, the author chose the readers for that step. Who gets a copy isn’t as random as a book sale. Beta readers are selected to give opinions.
Writers, respect your readers.