I don’t know what you pay attention to on the internet. Between you and me, I try not to pay attention to a whole lot because I find that most of what I see, I end up wishing I could unsee. Anyway, there’s been some minor rumblings recently that I’m really interested in because they concern the genre we all read and review. It seems there’s been some talk of a bit of an exodus from the MM Romance/Gay Fiction reading community.
Well, I’ve seen a variety of reasons offered for it: some readers say they’re tired of the same old regurgitated tropes in contemporary romance, some think there’s been a decline in the quality of the stories, especially those being traditionally published (which has brought some attention to self-published authors and LiveJournal enthusiasts), while some say they’re just plain old tired of the glut of endlessly whiney characters being thrown out there for our consumption lately. But do you know what I find more than slightly amusing about this, in my own “wow, how ironic” kind of way? Those are all the exact same reasons I gave for my defection from M/F Romance a few years ago! Pfft. Weird. I guess it just goes to prove the old adage that what goes around comes around. Either that or it shows that, just like with any diet, the mass and unvaried consumption of one particular brain-food group is bound to, sooner or later, start leaving a bad aftertaste in your gray matter, and leave you craving something else. For all I know, it could be both. Or it could be that we readers are a fickle lot. I don’t know. At any rate, I feel pretty fortunate that I’ve been mostly immune to it thus far; at least so far as to say I’m not ready to give up on the genre. All I know is that in this fictional niche of which I’m admittedly a little bit possessive and protective, (which, hello, have you noticed is going through a huge growth explosion in both readers and authors?) I don’t want to see quality sacrificed for quantity. More does not always equal better. Now don’t say, “Well, duh.” You know it’s true.
But let’s get back to that whole “regurgitated tropes” comment I made before. To be perfectly honest, I don’t see this as a M/M genre exclusive issue. Honestly, I think there are simply universal truths and cosmic contingencies that say, hey, here we all are and when you pare us down to our most basic selves, we’re really not all that different. Love and romance may not be an exact science, but chemistry and physics play a huge part in the experiment and is something we all have in common. Does that mean contemporary romance is doomed to be the same old, same old. Maybe, because really, when it comes down to it there just aren’t a lot of ways to vary the human experience, so I don’t know that I see it as lack of variety as much as it’s an abundance of product where there was, at one time, not so much to choose from. But that’s just me and my wonky thoughts on the matter.
Which leads me to the review-ish portion of the blah-blah-blah. So, let’s discuss the Jock/Nerd/Social Outcast trope, shall we? I’ve seen it done and done brilliantly in John Goode’s Tales from Foster High series. For me, these books are the absolute pinnacle of the theme. These are the books that I will forever compare this storyline against, and to be honest, so far everything has paled somewhat in the comparing. Does that mean it should be scrapped as a tired and recycled plot device? Absolutely not. But for me, if it’s going to be done and I’m going to read it, it’s going to have to be damn near flawless in its execution because I’ve read, again for me, what I consider to be the best. Is that fair? I don’t know, but it’s all I’ve got to work with, so I’m going with it.
Which now leads me to Sara Alva’s debut novel, Social Skills, the story of Connor, an eighteen-year-old college freshman and gifted musician who suffers from a crippling case of social anxiety; and the mediocre-at-best football player, Jared, who Connor has been hired to tutor in Anthropology.
Connor’s painful introversion, which he bears only through a sort of self-practicing music therapy, plays out as a deep contrast to Jared’s popular extroversion, which at times is itself more practiced artifice than a natural part of his personality. The building of their tenuous-at-best relationship plays out as a study of the built in difficulties in pretending you’re someone you’re not, of hiding in the closet, all for the sake of fear and of preserving a traditional public persona in a meatheaded, macho-ass, homophobic world. I liked Connor and Jared and was glad when they finally found their footing, but here’s where my problem with this book exists and why, in the end, I can’t give it a higher rating: I don’t think the premise supported the word count. Social Skills is more than three-hundred pages long, but when I boiled it down to its simplest themes and what I took away from the story, there was really only about a novella’s worth of significant plot there for me, and the rest labored a bit under the idea that nothing else needed to happen but to showcase all the stereotypical characters that could possibly populate a college campus. It was the socio-anthropological study of the teenage social structure, which did a lot of pointing out the obvious, and that’s pretty much it. Simply put, the story was predictable, which isn’t bad, per se—I mean, Connor and Jared eventually getting their HFN was what I ultimately wanted, and I got it. Connor and Jared saved this book for me—no, what I mean by predictable is that the reader knows these two boys are going to get together, which is good. But the reader also knows they’re going to have their short but sweet moment of bliss and then the bloom is going to rot right off the stem because publicly denying the one and only person who knows you for who you really are is a recipe for disaster. The reader knows that in order for the relationship to have any chance of working out, these two boys were going to have to spend some time apart figuring out who they are, deciding what was important to them, growing and making some changes, and ultimately figuring out who they wanted to be for each other. And the reader knows they’ll eventually get it all figured out. And that’s why, for me, this was a good read instead of great; it employed some common tropes in teenage drama but didn’t do anything more to make those themes special or unique in its 95,460 words.
So, while this is a case where a common M/M theme didn’t quite work for me, I’m not at all saying I wouldn’t recommend this book because, as I said, I did like Connor and Jared a great deal. They were sweet and conflicted and I was really rooting for them. I’m only saying that for me, the storytelling weighed in as just average, not that I expected a reinvention of the wheel, mind you, but I had hoped for at least a little new tread on the tires.
And that’s my universal truth.
You can buy Social Skills here: