Before “Hot Head” by Damon Suede was published, there was a lot of buzz in virtual space. This was a “first” book by a man who describes himself as growing “up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. He says he has lived all over: Houston, New York, London, Prague, with a few long stretches in New Orleans and Vienna. Along the way, he’s earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director... but writing has ever been his bread and butter.
For the most part his book has received unqualified praise, however there are some pretty damning reviews out there which I want to address rather than review the book per se.
Now, I have nothing but respect for the people who made these comments, however I feel that the issues they raise are worth addressing.
It is very difficult for an author to “discuss” reviews of their own book and most publishers recommend that authors don’t get into an argument with people who pan their book, so I’m going to do it for him, lol.
I’ll probably be accused of being an apologist who wants to deny reviewers the right to write negative reviews. So, to start with, Damon has no fucking clue who I am, or that I am doing this.
I have also written my share of negative reviews and will defend to the end my right and every other reviewer’s right to do so. I have also had negative reviews written about mystories and will likely cop more in the future. Probably deservedly so.
However, some of the points used to justify the low ratings beg discussion.
The two main bones of contention with the plot are: the coincidental “Gay for You” theme and the fact that fire fighters risk their jobs doing porn videos.
Linked into that are queries about the way the book references the tragedy of 9/11.
To sum up, words like contrived, far-fetched and crazy were bandied about the plot.
The other major issues are to do with the lack of emotional tension and romance in the story and the part porn plays in the story.
Alongside these are craft issues such as pacing and point of view and finally the depiction of minor characters and the ending.
Before I start commenting, I’d like to add what my expectations were when I read the book as, to me, “expectations” not being met are at the root of a lot of this criticism.
I deliberately hadn’t read any blurb beforehand, or excerpts although I had seen some discussion about the book before it was released.
PLOT: Fire fighters and Porn
Before I opened the book, I assumed the main plot would revolve around their fire-fighting duties. I actually felt a bit ho-hum about that. It’s been done to death. So, when I started reading and found the porn angle was so crucial, I was immediately relieved, hooked and interested. Real fire-fighters do appear on calendars in various undressed states. Porn stars dressed as firemen appear in photos and videos. They say they’re fire-fighters, but everyone assumes they’re lying, right? So, what if they really were firemen? Far-fetched possibly, but not impossible.
Taking the first major criticism then, I didn’t have a problem with the plot. Most romances have contrived plots if there is a plot. Many romances are character driven and only cover a few days, thus escaping the need to have gay men in the real world with real jobs and real problems like where to live and the need to earn money. In a world where the reality of being gay still has repercussions and not just in being bashed.
PLOT: Gay for You = Out for You
The Gay for You “problem” was beautifully answered by Damon himself as he quotes the better term is that used by Marie Sexton:” "Out for You”. As Damon says, "Out for You" is how most gay men figure themselves out sexually, at whatever age they come to terms with their sexuality. They meet someone who arouses feelings that makes them question their self-image.”
This is what the book was all about and to dismiss this as contrived or not working is short-sighted. Maybe in the majority of couples in real life, one of them has come to this realisation a lot earlier than the other and helps them “through it”, but there must be cases where this “coincidence” happens.
Perhaps the bond that brought them together in the first place was more than “brotherly love”, and they dared not put a name to the underlying physical attraction, but it may have been there all along.
I would guess that “Out for You” happens more often than not. It must still take a lot of guts today to admit you’re gay because of not only society’s and family expectations but what doing so actually means. Many men never “come out” simply because the thought of missing out on family and kids is too much to give up. Everyone wants to feel “normal” and until society and family see them as normal when they are gay, many will continue to deny their feelings.
Would it have worked if one was knowingly gay and pursued the other? I don’t think so. It would certainly have been a different story.
PLOT: Firefighters and 9/11
Perhaps too many readers expected this book to be different and felt cheated when it didn’t conform to their expectations. Some commentators thought the plot would have had more impact if tied closer to 9/11. They wanted the fire-fighting to be the main theme of the book. While that might make for a lovely angsty/emotional book, it’s not this book.
This book is about the men who fight fires, not the fires themselves. They are a special breed. There is a certain defence mechanism fire fighters use to cope with the reality of tragedies like 9/11 and the many we never hear about. Guys in these situations often find the only way they can deal with it is to “trivialise” it in their mind. Damon has said in interviews etc that he spent a lot of time getting the feel “right” so perhaps, once again, the problem is in reviewers’ preconceptions. I know a few Aussie firemen, and they are the most laid back, ironic, brash people you’d like to meet and would fit in very well with what Damon has described.
LACK OF EMOTIONAL TENSION
OK, I’ll buy this to a certain extent, but how many people generally can and do express their emotions? Male or female? I like reading stories where two people learn to be happy together. They don’t have to tell us why or even show why. Not everyone is able to express themselves emotionally in real life and fire-fighters who learn to put huge walls around their emotions are the least likely to do so.
Emotional tension comes and goes in relationships. I feel it’s a female thing. I wonder how many males would say that’s what they want? I will admit that this probably sums up why I will never be a writer. I have difficulty putting emotion down on paper.
Criticism was also levelled at the way misunderstanding was used to build tension. The characters themselves were guilty of expectations. Both Griff and Dante assumed the other would reject/hate them for having these feelings. If you aren’t comfortable with the fact you’re gay, you’re hardly likely to expect another person to feel the same way. Admitting the truth to himself was hard enough for Griff.
The emotional tension comes from the guilt Griff has over loving Dante. Damon describes it thus: “I think that Griff uses the idea of brotherhood to defuse his early desire and affection as they grow. (This) is one of the only accepted ways for men to show affection to each other.”
So this “love” isn’t going to have great ”emotion” attached to it. It’s claps on the shoulder. Doing things for the other person without being asked. Griff does eventually want more, but society’s expectations prevents it from being more.
Some guys work 24/7 at denying they have any feelings. Emotions are for wusses. Anyway I would expect many emergency response workers are usually emotionally drained after pulling dead kids out of burning houses or seeing comrades die. That to them is emotion. Loving someone who is your best buddy and having that turn into a sexual relationship is possibly classified under a different heading.
A couple of readers noted the rough, masculinity of the males but some felt this was overdone. Criticising men for being men (when there are no females around) makes me shudder. No wonder they like to escape from the finger wagglers. Perhaps they are this way deliberately to show they’re men just like women get false fingernails to appear more feminine?
PACING ISSUES and POV
Damon commented: “I tend to like introspective protagonists.” Funnily enough, a lot of females who read m/m romance do too. This introspection is a natural reaction for someone who believed being straight was the only option. There would have been non-stop questioning going on. Griff wanted to talk about it with someone else, but didn’t know who he could confide in.
If Dante was straight he felt letting him know he was gay would ruin their friendship. So of course he angsted by himself a lot.
One critic also felt that the one-sided POV didn’t make Dante engaging or logical or help build the romantic tension. I have a big problem with this attitude, especially in a book where “misunderstanding” was such an important element. If we had been in Dante’s head, we would have immediately known he lusted after Griff. The whole point of the story was that Griff didn’t know what Dante was thinking.
I hate it when the reader is told things in these sorts of stories that the main protagonist doesn’t know. You want to kill all tension?
NOW WE GET TO THE KILLER EXPECTATION – NOT ROMANTIC ENOUGH
I note that Damon referred to it as a gay romance not an m/m romance. However, reader’s expectations are turning the genre into a farce and in the process are actually belittling gay males and males in general.
The ultimate put down for m/m romances is that one or both protagonists were “chicks with dicks”. It’s not making the protagonists beer swilling, burping males or giving them stupendous physical attributes or have them being aggressive or violent that makes them male. It’s the unwillingness to bare their souls and pour out their emotions except as a last resort.
Emotionally constipated is a common and apt description. Men often prefer to show their love in what they do, not what they say or even think. This is where I really feel females are doing a disservice to the genre and gay men, by demanding they pander to female needs for emotional expression of their feelings for each other.
The romance aspect is becoming derivative and predictable as the readers demand that they be written to a formula and tick certain boxes.
Griff and Dante loved each other before they had the sex. For them, the sex was part of the equation, an important part, but the connection was there to start with. Therefore, you’re never going to get the “Some Enchanted Evening” style romance. Which itself is often one protagonist being in love and the other not willing to recognise it. In this case it was two guys too scared to recognise and identify what they felt.
One critic felt the book would have been better with a more sensitive guy in the mix. A “sensitive” guy wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes as a fireman. Not that these guys aren’t sensitive. They’re probably the biggest wusses of the lot, but they lock it up inside. The clues were all there in the writing. They just don’t show it or express it openly. A skim through read might miss these.
Many comments dwelt on what readers want in their “romances”. Just remember, not all readers are the same.
Which now brings me to the porn aspect of the whole story. Again I’m going to quote Damon in full here as it’s relevant: “As for the porn, it actually was included for the unsexiness. LOLOL The thing is, porn isn't sexy on the inside. I've dated people in the industry and still have a lot of friends who perform in it. For me the porn addressed falseness and emptiness and dishonesty that had sprung up around all that unspoken desire as the two of them found a way to each other. It's the fakeness and the pose of normalcy that made it essential to the story. Porn is a pose of desire, which people knowingly misread as their own desire. It's only sexy if we submit to the explicit lie of it. Those performers are earning a living and trying to survive as best they can. When I was still stripping, there were times in clubs or in a cage when men would be touching my legs or gazing up with a weird hybrid of lust and anger and I'd realize how disconnected we all were, how artificial the fantasy needed to be to survive. Pretending to engage so that we never actually engaged.”
Having watched a fair bit of gay porn (purely in the name of research LOL) I felt what was described was pretty accurate.
In the story, the porn shots were a necessary stage in the whole process. Yes, maybe the fact that Dante knowingly used it as a ploy to reach Griff was far-fetched. He could have just done it without knowing why. It was this progression from straight brotherly affection through the almost “acceptance” in men of porn to the realisation that it was more than porn that is the journey they make.
I’m glad Alek turned out to be a “good” guy. He reminded me of what Corbin Fisher comes across as. Someone trying to encourage males to explore their sexuality. Sure they make money out of it, and possibly have a hidden agenda to turn all good looking straight men gay <winks>, but if it gives guys the feeling that, hey, the world isn’t going to end if I have sex with a guy, then isn’t that a good thing?
Given the number of porn sites that have “straight” guys learning the joys of man-on-man sex, a lot of guys need this “permission” to explore this side of their sexuality.
For female romance readers to criticise a book that has porn as its main theme is again putting female “expectations” onto gay romance, in much the same way they demand male monogamy as being the only expression of love.
Damon admitted this himself when he said: “I'm writing a gay romance for a specific audience with very firm expectations and a very wide disparity of tastes.”
Again this is as much a reflection on females demanding males write m/m romances for females exclusively.
I won’t go into the Peter Jackson “Return of the King” style ending. It could have finished earlier, but I feel the author wanted to make a couple of points. He wanted to avoid the cliché stereotypes by showing people what they could and should be like.
What I didn’t like? And I’m not dropping a point for it as a decent editor would have red penned it: The vanity adjectives. Griff keeps noting things like the redness of his hair, the massiveness of his thighs or shoulders, also his red-headedness was harped on a couple too many times.
But, I still give this book five stars. I didn’t lose interest. As a wannabe writer, there were many scenes Damon did brilliantly and his characters lived and breathed. He is one of those writers that make me want to give up writing as my efforts to do similar things pale by comparison.
Sure the book is not perfect, but it dares a great deal. It’s brave. And the fact it doesn’t meet up to some reader’s expectations probably says more about the readers than it does the writer.
WHY I WROTE THIS
Why didn’t I just accept that everyone has the right to their own judgement and point of view without taking issue with it?
Firstly for the author’s sake. Reviewers wield more power than they realize. The majority of authors sincerely take on board well thought out constructive criticism and by and large the negative reviews were well thought out. Authors try to see whether there is a kernel of truth in the comments. This can be a two-edged sword.
I would hate for any author to feel they had to change the way they write to conform to the majority of reader’s expectations or the ones that “shouted” the loudest. The charges levelled at Damon were pretty intense when they start listing lack of emotion and lack of romance as reasons for giving a book a very low rating and not justified in this reviewer's mind.
To me, the restricted range of emotion and romance matched the characters perfectly. Authors should not be limited to just writing characters or have a plot to fit reader’s expectations. Many times I’ve felt with popular books I would have resolved the plot differently, but that’s my problem, not the author’s.
The second reason I feel justified in speaking out is because reviewers' expectations can quickly become publisher’s guidelines.
Dreamspinner Press was brave in publishing Sean Kennedy’s “Tigers and Demons” without any graphic sex scenes.
DSP actively promote and foster gay men to encourage them to write what they want to write.
If publishers are only interested in books containing a prescribed amount of romance, sexual tension and emotional tension then they will miss out on a lot of books about gay men falling in love and/or finding a loving relationship. Which after all is what this genre should be about.
If not, the genre risks being split into two separate groups: books written for a gay male audience and books using gay males as protagonists that are written for a largely female heterosexual audience with their expectations of what standards should prevail.
Should gay guys add romance to their sex scenes to pander to female readers?
Wouldn’t it be better for females to read books that are honest and true to how gay men are and learn to understand them a bit better rather than forcing them to think and behave as females want them to?
Damon has been writing in one form or other all his life, even if not in m/m romance format. I hope he continues to write the sort of books he wants to read and not just the ones to appeal to every female reader.