Carafe Syndrome

So there was an interesting kerfuffle on my blog, and I got very angry. If this is posting after twelve it’s because I didn’t get it written in time to make it to my doctor’s appointment for prednisone.

I’m not going to name the commenter, because this is not the point of this post and because in retrospect, if she’s doing what I think she’s doing, she had reason (in her mind) to be outraged. But the problem is what she’s doing is not what 99 out of a 100 people do when they buy science fiction books. (Okay, probably more like 88 out of a hundred in women, because women are weird, yo. But not as intensely as she does.)

Anyway, she left a comment, which, if you don’t know what was going on in her head was just about the rudest thing anyone has said to me as an author, impugning both my hability as a writer and my honest. On my blog. In the full light of day. On a post that was only tangentially related to the subject, and assuming other people had the exact same complaint she did, btw. (Which was not what the post referenced.)

Normally with stupid comments, I answer snarkily and move on. But this one was bad. I did answer snarkily, but I was wired, and by the time I made it to bed it was 2 am. And I couldn’t sleep. And then I realized why: I was subconsciously dampening down the berserker fit trying to erupt. It’s been…. well. Only politics have done that in the last three years.

So I went downstairs at 4 am and wrote a blog post slapping the comment down. Which I’ve only done before when According to Hoyt was at war with Esquire. (Too long to explain. Let’s just say some journalist thought he was punching down. Yeah.)

ANYWAY, moving right along. The commenter apologized and posted something like six comments trying to explain, but let’s say none of it made sense to me.

THEN just before I went to bed, some people were complaining about their comments being trapped. So I went into the spam and trash (Yes, I did put my galoshes on, okay. I’m not stupid) to free them, because WordPress Delenda Est. And there was a trapped comment of hers (And no reason WP held it back.) It made as little sense as the others. SORT of. But at the same time, I could see perfectly well what she meant and I went to bed giggling. I didn’t answer it, because I didn’t know how to. But I know she reads MGC and this is the answer. As good as it can be. I don’t expect her to pay attention, because I suspect she has some weird block around it, the same way I did in my thirties. But maybe other people out there are having issues finding what they really want to read, and this will help.

So…. how to explain this? If she were a member of my family I’d say “honey. You’re using the carafe.” But I’m aware that sounds crazy if you don’t know the carafe story. So come on, let’s gallop down the side loop of the carafe story, which for the record is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read in real life, and not intended to be funny by the one writing it.

My family buys most of our expensive stuff at thrift stores. Or we used to. Turns out that was a Colorado thing, because people quite literally donate expensive electronics and appliances to thrift stores when they’re a year old. It’s almost enough to make a list and take a long weekend in Colorado to go shopping.

Anyway we’d bought an unreal expensive coffee maker for $5. It was great, and we couldn’t afford a replacement. And no other showed up of that kind in the store. I don’t remember if it was me or older son (the others don’t drink coffee) who broke it, but I have a vague memory it was me. We couldn’t buy a new one. We could buy a cheap replacement, but understand WE LIKE COFFEE. A lot. And–

I found myself looking on Amazon by brand and name, for a replacement carafe (which cost me $25. BUT totally worth it.) And the top critical review was one star, so I read it.

The review was lamenting how down in quality the carafe making had gone. You see this person had also bought one of these in a thrift store — just the carafe — and had been using it to dig in his flower beds for a decade. Then it broke, so he went out and bought a $25 replacement. And it broke within a week. SHOCK. OUTRAGE.

Now, being me, it’s not like I didn’t understand it. I did. I’ve been known to use the wrong tool to do something, because I’d found it at a thrift store, and tried it, and it made sense. Okay, not quite that bad, but…. close enough to understand. It’s just that the back of my mind flashed green neon letters saying “You were digging the flower beds with a carafe.” AND he thought that was normal enough to leave that review. Which is what triggered the laughing fit that ended up with an asthma attack.

So… carafe problems. You’re using something you think makes perfect sense to do something you want or need, and — THE CRUCIAL POINT — you don’t understand that everyone else doesn’t do this. So, when something about the product makes it less suitable for your purposes you are, from your point of view justifiably, outraged.

The commenter, if I understood her trapped comment properly, was justifiably — from her pov — outraged that I had a gay relationship secondary plot in AFGM and hadn’t put it in the blurb or the cover somehow (TBF the edition she was complaining about was Baen, over which I had no power, but still, I wouldn’t put that on the blurb or cover, because that’s not how other people read.) so she knew in advance it would to nothing for her.

It was kind of hard to understand what she meant, but from her saying she liked the straight romance, but the m/m romance did nothing for her, I GOT it. She’s reading science fiction (Space opera, to be fair) for the romance. The relationship.

Now, I’m not going to pronounce on whether that’s as weird as digging in flowerbeds with a carafe. I have — myself — read entire mystery series for the characters’ romances/relationships. But the thing is that’s not normal (even for me) and I only did that because the author sucked at the mystery part but was great at characters and while I had no interest in the puzzle (which wasn’t) she was setting up, I wanted to know if the guy and girl got married. If they had children. If their children got married. Mind you, I skipped a lot of those books.

But here’s the thing: THAT’S NOT THE REASON MOST PEOPLE READ SPACE OPERA. We read space opera — I and other people I talk to — for the odd world, the puzzle of how things work, and how to get around them, and the …. the feel of it. I wrote A Few Good Men for “How do you write The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” without the super-computer. And “how do we keep America alive when it’s a bare memory.”

The relationship was mostly because the characters showed up in my head fully formed, and because they were/are compelling. I wasn’t particularly interested in their romance, though because I like them I wanted them to be happy. (Authors will get this, I think.) There is absolutely nothing graphic or sexy about their relationship. They’re two profoundly traumatized people involved in a hellish war that can/will kill them at any moment. I will be honest, I have no idea if their relationship is physical. I THINK so. But I’m not …. Um…. these characters are very private

I also understood her, and empathized with her, perhaps more than your average reader, because I didn’t read romance till I was (I worked it out last night) 39. And I only read it because Dave Freer made me read Heyer.

Then, because of a lot of reasons, I went on a sidequest into romances and they’re now on the reading rotation, sort of. Except that I prefer no-explicit sex romances because they tend to not lean on the sex for plot, and so are more interesting. (There’s more HOT in Venetia by Heyer than in a hundred romances that have sex every ten pages.) And wait, she reads Heyer. Though it might be the only romance she reads, so still different.

I didn’t read romance because my brother had convinced me only stupid people read romance. And my brother is much older than I and I thought he knew everything.

Maybe that’s not the thing with her, because as I said, she reads Heyer. But people are weird. Maybe she likes spaceship wrapped around her relationships.

The thing is that there are probably series for that — I’m not sure. I’ve never looked. Romance is backup to backup for me — and even non-explicit ones. (There are a million and a half explicit sex science fiction romance, but I’m almost sure there are also “sweet” non explicit sex ones. And that’s closer to the level of sex in normal space opera, where it’s implied or referred to in a line.)

Anyway, it all clicked. If THE most important thing in the book, or even a secondarily VERY IMPORTANT THING in the book, for you is the relationship between the characters, because it feeds your own romantic yearnings, of course you’d want the relationship in the blurb. This is why the old slash fanfics had markings like f/m or m/f or m/m or f/f or far, far weirder things. (m/m/m/m/m/g (For goat.) Sorry, I stole that from DaVinci’s Notebook Internet Porn song, and if you go and search for that, I’m not responsible for your asthma attack when you laugh yourself sick. you’ve been warned.)

Because even if the fanfic was about other things (I read one for a while because it had the best space battles I’ve ever read. Yeah, okay, that’s not why my friend recommended it) most people were reading it for the relationship.

But again we get back to “That’s not why most people read space opera.” Which shouldn’t matter, except it does. Sure, I could slap m/f or m/m on the end of the blurbs. But most people — after they looked it up — would assume the book was outright erotica. Because in space opera, which people read for other reasons, like mine, or closely adjacent, that marking would say “This matters way more than it should in this genre.” And considering I write NO SEX (I mean sometimes there’s a kiss, okay. And you can assume married couples sleep together. Well, except the one in Rhodes, because that would be weird) most readers who saw that and were enticed by it would be disappointed and angry. And the ones who would have liked the books for the adventure, the world building and the working out “how the society adapts to x or y” wouldn’t even buy it.

Heck, I wouldn’t buy it. I would assume it was either erotica with sf trappings or at the very least romance with sf trappings. And no, that’s not what the Darkship series is. Having a secondary relationship plot doesn’t make it a romance. And for that matter my secondary relationship plot is low-key. It’s mostly to make Athena go on a rampage, or whatever.

I’m not Isaac Asimov, who seemed to forget humans had relationships and formed connections, most of the time, but I’m, say Heinlein or Simak level, not at the level of a lot of female writers of sf. Probably a reason most of my fans for that are male. But you know, it’s who you are and things that feels natural to you.

And yes, I do realize WHY so many of the older male fans scream my stuff is romance. It’s because I take you on an emotional roller coaster ride. On purpose. Because I like those. And they imagine that’s romance only. I once had someone tell me that my books were romance because the characters have moments of introspection. Yeah. Female, but really older fan. Like, from pulp times.

The thing is, in romance the feelings and introspection are about the romance and the relationship and not in the sense of “you kidnapped my husband, prepare to die.” (Darkship Revenge.)

So, what to do about someone who is reading space opera for romance, for whatever reason?

FIRST, understand that this is not normal. You’re using a carafe to dig the flowerbeds. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. I mean, it’s whatever. BUT you have to understand it’s not how the writer intended it, its not how the other readers (majority of) see it, and it’s not how AMAZON views it.

Romance and erotica have a problem of stupid with Amazon — no, this is not a digression, I’ll explain. DO keep up — in that if you mark your book as for mature readers, or above eighteen, or hint anywhere it has mature scenes, or you know graphic sex, they will wall your book in. They will assume you use the raunchiest, most graphic sex and that they’re going to get in trouble with parents whose kids buy the books or get sued or whatever, and make it so that even if you’re looking for title and author, you can’t find the book.

SIDE NOTE ON THE SIDE NOTE — NEWS YOU CAN USE — IF YOU’VE TAGGED YOUR BOOK FOR OVER 18 BECAUSE IT HAS SWEARING OF ALLUDES TO SEX OR SOMETHING, GO AND REMOVE IT RIGHT NOW. (I’ll also add that most of you bunnies — google gobble, one of us — are so polite and sensitive you’re actually tagging the book for adults because it involves swearing or politics. STOP THAT. If your books don’t sell at all? That’s why. Unless you’re allergic to money, stop that right now. Main stream romance publishers, with what goes where in every page don’t use it. EROTICA publishers don’t use it.

AND, getting back to our main point, what romance publishers or erotica publishers do use is code words like “Hot” or “red hot” or “a steamy relationship.” OR for the more restrained “He meets and falls in love with a young man whose partner just died in horrifying circumstances, and they develop an intense relationship which fuels their revolutionary lusts.” Yes, it’s AFGM and I made it intentionally sound dirty-ish, kind of. But note I don’t say they sleep togehter. I could make “lusts” “fervor” for cleaner, but it doesn’t matter. What the normal reader, looking for science fiction would take from that is “OMG, they’re going to be falling into bed every five pages and screaming ‘do me hard for the republic.'” And then people who aren’t into gay romance/erotica (the distinction is more how long the plot is and how involved, than how graphic the sex is for all kinds of romance/erotica. It’s more a focus than “sex.”) are going to be giving it a hard pass, because, well…. who the heck wants to read that?

Oh, wait, some people do WANT to read that. So they will look at that description and go “Oh, yum. Give me a spoon.” And then read the book and find out that the most intense physical contact between the two in the book is Nat picking Luce’s face out of a tray of milk when he passes out. (Long story.) And/or Luce squeezing Nat’s arm when he’s fairly PTSDed. And they’re going to go “Where is my drill me for the Republic sex every two pages. I wuz robbed.” And they’re going to leave me a million one-star reviews.

Trust me on this. That can happen even if the genre JUST tends to have sex, and yours doesn’t. I get people very mad at the fact that Shifters has no sex, no pack dynamics, no– And that despite my not saying anything even vaguely in that direction in the blurb.

Now, yeah, of course that could be solved if Amazon pulled head out of butt and allowed truth in advertising. But “If Amazon pulled head out of butt” is sort of like “If only everyone.” It’s actually impossible.

In my ideal world, if I ruled the world — well, you know, you guys could get on with making it happen — other than living it absolutely alone, I would tell Amazon to use the movie rating system and TRUST THE CUSTOMER TO CHOOSE. I.e. don’t hide stuff. Don’t play games. Just do G or PG, PG-strong language, PG violence, PG nudity. Or R for explicit sex, or whatever.

But they don’t do that. And mentioning a relationship or sex at all will just make people think I’m trying to signal romance.

So, the first step is for a reader in this position to assume they’ve got carafe problems.

One way to get around it is to JUST download the first chapter and take it for a test drive. But some authors are RUDE. The number of times they talk about the captain’s family, and it’s not until chapter five you realize he has a husband or she has a wife, which if I were reading for the romance would upset me.

The only other way to find things you like, is search on someone you really like, and then look at the also rans.

Of course, if you’re a Baen reader and really like Bujold, you’ll get a lot of people where the relationship is not that important.

Well, that’s carafe problems, you’ll just have to shift.

Or you could check out science fiction romance and see if it works for you. Some of it might be pretty decent. I honestly don’t know. When I read romance it’s mostly regency. So I don’t know if all sf romance is extremely hot and heavy or, you know, slightly heavier than in other space opera.

Anyway. I’m glad I figured it out. Yeah, from her POV the commenter had ever right to be mad. The problem is her POV is not the NORMAL one. It’s highly specialized. So, you know….

She’s got carafe problems.

37 thoughts on “Carafe Syndrome

  1. *Chuckle* Yes, am definitely a misuser of carafes. Also explains some of the unhinged genre mashups I’ve tried to write different times. Will do my best to keep the Parable of the Carafe in mind when I go looking for stuff to read. Thank you for your advice. 🙂

  2. What does one do with a carafe in a garden? I need to find out fast–everything has warmed up and started budding, and sprouting, I’d better do something with the garden before it’s solid weeds. And all the stupid trees are going to get half killed by the next wave of cold.

    And according to my reviews, I love slavery and rape.

    1. Don’t listen to them! You’re treating slavery & rape in a more historical fashion than 99% of the dreck out there that assumes they’re uniquely modern evils that our noble savage forbears never indulged in.

  3. Now, I’m not going to pronounce on whether that’s as weird as digging in flowerbeds with a carafe. I have — myself — read entire mystery series for the characters’ romances/relationships.

    I don’t read SF/F for the romance/relationships. But I do find them a nice little extra when they’re there. MOIWYW.

  4. I suppose it’s mostly because I am old and jaded, but I skirt around the hot lusty action in my own books, although there was a pretty graphic wedding night in my second novel. Which I now regret, because that one half chapter puts that book beyond what I’d want someone much under the age of fifteen or sixteen to be reading. (Although kids these days apparently are able to locate pretty graphic video porn, anyway.)
    So, suggestive conversation and maybe a subtle hint or two about the (adult) characters having some good old adult fun in bed is about as edgy as I want to write, these days.

  5. I like space opera because it has all the shiny of …well, space… and also has people, so the whole relationship thing is there, but it has more relationships than romances do.

  6. Heck, I want to know who has dirt that soft and airy that he/it/she/purple cow can dig in the garden using a carafe! I’d do a lot of things short of murder to have that quality of soil in my flowerbeds and yard.

      1. I am going to imagine the Original Misuser of Carafes as a dotty English eccentric in the prettier parts of Kent, just because Kent in older books and tourist accounts gives off that vibe.

    1. Yeah. I live in a place that was a sea-sized lake for millennia upon millennia, to the point where I’ve seriously suggested that *every* park should have mandatory “dry wells” (bored holes filled with gravel) just to punch through the clay layer and help replenish our aquifers when the rains come every five years or so.

  7. This is an awesome explanation of a real struggle I have when looking for books. Witchfinder had *just* enough romance for me to really enjoy it. I don’t read SFF for the romance, but I do enjoy it if it’s there and doesn’t take over the story.

    That being said, my own book has given me some grief in trying to determine how to market the romance aspect of it. The romance is a big aspect of the plot, but not the main aspect, and it’s not a very “romantic” romance. I feel like I’m misleading readers if I mention it, and misleading them if I don’t.

    1. IMHO, “Romance” is a very specific label. Almost any book can contain romances (with a lower case “R”), but the capital “R” word should be reserved for the explicit specimens of that genre.

      You can always hint at relationships in a blurb. Almost all stories have companionate relationships and many have full romances, so a hint is all that seems appropriate.

      1. How about Friday? I’ll put up my iterations, and then the experts can throw their hands up in horror and suggest better ways to do it. *cough* Just hit the button, so it’ll be a nice fresh blurb.

  8. Back in the old days stories did have everything? Forex Count of Monte Cristo, action, adventure, mystery, romance. However for a while there science fiction, especially the golden age got painted into a corner in which it was all supposed to be technical, not helped by Asimov (bless his heart). And some of the sub tropes still have that rigidity which may explain the carafe thing. IMO. Your stuff is always very peoply. And that’s not golden age.

    1. Yep. What India filmmakers/reviewers call (not always respectfully) “masala” (meaning a mixture, like the spices). Monte Cristo was kind of an extreme example, in that there were people at the time IIRC comparing it to the 1001 Nights. (Speaking of masala, the historical Abbe Faria imprisoned in the Chateau D’If was of Portuguese and Goan ancestry. His imprisonment may have had something to do with his experiments in mesmerism, but he did not die at the Chateau D’If, and was instead released to a comfortable retirement in an obscure religious community.)

  9. Athena gets her boobs out, memorably and quite distractingly, which automatically makes the Darkship books “smut” to a certain type of bluenose.

    And maybe I should start writing Rhodes erotic fanfic…. 😛

  10. I had to google what a carafe was. Romance (not erotica!) is probably my second or third favorite genre depending on whether fantasy and science fiction are separate genres. And I absolutely love having a m/f romance as one of the secondary plots. So I can sympathize with jaglionpress.

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