Reading Between the Lines

Happiness is finding a book that you didn’t think had been written.

Sifting through hundreds of summaries, then reading one and realising that this is what you’ve been searching for… It’s like discovering a forgotten box of chocolates, or that you have another day to finish the assignment. The greater the sugar-craving or deadline-panic, the greater the joy of discovery. The more likely that what you want simply doesn’t exist, the sweeter the delight of finally finding it.

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When people are searching for their next good read, they generally evaluate the options against three criteria:

  1. It’s well written, or written in a style the reader enjoys.
  2. It’s well researched, in terms of the subjects central to the storyline.
  3. It’s realistic enough, in terms of plot and characters, that they reader is able to ‘suspend disbelief’ and lose themselves in the story.

Of course, one does not simply go looking for a good book. In this era we are more spoilt for choice than ever, not only because the number of published works has increased exponentially, but because all of it is now much easier to access. Given this, the modern reader has to be specific. You don’t ask a search engine for something ‘well-written, well-researched and realistic’, you ask for the kind of story that you want. You put one or two or several genres and sub-generes into the search bar (action/adventure, romance, historical fiction) and see what comes up. If the results are too broad you add more details, like when and where the story should be set (action/adventure romance in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars). Then you can start sifting through to find something with a blurb that appeals, and see if it fits the Criteria.

Obviously with each added search-term, the results are smaller, but it’s also true that not every search-term is weighted equally. The addition of certain terms will reduce the title-yield a great deal more than others. A search for an action/adventure romance set in the Napoleonic Wars might still give you hundreds of books to browse, but a search for an action/adventure romance set in the Russo-Turkish War won’t give you nearly the same selection*. So those looking for something very specific can have their need to read more or less satisfied, depending on the popularity of the subject-matter.

But no matter what broader genre you’re searching in (history, mystery, fantasy, etc.) there is a small family of search-terms guaranteed to reduce your results dramatically. I’m talking about ‘LGBT’ ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ ‘queer’ and all the rest of those. And I’m aware that, for the majority of readers, this is an issue that never presents itself. But for those of us that identify as LGBT**, the struggle is very real.

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Imagine you’re searching for your Napoleonic action/adventure romance, and you’ve got hundreds of results but all of them are about the kind of romances you just aren’t interested in. Of course, you could read them only for the adventure part, but who wants to read a romance if the relationship is one they find boring, or even off-putting? Better to read one without romance, or at least without much of it. In fact, this is what I did and generally continue to do. But there are times when an engaging historical fiction with a believable gay romance is the only thing I want to read… if only I could find one. Because the moment you put ‘LGBT’ or ‘gay’ into the search bar, the results dwindle depressingly. And that’s for a relatively broad and/or popular genre, like ‘age of sail’. Try searching for gay romance set in 1920s Ireland and then you’re really stuffed.

Of course, being the sequentially obsessive history buff I am, this is exactly what I found myself doing whenever I’d had enough of work that actually needed to be done (like writing essays, or vacuuming the house). Unsurprisingly, I had very little joy. In fact, I had all but given up the search when one day a couple of weeks ago I was scrolling through a Goodreads list and found a gold nugget in the riverbed.

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It was set in Ireland, in the early 1920s, about an Irishman and a Brit who fall in love, and the whole thing is tangled up in the Irish Civil War (a.k.a The Troubles). Check, check, check and check. I was thrilled. I ecstatically figured out how to download the thing on iBooks (it was free!!!) and, over the next few days, barricaded myself in my room or the far end of the house to enjoy my treasure without interruption. And it was a treasure, because not only did this work check all the boxes, it was beautifully written, thoroughly researched and heart-achingly realistic. The only thing wrong was that it was only a novella, and there wasn’t nearly enough of the damn thing. I wanted a whole novel, heavy enough to keep a door open, but that’s a disappointingly rare luxury for those of us with LGBT tags in the search bar. Such is life.

I still live in hope that someone has written something else in this theme, of this calibre, but it’s almost certain that I hope in vain. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, or would like to know the title and author of my discovery, please let me know.

* Or at least not in English. While the number of translated works has skyrocketed in recent times, I’ve no doubt that other countries’ bookshops might be saturated with something that’s a niche-market in Australia.

** LGBTQIAA etc. Can’t we just use something like ‘Rainbow Brigade’ and be done with it?

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2 thoughts on “Reading Between the Lines

  1. Mmmmmm……an interesting conundrum. Of course the nomenclature you mention wasn’t in common parlance prior to circa the 1970s. Search terms with greater historical currency may yield different results.

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    1. That is possible. Though there wasn’t much written in that genre before about the 1970s, so I suspect it would be fairly slim pickings anyway. I have come across several older books under the aforementioned search terms, so I guess it comes down to how the bookstore or website ‘tags’ them.

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