Openly Straight: A Review
Openly Straight was one of the first LGBTQ+ books I ever purchased, probably about three or four years ago. I always meant to read it, but it sat on my shelf until I decided to begin reading all the books I own and haven't read. All my owned titles have their names in a bowl, and I chose Openly Straight as my first book, out of 27.
Published in 2013 and written by Bill Konigsberg, Openly Straight tells the story of previously-openly-gay teenager Rafe who has decided he wants to attend boarding school across the country in order to escape being defined by his sexuality. He claims he won't outright lie about himself, but, well, being "one of the boys" instead of "the gay one" feels more important in the moment. As the school year progresses, so does Rafe's attraction to one of his teammates and his lie.
To be honest, I was slightly wary as I began Openly Straight because I wasn't sure what to expect from the book, given how differently things like sexuality were discussed back in 2013 (from my perspective, as someone who was quite young and lived in a conservative part of the country). I was surprised to find that, while some of the jokes or descriptions reflected 2013, the way the story was told and characters were explored was very thoughtful and didn't feel uninformed as I expected it would.
Openly Straight is a meaningful story with intriguing characters and a convincing yet misguided main character. I found the situation intriguing--as a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I could see myself doing the same thing Rafe did if my sexuality became my identity. In fact, I already do present as straight in some circles simply because it'd be easier. But as I came to the end of the book, I understood the different perspectives around what deliberately presenting as straight can do to your opinion of yourself.
While the book itself wasn't perfect, the story was told compellingly and the different realizations that Rafe came to throughout were very impactful and meaningful. How does one keep themselves from being rehearsed? How do you realize the effects of your actions? What compels one to think they want something they don't, to live a life they don't truly want?
Although it may be tempting sometimes to clean your slate and become someone new constantly, especially as someone who is LGBTQ+ or figuring out their identity, sometimes what's most important is reconciling with yourself about how you feel about your identity. Food for thought, I guess.
aesthetics vs plot: a rant
(For reference: the books I have in mind as I write this are Moïra Fowley-Doyle's The Accident Season, Deirdre Sullivan's Savage Her Reply and Sarah Maria Griffin's Spare and Found Parts, the latter of which I'm currently reading)
This year I've been intentionally trying to seek out and read Irish SFF. Most SFF I usually read is American, and I want to get a sense of what's going on this side of the Atlantic. In practice, this has meant reading mostly YA, as there's very few adult SFF writers in Ireland.
And boy howdy, have I noticed some bullshit. *cracks knuckles*
All three of the novels I namechecked above are incredibly high-concept. Mysterious gothic phenomena happening year after year to a Family With Secrets? Yes, please. Retelling of a famous Celtic myth from the perspective of the evil stepmother? Sign me up! Steampunk gender-swapped Frankenstein in post-apocalyptic Dublin? Oh, hell yes.
And all three of them are incredibly disappointing.
The Accident Season's mystery plot descends into incoherence. Savage Her Reply promises a morally grey woman with power and then promptly skates over how she got that power. Spare and Found Parts has tons of cool worldbuilding details, absolutely zero of which impact the protagonist's life beyond mild inconvenience. In a post-apocalyptic world.
All these issues have in common what I've noticed is a wider trend in YA as a whole: aesthetics over substance. What does it matter whether your protagonist is actually memorable or interesting? She's a brown queer woman! What does it matter whether your plot has distinct narrative beats created by protagonist agency causing organic consequences? Look at this Steampunk Desk Porn (TM)!
What does it matter whether you make your settings meaningful by including them in meaningful plot points? Look at these escaped zoo animals in Phoenix Park, and watch as the protagonists fucking cycle by them with no consequences!
(Okay, I'll admit I've got especially strong hate for Spare and Found Parts. That's because it's fresh in my mind, but the others have issues like this as well.)
Look. I definitely have more artistic goals in common with these people than not. But if you include fantastic elements, they ain't just a pretty backdrop. If you treat them like that, they become forgettable, a series of widgets to put together instead of becoming Other and Alive. You have to make them matter.
For contrast, look at Welcome to Night Vale - a work that on the surface has much more hodgepodge worldbuilding. But Night Vale feels much more vivid and alive because it makes the worldbuilding integral to plot, character and place. Citizens of Night Vale are regularly inconvenienced, maimed and murdered by the Weird Thing Of The Week. Things like Carlos heading to the desert otherworld or the army of little people under the bowling alley trigger major character developments for the main cast.
Another crucial thing about WTNV and building a weird aesthetic is that it doesn't go all weird, all the time. There might be mysterious hooded creatures, but they sit in Starbucks. There might be pictures of an almighty Glow Cloud, but they get posted on social media. The show has a basis in ordinary life from which the weirdness can grow.
These books have no such restraint. In The Accident Season, the titular accident season and the old house where the climax happens was more than enough for magical realism. But the author had to go with all quirk, all the time. A rural Irish town and an isolated family needed to be kept ordinary apart from the weird stuff. But no, there had to be an incredibly quirky best friend and an incredibly quirky secret...gathering...thing in the school and an incredibly quirky Halloween party and...ugh. Instead of the actual cool plot & setpieces standing out, they ended up as one more exhausting attempt for the author to convince you how special she was.
I wonder how much this is connected to norms of fandom and fanfic writing. I hate to say that, because I love fanfic. But underdeveloped original characters, lush settings that have about as much interactivity as a Pinterest board and little to no grasp of plot feel very internet- and fandom-influenced as flaws. And modern YA, with its interest in diversity, romance and left-wing political standpoints, is heavily influenced by fanfic, even when it's not being written by fanfic authors.
I hate this stuff precisely because of how much I love diverse characters and interesting genre literature and SFF set in Ireland. I want these things to be good because I want more of them - as a reader and a writer. I want to read this stuff. I want to write it, publish it & know that I'm not either getting tarred with the same aesthetic brush as this crowd or having my flaws swept under the rug in the name of ~social justice~ or ~the YA book community~ or some equally gooey concept.
And whenever the aesthetic YA/diversity bubble bursts? I still want to get published, and I won't be able to if my aesthetic goals can be brushed off as poorly executed fads.
Writer Spotlight: Alexis Nedd
It's New Release Tuesday! We caught up with Alexis Nedd (@alexisthenedd) to talk about her debut novel, Don’t Hate The Player, which is out today. Alexis is a Brooklyn-based pop culture “fanthropologist” who has only ever loved things in a big, obsessive way. As the Senior Entertainment Reporter at Mashable.com, she covers television, movies, and video games, focusing on sci-fi and fantasy universes like Game of Thrones and the MCU. When she’s not writing for money, Alexis is writing for no money on her socials, where her feeds consist of deep dives on weird history and analyzing pop culture as an artifact of society.
Don’t Hate The Player is a YA romance novel that follows two competitive eSports players as they navigate school, parents, and other IRL stuff, while preparing for their biggest (and only) tournament yet. As real life and online life collide, both find the boundaries between online and IRL slipping into each other.
Can you start by telling us a little bit about Don’t Hate The Player?
In one corner, we have Emilia Romero, a popular, high-achieving Puerto Rican girl who secretly plays Guardians League Online with the elite Team Fury. No one in her real life knows she games, and everything hinges on it staying that way. In the other corner is Jake Hooper, a quiet, detrimentally empathetic nerd who’s had a crush on Emilia for years. He plays GLO with Team Unity and thinks he’s otherwise invisible.
When Guardians League Online announces a huge tournament in their city, Jake is shocked to see Emilia competing. Jake is now the only person who knows her secret, and they have to work together to keep it...all while the tournament brings their teams closer and closer to an ultimate Fury vs. Unity showdown.
Outwardly, Jake is an awkward, suffering bundle of anxiety, quite successfully hiding his integrity and wit. What was enjoyable/difficult about writing a neurodivergent romantic lead?
I started working on DHTP around the same time I learned I had ADHD. Getting that diagnosis as an adult ushered in a really strange and painful period of reevaluating my childhood, knowing that I was neurodivergent and didn’t get the help I needed. I gave a lot of the traits I used to think made me “wrong” or “bad”—the anxiety, the spinning thoughts, the self-deprecating coping mechanisms—to Jake because writing them into a lovable character felt like correcting the narrative I had grown up writing about myself.
It was difficult to excavate all of that because that level of self-evaluation totally sucks and takes forever, but by the end, I could look at Jake and think, “if I can’t hate him for feeling this way, I have no business hating myself for having felt that way.”
DHTP comes alive in its use of online gaming maps and chatrooms. How did you approach getting those virtual places right?
I made my first internet friends when cameras on phones or laptops were still rare, so I got to know a lot of people through chatrooms and forums. People’s personalities, real or constructed, come off so strongly in those rapid-fire conversations. That solved one of the problems I knew I’d have coming into this book—how do I introduce the reader to a group of characters who aren’t going to show up until the end and make them seem like part of the story the whole time? Answer: Spy on their group chat.
It was so fun to play all five roles in those chapters and determine who uses acronyms or memes, who always punctuates, what their in-jokes say about them, and so on. Truly some of my favorite parts of DHTP are in those chats.
How important do you think it is to meaningfully include online culture in YA literature?
After the year we just had, when most social interaction moved from the analog space to the digital, I consider the transformation of “online culture” into just “culture, full stop,” complete. I say this knowing I am a fully discourse-poisoned individual, and other people or writers may have the freedom to think less about that all of the time. A significant chunk of life takes place on screens these days, so if I’m writing about life... I’m going to write about the screens.
One of the big themes of DHTP is that what happens online is real whether you like it or not. So what looks from the outside like a mummy and a snake beating a guy up outside a space church can actually be the beginning of an IRL love story. Just because it’s silly doesn’t mean it’s not important.
What makes a good beginning to a story?
I don’t have any definitive advice on this, but with DHTP and the second novel I’m currently working on, I think my favorite method is putting your main characters in a situation designed to make them act the most themselves. For DHTP, we meet Jake at a party he was invited to out of politeness, so his discomfort and anxiety are front and center. Until he meets Emilia, who is only at the party because it’s in an arcade where she can indulge her gaming obsession without her parents watching. There, now we know some important things about both characters, and from here, it’s a 75k+ word journey to get them to kiss.
What’s the first book you remember loving?
This is the hardest question anyone has ever asked me. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice explanation of string theory instead? I’m sure I had others, but one of my formative obsessions was A Series of Unfortunate Events because as a child, I was so often frustrated with adults who didn’t believe a single word I said just because a child was saying it. Those books capture that frustration and, more importantly, do not resolve it, which I think was kinder than telling young people that everything would be OK if we read a lot of books and placed value on facts.
As a writer, how do you practice self-care when juggling work commitments and the creative processes of writing and editing?
I simply do not. After two years of working full-time and writing this book (most of it during a global pandemic), I have mastered none of the skills required to unplug and take care of myself beyond remaining alive and upright. I do not want to project the image of someone who has the self-care matrix figured out.
You don’t have to have it figured out to make something you’re proud of. You can be exhausted and smelly and know you should probably work on that soon and still create. I don’t recommend it, but it’s possible. Ask for help when you can.
What would Emilia or Jake’s blog look like if they were on Tumblr? What kind of content would they (re)blog?
Emilia’s blog would be a secret Guardians League Online stan account. She’d reblog fanart and write incredible deep dives on strategy and lore. No one would know it was her blog, but talkswithknox.tumblr.com would be required reading for people who want to know the deep magic of the game.
Jake is mostly here to read good takes on his dashboard and learn something he didn’t know when he logged in. He has never written an original post, and that’s fine.
Thanks so much for taking the time, Alexis! Don't Hate The Player is on shelves from today (and it's really, really good).
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