I had a more serious post planned for my Feb wrap-up but I decided to bump it to the end of March because it’ll keep. Right now the ice in the river is breaking up, the snow is melting into slush, and the birds are out fighting the squirrels just for sheer joy of having survived the last few weeks of -40°C. I want to talk about the last couple months and what has gotten me through the darkest, coldest days (and nights).
In the dead of winter and the second (third? Fourth? Fifth?) wave of government-mandated lockdowns to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, I told my friends I’d been mainlining erotic fan fiction.
They didn’t say, oh, that can’t be good. They didn’t ask me to define “smut” which can (and does) include anything from drabbles up to 200 words to 150k serialized narratives that just happen to feature occasional scenes of play and penetration. They nodded in understanding (or sent GIFs indicating the same). These were the times in which to cling to comfort. And after a year of staying inside, washing our hands and covering our mouths, and only seeing loved ones through glass screens, we were holding on to whatever we could grab.
I don’t swim easily in the fandom waters anymore. I was an avid participant when I was about 13, and now I like to lurk on the sidelines, in the shallows. I was reading a lot of fic from “I don’t even go here” fandoms and quickly found that not everything was for me (a hot tip for people who don’t like a fanfic they’re reading: you can just stop reading it! Really! You don’t even need to leave a nasty comment!), so I asked one of my friends what she recommended by way of romance books. She was stunned, appalled and overall gagged when I said I hadn’t read anything that published as romance since probably the mid-2000s, and took me on a brief but whirlwind tour of some of the most prolific author names from the past 15–20 years. We joked about starting a podcast (just one more, no big deal) and finally settled on organizing ourselves as a two-person book club to meet monthly and read the romance greats, alrights, some downright, delicious trash, and all the ones in-between. We started with Lisa Kleypas’ Suddenly You. This month’s is Hate To Want You by (author and hilarious Tik-Toker) Alisha Rai.
I ordered both books through the library, which has been (and continues to be) an invaluable resource, even as their funding seems always to be at risk from governments with no concern for the social supports they provide. The Edmonton Public Library has three active apps that I know of (Overdrive, Libby and Hoopla) which provide digital holds on demand for e-books and audiobooks, but you can still pick up physical materials from them if you call ahead. The lovely people I spoke to even got my book ready early when I called and asked if they could pull it off the shelf (I confirmed the library I was picking up my hold from had the book at that location already) before I swung by, rather than wait for the requisite holding period.
I’m already pretty heavily committed to reading other things this year, but the romance, even when it’s hokey, fall short of representation, or is not really my style, is an escape from the weight of so much reality right now. Romance and fanfic are by no means perfect; they are each plagued in respective proportions by racism and lack of diversity, heteronormativity and fighting about what constitutes critique, censorship and cancellation. But in these books, I found a way to reconnect with some sense of suspended disbelief—maybe things would turn out okay!—and reconnect with my friend when I was feeling so far away from her. Using something as a retreat doesn’t mean that it should be immune to critiques—far from it—but it is possible to recognize the good and the bad in something, and get what you need out of it while using a critical lens to filter the rest.
I’m grateful for those things that have kept me connected, entertained, and given me respite from the lowest parts of the last year. So, to the libraries, the romance and smut authors, my friends: thank you. You make some things in these dark times seem just a little bit lighter.