Rating: zero hearts
TW: rape culture, aphobia
I don’t like some books because they’re poorly written. I don’t like others because they are completely insensitive to the point that no amount of description or eleventh-hour redemption in the same of “character development” will save them for me. Billy Merrell’s young adult fiction debut Vanilla is an example of the latter.
The novel, written entirely in verse, is told from the perspectives of three gay boys who go to the same high school: Hunter, Vanilla and Clown/Angel. It centers around the development and destruction of a relationship between the title character and his boyfriend Hunter, who have been dating since middle school. All three of the boys go by nicknames that attempt to be allegorical, but just come off as stereotypical and mildly offensive. Vanilla is the boy who is uncomfortable with having sex. Hunter is the predatory boy thirsty for a hookup. Clown/Angel is a drag queen struggling with gender identity and unrequited love. The result of never really using their real names was that each character felt like they ultimately lacked a separate identity. It felt like a failed and insincere attempt at allegory.
I was willing to give this book a chance, but was worried about its content from the moment its controversial summary popped up on Goodreads, especially with its indirect mention of an ace main character. When I received an arc at Bookcon, I decided I needed to read this and offer my opinion as an #ownvoices ace reviewer. I went in hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as I feared it might be, but within the opening ten or so pages, my fears were confirmed. My verdict on the book is that it is potentially damaging and dangerous for vulnerable and/or questioning teen readers. I hope that we, as a book community, can agree that ace readers, and gay aces in particular, deserve better representation than this that doesn’t consistently imply that we are lying to ourselves, just afraid or “innocent” without properly countering those dangerous stereotypes in the text.
At best, Vanilla is a misguided attempt by a gay author to understand asexuality. At worst, it’s an internally aphobic “love” story that exposes many aphobic critiques that ace people encounter on a daily basis. Merrell uses the word asexual frequently, especially in the last half of the book, and the representation is handled so recklessly and irresponsibly that it is powerless to mediate the aphobia rampant in the first half of the book.
What is aphobia exactly? It’s anything that expresses hatred, doubt, fear and/or dislike of aro and ace spectrum people.* It’s present throughout the book as a plot point, as a freaking plot point in the relationship between Hunter and Vanilla. Here are some examples from the text:
“I think of Vanilla and how vanilla he is
and I want to hold him and tell him
it’s okay if he says he isn’t ready,
even if I don’t believe him–
Or that if he isn’t ready,
It’s for all the wrong reasons.”
Okay, there is NO WRONG REASON not to want sex. None. Not wanting to have sex is a reason in and of itself. Plus, even if you don’t know a person is ace and the person doesn’t yet know they are ace, it does not erase their asexuality. They are still asexual. So this passage is just a shitload of aphobia and rape culture and the worst part is that Hunter isn’t ever really forced to change or change his beliefs. He kind of accepts Vanilla’s asexuality by the end of the novel, but it doesn’t feel like enough because of passages like this.
“He gets so into it
That pulling him back from the brink
Takes every part of me
And every part of him, it seems,
So we never part
On purely sweet terms anymore.”
Ugh, more rape culture/abusive relationship description that never gets properly dealt with later in the book to qualify as a good story.
“‘It’s the perfect name for him,’ he says,
Winking at me like I’m in on it.
‘Such a sweet thing. So innocent.’
And I know by how Clown says it
That he’s calling me a prude.”
I can’t even believe I have to explain this in a book review, but infantilizing asexuals by calling them sweet and innocent is a dick move. And even though Clown/Angel helps Vanilla realize he’s asexual later in the novel, 1) they could have done it a lot sooner and prevented a lot of damage and made this a better story and 2) it’s still a dick move.
“‘I’m sex-positive, too,’ Vanilla says,
Like he’s chasing me. When all I wanted
Was a boyfriend who wouldn’t need to.
‘You’re sex-phobic,’ I say,
Because it’s what I believe.
What he’s all but called himself,
Claiming not to be ready.
Even though he masturbates.
Even though he knows how he feels.
Even though he loves me.”
Spoiler alert: you can masturbate, love someone and understand your feelings and still be asexual. Again, this is blatant aphobia that is never really dealt with. When Hunter and Vanilla do break up, it comes off as like Hunter is doing a favor for the both of them, like he’s the hero that’s going to save both of them and it literally made me sick.
One last quote:
“It breaks my heart to think he’s as serious
As I am, that he’s so afraid of sex
That he’d toss our love to the wolves.”
This quote makes me so effing angry because I just don’t understand how Hunter can be so freaking hard-headed and how an author could write this book about this shitty, abusive relationship and pass it off as this poignant, heart-wrenching love story. Being who you are isn’t tossing your love to wolves. Hunter being an aphobic and judgy person is what ultimately destroys it, but the text never confirms or validates that.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, some of the worst of the worst that I found. There’s another poem in the book called “Queen of Hearts” that was so aphobic I actually started crying while reading it. This book’s representation of asexuality was handled like we’re some kind of freak show to be observed and helped, that we are an inconvenience in a relationship for the most part. Vanilla thankfully finds someone at the end of the novel who understands him, but it was given so little page time, adding more insult to injury.
Overall, this book was hard for me to read. The language is so unnecessarily physical and visceral. It felt more nostalgic than immediate. There were some parts that enjoyed, but overall this book is a hard pass for me.
I had other issues with this book. The way that the voice of each poem was separated was frustrating. Each character had poems in a different font. Not only did this strain my eyes while I was reading the book, but I often forgot who was who.
Moving into style, the poems were well written but some of them were so overly poetic and flowery that the characters’ voices got lost in the writing. The author should have spent more attention developing empathy for the orientation of one of his main characters than spending two stanzas developing some allegory or extended metaphor that ultimately didn’t make sense or contribute anything to the plot.
I usually don’t try to actively discourage people from reading a book, but if you are upset by rape culture and/or aphobia then I highly suggest you do not buy, support or pick up this book when it comes out in the fall. Spend your time supporting indie and self published asexual authors who are devoting their time to crafting well-rounded, multi-faceted ace characters with more empathy and compassion. And I know that by reviewing this book, I am largely shouting into the dark. Aces fighting against aphobia is comparable to David facing Goliath, but I will not put down my slingshot.
Regardless, Vanilla is expected to be released October 10, 2017.
*Please note that the use of terms like aphobia is also technically incorrect. While I have left my usage of the word in the review, going forward I am going to try to use the word amisia more, which is more sensitive to people who deal with actual phobias in the mental health sense and not the discrimatory one. 🙂