The fine ladies of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and Dear Author, who’ve been doing a joint podcast for a while, just released an episode about nerd-based romances. As I am a) a nerd/geek and b) a reader of romance, you may expect that WHY YES, I did in fact find this episode highly relevant to my interests!
One big thing that leapt out at me though was Sarah and Jane, the podcast hosts, getting into a debate about what actually constitutes a nerd or a geek. I just had a little chat with them on Twitter on that very topic, and what I had to say started off like this:
Anna Geeks Out On Nerd Vs. Geek
‘Cause yeah, this is pretty much where I am on what a nerd or a geek is. I generally consider myself both. As someone with a B.A. in Computer Science (and yes, my college gave me a B.A., not a B.S., they handed out B.A.’s in everything) and whose day job career all her life has been in computers, I’m legitimately a computer nerd. But I’m also a computer geek, since I have that component of strong enthusiasm about computers. A lot of the time, I slant more towards geek than nerd here.
Likewise, I’m a bit of a language nerd, as y’all might guess what with me doing the Trilingual Hobbit Re-read. Languages are also one of the big reasons I love Tolkien so much, what with all of the work he did building the languages of Middle-Earth. And I’m absolutely a Tolkien nerd. Yes, I’m the one who actually rather likes digging into the minutiae of The Silmarillion. 😉
But I’m also a geek about all sorts of things. Doctor Who. Battlestar Galactica. Firefly and Buffy. SF/F culture in general. But also trad music and Great Big Sea and all my Quebec groups. In all these cases it’s more of a case of passion and enthusiasm for me than of intellectual understanding, but because I also have nerd tendencies, that’ll often drive my explorations of any of these things. This’ll be why Quebec music is making me learn French–because I want that better understanding of music I’m passionate about.
Sarah and Jane have a couple of other discussion points that I feel are worth addressing, too. There’s the idea that nerds and geeks are socially awkward, which Sarah was saying she usually expects when she’s reading stories involving these types of characters. As I pointed out in my tweets, I feel this is stereotypical. A lot of us are socially awkward, but not all of us. And there’s also this idea that the social awkwardness of nerds is the extreme “loser living in their mother’s basement” sort of awkwardness, whereas in my experience, there are absolutely different levels of social comfort. Some nerds and geeks do have that extreme awkwardness. A lot more of us are still kind of awkward in social situations with non-nerds and non-geeks, but honestly, this is often more about ‘what the hell do I say to these people?’ than anything else.
I mean, think about it–if you take a nerd and put her in a room full of people who don’t share her interests (e.g., sports fans), it’s asking a lot to expect that person to be sparkling and vivacious to the others. The reverse also applies. Take a woman who’s passionate about, say, fashion, and put her in a room full of people geeking out about Doctor Who–should you expect that person to be a hundred percent comfortable in that scenario?
The ability to be vivacious to a room full of people who don’t necessarily share your interests is hard for anybody, not just nerds and geeks. It’s popular to expect it of nerds and geeks, sure. We do have a long history of our interests being sneered at and looked down upon specifically because they didn’t match up with mainstream interests.
But this is actually changing. To be a geek is becoming cooler. ‘Nerd’ still carries a pejorative weight in some circles–hell, I’ve seen people in my own profession snarkily call each other nerds–but that’s fading, too. Nerds and geeks are starting to show up in mainstream TV, albeit still often with a weight of stereotype (but then, hello, Hollywood, they never met a stereotype they didn’t like).
And we’re showing up in books, too. Like romances, which is what the podcast episode was all about. One of Sarah and Jane’s listeners wrote in to ask what nerd romances they’d recommend, and of those, I can note that yeah, I’ve actually read the first four of Vicki Lewis Thompson’s series. I very much liked the first one, due to her nicely skewering a lot of nerd stereotypes (e.g., lack of fashion sense). The subsequent ones didn’t grab me as much since they struck me as way less about actual nerdery and more about superficial adherence to nerd tropes (e.g., a heroine who wears glasses and dresses frumpily as a shorthand for being smart, rather than showing her, y’know, actually being smart).
One Con Glory by Sarah Kuhn is another nerd romance I liked–lots of con culture described there.
I’ve also talked about Tribute by Nora Roberts before, which while not a nerd romance per se did have a hero in it who was an absolute geek–a graphic novelist who was into Battlestar Galactica (both versions!), and who legitimately thought along the lines of “what KIND of Kryptonite?” when the heroine lamented that love was her Kryptonite. Because yeah, I’d totally expect a geek to understand that much about Superman lore.
I still find that SF/F books are way more likely to have nerds and geeks showing up in them, ’cause, yeah, well, that’s where a lot of us are in our primary reading tastes. But as I’ve pointed out in a previous post, a lot of those tales are still going to have love stories front and center. In romance, I expect nerd-friendly characters to actually be showing up more in stories that aren’t ostensibly about nerd/geek culture–which is why I tend to slurp historicals with bluestocking heroines RIGHT UP. I really rather liked Nina Rowan’s A Study in Seduction for having a mathematician heroine, and y’know what scene in it stands out the most for me? The one where the hero drives himself a little crazy trying to solve a math problem that’s quite hard for him, specifically to express to the heroine that yes, he appreciates her and her interests. And I totally loved how he showed up disheveled and a little frantic to present her with the answer.
Zoe Archer’s Stranger, Book 4 of her Blades of the Rose series, is another excellent example. I loved her hero Catullus Graves, for being a man of intellect and whose scientific creations are integral all throughout the series. And I loved that while he had some traits that fall into nerd stereotypes (i.e., he had issues talking to women), he had other things to balance that out (i.e., the man could rock the hell out of a waistcoat).
Because ultimately, what a nerd character should be about for me is that character using their brains effectively as part of the plot. If it’s in a contemporary setting, bonus points if actual nerd/geek culture is shown–and shown effectively–but I don’t actually require that. It’s all about the brains for me. If you’re going to claim your character is a scientist, show me some science. If she’s a computer geek, I want to see her hands on a keyboard–I don’t want to see men in the plot solving her computer problems for her.
So talk to me, people! Sound off about your favorite nerd/geek characters, and what books they show up in!