Hear, Queers: Books That Burn podcast on trauma in novels

Queer podcasts, which have long been a source of education and connection, have become even more imperative as we’ve spent less time together in person. The folks who host our podcasts feel like—and are—some of our best friends and when we get caught up on all the episodes of a podcast, it hurts just as much as when we finish a favorite book. So, to help keep you connected, educated, and reminded of how great queer people are, we’re launching a new column called Hear, Queers where we talk to the folks behind some of our favorite podcasts about their projects and why they do them. Today, we talk to the team behind the Books That Burn podcast about their thoughtful and engaging podcast.

Books That Burn is a podcast dedicated to exploring how authors handle trauma and traumatic situations in their novels. Born from a sense that trauma reactions are reasonable and traumatized characters loveable, Books That Burn discusses books that matter to the hosts and rates them based on how they handle trauma.

Hosts Robin and Nicole love books—and they wanted to create a podcast that is deeply invested in queer readers and authors, while not being explicitly queer in the lens of the podcast. However, the hosts’ own identities as queer people infuse every episode with the care for and thoughtful treatment of queer characters, readers, and authors.

And, trauma is a big part of queer representation in books, whether we like it or not. Books That Burn aims to call those books to account and dissect why they do or don’t work. As Robin says, “Our angle is that, in fiction, the author is the only one with agency. We don’t know why the authors made the choices that they did. But we can know that these were choices they, and their editor, made for the story.”

Books that Burn is currently in its second season and has nearly 50 episodes of varying lengths available to listen to.

Read on to find out more of what Robin and Nicole have to say about the Books That Burn podcast.

Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault in fiction.

Why did you start Books that Burn?

Nicole: I was listening to another book review podcast about a specific series, and over and over they talked about how traumatic reactions characters had were odd or nonsensical… but those same reactions are the ones I personally am the most familiar with and those characters the ones that I heavily identify with. I wanted a space to talk about how trauma is handled by the authors writing it, and my sibling agreed to talk about this with me.

Robin: It’s a very common thing, particularly in fantasy and sci-fi written by men, for a female character to be sexually assaulted and then the story moves on like nothing happened. Or, if affects the plot, a little, but the scene was written for the reader to be excited about someone else’s pain and exploitation. This isn’t limited to sexual assault; some depictions of torture have similar framing even when they don’t include sexual assault in the same scene. It’s especially troubling to read when the perspective of the person who is assaulted or tortured (of whatever gender) is missing from the narrative. Even if the hero isn’t the one committing these acts, you still have a character being in intense pain getting used to move the plot along or to shock the reader back into paying attention halfway through a 600-page book. I was frustrated by some particularly egregious examples of this, where I’d felt actively harmed as a reader by how trauma was portrayed. One was a book that had a character who was unable to speak for years for plot reasons get sexually assaulted a little more than halfway through, and she was unable to tell anyone because of the plot. Thinking back on that particular book, I don’t know how we’d rate it, whether we’d say the author actually handled it with care. But at the very least, if a discussion like the ones on our podcast had been there to tell me that was in the book, and how the author treated the reader, I could have decided whether I wanted to read it or not, rather than feeling hurt and shaken by reading an intense and brutal scene as a young teenager.

Nicole asked me to do the podcast with her, she had the idea for the rhetorical lens and I was interested so I said yes. I love reading and I love talking about books.

What inspiration do you draw from for Books That Burn? What queer media or projects have influenced you as a creator?

Robin: I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts. I spent about two years constantly finding new ones, at times I’ve been subscribed to over a hundred podcasts, so I had some ideas about how I wanted it to sound and how I wanted it to be structured. As for being influenced by queer media, that’s tricky because it’s only in the last couple of years that it’s felt like queer media was a thing that I could seek out for myself. I’m very inspired by the books I’m reading by queer authors! I love reading books that are what I call “casually queer,” where most or all the characters are queer and it isn’t a big deal within the story—the kind of space where queerness feels normal and ordinary, like it’s unremarkable because it’s so ubiquitous that it drips from the pages and makes my whole day a little better.

What do you think Books that Burn is doing that no one else is?

Nicole: Openly talking about authors’ treat trauma in their books—at the very least we have not heard of anyone else doing this yet. Especially trauma from the lens where the way it is handled is what matters, not just what is included in a book. We have had some extremely serious traumas handled with incredible care and aftercare for the readers, and relatively “light” traumas that are viscerally upsetting to read. It has also been incredibly interesting to see what authors tend to regard as “acceptable” traumas to describe in detail versus what they gloss over. I think having a rating system the way that we do is also, while not unique, definitely a different way of talking about books than most people.

Robin: I’ve never known of another project discussing books from this angle. There might be some somewhere, and if we ever find one, I’d love to talk to them about their approach, but for now I think it’s just us. By looking at books through the lens that authors, not characters, inflict trauma on other characters, it lets us look at how reading these books can impact readers without getting caught up in whether it was reasonable within the fictional world for a character to do something that hurt someone.

What’s your favorite part of hosting Books That Burn?

Nicole: Having new books to read. I tend to go back to my favorites over and over, and it’s hard to find a new book that I want to read when I no longer have the time to spend hours at the library. At this point in my life I have several hundred individual books on my favorites list, but I’m not very good at picking up new things and deciding to read them in my limited time outside of work as an adult, so this podcast gives me a venue to find new things to read regardless of whether or not I would have picked them up off of a shelf at first glance. I have added four different series to my favorites list in the year and a half that we have been doing this podcast, and considering how many of our initial list came from my shelves in the first place that’s actually a very good ratio. Very few of the books that we have read so far have I disliked at all. There are also a lot of books on our to be reviewed pile that I am looking forward to.

Robin: My favorite part is having figured out how to access this community of readers, especially queer readers reading books by queer authors. It’s been so good to have a place for when I need to talk to someone about my reaction to a book, especially if it’s one of the many I read that won’t ever make it into a podcast episode. I also love writing the book reviews. I often have a hard time remembering character names or why I liked a book once it’s been a week or two, but now I can look at my reviews and refresh my memory of how it felt to read each book if I’m trying to give someone a recommendation. Anything that makes it onto the podcast then becomes a book I know even better because I’ve had this long conversation about it.

Your podcast is all about trauma and pain and recovery in fiction. How do you balance these heavy topics for yourself and/or your listeners?

Nicole: We make sure to list any content or trigger warnings in our show notes. We separate our three topics in each episode so that our audience can engage with only topics that they feel comfortable talking about. We also have a “no spoilers/explicit details” rule in our wrap-up section at the end, so that our audience can skip potentially overwhelming discussion and just hear our ending opinions if that is better for them. Finally, we end every episode with our favorite non-traumatic thing about that week’s book. Balancing for myself is much less formalized and mostly comes in the form of realizing while I am reading that something is getting to be too much and allowing myself to walk away. Part of the reason for our schedule having us recording almost twice as often as an episode comes out is that it allows us to step back and take a break or reschedule when we need to for our own health.

Robin: Balancing these topics for us is tricky, we have our own triggers and sometimes we run into those when reading for the show. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins was particularly rough for both of us: we have food insecurity in our pasts and food defensiveness lingering in our present. We became very stressed at the idea of the episode and when actually recording it. That meant we actually recorded the episode for the first book in parts on two different days because we couldn’t handle doing the whole thing in one recording like we normally would. We try to balance heavy topics within each episode by structuring it from least to most traumatic topic. We won’t always get it exactly right, but if our discussion of, say, topic two is very stressful for someone in the audience, and they look at the content warnings for topic three and don’t think they can handle that either, then we want them to just skip to the wrap-up.

Authorship and authorial intent are pretty much always being debated. Books That Burn has a particular lens on authors—what is it? Why is it so different? Why does this approach matter?

Nicole: Our lens on the author’s intent is that impact matters more than intent. We operate under the rule that the author is the only one with agency, and that their choices made in their handling of their characters has an impact on their readers—that impact is what we discuss.

Robin: Our angle is that, in fiction, the author is the only one with agency. We don’t know why the authors made the choices that they did. But we can know that these were choices they, and their editor, made for the story. When I’ve been in other contexts discussing books, prior to the podcast, sometimes I’d be upset or frustrated that something happened in a book, and often the discussion would stop after some variation of the sentiment, “Well that character had to do ‘X’ because of ‘Y’ event in the book.” Characters who did horrible things which were upsetting to read would get excused on the basis of it being a reasonable reaction based on their background or the setting or the events of the previous chapter. But the author made that background and that setting, the author wrote that previous chapter. Decisions were made, by the author, that made it seem like a reasonable thing for the character to do something awful. I love a certain kind of villain, I’m a sucker for antiheroes, and I’m clearly not adverse to reading books with trauma. But when it feels like cruelty to the character is the point, and a story doesn’t take care of the reader, that doesn’t feel good. Content warnings aren’t spoilers. Trauma isn’t a plot twist. If telling someone that a major character dies or someone is assaulted in the book means that the book actually is spoiled then there’s a high likelihood that the book wasn’t doing the emotional work leading up to the scene which would let the reader brace themselves. We also try to be aware of books where our lens might not be appropriate. That’s why we don’t discuss “real-people stories;” no historical fiction, no books where saying that the author inflicted trauma on the characters would be wholly inappropriate. Maybe someday, if we figure out the right way for us to talk about it, but even with those restrictions we’ll never run out of books to discuss.

Why do you think projects that are specifically, intentionally, and overtly queer matter so much?

Nicole: There is an overwhelming narrative to “invisible” identities that if you cannot see them, then they are made up or fake. So, it is a necessary pushback that people who are comfortable with doing so be visibly queer so that bigots cannot pretend that since there is no one overtly queer that queer people do not exist or are “broken.”

Robin: We’re here and queer; we’ve always been here. There is room for us to exist without taking space from anyone else. When projects are specifically, intentionally, and overtly queer it means that I’m not worrying about offending our audience by existing. I don’t talk about being nonbinary or bi in every episode because the show isn’t about how queer people read books, but it definitely impacts my life as a reader and some of that will show up in the episode. Hopefully someone else will find our show and feel seen.

How is Books That Burn funded? (this is a great place to direct listeners to your patreon, to rate and review your project, etc.)

If you like the show please rate and review wherever you get your podcasts and also on Podchaser (Podchaser is kind of like a combination of Goodreads and IMDB, but for podcasts). We’re primarily funded through our Patreon and we recently made a Ko-Fi so that people can give one-time support if they’d like to support the written reviews instead of the main podcast. Our current goal is to make enough money consistently to pay our amazing transcriptionist, Heather, for all the time and effort she’s already putting in. In the long run we’d love to be making enough for Nicole to be able to do our audio editing full-time, since right now almost all our audio content is getting edited on weekends after a full week juggling a couple of day jobs.

Robin (they/them) is a bi enby, “Books That Burn” co-host, and does almost all the social media and written correspondence for the podcast. If you’ve interacted with us on Twitter, it was probably Robin. Originally from Ohio, they currently live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with their wife, Ava. When they’re not at their day job as a project manager, they’re reading 2-4 books per week and writing reviews for their blog, Reviews That Burn.

Nicole (any/all) is an ace/aro enby who is roommate to the Senior and Junior Editing Assistants (SAE/JAE). They compose music as HeartBeatArt Co and provide all the music for the podcast, as well as co-hosting. When they aren’t editing our audio, they are a dancer/choreographer who plays, composes, and arranges music. Their dream is to write music for video games and/or to be a professional choreographer.

Heather (she/her) is the transcriptionist for Books That Burn. She works full time at a youth emergency shelter, and spends her free time reading, playing marimba, singing, drawing, and other creative hobbies. Her two cats, Zippy and Eclipse also work for Books That Burn as the Head of Marketing and Head of Feline Resources.

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