Book Review: Autoboyography by Christina Lauren
I’m a millennial gay man. This means I am old enough to remember when Will & Grace was revolutionary. When Brokeback Mountain was a movie that you had to sneak around to go see, and then cross your fingers and pray nobody saw you enter the theater so they wouldn’t ask your family why you were seeing that gay movie. I remember discovering the shelf of LGBTQ literature wayyyyy in the back of Hasting’s next to the books on sex and Wicca - that was, let’s face it, mostly collections of smut stories. I remember discovering gay movie culture. Movies about LGBTQ people, made by and for LGBTQ people. They were tiny, independent films that looked like someone had made them with a shaky personal camcorder purchased that morning from Circuit City and acted with the kind of stilted ability that told you these guys had only barely learned their lines. But they were my stories, and for good or for ill - as queer cinema has grown into some mainstream success - I needed them; I clung to them. So, when I say that I understand what it’s like to hold onto a bad or problematic story...I speak from experience.
Now, with all that said, I’d like to talk about the absolute disaster that is Autoboyography by Christina Lauren. And, yes, there are spoilers. It’s a review. Get over it.
Autoboyography is the story of a bisexual culturally Jewish teenager named Tanner who - for reasons I’m still not quite clear on after 407 pages - falls in love with closeted gay Mormon publishing wunderkind Sebastian while in a class about writing novels where...you guessed it...Tanner writes about his love story with Sebastian. Wait...you might say...wait! Bisexual AND Jewish AND Gay AND Mormon AND they spend the entirety of the novel...WRITING A BOOK?! Does the book come with its own hashtag and instagram filter, because I STAN! At least, you might say that if you were exactly the audience at which the book is aimed.
I spent so much of this book thinking that there was something off about the main characters. They didn’t feel as though they were based on humans; they felt like they were based on YA tropes and a passing obsession with an early 00s gay film.
Tanner, the bisexual guy, didn’t feel like an authentically bisexual human being. He felt like those problematic stereotypes about sex-crazed bisexuals that the bisexual community has spent a long time trying to combat became a person that was heavily influenced by a need to check off as many YA tropes as possible. Tanner is, apparently, an incredibly gifted writer that doesn’t believe in himself, but angels almost assuredly sing every time he sits down in front of his keyboard. His bisexuality is addressed in a way that the author(s) - we’ll get to them in a moment - must have patted themselves on the back extensively for doing, as he’s a 17 year old that has “always been out” and known he’s “into guys and girls” most of his adolescence. However, according to the book, he’s had sex with several girls without ever seeming to have developed a romantic connection with any of them. To be crude, he seems to have used women as a place to put his dick until the right guy comes along.
There is in no more stark and problematic example of this than in the latter part of the novel where the main characters have their breakup - all YA romances must have a breakup moment - and Tanner runs off to have sex with the only female character in the book who isn’t related to either of the main characters: his “best friend” Autumn Summer Green. (If that isn’t the most...I mean...I can’t with this name.) It’s the most problematic sex scene I think I’ve seen in a book since...well...all the problems with consent found in 50 Shades of Gross. Autumn seems to exist to fill the gender-flipped role of “friend who is only hanging on as a friend because they hope you’ll some day realize they’re THE ONE for you”. If Tanner were a girl and Autumn a boy this scene would have readers screaming.
This scene is exactly the kind of thing that bisexual people have been trying so hard to overcome - that bisexual people cannot control their genitals or their sexual urges and will absolutely sleep with someone else if they feel even the slightest bit sad. The other problematic trope that the book seems to...celebrate?...is the notion that bisexuals use one gender for sex and another for love. This is most commonly is found in the idea that bisexual girls would love to have a threesome with a girl or otherwise have sex with a girl...for her boyfriend/husband’s pleasure or to fill some sexual itch. This notion that you’re sexually open to pretty much anyone with a pulse, but that you can only romantically fall for one gender or the other isn’t the way that most bisexuals I know experience bisexuality, and it certainly isn’t a healthy way to have it portrayed.
Tanner runs off and has sex with a girl who’d been waiting in the wings for him in an emotional fit, taking her virginity in the process, but then these authors seem to force Autumn to carry the emotional aftermath. She’s completely fine, and, in fact, attempts to make Tanner believe she was the one who wanted it the whole time. Then, when Sebastian finds out, these authors don’t let him process that in any way that resembles authenticity.
For many gay men the idea of being left by a man for a woman is incredibly painful. It’s a source of a lot of biphobia in the LGBTQ community, with many gay men saying they simply wouldn’t date a bisexual man for this reason. This feeling is wrapped up in internalized homophobia, in pleasing families that would much rather you come home with an opposite sex partner than a same sex one, religious upbringing, and the - wrong - idea that if you could choose to be with a member of the opposite sex, why wouldn’t you? Life would be easier. Sebastian repeatedly inquires about the nature of Tanner’s relationship with Autumn, which makes the subsequent sexual betrayal even more painful to witness. The book makes half-hearted attempts in a smattering of scenes for Tanner to explain to Sebastian that he cannot choose who he falls in love with, but there is nothing in the book other than that bit of dialogue to support Tanner’s appeasement.
Let’s talk about Sebastian. There once was a movie called Latter Days (2003). This book, and Sebastian explicitly, is exactly the kind of book/character you’d write if you saw Latter Days 50 times and then wrote a fanfic of Latter Days. Latter Days was about a closeted Mormon young man who, after meeting a magical out and proud guy, comes to a poignant realization that he can no longer hide who he is and comes out to his family leading to a suicide attempt and shunning by his family. Honestly, the only reason I think Sebastian doesn’t attempt suicide in the book is so the authors didn’t get sued for intellectual property theft. I don’t quite understand this fetish with closeted gay Mormon men, but it needs to stop being a thing. From Latter Days to Book of Mormon to The Falls...this territory is very, very well tread. Get a new trope. He has nothing resembling an authentic gay coming out experience that wasn’t directly cribbed from independent gay film tropes and then watered down to fit into this incredibly unrealistic YA novel.
Sebastian is the hottest Mormon that ever wore a white button down and black tie. Sebastian wrote a hit novel in a class called “The Seminar” where super genius students crank out hit novels during their senior year of high school in Mormon Paradise. Sebastian has a lot of muscles and a great jawline, which Tanner would like you to know about. I can’t quite pinpoint what, exactly, about Sebastian is so intriguing to Tanner other than his muscles and jawline, but since they’re copying the plot to Latter Days the writers weren’t terribly concerned with making Sebastian a full human being. And there’s no excuse for this. It’s lazy. It doesn’t get a pass because it falls in the YA category.
Other YA gay romance novels are somehow able to fully realize their characters, adding depth and pain and triumph to their stories. I’m thinking most specifically of What if it’s us, which was co-authored by Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli. While that book didn’t give me the sparkly, Hollywood ending that I craved, it gave me a realistic portrayal of growing up queer. (And, oh look, one of the main characters is also Jewish; the other is Latinx. Somehow they were able to be fully realized beyond their literary tropes and societal stereotypes.)
The problem comes down to bad writing. Let’s talk about the author, Christina Lauren. Or, rather, authors: Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings. Christina and Lauren seem to be Nice White Ladies™️.
Nice White Ladies™️ are defined loosely as:
Are you a member of a marginalized community? Nice White Ladies™️ would love to let you know they are WOKE! They have read all the books, seen all the Netflix documentaries, and shared all those articles on Facebook about women writing letters to gay folks at Christmas that can’t go home to their families. They are here to SUPPORT YOU! Sure, their only personal experience with being gay/black/trans/immigrant/etc. is what they’ve read in their YA novels - that they’re TOTALLY ADDICTED TO - or seen on that latest heartbreaking viral YouTube video or their token coworker, but they feel they’ve got the general gist of what it’s like and they would like to tell you all about it in the next 407 pages.
Tanner is bisexual and Jewish in a way that accurately reflects the kind of character that two Nice White Ladies™️ would craft after spending a decade ensconced in YA literature and never actually having met anyone who is bisexual or Jewish. Coincidentally, Tanner is gay and closeted in much the same way you’d expect two Nice White Ladies™️ would craft a character after watching the movie Latter Days a few times and deciding they know what it’s like to be a gay kid in an extremely religious family where being gay might very well mean never speaking to your family again if you come out. These characters are surface level caricatures of plot devices that have long been played out in media of all types. They do nothing new with these tropes and stereotypes, and the few times they do engage with Tanner’s bisexuality or Sebastian’s coming out, it’s problematic. Why? Because it’s not based in lived experience, which is something you can only get by being part of a community.
I’m not saying authors cannot write about communities or people that they do not belong to themselves, but that doing so must be done after serious research, investigation, and checking in with people in the community you’re writing about over and over and over again. I’m getting pretty tired of straight people being so fascinated with LGBTQ culture that they want to try it on, to be part of it. Love, Simon was great, but of course the male lead with straight, and the book it was based on was also written by a straight woman. Brokeback Mountain? Straight guys in gay roles. Dallas Buyer’s Club? The trans character was played by a cisgender man who won an Oscar and was lauded for his bravery in playing the role.
There’s a reason Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and Pose are doing so well and resonating with audiences of all types. It’s because when stories about a community are told by that community and supported with the same funding that would be given to straight, white, cisgender stories, they’re allowed to shine with an authenticity that doesn’t require you to have lived the experience in order to empathize with the experience. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I remember early independent gay films from the late 90s/early 00s, because in many of those films - especially the ones with larger budgets - some of the actors were straight. Stephen Amell, notably, came from a really weird, but delicious supernatural LGBTQ soap opera style show called Dante’s Cove - his first film credit was actually Queer as Folk. But the community is pretty much done with letting straight people center themselves in our stories. As fun and endearing as those movies and tv shows were, there are layers of authenticity that just cannot be achieved by someone from outside, that hasn’t had to endure the complex series of emotions one must go through while coming out...or discovering that your worst fear of having your bisexual boyfriend have sex with his best girl friend and...maybe he’ll choose a heteronormative life because it’s easier, but I don’t have that option because I’m gay...but I get that bisexuality isn’t a choice...has been realized and then immediately being silenced by your bisexual boyfriend who assures you it wast just a one time thing that’ll never happen again.
Seriously, Nice White Ladies ™️ need to stop deciding they love our culture so much that they want to try it on or tell our stories.
Many reviews of this book are glowing. Why? Because in 2019 we still don’t have that much LGBTQ media, especially not media that’s aimed at younger audiences. They crave it the way I craved those silly independent films and TV shows of my latter teen years. I know the feeling. But, as an adult millennial gay I can tell you that upon reflection it is much better to have stories for us be created by us. This book is a problematic prime example of why.
Love and Lyte,