Politics and writing: soon I’ll have to be a panelist on the subject
It’s certainly an interesting topic, and I’m glad the organizers of the upcoming EuroPride Con have asked me to be one of three panelists on the topic. The question they’re asking is: “How do politics influence fiction?” The question assumes a foregone conclusion that there is such an influence. I agree. But yeah, how?
Will I see you in Berlin? There will be lots more to discuss!
If you look at writing historically, it’s always been a reflection of politics, starting with the ancient Greek dramas and on to operas and plays that were written in the last century. Shakespeare’s plays are excellent examples, not because they use real kings, but because these kings served as examples what happened if/when the prince didn’t serve his people. In societies where freedom of speech was an unknown, the arts were often used to tell stories that might serve as admonishment of the political class. But today?
We can say whatever we want, whenever we want. Freely. At least in our western societies. Does writing still fill that purpose? The answer is of course the one you’d expect from me: it depends! A lot of our entertainment today, including fiction, is pure entertainment. Yes, there might be a moral to a story, often barely disguised as you’d expect from cheesy Hollywood movies, where the moral is so obvious it smells like old fish. Literature that aims to entertain, like romance and erotica, is also very much free of politics. But is is influenced by it? Probably. It seems that the worse the times we live in, the more trouble we have around us, the more fluff and happiness we escape to in our books. We just don’t need more misery in our fiction. We have enough of it IRL (in real life).
Literary fiction is different, of course, because in fiction, writers mirror society. And similar to my video last week, where I tried to explain the propensity for relationships in modern gay fiction with the advances in (marriage) equality legislation, current events tend to find their way into fiction, be it social challenges, political events etc. So what does it look like in my own writing? How political is my own fiction?
It varies. Family Ties isn’t directly influenced by current events, but a mirror of the world we live in: marriage equality (and the lack thereof in e.g. Singapore and the U.S., at the time), adoption legislation etc. The Opera House deals with homeless children on a certain level, and that is a direct reflection on the situation in the U.S., where 40% of all street kids have LGBT background, tossed onto the street by their (religious) parents. While not a real problem in (Western) Europe, it’s still something that affects me. The Fallen Angels of Karnataka is also dealing with children, but from a different angle. Slightly “historic” in nature, it mirrors the developments in recent decades, but it also shows how India is failing its children.
My most political novel is – without a doubt – Willem of the Tafel, as our main character becomes the leader of his people. A direct reflection of our current events (global warming, migration etc.), the novel looks at what might happen if we don’t turn around the wheel on Earth. Racism, environmental policies etc. You name it. Plus, several of the characters are politicians.
I can’t wait to see Berlin again. I just hope for better weather. Politics and writing, an interesting topic to discuss. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
I’m not going to go through all of my novels, let me just mention my latest one, which also highlights a political struggle, that of the Sami people in Northern Europe and specifically here in Sweden. It doesn’t get more political than that, not to mention that it is also a reflective account of recent LGBT history of our country.
I really look forward to this panel in Berlin. It’s going to be interesting to see how other authors look at this, particularly since most of the attending authors come from a “escapism” genre, romance, books read by people who may not necessarily want to be bothered by politics in their reading. Knowing the authors, it’s going to be an interesting debate, particularly since most of us care deeply about politics, society and LGBT rights. Is it June yet? You can still join the convention. There are still a few tickets available!
What’s your take? As reader or writer? Do you read to escape or to reflect? Do you write to entertain or to rattle readers?
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Those two words “thank you!” can hardly be used too much…
Yes, thank you.
I mean it. I was just talking online to my self-appointed vPA Tracy about the negativity online, and she does have a point. Seems we have a propensity to not only put our feet in our mouths, we go to great lengths to shove the entire leg down our throats. Trust me, not how deep throating was meant to be done… shrug
There is so much negativity, so much bickering and infighting, and I’ve been reminded of just how vicious we can be in the LGBT community. We fight about what letters we should use, who belongs under the rainbow, who doesn’t, what an ally is, how they’re to behave (or not), and who was the first to march under the rainbow. yawn
It gets really old, really fast. Instead, why not show some gratitude. Here’s a few of things I’m grateful for (in no particular order):
- Amazon. Yes, I know, a bit of a love-hate relationship, but without Amazon, I would sell one less book a day. So I’m grateful for the fact that they’re around for us indie authors.
- Facebook. Oh yeah, I could write books about the time I waste on this place, but every now and then, there’s a post that makes my cry, laugh or – like a few minutes ago – a post from an old friend who’s flying to town. Yes, Facebook does help me stay connected to my friends, no matter where they are, and when we meet IRL, over coffee, it’s all the better.
- My talent. No, I’m not cocky. I know the limits of my talent. But I’m a passable writer and I love the stories my brain concocts. Even better for me, I happen to have a publisher who thinks those stories are good enough to be published for a global audience. I mean, come on. Out of 7.5 billion people, only about 10 million are published authors. I’m part of this 0.13% of the world’s population. A tiny minority, really, but one I’m proud to belong to.
- My family. It’s easy to be proud of your loved ones, of course. I love my amazing husband, a smart, intelligent, accomplished and wise man who makes me proud, every day. And I love our son, this most amazing of accomplishments of ours. But our family is so much more than that, there are parents, bonus parents, grand parents, aunts and uncles, people who have shaped who I am, my beliefs and convictions, my core values. I wouldn’t be who I am without them.
The sight of this cover made me cry, that’s how great it is. I captures the essence of the story perfectly.
- My friends. I don’t know how many friends I have. Define friends? But I have enough people around me to fall back upon if I ever need any help, if I need to unload, vent, cry or crave hugs or laughs. There’s always someone, and that’s good to know. Thank you all. <3
- My co-workers. The friend above is actually a former co-worker, a supplier of mine even. And I look forward to seeing her again. She’s an amazing person. I’ve worked with some of the most amazing human beings you could ever imagine, people with a wide array of interests and fates, intelligent, caring persons from all walks of life and from all over the planet, each and every one of them shaping me, nudging me in new directions I couldn’t have imagined without them. Imagine… Right now my co-workers are all remote from me: my editor and publisher Debbie, who’s just “wow”, for lack of a better work. Always challenging my pre-conceptions, not taking bullshit from anyone, least of all me, this woman is a force to be reckoned with, and that is the best that could’ve happened to me. My cover artist lives in Edmonton, smack in the middle of fucking-nowhere on the North American continent, a place scorching dry in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. That’s where Natasha creates some of the most amazing cover designs I’ve ever seen, covers that at times had me weep. No kidding.
- My readers. An author without a reader is really just a writer. It’s the audience that brings our writing to life, turns it into great stories. I don’t know how many readers I have. I have met about thirty of forty of you, and I love each and every one of you, for your kind reviews, your words of encouragement and love, the amazing things you say about my work. Without you, I wouldn’t keep doing what I do. And even though I count the number of books I sell a day on one finger, whenever one of you takes the time to write to me to tell me how a book of mine touched you (or helped you touch yourself in the case of Ross Deere), those letters are the best letters any man could ever wish for, except for the letters from the bank saying someone deposited a million bucks on my account… Guess what kind if get more of? 😉
- Volunteers. Whether your name is Reese, Marc, Ethan, Carol, Dani, Jonathan, Elin, Charlie or whatever, the people who organize the events we get to go to are just the best. Pouring virtually thousands of hours into these events, making sure we authors get to meet our readers and fans, in beautiful and safe surroundings. There are no words to do you guys justice. You are simply the best! Thank you.
- My colleagues. I learn from my author friends and colleagues. They are smart, witty, some are incredibly intelligent (despite the feet and legs in their mouths at times), and not only do I enjoy their stories immensely, they also inspire me, and they do teach this ole’dog new tricks.
- My trolls/fiends/haters. Yes, believe it or not, I’m grateful for them, too. As weird as it is, they show me how I never want to be, ever. And your trolling reviews add cred to my mostly raving reviews, so fuck you and thank you for that, too! 😉
- GayTalk 2.0. I’m “thankful” for my girls Trish, Chris and uncle Tom who couldn’t help themselves but mention their hunger & desire for my wiener on their podcast. Horniest (or is it corniest?) and most clever pick-up line ever. Get in line boys. There’s plenty for all three of you to feast on. But they do owe me a new appearance on the show, for sure… And does that mean I finally get laid?
So much to be grateful for. Yes, I am an optimist, I smile and laugh a lot. Thank you for giving me many reasons to.
Tracy. I gotta say thanks to Tracy, my personal lady-in-waiting, the Lady Sorry AssHair. That’s her faghag name. Don’t ask. It’s a thing. And while I wish she’d limit the number of times she’s sorry for the world’s state of affairs to maybe ten times a day, that girl has more heart than is healthy for one woman. I’m so grateful for all the work she’s taken upon herself, and how she helps me out, without pay or compensation. I try to make it up to her every now and then, but yeah. I fail miserably. Sorry Tracy. 😉 And thank you! <3
So yeah, lots to be thankful for. And thanks to Tracy I managed to write a reasonable blog post. More thanks in place. Thank you.
Have a wonderful weekend, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter with giveaways and competitions, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Like I said – and I really mean it – I like to interact with my readers, and since you’re not in the hundreds, I still have the time to, so take advantage and reach out…
Love of the Game will have you crying, laughing and horny, maybe all in one chapter, most certainly before you’re done reading!
The fair Lady Phetra warned me, repeatedly, before sending me the ARC of Love of the Game:
“This is not a book for you Hans. It’s about hockey and BDSM. You don’t have to read it!”
She’s like a mom, you know? Never knows when to quit the hovering and protecting. Y’all know how much I like a challenge, right? So of course I insisted on reading it, even though Phetra used her best tricks to delay the inevitable, including sending the ARC form a server where she must’ve known that the .mobi file would be removed as a potential threat to public health and safety… I had almost given up before I finally had it in my hands! Alas, now I’ve also read it. And yeah, as you’d expect, this review is entirely based on my own views. Trust me, you’ll see why when you read it… Phetra’s going to kill me!
The cover of the book. Created by Ian Brown, IB Art Studio
So, yeah. Another venture into BDSM (whiny ‘yay!’), but like Caraway Carter’s masterpiece 7 with 1 Blow which I reviewed last fall, this is not your run of the mill BDSM novel. I’ve read a few of them by now, and the more I read, the more I learn. In Love of the Game Ms Novak explores the differences between “domination” and “abuse”, and I think it’s fair to say that I agree with her distinction. Caraway made the same one as the premise for his book. He just took off in a very different direction. I don’t claim to fully understand BDSM, nor to know how it feels to have that urge, that need to dominate someone or to feel that need to submit, sexually or otherwise. I guess that unless you feel it, you can’t really understand it, and no matter how much I read about this, I will always be at a loss, at least to a degree.
I understand that Charlie, one of the protagonists of the book has gone through hell. That’s abuse. I also understand that part of the allure of submission is the release of control to your master or dom. Marc and his husband Luc are the poster boys for a happy dom/sub couple in the book. I have always understood that, I just didn’t get the perks, the benefits of it. And make no mistake, this isn’t Ms Novak’s fault, quite the contrary. Seems it took for me to read her book to connect some of the dots in my own life (which doesn’t mean I crave BDSM, quite the contrary). Some of the key aspects of domination are “control” and “trust”. And I look into myself, I look at my own marriage, and I wonder, how is this different from being “vanilla”, which is how I’d define myself?
Falling in love, for real, with someone is (imho) all about relinquishing control. I know so many young people who are afraid of “letting go”, of trusting their hearts. Their relationships keep failing, because they just can’t let go, afraid to be hurt.
But to really love is to trust someone else implicitly with your heart and soul (and all that comes with it).
I trust my husband implicitly, and I know he feels the same. Yet we are not in a BDSM relationship, because we don’t do the whole submission thing (mentally or sexually), nor the pain thingy: the spanking, the toys and the bondage and whatever else people into that lifestyle toy with. Pardon me if I need to stay personal for a moment longer, but there is one (sexual) aspect where I personally experienced the aspect of “letting go”. As I grew up as a “little gay boy”, I would always top, never bottom. And this wasn’t about being a better man, some misguided machismo or that sort of bullshit. It was the fear of what could happen if the roles were reversed, and abused. People who bottom and the het ladies out there will understand what I mean, what it implies to “let go”, to trust someone enough to have that someone else physically enter your body: it can mean utter devastation or an orgasm the like of which you’ll rarely experience (to put it bluntly).
I wish I could get her to turn around, but she’s camera shy, our Phetra. You should check out the video from which this shot is taken though, when Phetra and I were talking about her books and writing.
Once I had learned to trust a guy with that, and was able to relinquish that control, trust him not to hurt me, that’s when I began to enjoy sex both ways. TMI, I know. My apologies. I’m learning from my reading.
In a nutshell, that is what Love of the Game is about. For Hannes and Charlie to find that place of implicit trust. It’s easy for Hannes, but given Charlie’s abuse, that’s a different beast. Yes, there are additional aspects being explored, including the sexual “pain” aspects, mostly philosophically, although there is one scene, where Hannes and a friend get up close and personal, and while I normally skim sex scenes in books (I prefer to watch), squirming about the weird language used to describe one of the most basic human endeavors, that scene left me squirming in a different way. I was so horny that I thought my pants would burst! Great writing Ms Novak, and I’ll send you the dry cleaning bill… But yeah, I still don’t get it. Pain and pleasure are two centers in my brain that just don’t want to be connected…
On the surface, Love of the Game is constructed like a traditional romance novel, an ice hockey story, playing out around a tight-knit Canadian NHL team. The protagonists meet, there’s a spark (first turning point), there’s separation, a chance (fated?) reconnection, and plenty of stuff happening before finally, after the second dramatic turning point, the two get to skate off into the sunset, together (for now). Within the premise of that, Ms Novak tells a riveting, sometimes very funny, sometimes tear-jerking story of young Swedish NHL rookie Johannes Alm, his first season in Montreal, and journalist Charlie Morin, who is battling the demons of a really bad and abusive relationship.
Ms Novak is not one to hide her convictions under a rock, and she’s found a great spokesperson in Hannes, the young hockey pro. The scene at his first press conference is one for the history books. If only the real NHL coaches had as much cojones as Hannes’s coach. But alas, in real life, being out and proud in the NHL is still “fiction”. Hopefully it’ll be a reality sooner rather than later.
Author Hans M Hirschi reads quite a few books and has published ten novels. He also reviews books on this site, regularly from a personal point of view.
If you like BDSM stories, you should definitely read this. No dungeons, no prolonged sex scenes with nipple or cock torture await you though. If that’s your fancy, look elsewhere. And if you cringe at the mention of those four letters, like I do, you should still give this story a go. Maybe you’ll finally be able to “get it”, the way I have after reading it. While it’s helped me understand some aspects of what attracts people to BDSM, I still don’t understand the whole submission or the pain aspect, probably never will, even though Caraway did a great job at explaining it in his novel. Phetra’s story doesn’t quite go that far.
Love of the Game is an unusual book, and boy do we need more of those. Great job Phetra!
Love of the Game is published by Beaten Track Publishing and is available for purchase on Amazon et al.
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Have a wonderful week,
Alphabet Soup: LGBTQIA+, are you with me?
Once upon a time there was a boy, we can call him Adam. He was an unusual boy, because Adam didn’t fall for Eve, he fell for Steve, not just romantically, but sexually, which was pretty much all they had, since they couldn’t love each other openly. One day, Adam and Steve (persecuted by society “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”) met a girl, we can call her Eve. Now Eve was also unusual, inasmuch as she fell for girls, not boy. Romantically and sexually. Eve was madly in love with Alba, and their plight was great. They had both been married off husbands they didn’t choose and who they didn’t love. But at that point, the gay and lesbian movement was formed, and the four, as little as they had in common, began to fight for their right to be with the one they love.
But it’s always been a strenuous relationship, because the boys were always in the public eye, because they’re men and thus more visible, and because two men kissing or holding hands was so much more against societal norms than two girls doing the same. Plus women’s rights weren’t even on the table, and women’s sexuality was still largely invisible. Our four friends know two more interesting characters, let’s call them Brady and Brandi. Our boy Brady here joined the movement early on. He was as gay as the rest of the. But what Brady didn’t share was the fact that he was – in fact – Brianna. Brady is transgender, MTF (male to female), back then he was called transsexual or worse, a “transvestite” or “cross-dresser”. Brandi joined for similar reasons. Since she was totally into girls, she was outed early on as a dyke, a Lesbian, but alas, Brandi was really Brad, and brad is a totally heterosexual man, a trans man, FTM (female to male). At the time in the middle of the past century, there was little talk about them and many gay men would often dress in women’s clothes on weekends and put up shows, as drag queens. So the Brady fit right in, as unhappy as she really was, in a body that wasn’t really hers. And the same was true for Brandi, or Brad, but tom boys had always been a thing, and while frowned upon, when Brad dressed in jeans and flattened tits behind tightly woven bandages and wore a loose t-shirt, he passed as a boy. But back then, Brad and Brianna didn’t really exist, they lived largely as Brady and Brandi, and they were gay and lesbian.
Let’s talk about Bill, now he is a special character. Bill had crushes on boys early on, and he joined Adam and Steve to fight alongside with them. But our friend Bill here happened to also fall for women sometimes, which confused him immensely. How can a gay man fall in love and be sexually attracted by women as well? This was finally resolved when some kind soul informed Bill that there were some people who were bisexual, with the capacity to love and be sexually attracted to both sexes. Bill stood up at a meeting and demanded that he and other bisexuals be recognized. After much debate, the gay and lesbian movement became the LGB community. The struggle was still the same: recognition for who we really were, and equal rights and to end discrimination. Then came AIDS, and suddenly, our fight for recognition became, for Adam, Steve, Brady, Bill etc a fight for survival. Alba, Eve, Brandi and others were amazing during that time, standing up when we were dying, fighting for us. It brought us closer, and cemented a movement that was strong and powerful.
Our struggle for freedom is far from over. Marriage equality was easy compared to fighting for our right to be ourselves. Assimilation is not necessarily freedom!
Eventually, we received that first recognition in the form of civil unions, and in the wake of that success, Brianna and Brad began to demand that we now focus on their struggle. They wanted to live openly and in their “right” body. We agreed and the LGBT community saw the light of day. Now with the T’s, the odd thing is that once a trans person has transitioned, many become straight, and seems to fall out from under the rainbow, but their struggle doesn’t end, because let’s face it, Brianna couldn’t really transition until she was in her early fifties, and the damage done to her body by decades of testosterone roaming freely is visible across a large and muscular frame, and for Brad, getting rid of the tits was easy, but still, to this day, medicine can’t really create a passable penis. A vagina, yes, but the penises (and medicine has really tried hard) are still far from “perfect”. Maybe one day, they’ll be able to transplant them, but we aren’t there yet. In the end, Brad kept his vagina.
The political success and the long-lasting debates around the LG, LGB and LGBT movement created a more political and philosophical movement, the queer movement, and suddenly gays, bisexuals, lesbians and trans people called themselves queer, in an effort to blow up society’s rigid gender roles, which we realized were constructs rather than a biological necessity. Suddenly, people were no longer transsexual, but trans persons, or gender queer, some identified as gender fluid (i.e. moving between genders as befit their mood or frame of mind), or even agender (not feeling home in any gender really) The queer movement was refreshing, exciting, as it stretched far and wide, looked at literature from a queer perspective, even created its own economic theories. Alas, some in the queer movement also harbored much more revolutionary ideas, ideas about not just ‘explaining’ things, but violently altering the world in a direction they wanted. Those tendencies scared many in the LGBT movement, and while many use LGBTQ, some refuse, because of what the Q sometimes stands for or is used as.
One day, Brad brought a friend, let’s call her Tanya. Tanya was born with a chromosome damage, affecting about one in a thousand children. Tanya is intersexual, and when she was born, she had both a penis and a vagina. Shocked, her parents asked the doctors to remove the “appendix” from their precious daughter. Sadly, the doctors removed the “wrong” appendix, because Tanya always felt like a boy, not a girl. So while born intersex, Tanya, or Tony as he prefers to go by, is a trans man. Another letter was added: LGBTQI. Meanwhile, the struggle for equal rights continues, and while gays, lesbians and bisexuals now enjoy the right to get married, adopt children and are safe from discrimination in some places, the fight hasn’t even begun elsewhere, and we fight it on a great many fronts today. For every win there are countless setbacks, and given the added complexity of our trans- and intersex friends, we now also fight for our right to use the “right” bathroom, to be able to compete in the right sports category etc. Intersex athletes, most of them female, as it is medically a lot easier to surgically remove a penis than sew close a vagina, are particularly exposed. Caster Semenya, a formidable runner from South Africa saw hir most private details splattered across newspapers and TV screens around the world when she wasn’t even an adult yet. To get parents of intersex born children to abstain from surgery, to wait and see how the child develops, is excruciatingly hard for parents, and they often opt for the easy way out… No matter the cost to their child.
Love conquers everything, including hate, but we have to work for it. It doesn’t just happen by itself.
Until now, every added letter to the rainbow alphabet was about discrimination, legal rights. But recently, we’ve added the letter A, when Amelia and Jerome joined the crowd. Amelia doesn’t like to have sex. It’s revolting to her, and she recently divorced her husband because she simply couldn’t put up with it any more. Amelia is a CIS-woman, she’s Korean, but yeah, totally straight. She falls in love with men and is looking for a man to love without having to engage in the exchange of bodily fluids. It’s just not her thing. Amelia is asexual. Jerome on the other hand doesn’t mind the eventual romp, but Jerome is completely uninterested in love, romance. The idea of spending his life with one woman in a relationship is unthinkable for Jerome. Jerome is aromantic. He identifies as a straight, black man, and he does have sex with women every now and then, but he just doesn’t want to take that next step. Both Jerome and Amelia are frowned upon by their peers, their friends and families. We are now looking at the LGBTQIA+ community. The plus is sometimes used to identify both A-gender, A-romantic and A-sexual. Do you think we’re done? No, have I mentioned Peter? He’s pansexual. He’ll sleep with anything with a pulse (just joking..) No, seriously, Peter has the capacity to be attracted, sexually and romantically, to people of any gender, any sex. He’s lucky that way, but no, it’s not easy being in Peter’s shoes, because the demands from society to conform are tremendous. His mother always says, “but son, if you can fall in love with a nice girl, why don’t you?” Peter and Bill often discuss this conundrum they share! In many ways, the LGBTQIA+ community still struggles to obtain the most basic of human rights, as it states in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
We are no way near those rights. In a dozen countries we don’t even enjoy the right to live. Women’s sexuality is still largely a taboo, which helps lesbians to fly under the radar, but it’s a treacherous safety, because sometimes it’s better to be seen and persecuted than to be invisible, ignored.
Author Hans M Hirschi was born a CIS gay man. While perfectly happy in his body bad (as flawed as it may be), he’s also acknowledging the fact that his maleness is largely a social construct. He embraces all the qualities of his personality, no matter whether they be generally labeled “female” or “male”. He is happy to have been able to marry his partner of 16+ years, Alex, and to have had the rare privilege of having a child, their son, Sascha, four. While he usually writes about gay men in his books, he’s also branched out into the rainbow in his short stories, exploring various aspects of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.
Here in the west? Far too many societies still struggle with basic gay and lesbian rights, while the Internet connects the world in new ways, making people aware of our diversity in a global way. And while we’ve moved past the pure legal battles of old in some countries, e.g. Scandinavia, where LGBT people enjoy almost full protection under the law, it’s easier to focus on the right for the A+ to be who they truly are, and live their lives fully. Elsewhere, gay & bisexual men and pre-op/pre transition trans women fight to survive, e.g. in Chechnya. Please DONATE to this cause, if you can!
Remember Adam? We survived the AIDS crisis of the eighties. Steve did not. Adam is seeing Bill at the moment, and it seems as if they might have a thing, although Bill’s elderly parents aren’t thrilled that he divorced his wife to be with Adam: “are you gay now?” (No, Bill is still very much a bi man!) Eve and her wife Alba are happy. Their oldest son just became a father, making the two gray haired ladies proud grandmas. The struggle continues, but here and there, rainbow families have begun to sprout, happiness spreads, and we continue to fight, and who knows what letter we’ll add to the rainbow next? They would all fit under the rainbow!
In the end, I think most in the community would agree that it would be nice if we could just replace them all with an H, for human. In the meantime, some suggest we stop adding letters and simply use the word SAGA, the story of a Sexuality And Gender Acceptance in society. Is SAGA a saga or a future for humanity? Stay tuned…
Happy Easter and make love, not war!
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There is an important difference between romance and fiction, one is mostly fantasy, the other one is about life itself, but we are all equal
“I identify as a gay man.” I don’t remember a single sentence ever sparking such a row (at least not in the small bubble I belong to.) But no, this post isn’t about the two lovely (I’ve met them!) ladies who co-write under the pseudonym Kindle Alexander. I believe that I’ve gotten enough background information from friends to understand why they did what they did. It may not have been the smartest move in human history, but I think their heart was in the right place. I choose to move on. Yes, they could’ve handled some of the fallout better, reigned in some their fans, some of whom went completely off the rails. Hindsight is always the wiser. Forgive, move on!
This post is about something bigger. And it’s something that has been on my mind (and other’s, it seems) for a long time. It is also something that is extremely difficult to dress in words without offending anyone. So please read this with an open mind, and heart. I just read a long blog post by Jeff Erno, a fellow gay author. His heartfelt post points to the difference between M/M (some call it gay romance) and gay fiction. When I published my first two novels, back in July 2013, I was ignorant, I had no idea about the existence of this genre where (primarily) women wrote books about gay men falling in love for (primarily) other women, having created, in effect, a sub-genre to the huge genre of “chick-lit”, romance or harlequin novels. I set the first word in quotation marks, simply because the very word signals just how bad the reputation of romance novels are. Trust me, I harbor no such feelings. Any book written and read serves a purpose. Just saying. Romance novels are no better or worse than any other books or genre!
Romance Genres on Amazon.
There’s a catch though: many readers of romance genre books believe in the rules that accompany that genre (just as there are rules accompanying any genre): a hero and a hero(ine) meet, chemistry develops, plenty of shit happens, misunderstandings, disasters and what not, before they finally kiss (have sex?!) and ride off into their happily ever after. That’s how a classic romance novel is strung, and there are certain rules you should follow: no adultery for instance, no menage à trois (or four) etc. Such books belong in carefully labeled sub-genres.
Today’s writing world is largely dominated by Amazon. And while Amazon’s 800,000+ thousand romance books have a small sub-genre labeled “Gay Romance”, most of the romance novels are published directly in the Gay and Lesbian section, where you can find over 130,000 books. And this is where it becomes complex. Because that section also houses literature written for an LGBTQIA+ audience which are not romance. A problem? It can be, yes. Let me exemplify.
No romance in LGBT, but all the romance books are in “Literature & Fiction” drowning out the rest.
First of all, the number of romance novels is many fold larger than the number of fiction novels, and since there is no distinction, it’s difficult for a reader to find the “fiction” among the “romance”. After all, we’re not talking about hundreds of books, but over one hundred thousand books! This isn’t about who writes or who reads, it’s about the stories we try to tell. Just this weekend I’ve once again stumbled across a review who criticizes me for a certain aspect of my books, namely the mentioning of death. Not very romantic, I know. However, I don’t write romance.
When I began writing, romance novels were not on my mind. I merely wanted to tell my story, not having readers in mind. My second novel, to this day my most popular one, was a coming out story, something every LGBT person knows intimately. It’s a story that is inherently who we are. And no, a coming out isn’t a one time thing. It’s a life-long process, every time you meet someone new, you have to think about this: do I tell them or not? Do I need to, or not. Straight people can’t even begin to understand what this means, and just how much the coming out is part of our existence, every day, for the rest of our lives. Just an example: you’re at the grocery store buying vegetables when a clerk approaches you. You tell them you’re looking for something for dinner. Do you tell them “for my family?”, “for my husband and son?”, the latter not unimportant, because it’s your husband who’s picky with regards to what he eats. Yes, we can’t even buy salad without being gay… And no, straight people don’t have that, you don’t risk the clerk walking away in disgust at you, or – if you’re in the wrong US state or Russia, turn you away… No salad for gays!
Jonathan’s Hope was no romance novel, but since it’s about “hope”, I wanted to write a novel to give all of us (gay men) hope that one day, we might be able to find love, happiness, even start a family (which most of us dream about from childhood). So yes, it’s a romantic book, not a romance, because it wasn’t intended as such. You’re of course welcome to read it as such, but you risk to miss a lot of subtext. And yes, people complain about the ending. But again. It’s not a romance, therefore the ending, therefore no “HEA”. Instead, the epilogue shows the “hope” becoming reality, and Jonathan walks home, his biggest hope come true, yet still hopeful for more. Hope realized is the biggest gift I can give to a gay reader, “it (actually does) get better!” I never intended to write another novel about Jonathan, and when I did, it was with the expressed purpose of killing Jonathan in the end, after a long and happy life (he was eighty when we leave him at the end of Jonathan’s Hope, hardly a spring chicken any more). But trust me, I find no joy in killing people. None whatsoever, no matter what people say. But my objective was clear: with Jonathan gone, I would never, ever, have to face requests for more. However, and this is where it becomes difficult, setting out to do something, and doing it, are two different things entirely. Hence the trilogy.
“My advice to anyone reading this book….skip the fucking epilogue!! Otherwise a good read, a little awkward in places but not bad.”
The above was my first negative review, ever. Yes, a romance reader. And no, they completely missed the point of the novel.
My books are about life. I’m no “literary serial killer”, yet people think I am. They don’t understand, sorry if I’m being blunt. I write about life, gay life. Death is part of life, even more so of gay life (re e.g. Chechnya). Death is the very consequence of life. Jonathan’s Hope plays out over seven decades (what family does not experience loss over that time?), my most recent novel actually is about death, how to deal with your partner’s death. Again, not a romance novel. It’s a book about how you deal with death of your partner. Not a romance. But there are romantic elements, of course, because romance, love, are part of our lives, too, luckily. But Last Winter’s Snow also shows that it wasn’t always that way, that there was a time when all you could expect as a gay man was to exist, not live. If you criticize me for killing a main character in that book, you don’t understand what the book is about. We’re not talking subtext or nuances. You miss the whole point. So yes, there is a certain risk when reading my books through the “romance” lens, and I’m not the only one who’s suffered that fate. The problem though is: how and where do you market such books, avoiding the purist romance crowds? Who’s to buy them?
There are no conventions for authors of LGBT fiction. There just aren’t enough of us. However, there are conventions for gay romance, not as many as a couple of years ago, when the genre was at its largest so far, but still. I attend them. I, along with other authors of gay fiction, have been welcomed and embraced by the M/M genre, and I am very thankful for that (which is one of the reason I sponsor such events, even though I lose a lot of money, every year). I feel the love and the warmth in that crowd, I’ve made amazing friends, even though I’m something the cat dragged in. Finding gay fiction among gay romance is like finding the proverbial needle in a hay stack. I didn’t know that Jeff Erno wrote gay fiction. Seeing him at GRL, I automatically assumed he was a romance writer (and that is what it says on his website). Yes, I make the same assumptions, the same mistakes. My bad. I’ve learned a valuable lesson.
This isn’t about gender, either. Women write both M/M romance and gay fiction. So do men. Although I’ve yet to meet a straight man writing gay fiction, but I’m sure there will be a kind soul commenting with names below (thanks in advance). Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain is a good example of gay fiction, not romance. And Andrew Gray is a great example of a gay man writing M/M romance. There are lots of others. This isn’t about gender, sex or sexuality. Any human being should be allowed to write about any subject, I’ve said this before. What I have learned though is that some of the women in the genre are not as straight and cis as they appear to be. Just saying. And that is a good thing. And we should be mindful of that, and be kind to one another. Not make assumptions (of which I’ve been guilty of as well, I’m afraid). Despite being gay, I’m also just human.
So how is the first sentence of this post connected to all this? I think a lot of gay authors are frustrated that their books are mislabeled as “romance” when they’re not. Some are angry because people are “appropriating” us for financial gain, irrespective of whether that is true or not. You might ask “does it matter?” It does. A romance novel is meant as fantasy, an escape from reality, it allows you to fantasize about two men falling in love, having sex and being happy. Trust me, when I see the images on Facebook from readers and writers of M/M, I see the countless images of sexy, well-defined, muscular hot men kissing and/or lying in bed. Lots of skin, oozing with sex. It’s far away from the reality of these writers/readers, and naturally far away from my own life. But it’s nice to know that you DO have that escape if you want it to, rather than looking at the mirror image of a middle-aged, fat guy staring back at you.
Yes, I am a gay man, and I write gay fiction. I don’t write romance, but you’re welcome to read my books as such if you like. As long as you buy them. hint Because I have news for you. If I were to a) only market my books to other gay men, I’d sell a whole lot less! And b) I’d miss out on one of my core beliefs: my stories are meant for everyone. Just as I can enjoy straight novels like “Catcher in the Rye”, “Hamlet” or “Don Quixote” as a gay man, why wouldn’t a “non-gay” person be able to enjoy my books? If we only cater to our own little niche, we risk to end up in tiny ghettos, narrow silos, where everyone is the same. How would we learn? Evolve? It’s not uncomplicated, but that’s the goal.
But yes, the dominance of M/M romance on Amazon isn’t without consequences. What if you’re a woman looking for lesbian fiction in all this? Good luck. Imagine you’re gender queer and you look for books for you. Imagine you’re trans and look for books for you. Or asexual, a-romantic, polyamorous or intersex? Suddenly, the needle in the haystack is a grain of sand in the desert. The LGBTQIA+ spectrum gets bigger and bigger, and we all expect to find books that tell us about others like us. If it’s so difficult for gay men (who after all have over a hundred thousand books to choose from), imagine how difficult it is for our bi-, trans-, queer etc. siblings.
Yes, we want to read romance novels (I did), too, because the give us hope, they are often bubbly, fluffy and sexy, but we also want to read books that ready us for reality, and yes, it’s nice if even those novels are hopeful and not just depressing, but they must ask the real questions in life: what if I get sick, what if my partner leaves, what if I can’t have kids, what if I lose my job, what if, what if… Romance novels often ask such questions, too, but they do so within the parameters of the genre, sprinkled with sex, and with the obligatory ride-off into the sunset, lest they be judged harshly by readers who aren’t happy with the rules being broken. I’ve seen those reviews… I’ve spoken to many an author who wants to break the rules, authors who do break the rules, authors who’ve written books who read more like “fiction” than “romance”, but they all tell me that those books sell less, and if you have hungry mouths to feed, bills to pay… Just saying. It’s not easy. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rules, always are.
Author Hans M Hirschi writes gay fiction, tackling social issues and the “big questions” in life. His novels usually end on a positive, hopeful note. It garnered him the honorary title of “Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings“
Finally, a word of caution. The world of M/M is tiny, as huge as it may seem to those few of us who write gay fiction. It’s a small world. There are 130+K LGBT books on Amazon, but over 800K romance novels, not including all the other literature. We are a tight knit community, and yes, to a degree, us gay (and other LGBTQIQ+) authors are guests in the M/M world, because “others” created the conventions, the review sites, the Facebook groups. We didn’t. We joined, we were welcome, and we get to participate, as equals. I understand the frustration; and at times, when my work is misunderstood, I lament it. But it is what it is, and I won’t burn bridges. I refuse to. We cannot afford to alienate our allies, even when they make mistakes, and we shouldn’t jump the guns, not draw conclusions without having the full picture. Because I also understand that as the author of gay fiction, most of my readers are not. I sell – on average – a book a day, if I’m lucky. If I were to anger my straight female readers, I wouldn’t sell books at all anymore. Let’s face it, most men don’t read, regardless of their sexuality. We must realize that we are all, at the core, human beings with different experiences, different expectations, hopes and dreams. Let’s treat each other accordingly, with respect and dignity. And when one of us fucks up, let’s forgive, move on. Let’s all learn and not make that mistake again. Plenty left to explore…
Which is also what I expect from comments here. Always welcome, but I do monitor all comments, and if you are rude or disrespectful, I will not publish it. So let’s hear it, what are your experiences? Do you agree, disagree? There are a million nuances and it’s difficult to address them all in a single blog post, as long as it’s become.
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Have a great week,
When reviewers have conflicting views it gets really interesting…
You may have heard… I released a new book yesterday, Last Winter’s Snow. Congratulations to me! And for a couple of weeks or so, reviews have been coming in, and they have mostly made me very happy, because a lot of the things I’ve read were very encouraging, and positive. However, and this is the really interesting part, and this post will look at reviews from both a reader perspective and an author perspective, I’ve had two reviews that took opposing sides on a single issue. I’m not going to take sides, but let’s hear from the reviewers themselves:
The cover of Last Winter’s Snow.
One reviewer writes: “I would have cut out some of the “travelogue” passages about Swedish cities, flora and fauna, etc., in favor of some scenes to establish the couple’s unique personalities and why they were a good match.”
Another says: “One of my favorite parts of the novel is how Sweden is almost itself a character. I was utterly captivated reading about the different places, their history and culture. It was a little like a whirlwind tour, and it left me wanting to know more and to see the sights for myself.”
Did they really read the same book? 😳
Now, I had my reasons to include the “travelogue” aspects, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask my editor. We did discuss this at length. I won’t justify my decision here, not the point of this post. However, isn’t it interesting that one person’s “lowlight” was another person’s “highlight”?
Reviews from a reader’s perspective
Reviews can be a great tool if you are a reader on the hunt for your next great read. But unless you read a thousand books a year (it’s a thing apparently) and/or have an unlimited budget for DNFs*, you may want to do your research, before you “one-click”.
If a review speaks to you somehow, look at other reviews from that same source. Have your read the same books already? What was their take then? Don’t just trust a single review. I do this when I look at hotel or restaurant reviews. I spend a lot of time trying to find out who the reviewer is. If they only review ONE place and trash it, likelihood is they just had a bad experience which cannot really be applied as a thumb rule for an entire establishment. I would argue the same is true for book reviews. (*DNF – Did Not Finish the book)
Just the other day, my publisher noticed a two-star review on one of the books they publish, a book that isn’t even out yet! I’ve had the same happen to me before. Quite honestly, we don’t know why that particular reader did that, but trust me when I say that there are a lot of trolls on Goodreads. So don’t trust just any review. Learn what they say about other people’s stuff. It’ll help you determine if you really are on the same wavelength like the writer of the review you’ve read.
Once you know the reviewer is reliable and not a “troll”, this is really going to help you to find books you can trust. Just remember, reviews are kind of like the news: you have to be mindful of the source(s)! Personally, when it comes to books, I’ve never been a big fan of reviews to find the reads I like. Most of what I read isn’t “pleasure” reading, but part of my professional development, and I often read books outside my personal comfort zone. I read mostly ARCs** and review those here on my blog. But every now and then I’ll read a book for pleasure and I go either by personal recommendation (which I’ve lived to regret more than once) or I simply read the blurb and look at the cover, like so many others, and yes, I’ve lived to regret those, too. (**ARC – Advance Review Copy, usually an edited, but not finally proofed version of the book which is sent to professional reviewers before publication)
Reviews from an author’s perspective
I’ve written about this before. Here, for instance. When you get positive, constructive reviews, it’s easy to feel happy. I grinned like an idiot the other night after reading a beautifully crafted and very generous review. We’re all entitled to that, particularly if you don’t get that monthly check from Amazon to makes you smile… My check makes my bank weep, that’s for sure. However, and I think that is important, when you get two conflicting, professional reviews like the ones I quoted above, you, the author have to chill for a moment.
Why did they say what they said? Could it be that they don’t much care for descriptions of locales? I once reviewed a book by the insanely talented Posy Roberts. In her novel Silver Scars, Posy describes an amputation and the process of healing at great length. I had just published my own book Jonathan’s Promise, where I had described something “similar”, yet completely different. And just like Posy and I put our emphasis on different aspects of our characters, focus on different things, so will reviewers. One will miss the emphasis on character interaction, another will be happy that the focus wasn’t there etc. Don’t take that criticism personal. It’s not their book. It’s yours, and you’re entitled to write the story any way you damn well please.
This is even more the case when you receive bad reviews. I have long ago stopped reading my reviews on Goodreads. I have my trolls, I get my one-star reviews and that is fine. I actually quite enjoy them, or at least knowing they’re there. I means someone is really upset with whatever success I have, which means I’m getting noticed. Just getting such troll attention lends my authorship credibility. And as long as my composite score on Goodreads is higher than Shakespeare’s, who am I to complain? Really? It’s all a matter of perspective. Then again, I’d readily accept a lower score than the great poet if it meant larger sales. Again, a matter of perspective.
But if you insist on reading bad reviews, ask yourself this: why are you doing it? What do you gain from them? Apart from a potentially masochistic pleasure? I’ve had more than one writer tell me that they gain insights on what works and what doesn’t work in a novel. I guess that is also why so many authors use beta readers, to finely tune their product to a specific market. Nothing wrong with that. But you didn’t see Michelangelo do beta studies of his Davide. If your writing is a craft, and you write to a specific audience, cater to a carefully developed niche or genre, I understand the need for beta readership to make sure a product will work. But as you can pick up from my choice of words, such books aren’t works of art, they are a craft, a product, aimed at entertaining, pleasing a very specific audience. No one else will care. Ain’t nothing wrong with that approach! It’s usually the approach that sells, right?
However, artsy books are different. They tell THE story they’re supposed to tell, whether people care to read it or not. They’re what we sometimes call “literary”, aka “books no one reads”. Do they have a readership? Yes, but they usually don’t climb the charts, neither at Amazon nor at the New York Times. And they piss off an equal amount of people they please. It’s what art does: it provokes. It asks the important questions in life. Can crafty books do that? Yes, but they do so within the well specified parameters. Allow me to explain:
For instance, you could write a romance novel about “death”, but there are certain things within the genre you have to stick to, e.g. the relationship is paramount. Not death. And there may be other details to consider, how much sex you need to include, how explicit it may be. Heck I’ve even read somewhere that “monogamy” is a core ingredient in hardcore romance novel recipes. In an artsy book, you can still have a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be THE theme, death can be. And you can include sex, on the page, off the page, or leave it by the wayside, and the characters can fuck whenever with whomever, as long as it makes sense to the story you’re telling. There are no rules to follow, as long as your editor is happy, and they look primarily at things like:
- consistency: leave home in a Volvo, you better come home in a Volvo (or explain what happened)
- believability: why is there an Alien spaceship in the back yard?
- credibility: she died and came back from the dead? How is that possible?
Reviewers may take “offense” at anything in everything you write, and if you break genre rules, I’m sure you probably already knew you were going to be trashed for it. The same is true for artsy books, the only difference is that you can readily dismiss such comments. Why? Because some people are just really stupid. Sorry if I’m being harsh, but if a reviewer complains about a non-romance book “not being romance” or a “thriller” being too exciting, then it’s not the author or the publisher who is to blame, but the reviewer for simply being too damn stupid. Yes, it’s still upsetting to read, and you may still need to have that review on your book’s Goodreads page, but honestly, give readers some credit, too.
If your book is listed as a “mystery” or “thriller” (or whatever), and a review complains that it wasn’t a “romance”, don’t you think people will disregard said review as exactly as imbecile as it is? Quite the contrary, it will even make sure that other romance readers won’t pick up your book and be disappointed by said lack of loooove, sending more bad reviews your way… Incidentally, you might actually get other readers to pick up your story because it was dissed as a non-romance. Imagine, there is such a thing as a readership for non-romance novels. Two sides to every medal.
Author Hans M Hirschi reads quite a few books and has published ten novels. He also reviews books on this site, regularly.
Reviews aren’t easy, for readers, for authors nor reviewers. But they are an essential part of our strive to reach our readers (old and new), and I am very grateful for the reviews I get, particularly the ones that I ask for, where we, as part of the marketing effort send out ARCs to professional reviewers. They don’t know what heads their way, which is why some will like it, and others won’t. That is part of the business. Nevertheless I’m grateful for the professional courtesy they show to our work. Naturally I’m also happy for others who review one of my books they’ve loved (or hated), I just may never see it. So thanks! 🙂
What is your take? How do you see reviews? As reader? Author? Let’s hear it…
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Have a wonderful weekend,