Genres are a necessary “evil” to help readers find stories, and to help publishers market their books to specific groups, but…
I believe I’ve written about genres and genre placement before. It is something that was extremely important to me at the beginning of my writing career. After a while, my own take on it was a bit more relaxed, but recently I feel a choke hold around my throat from the restrictions it places on my storytelling, and I feel this really strong need to lash out, to free myself. I just don’t know how.
I recorded a video just yesterday about why I am no romance writer. I can’t see J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Dan Brown ever having this kind of struggle or dilemma. But for a very specific reason, in LGBT fiction we do. It’s due to “gay romance”. If you’re not in this particular part of the writing world, imagine the world of the aforementioned authors completely dominated by “Da Vinci romances” or “Shining / Cujo romances” or even “Harry Potter romances” to the degree that you can’t find the books that are not. In LGBT fiction, that’s our reality…
I’ve always defended romance, and gay romance in particular, simply because it offers so many positive stories, stories I didn’t have when I grew up. That is a huge step in the right direction, and I’ve seen dozens of young men (since 95% of the books are about gay men) with glazed over eyes talk about the importance of gay romance in their own identity building, in gathering the strength to come out, pursue relationships. However, much of romance is more about fantasy, escapism, not reality. Therefore, romance will only take you so far. As soon as you look for something more “serious”, more realistic, you’re our of luck.
An example. Five years ago, when we got pregnant with our son, I was looking for books that dealt with the topic of gay parenting. Not having any real life gay parents in my circles back then, I was really curious about what we were in for. I found a few books about that topic. But not one of the books I read were about gay parenting. No. They were all romances, and therefore only about the parents’ relationship, how they met, the struggles they had to become a couple (where the child sometimes was a hurdle to overcome), their sex life etc. I even read a book about a gay grandfather who fucked his love interest after returning home from a school meeting about his grandson being bullied. I was appalled! I decided there and then, that I would have to find my own path. Fucking as a way of “coping” or dealing with parenting issues just didn’t appeal to me. I doubt it works in the long term. I’d rather be there for my son…
With almost two-hundred thousand romance books in LGBT literature, among a total of 230K, finding issue-based fiction is like finding a needle in a haystack. As the author of non-romance novels, I want to make it easier to make my books available to those who look for them, but it’s not easy. But even more than that, it’s really challenging for me as a writer. Because I don’t always decide what genres my books are placed in on Amazon. Their algorithm does that automatically. My books are about gay families, which automatically involves a couple, and thus a relationship. Amazon interprets that as a romance, even though it’s not. I’ve played with more than one genre, I’ve even written Erotica once, a book born from a project of trying to make more money. Alas, if failed, but I managed to save some of the text and turn it into a stand-alone novel.
I’m extremely grateful for my readers, and I know that most of the people who read my books normally read romance novels. Without the romance readers, I’d sell a book a month, instead of a book a day. This is of course also something my publisher must keep in mind in their efforts to push my books. Why publish a book if it won’t sell? On the flip side, of the (few, I’m lucky) bad reviews I receive, they are usually from people with very narrow definitions of what a good romance book is all about. And my books where the relationship is placed in the farthest background (The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, Willem of the Tafel) have been read a lot less than those where the couple’s relationship is more prominent, albeit for specific storytelling reasons, not because it was the relationship per se that is the main protagonist (Jonathan’s Hope, The Opera House).
For a while, I was perfectly comfortable with writing and I didn’t care if people mistook my books as romances. In a futile attempt at selling more, I even began to place people on my covers. Willem of the Tafel was my first book with a model on the cover. I felt anxiety and looked for the right model for the longest time before I finally settled on my Willem. It’s still, to this day, my favorite cover. The book didn’t sell. A single man on a cover just doesn’t “signal” relationship. Had I also placed Hery on the cover, who knows, maybe it would’ve. But to me, that wasn’t even on my retina. Willem of the Tafel isn’t about the two men’s relationship. It’s about politics, it’s about society building, racism, global warming and the sacrifices we have to make for society, for the betterment of our species.
For my next novel, Spanish Bay, I figured I’d take that extra step, and actually place the couple on the cover. I’ve lived to regret that decision. I like the cover, but yes, it’s a sell-out of my values. It’s very “romance-ey”, the kissing couple (none of which look like the main characters, and having found the same couple on another cover, although only if you’ve seen the entire series, you’d know), the font of the title… If I ever were to change a cover, this is the one: remove the couple and focus only on the beach, change the font. But at the time, I really tried to please readers who came from that corner of the world. And yes, I do feel like a sell-out.
I haven’t had a person on a cover since, and I won’t again. And it pains me that people read my books through a certain lens that keeps them from seeing the “bonus” I hope to provide. Needless to say, this is something authors have to accept. Once a book is out there, it’s really not up to us to have any views on how readers interpret a novel. I would never tell people how to read a novel. Believe me, people have asked. Yet at the same time, when people stand on the magnificent rim of the Grand Canyon, with one eye covered, they’ll never really get the full impression of just how magnificent the place is, the full depth of field. And if you read Harry Potter as a romance series, don’t you think you’re missing something? I mean there are two couples forming, and Hermione and Ronald have been in it from the get-go… Jinny comes into the picture a bit later, but still.
I said in my video yesterday, that I feel that the whole genres thing also has begun to affect my writing. I consciously dismiss writing ideas that are “positive”, “hopeful” and focus on things that are of a darker quality. When people keep telling you that you’re a cow, you have two choices: either you begin to grow those additional regurgitation stomachs and begin to eat fresh grass or you try to chance people’s perception of you. I try to change people’s perception, and I do so for very personal reasons: I grew up with people assuming I was straight. They assumed I’d get married to a nice girl, produce nice grandkids, become a provider to my family.
When I came out, risking to shatter those illusions, I was told that “it’s just a phase”, that “you haven’t met the right (magic?) girl yet” and “how can you know this?” For me, when people force me into a genre that isn’t mine, I instinctively feel that way I felt when I was seventeen and my parents shoved me back into the closet and threw away the key. They felt they knew better than I, they felt that their word weighed more than mine, and since I was a minor, I had no choice but to acquiesce. As a middle-aged man, I no longer feel the need to let others tell me who to be, how to be, what to be. I finally have the chance to be me, and that includes being the author of gay (and sometimes LGBT) fiction. Simply because I say so.
Readers, do you care about how your authors place themselves in genres? How do you find the books you read? Authors, what is your take on genres? Do you feel restricted by genres or do you find them helpful in your writing? I’d love to hear how others view this…
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