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!
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.
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.
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.
Have a great week,