Writing LGBT fiction is more than just making money, at least for me
I remember a discussion I once had with my dad. I had just published my first novels and he asked me what they were about (he doesn’t speak English well enough to read books). When I told him that I write LGBT fiction, he wrinkled his nose (the way you do if you’re appalled at something) and said: “why don’t you write a book people actually want to read, a bestseller?”
That sentence, one I’ll never forget, was uttered back in July 2013, three years ago. Since then, I’ve written several more of those “gay books” and my dad is right. None of them are “bestsellers”. I’m no Jackie Collins, I’m no J.K. Rowling. No Hollywood produce ever called to sign me. Never saw my name on the NYT best-seller list. Never mind the dreams… Just saying. My pockets aren’t lined with gold, but there’s a silver lining: I still get to do buddy reads with my readers, they will keep me posted on their progress and their frustrations/emotions as they plow through my novels. I like that. I really do, and I’d miss that if I had assistants do that for me (if they’d bother at all).
Over the past few days there have been a couple of blog posts that have given me pause, because it seems that LGBT fiction has reached a zenith, or even passed it. In one post, fellow author and friend Brandon Witt is lamenting (or is he?) that fact (I think?) It’s never really said in so many words, but I can deduce that he’s unhappy with the sales of his books in a post to readers…, erm, fellow writers. As a consequence, my publisher and (also) friend Debbie McGowan published a post about why we’re writing in the first place (or not).
I can totally relate to both points of view. I’ve been living the “dream”, as Brandon says, for almost three years, and no, it’s not sustaining me. Far from it. Am I complaining? Lamenting it? No, to what end? I think that’s why I find Brandon’s post a bit confusing. You can’t live the dream and still lament it (or bitch about it as he calls it), or can you? I certainly share his frustration of not making a fortune, of spending so much time marketing myself and my work, of spending thousands of dollars to support conventions, to travel to places and to market my work, only to make a fraction of that (in my case) in royalties. What Debbie is saying (much more eloquently than I ever could) is that “hey, if you do it for the money, change the genre, move on, write something else!”
And I know of several authors who are doing just that, and almost daily I spot a blog post somewhere where authors are considering to write something else to stay ahead of the curve. In Sweden, one of our most successful authors once ghost wrote a biography for our only decent soccer player, only to later go on and ghost write a crime novel to follow up on the Millennium trilogy. Made him millions, for sure. And I’m not envious, but I honestly wouldn’t, couldn’t (which is more important) do it. It also leaves me wondering what the man actually cares about, where his passion lies (beside his bank account?)
And I think that makes me different from other authors (not better, and certainly not worse): I have no choice. Sure, I could stop writing altogether, but the stories I have in me, they are LGBT fiction. Sure, I could make them about het people, but I’d feel as if I was cheating somehow, letting my own people down. And I have very good reasons to do what I do: my experiences growing up, my love for the generations of LGBT to come.
When I was a child, there were no LGBT books, heck we barely had a library in the town I grew up in, I certainly never saw the inside of it. And even today, books like the one about the gay penguins in Tango are still disputed and banned from libraries all over the world. Gay literature is burned in public and gay authors and activists are killed. I guess you can see where I am going with this. I am lucky. I am extremely fortunate. I live in a country where not only I could get married, but where we are also lucky to have a beautiful son to call our own, our government and our country supports LGBT rights. I’m with Kennedy here: “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” Hence, I feel obligated to give back, not to Sweden for doing what is legally, morally and ethically right, but to the world, to help those who cannot help themselves, to bring hope to those who have so little.
I have not forgotten how difficult it was to grow up without literature, without books for “me”, and not just the books that merely doomed me (in the eyes of society) to a death alone, in misery, but books that provided hope, books that would fuel my imagination and dreams for a better future. I totally get it if you do not understand this, if you cannot even fathom what it is like to grow up and not being able to fully identify with the characters in the books you read, if you can’t grasp the concept of watching TV, movies, read books or see people on the streets behave in a way so utterly different from how you feel, from never, ever, seeing anything that remotely “feels” like you feel, “looks” like anything you feel inside.
No, not as a little boy reading Enid Blyton‘s stories, but later, as a teen, as the realization of just how different I was, grew inside me. Being LGBT is different from being a red head, different from being disabled. Being LGBT is on top of the above, and it’s – for the vast majority of us – not visible from the outside, and so people expect us to be like them (heteronormativity). I recently had a conversation with a very straight male friend about his daughter. She was asking to have her gay bestie do a sleep over, and her dad was losing his mind, afraid the boy might suddenly discover a late night craving for pussy (only a straight man thinks like this, trust me). In the end, they didn’t allow her to have the sleep over (homophobia, in this case more like “heterophobia” – afraid he might be straight – is still a thing), something that had never entered their mind before, when their daughter had countless girls sleeping over (Lesbians, anyone? They do exist, not to mention kids experimenting… But alas, why worry the poor schmucks even more, eh?)
At one point during our conversation he said to me, and I quote: “I don’t read gay books, they’re not for me”, which makes me wonder, would that excuse gay kids from reading “Romeo & Juliet“, “The Divine Comedy” or say the “Iliad” or “Harry Potter” in school? Because clearly, all those books are very het? Are they not for us then? Oh, please don’t tell me that Dumbledore is “gay”; where exactly in the books is that made clear? There are more straight characters in my books, yet that apparently doesn’t count, does it? Yet we’re expected to be thrilled by a gay secondary or tertiary character. Thanks, but no thanks. Besides, he dies, in the ancient tradition of “only a dead gay is a good gay”. I appreciate Ms Rowling’s support for the LGBT community, but I am convinced that her publisher and editors wouldn’t have allowed for Dumbledore to be openly gay in the series, not to mention the movies.
Back to my topic: luckily, we live in a day and age where computers allow kids and people in vulnerable societies access to a variety of online resources (could be better, but it’s a start), from reading books on their phones, tablets, buying them online rather than having to blush in a book store, researching information etc. I also understand that many (although never enough) librarians around the world are working hard to make LGBT fiction available (despite the protests of parents and others).
Incidentally, this brings me back to the beginning, and my dad’s question. Yes, most characters in my books are LGBT, because there are very few LGBT characters in literature still. Only a minuscule fraction of all books on Amazon are gay or bi or trans or lesbian, and even fewer deal with questions like asexuality or intersexuality. Yet, ALL books, on some level, deal with aspects of humanity, even the ones about aliens, zombies and shifters. Therefore, even het people can (and should?) read my books and identify with those characters, as the few excerpts from my recent conversation with a reader show. I have read het books all my life. Incidentally, I still do. I’m still sane (well…) and alive. It’s not made me het, and reading LGBT fiction will not “turn” anyone (I wish…), but it will help those who are LGBT accept themselves more easily, they will realize they’re not alone, and they will see that we are all just the same. Some really good people, and some not so good. And that we have the same aspirations, hopes and dreams as everyone else.
I couldn’t write other stories, at least not genuinely, passionately, honestly. For me, writing LGBT fiction is a calling, it’s painful at times, it’s difficult, it’s easy, all at the same time, but I have no real choice. I wouldn’t write het, even if I wanted to. Besides, why? There are plenty of people out there who already do. So yes, it may be true, M/M romance books are declining in sales, publishers are going out of business. So what? The “money crowd” will be moving on to writing something else, follow their readers on to greener pastures. Who knows, maybe the publishers of F/M fiction (and romance) have finally realized that alpha males “saving” demure little house wives isn’t for the twenty-first century. I’m just grateful that M/M even exists (decline or no decline), even though I’m not a big reader of it myself, not anymore, for a great many reasons, some of which may also have led to the current decline we see. Maybe people are still curious about LGBT fiction, but maybe just not the romance kind? Who knows? Only time will tell. I can only hope that the authors who write LGBT fiction, those who truly care about us, will continue to write such stories, even if it is in their spare time, after having paid their bills with their day jobs. They are the true heroes and I bow to them.
I’m grateful that the interest in M/M books has allowed me to be published (who knows, otherwise there wouldn’t even be the categories for it on Amazon), I’m grateful that my books found a readership, as limited as it may be, and I’m eternally grateful to have forged so many valuable connections and friendships with wonderful people out there, and to have been given the opportunity to give back a little. Who knows what the future holds. In the end, when I expire my last breath, those relationships, the love, the things I’ve learned on my journey, they will all will weigh more heavily than any royalty checks, and I will smile for sure. No tears!
I’m grateful for my publisher, Beaten Track Publishing, for the work they do, I’m grateful for the people I cooperate with around my books (editors, proof readers, cover art designers, PR experts, bloggers etc.), I am grateful for the conventions I can go to, and to the organizers thereof, investing time and energy to allow us to meet and share the love for our books.
And I’m grateful for the interactions, the discussions and debates I have with my readers. Because you see, writing LGBT fiction is never (just) about making money, certainly not for those of us who are LGBT, it’s about who we are, about our lives, our culture, it’s about who we are as human beings. And it is, sadly enough, more often than we’d ever could’ve imagined, still about life or death. Let’s never forget that.
Have a great week.