Authors participate in political debates on the same basis as everyone else, but our tools may be different
I’ve been reading articles in papers recommending books to read for the summer, and I find them to be all over the place. There’s the light read, a crime novel or a thriller, suitable to drag along when you’re going to the beach, there’s the biography of this or that accomplished man (usually), then there are the heavy reads about precarious life journeys usually based on reality: difficult childhoods, substance abuse, sexual abuse and what not, and an interesting category: political essays about this or that.
This book isn’t about politics per se, but it’s political nonetheless, as issues like child abuse, trafficking and slavery are debated. I’m shining a light on issues the LGBT community usually doesn’t.
Authors have always written about society in one way or another. We comment, we reflect, but most importantly, we put up this mirror, for people to see themselves in. This weekend, I’ll be in Berlin, attending an author-reader conference, and the one panel I’m doing is about how politics influences writing. Mind you, most of the authors who attend the con are romance writers, and that is maybe the one genre where politics is absent from, probably by design. Romances are about escapism, to make you feel good, and politics, well, is almost an antidote to feeling good these days.
Which is odd. Half a century into my life, I have seen six decades and seen a great deal of stability. When I was born, the war between the west and the east was cold, but things were stable. We did well, economically, as I grew up. Politicians were boring men who mostly seemed to actually care about the well-being of their countries. They seemed to work, honestly for the betterment of society and humanity. Or maybe I was just naïve? When I turned eighteen, the cold war suddenly ended and Reagan and Gorbachev almost did away with nuclear arms after that summit in Reykjavík. When I was twenty-two, the Berlin Wall came down and suddenly, it seemed as if wars were going out of fashion. The Kuwait war seemed to prove that theory. The world, united, fought against a tyrant and defeated him. Then came the wars in Yugoslavia and we began to wonder, is this just the way things are slowly settling down into this new world order? But alas, we quickly began to realize that we’d indeed been short-sighted, naïve. All over the world, war was still raging, people still fighting, and ever new fronts were opening up, from Sudan to Eritrea, the Philippines, all across the Middle East and finally, in 2001, hitting at the heart of the western world, with the attacks on 9/11.
Through all this, the “West”, reunited with Eastern Europe and a more benign Russia, seemed to be stable. The “enemy” was suddenly Islamic terror, and warlords in faraway lands, no longer the evil empire to the east. How wrong we were, and how little we understood just how fragile this bright, new world order was. Suddenly people are questioning the “raison d’être” of the EU, who’s kept the peace in Europe for six decades and running, Poland and Hungary are run by fascistoid governments, France’s historical political parties are all but extinguished after the recent parliamentary election, the U.K. is in turmoil about which way it wants to go, and the heart of the western world has ceased to beat, with a regime combining one man’s sociopathic need for self-praise with a fascist slogan from WWII (America First), while society is so deeply divided that most people cease to even watch/read the news. I look at the past few years in politics and wonder: WTF?
Family Ties depicts a family in crisis, one gay, one straight. Highly political as it showcases just how normal, the unusual can be.
As a minority author, I could, of course, depict this grand picture. I could write political thrillers about the state of the world. But I leave that to others. I find reality exciting enough. My mission is still a political one though. Who I am is still not fully embraced by our societies, not even one as liberal as my own. I might not get a job because of who I am. Never mind that it’s illegal to discriminate, but how do you know? And even if you were to know, how do you prove it? My husband and I may be the legal parents and guardians of our son, but every day we see how society (papers, TV, radio, etc.) refers to parenting as a function of primarily motherhood, trying to engage fathers more. Whenever, wherever my husband, my son and I go, we see the glances, the stares. Yes, we’re not a common occurrence. Neither are red heads, but people rarely stare at them.
And for as long as we are somehow “special”, “unusual”, and “uncommon”, that’s how long I’ll be writing about us, and my point isn’t to make us something else. Quite the contrary, our struggles, our fears, our fights, our vacations, our everyday lives are just as exciting, just as mundane as everyone else’s. That’s what I aim to show society. To my own LGBT siblings, my gay brethren, particularly the young ones, I aim to show that we are everybody, that we can be anything we want, do anything we want. We can be successful, we can fail. Most importantly, our intrinsic human value will always be the same as everyone else’s. This may not be politically opportune, but it’s my ongoing contribution to make my society, my world, a better place. In this, I am like most other authors, don’t you think?
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due this Thursday. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful week. This Friday will mark the final post before my summer break. I don’t know when or how I’ll be able to blog. Maybe I’ll write something about our vacation. We’ll see. On Friday, I’ll talk more about the upcoming convention in Berlin.
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…
In this book, I not only tell the story from Willem’s point of view, but also from Hery’s and others. But it’s Willem on the cover, and the other main character, the Tafel mountain. Not very romantic…
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.
In this novel, our two main characters look after Frank, a young child with cerebral palsy and form a family against all odds. The book aims at being a positive role model for young people with disabilities, but I realize that the cover screams something else. A shame for a great story…
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…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a wonderful weekend. Next week will be the last week that I write before I break for my summer vacation.
Politicians have always been tempted to restrict free speech, now more than ever, they’re after the Internet
Another terror attack. It won’t be the last, and the person ultimately responsible, British PM Theresa May, who was Secretary of the Interior for six years, above other things sacking 20,000 police officers, now wants to restrict the use of the Internet. As usual with such requests and demands, the way this is said is sweeping and not very concrete. We don’t really know what they want to achieve, and how. The Tories claim this is to make Britain and the world a safer place, to hunt and prosecute terrorists, but knowing politicians, I have my doubts.
In 2005, Tony Blair (from the “other” British party) restricted the use of e.g. hoodies in public places and they introduced a sweeping crime they called “anti-social behavior”, leading to the police being able to arrest people for all kinds of things deemed going against the social order of the U.K. Did the country become better? Safer? No, quite the contrary. I use this particular example because this isn’t something restricted to conservative parties.
All politicians dislike opposition. Power corrupts, I’m sure you’ve heard that before. And Ms. May, like her colleagues around the world, dislikes being criticized. I don’t know how she ticks, why she acts the way she does, but she certainly appears less like the leader of a democratic country and more like a despot “my way or the highway” in her approach to her own people and Europe (who ought to be Britain’s closest friends). Her latest proposals to limit what we can do and say on the Internet is worrying. The proposal in the Tory manifesto are sweeping, and in her speech after the most recent attacks, scary. Why?
I sometimes write about politics in my books (and this blog), and in Willem of the Tafel, it’s both about climate change, and racism. My struggle to keep our speech “free” is personal. As a gay writer, my words are despised by large groups, and books have been burned throughout history.
Yes, terrorists use the web. They use it to spread propaganda, recruit new morons to follow in their path etc. BUT, the Internet is only a conduit. Just like the phone or a car. Despite trucks having been used for several terror attacks, I’ve yet to see a cry to limit the use of trucks in society. So why limit the use of the Internet? This isn’t about terror. This is about the media. This is about the opposition. Sadly, had the other party been in power, we may have seen similar spearhead ideas. Politicians dislike to be criticized, they dislike having the media scrutinize their doing. Have you watched House of Cards? I’m currently watching season 5, and despite the fact that the Underwoods are crooks, criminals and even killers (at least he is), I find myself rooting for him. The anti-hero is the journalist who tries to find the truth about the murder in season 1. I find myself wishing that he’ll fail, even though I should want to be grateful for his work, tirelessly trying to find clues to what really happened to the poor woman before she died in a subway.
No, I’m not saying politicians are murderers. Not at all, but they all dislike criticism, and they all dislike media who digs and finds our dirty little secrets about them. That is true for your local mayor or councilor as much as it is for 45 and his constant ramblings about “fake news”. The media has one single job: to inform the public and make sure to keep the government on their toes, on a straight and narrow path. We live in a day and age where this has become difficult. Papers have hardly any journalists left working and actually doing the digging, they have people on staff who cut and paste from press releases. Instead, many journalists now work for e.g. companies, cities, and governments, feeding ready-made articles, perfectly written, but hardly unbiased, to the media. This makes it very challenging reading the news. But it’s all we have. We, as individuals, have no chance to keep a watch on our own government.
But we have to be vigilant. Power DOES corrupt, and any politician, any human really, who goes unchecked in a position of power, will be tempted to abuse that power. A Theresa May who isn’t questioned, who gets to spread her view of the world unchecked would find it a lot easier to win elections, again, and again. She would find it a lot easier to find support for her ideas. And by being able to monitor and restrict (how we don’t know) the use of the Internet would make it easier to shut down the opposition.
But it would stop terrorists, too!
Sadly it wouldn’t. Criminals don’t care about laws. It’s illegal to possess arms in most Western civilized societies. Criminals still have access to them. And the Internet isn’t just the Facebook, Google and other places we visit, corporate websites and video streaming that you and I use. There’s also a darknet, a place I wouldn’t even know how to access. It’s the illegal part of the Internet, and because it already is illegal, no regulation on the planet will stop it. And the more restricted access and use of “our” web is, the more it’ll drive people underground, to places where we don’t go. Instead, we need to become better at monitoring. We need to have our secret services and intelligence community do a much better job at monitoring terrorists and for that they need resources. Limiting the use of the web makes it more difficult to use the web AS a resource. And we have to make sure that the intelligence services are under democratic control, or they’ll be used against us in time, too. No, I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but secrecy is rarely conducive to democracy…
I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to fix terrorism. The roots to the injustices these young people feel so strongly about that they take up arms and blow themselves and others to the high heavens are old, some go back two millennia, some are much more recent, like the Gulf or Afghani wars. Not to mention how we have treated our social welfare in the west, leaving generations of young people behind. Injustice breeds injustice. But to fix that will take time.
What is your take? Do you feel comfortable with proposals to restrict the use of the Internet? Do you have ideas on how to fix things? Your views are welcome.
Have a good week. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I’m also gratefully accepting donations of any size from fans (see top right on the page).
I wrote a wedding scene. A beautiful one. Then I had to re-write it
I’m in the editing mode of my latest WIP “disease”. I finished the first rough draft yesterday and went back to the beginning, reading through it again, adding bits here and there, checking the time line etc. There is a wedding scene in the book (two actually), and I really like it. Only it doesn’t work. Insert colorful expletive here. Because here’s the problem, allow me to demonstrate:
A straight writer writes straight wedding scene:
- write couple
- write officiant
- write scene
- move on to next scene
A gay writer writes gay wedding scene:
- write couple
- write officiant
- write scene
- wait, hang on, could we get married in that geography? At that point in time? What sort of “marriage” could we get?
- [colorful expletives] as extensive research begins
- research concluded, delete the scene, start over
I wrote this beautiful wedding scene, right here, in the town of Amalfi in southern Italy, when… Photo: Max Pixel, Creative Commons Zero
I’m not joking, and this is just a tiny morsel of the complications of writing LGBT fiction. We are in a constant battle to keep up with legislation, this ever-changing monstrosity where one day we’re granted civil rights only to be hauled off to execution camps the next, re Chechnya. The couple in my new book get married, only they don’t, as I had to painfully realize today, because of where I later placed them in world geography, I blame it on 5th Avenue, a geography that did not allow them to get married until Obergefell two years ago. So, back to the drawing board, research your state legislation, and find a way to rewrite the scene so that it matched not only the legal requirements I needed in terms of what I was aiming at later in the story, preserving the emotion of that scene while still being historically accurate. I’m telling you, being a gay writer sucks at times! And this is just one aspect.
I just had another long discussion about why relationship (or romantic) stories are so popular with the gay community (at least those of us who read), and why our “need” as gay men is different from the expectation of a straight female reader. Women reading gay romance do it primarily as an escape, a nice fantasy to escape to without the stereotype role models still largely at play in het romance (damsel in distress, alpha male to the rescue type). For us, romance isn’t an escape, it’s a possibility. Does that make sense? For eons, and way into the 1980s, the expectation we had on gay characters in novels was to die, often horrific deaths. We were the villain or the misunderstood freakshow of movies and books. We died. Best that could happen to us, along the lines of the old adage “only a dead Indian is a good Indian”.
Alex and I tied the knot in 2004 and saw our “partnership” upgraded to a marriage in 2009. The first five years remain unrecognized by t.he state.
As recognition of the fact that we had a heart and a soul began to root itself in society, and our struggle for equality began, so began our thirst for new stories, more hopeful stories. We wanted to read about us getting married, having families, children (or not), and to be happy. It was no longer a fantasy (which we wouldn’t have read because that would’ve been too cruel), but a possibility, a hope, something that might actually come to fruition. Do you see the difference? To us, reading about love and relationships is not about escaping reality for a few hours in the comfort of a good book, it’s about our future, a distinct possibility, a reality even for many of us. I hope that makes sense.
To exemplify the rapid changes, what about this. In this country, the royal court would send out greetings cards to centennials and couples married for sixty years or more, a diamond jubilee. By the time Alex and I get our card from His Majesty (or Her Majesty presumably), we would have been married for sixty-five years. Why? Because the first five years were a “civil union” and thus not recognized as marriage to this day. Not that I care much for a postcard from Stockholm, but still… The discrimination lives on.
Anyway, I will have to spend the next days and weeks editing my story, and hopefully, make it work. But today was a sad day, realizing that my beautiful wedding scene was just “pretend”. [Final colorful expletive] I feel very sorry for my two characters, and I may yet have to find a way to make it up to them…
Have a good weekend. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I’m also gratefully accepting donations of any size from fans (see top right on the page).
“Muscle memory” isn’t the right word, it’s a bias really, but the consequences are as dire
Three things that happened this weekend had me think about why it is so difficult for us humans to change, why our “muscle memory” or bias gets in the way. As we grow up, we learn, we absorb lessons, and we learn most from what people do, how they act, not what they say. As a parent, I see this every day. I also see the hierarchy of credibility. I see my son come home (he’s 4!!!) and how he trusts the stories his friends in school tell him: about things “boys” do, and what “girls” do, from dresses to colors to jobs. As parents, we still have the upper hand, we still have more “cred” than our son’s pals, but not for much longer. We argue constantly for the equality of boys and girls in all aspects of life. The more we see, hear, observe, the better the lesson sits, and if you look around our society, it’s pretty simple to see why progress is slow: our society is still in a pretty bad state, even in progressive countries like my own.
The forces we fight against are powerful, and they’re mostly working in secret. No, I’m not prone to conspiracy theories. The forces I’m talking about are the biases we humans have, mechanism built into our brain that help us navigate life, but that also make it difficult to change. Let me take a couple of examples:
Most people are not racists. When confronted with their racist behavior (and I include myself in this), we tend to get upset. But let’s be honest for a minute, shall we? When we (and this is geared to any dominating ethnicity) see someone from a disenfranchised group, e.g. blacks or gypsies, we react instinctively: we pull up information about that group from our memory. And what is it we’ve learned? Blacks are… [fill in blanks], gypsies are […] I remember a cruise with one of my best friends who’s black, and how officer after officer walked up to Alex, Sascha (two! at the time) and me and greeted us, but completely and utterly ignored my friend Claudine. She was invisible. Why? Did they merely see our servant? A nanny? Rather than the highly intelligent and senior physician with decades of professional experience? I don’t know, but the scene was harrowing. When confronted, each of the officers denied being a racist, yet they’d acted despicably.
We are still far, far away from equality of the sexes. Sadly, women are as bad as men, which makes progress even more slow. We are so stuck in our ways, in how we view the roles of men and women that we don’t even see just how sexist they are. Here’s an unusual example of sexism.
Misogyny and gender roles, are themes in this novel.
My husband and I are most likely the family in Sweden who’s been approved to foster a child the longest. Five years and running. Still, no placement. Most of the other families in our mandatory course already had their placements ready when we went through the training, we didn’t. Yes, part of it is homophobia, but I seriously doubt that social workers, who are so well educated and trained, are all homophobes. No, but their muscle memory, their bias is sexist. We had asked for the placement of a young child, a placement for a child to grow up with us. Now that we are parents to our own, biological child, that is unchanged. For Sascha to have a sibling, the child to be placed in our care would have to be +/- 3 years. Last time we were in touch with social services they “offered” us an 18 year old! Who needs to foster an adult? As bad as I felt for the young man, a gay man from Iran who apparently needed role models, a placement in an LGBT family wasn’t the solution. Quite the contrary: what message do you send when you do this?
But no young kids. Why? I think that social workers suffer from “mommy” syndrome: when they see a baby or a toddler who needs placed, they automatically think “we need a mother!” Why? Because! Look at society… They are incapable of stopping in their tracks for a split second and considering “why” they think that child needs a mother (or not). It’s quite obvious that we still see women primarily as care takers, and most women will agree, that’s what they’ve been prepared for, trained for, by their own mothers and grandmothers. Generation after generation. I’m no different, neither are you. Just picture the last time you saw a small child all alone on the street or in a park. I bet you looked around to see where its mother was. I’ll be honest to admit that I do. But I’ll be equally relieved to see a dad.
And as long as we equate “care” with “female” and “provide” with “male” society will not change, and Alex and I will never see a foster child, never see a sibling to our son.
Homophobia is a topic in many of my books, but it’s central to my second one, Jonathan’s Hope, and how one man’s internalized homophobia (which is still a very common thing) threatens his son’s life.
I saw this article the other day and was shocked. Then again, things like that are to be expected. I remember the day we came back from India, five weeks after Sascha had been born. Upon entering European soil from another continent with dodgy security procedures, we had to go through a new security control at Frankfurt airport. With a little baby, we were slow. One of the security guards (a female) approached us and wondered where the child’s mother was. Because two men and a baby is so unusual. This belongs more to the misogyny aspect, but trust me, we often get glances from other people about being a gay couple with kids, and when you look at EVERY country discussing marriage equality, kids are always the opposition’s prime argument, because gays = pedophiles. It was something we simply had to get used to. But it’s no less painful. Particularly when you’re at the receiving end of it
How do we move on?
That’s the real question, isn’t it? The challenge is to stop for a moment, before you act, before you speak up. Because we have two enemies: a) our own honesty, and b) the speed at which our brain works. I have had more conversations with people who will swear to everything holy to them that they aren’t “racists” etc, and they would never, ever admit to acting, thinking that way. I know. It’s difficult. Even for me, even though I’m fully aware that I am. I grew up in a society where racism against several minorities was common. I know that my brain has racist tendencies. Imagine the irony when I learned that I was a quarter gypsy, after having been imprinted just how untrustworthy, thieving and stealing a people they were, all my childhood. Ouch!
I was also raised a misogynist, of course, we all are, and I was also raised a homophobe. My brain, even for a split second, reacts MORE when I see a gay couple kiss or hold hands than when I see a het couple lick each other in public. It’s how I was raised. For many people, admitting this is difficult. But necessary!
So what can we do? We have to teach our brains to stop for a split-second after that initial reaction. We may never be able to completely obliterate those neural pathways, but we can learn to take a deep breath and think: why do you react this way? Before we act, before we speak. If we all did that, society would quickly improve, because we all know beyond the shadow of a doubt that behavior is not a factor of our skin color (you’re still very much the same person, even after the sun burn from hell!), our capacity to love and care is not a factor of our genitals and love knows no gender and sexuality/gender isn’t hereditary (or there would be no LGBT people)
Think about that for a few days, try to think of instances in your own life when you’ve acted, spoke “too quickly”, instances where you brain’s “muscle memory”, your biases, got in the way. I still do, even after working on myself for decades. Luckily, I catch my thought lapses before I can act upon them, but I’m still as ashamed for every time my brain jumps to conclusions as I was when I first realized just how badly “trained” my brain was.
Have a good week. If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I’m also gratefully accepting donations from fans (see top right on the page).
Go, claim your copy now and discover new characters to love and cherish!
PS: Today’s the final day of the spring edition of the Big Gay Fiction Giveaway. Have a look, there are dozens of free stories, books or excerpts out there, new authors, new voices to discover. And since it’s a giveaway, it’s all for FREE! I’m participating with my fourth novel, The Fallen Angels of Karnataka.
When readers ask you difficult questions, they’re obviously onto something, aren’t they?
It began with an innocuous question about why so few people comment on my YouTube videos. My answer was simple: because almost no one watches them, and on average only one in twenty ever respond. Then they dropped the bomb, right in front of my feet:
“But some male authors, gay authors, sometimes give the impression they prefer to write for gay people. In a way as if they look down on the mm romance thing and their readers. […] As if they feel about the female readers as people in BDSM feel about the readers of 50 shades of gray.”
Image #1: M/M andF/F are only a fraction of all the available romance books available on Amazon
I understood the second I saw the question that I was in trouble. Maybe I was being “accused”? I am, after all, one of those “male authors, gay authors…” For those of you who are not following the little bubble of LGBT fiction, you may not understand what this is all about, so allow me to explain:
Amazon has many categories where they “stuff” books. If you navigate to the Romance section (image #1) on Amazon, you’ll find all the various sub-genres. There are screen shots taken from Amazon in this post if you want to have a look. (Self-)publishers obviously enter certain search words when they upload their information, but Amazon’s algorithm ultimately decides where books end up, and many of the books that are “romance” also end up under “Gay Fiction” (please note the complete absence of Bi & Trans as categories!)
Amazon’s genres aren’t making it easy
Image #2: there are a great many LGBT books on Amazon, even though it is the second smallest of all Amazon categories. Only test-preparation is slightly smaller…
As you can see, Gay Romance (and Lesbian Romance further down even less so) is just a fraction of the overall Romance genre, where contemporary and the more sizzling Erotica are the largest ones. Move over into the “Gay & Lesbian” section (Image #2), many of those same books will appear here, too. And this is where it becomes tricky.
If you drill down into the “Literature & Fiction” subcategory, you’ll see the third image further down to the right. And it shows that almost half of all the books in Gay & Lesbian Literature are in fact “Erotica” or “porn on pages”, and when I first started to look into publishing, I realized that even Romance novels these days are littered with sex, more or less on page. The difference between “Romance” and “Erotica” is often fluid, and many of the Erotica stories are of the darker and more violent variety (with frequent scenes of rape and physical abuse. I wrote about this
a bit over a year ago.)
Image #3: almost half of all LGBT literature is in fact erotica.
Fiction v Fantasy
It gets more complicated. When I was young and growing up, gay fiction as a genre didn’t exist. When I was a young adult, the only books you’d ever find about being gay were in the psych section of the book store or (“life style”, my favorite hate word, in the U.S.) Fictional books about gays were just to be searched for under literature, by author name, as was customary then. If you didn’t know what to look for, you didn’t find it until you virtually tripped over it. And the stories were not uplifting (watch my video from a couple weeks ago on this subject
), as we were often depicted as villains, sickos, freaks or child molesters, and later as “AIDS fuckers” who deserved to die. Lesbians? Well, their plight was worse, as female sexuality has always been treated as a non-existing thing, so why bother… That is still a problem, just look at the number of lesbian romance novels v gay romance novels. Bisexuals, Trans & Intersex? Yeah, exactly… But at some point in the middle of the last decade, some female authors of romance decided to branch out. I don’t know why, but maybe werewolves, shifters and paranormal story lines weren’t exciting any more, or titillating enough. I honestly don’t know. So they began writing romance novels about two men falling in love. And as is pointed out for everyone to see, every time a shit storm hits the genre, it was a “genre created by women, for women!” Not my words, hence the quotation marks. Romance is a huge genre in fiction, yet, overall it is less than a quarter as large as the total volume of “Literature & Fiction” on Amazon (image #4). In the LGBT space, the romance novels are the dominant force. I don’t know if they’re 80% or 90%. It doesn’t really matter, I haven’t looked at them all, but they are the vast majority. Per se
that isn’t a problem. LGBT people who read are as likely to like romance as their het counterparts. And there are quite a few, some very successful, gay writers of the genre.
So what’s the problem?
Image #4: Romance, in “general” fiction is a lot smaller than “Literature & Fiction”. In the LGBT space it’s the opposite, but a lot more pronounced.
Here’s my theory. Romance novels are primarily about escaping into a fantasy world, traditionally an Elizabethan or Victorian set drama where the damsel in distress is rescued and swept off her feet by a dashing hero (Mr. Darcy anyone?) And let me just say this, so I don’t have this thrown back in my face. That is okay. Escapism is great, heck I wish I’d had these books readily at my fingertips when I was a struggling gay teen (I’ve written about that, too
) Alas, I did not.
When I wrote my first books, I had read a couple of gay romance novels, but I didn’t know there was a thing called “MM” (and it’s Lesbian equivalent of “FF”) or “M/M” Romance, depending on how people prefer to spell it. What I did know was that the publishers in romance often expected sex, on page, at regular intervals throughout the story. I knew that my stories weren’t meant for those publishers, because I’ve always felt that sex, unless it furthers the plot, has no business in my stories. But that’s because I’m not a romance writer. I write gay fiction.
So what’s the difference, you ask?
Now this is a very good question. As I point out in my video, there is a significant overlap in the storytelling in Romance and Fiction. It’s about love (a human condition), relationships, parenting, failure, evil and what not. But there are differences, too. Because you won’t find “Catcher in the Rye”, “Lord of the Flies” or gay “A Single Man” in any romance section. Even though they deal with some of the above. Why? Romance, in my humble opinion is about “escapism”, getting away from reality, not having to think about your loser of a husband, the trouble your kids cause at school, the pain in your body, your drunk neighbor or the fact that you barely make ends meet. You look into the mirror and you see a woman (since 8 out of 10 readers of books are women) that wouldn’t make it on Heidi Klum’s Runway. She might be a little too old, a little too round, and a little too worn after multiple pregnancies. I think you know what I mean: real, live people. But you open that book and suddenly you are eighteen years old again, you’re the daughter of a count, you wear pretty dresses and you get to go on the adventure of a lifetime and you’re rescued (and fucked to the high heavens) by Mr. Darcy himself. Phew! For three or four hours you were someone else, laughing, crying, and ultimately riding off into the sunset of the obligatory Happily Ever After (aka HEA).
I can almost guarantee you that Christopher Isherwood had a somewhat different premise when he wrote A Single Man. His premise (as is mine) was reality, to describe the grim reality of what it was like to be a gay man in California in the 1950s. “But”, I hear you say, “romance novels deal with grim and harsh things, too!” And you would be right, of course, the difference is two-fold: a) the HEA and b) the way the story is told. A romance novel is all about the “romance”, i.e. how the characters get together. It’s the primary aspect of the story. Everything else takes the back seat. In fiction, it’s the opposite. There may be romance, but it’s in the back seat, and something else – whatever that may be – is the main driving force of the storytelling. Semantics? Maybe, and I am not sure that all romance authors would share my definition. And to complicate things further, there are many stories that are sold as either fiction or romance, but could easily fall into both categories.
So where does the question above come from?
Ah, right to the core after all this time, eh? Huh! Okay, say you would like to find a book about a gay or Lesbian couple raising children. I have at some point, when we were pregnant. You want books that are about parenting, the challenges you face as a gay couple in society, all the nitty-gritty details. I’ve found a few, but they weren’t primarily about the “raising” or the “parenting” aspect, the driving force behind those stories was the romance, and the books ended with the dads being a couple. That’s not what I was interested in reading. My questions “will the kid(s) be okay?”, “will the kid(s) be bullied?” and “how do you deal with this shit?” were left unanswered. After three or four such books, I gave up. I wrote my own instead. Remember: one hundred and thirty thousand books. How is anyone supposed to find anything in there? It’s like the proverbial needle in the haystack.
Personally, and in this post I can only ever speak for myself, I don’ have a huge issue with this. I tend to be on the side of “laissez faire”, rather than restricting people. But as far as I understand, some members of the LGBT community (and this post is primarily about gay men, because that’s where the frictions are) feel that the “hets have taken over our space” (which is complicated by the fact that gay men, too, write gay romance…), and that is sometimes expressed in angry and even hateful slurs. And that it is very hurtful to the authors and readers of gay romance books.
Allow me to infer a little parenthesis here. I call it gay romance. I really, and I mean really, dislike the acronyms with the two letters MM, FF etc. It’s degrading to reduce human beings like this, be it men or women. People are objectified beyond measure, they’re basically reduced to their genitals. You might as well say D/D (dick on dick) or C/C or D/C (you get the gist). Worst, in a genre so dominated by women, the het equivalent is still labeled M/F, the male is still mentioned first. If I ever use the acronym, I use F/M.
Back to our reader question. Picture a forest, it’s a huge forest with over a hundred thousand trees. The big trees, beautiful, proud and dark green spruces stretching to the sky, are our romance novels. They enjoy large numbers of readers (for many reasons: more women than men read, and there’s ten het women for every gay man), their success is propagated further by constantly being in the top sales lists on Amazon. Now in this forest there are also small saplings, books that sell maybe a copy a month, some less, some more. They struggle, because they’ll never really have any chance at a top 100 spot, because they are stories about the victims of AIDS, they are stories about being black and gay (Re Moonlight), there are stories about old men and women realizing they’ve lived a lie all their lives, and how this impacts their families. Some of these stories have happy endings, some of these stories do not. Some of these stories are based on things the authors have experienced themselves, fictionalized of course, but real. There is no escapism, there is no Mr. Darcy, no proverbial horse ride into the sunset. The covers of those books aren’t adorned by half-naked beauties with photoshopped eight-packs and unblemished faces, because that’s not what they’re about.
And that is where some gay male authors (the problem is worse for all other siblings in the LGBT community, but it’s different) have an issue, because they can’t find those stories, literally. And those books will never get a shot, because they just cannot, ever, reach a top 100 spot in a genre so humongous. It’s impossible.
Then there’s the quality and the way gays are described…
That’s not all though. I have read a lot of romance novels, because even though I didn’t set out to, that’s what popped up in my searches online. Allow me to make an example: anal sex. In reality, sex attitude research tells us that only about four out of ten gay men ever engage in anal sex. In romance it’s more like ninety-nine out of one hundred. In real life, when a grandfather is called to school, to pick up his grandson, who was bullied and beaten up, he’d be so shaken and worried about the child, that he’d spend the rest of the day in that child’s presence, making sure they were okay. Maybe watch a movie or whatever. And if the kid wanted to be alone, grandpa’d be on stand-by. In Romance (and I have read this in a book), the grandfather is driven to the school by his love interest (so far so good), and as soon as they’re home, the kid’s sent to his room by the author so that grandpa can be fucked senseless by his very manly former marine stud of a hunky-dory man. See the difference? Two extremes maybe, but alas. Then there are some authors (and this is true for ANY form of literature) who just don’t do their research. I know writers of gay erotica who didn’t know what rimming was, feces/santorum is hardly ever mentioned, not to mention the agonizing pain that anal sex can be, particularly for a newbie. Anatomic fuck-ups (a 69 with the ball sack slapping against the chin instead of the nose or maybe forehead if it’s a big sack?), or worse, those really, really bad authors who merely change the name and the genitalia on one of their protagonists and produce a girl with a dick. Gay men see that immediately, in the way they talk, behave, mannerisms etc. And we cringe.
Now before people come back and hit me over the head with this: no, most authors don’t write such crap. Some do, and it is hurtful when you, as a minority, which is already beleaguered and discriminated against, a minority still being exterminated (re Chechnya), still hated, not just within the safety of book pages, but in real life, today, when you are described like that, objectified like that. Does that make sense?
For my LGBT siblings, Lesbian, Bi/Pan, Trans & Intersex, the challenges are different. Their relationships have not been “usurped” by a majority group for their escapism; worse, their relationships, their sexuality don’t even matter (as one reader told me, “I just can’t FF. I can’t. The sex. They just don’t have the right parts”), and for Bi/Pan, how do you accurately describe the way they “tick” in a one-person relationship which the romance novel is about? Bi by definition means two at least, so if you want to accurately depict a bisexual person, you’d need to have two relationships, and my bi friends often complain that their ultimate choice effectively washes them gay or straight. For trans & intersex the challenge is different again. Their struggle is so complex that by the time they’re done with their transition, it’s time to wind up the story. And the trans books I’ve read were in the place where gay novels were thirty or forty years ago, focused on coming out, on being their true selves, transitioning. Parenting, relationships, careers aren’t the first thing on your mind when you can’t even go to the bathroom! Capish?
So what are you saying then?
My first novel ever published. For some odd reason, some romance readers took it to heart, even though the story at heart is a very different one, romantic, maybe, but not a romance at heart, Jonathan’s Hope is one gay man’s dream to start a family, a dynasty. It’s only at the end we see a glimpse of that, and it took me two more novels to flesh it out, befitting the first true “gay dynasty”.
Here’s my two cents. Yes, undoubtedly there are gay authors (although I’ve not personally talked to one who feels this way) who hate the fact that “M/M” hogs the limelight. I’m not one of them. Quite the contrary. I think it’s amazing that young gay teens can read all those stories that they’re legally not supposed to, with all that sex and all the bubbly happy endings. I mean who cares about age limits anyway? How old were you when you saw your first R-rated flick, huh? I was welcome into the community with open arms, I’ve made some amazing friends, too many, far too many to mention, I’ve read books from incredibly talented writers, mostly women, I’ve had the opportunity to partake in extraordinary life stories, women who aren’t as female as they seem to be, horrible back stories which have propelled their writing to great heights, and besides, the gay romance genre evolves. I can’t even recount all the discussions with authors who dream of breaking away from the rigid rules of the one true Harlequin novel.
They want to tell their stories, even if it doesn’t always end well, in that ride into the sunset with Mr. Darcy. I’ve met authors who do their research, authors who contact me to ask about things they don’t know, anxious to get things right. This is one of the reasons why I sponsor gay romance events like GRL, because they allow me to attend, make me feel welcome.
There’s also the amazing readers who’ve discovered my books, because yes, as tiny as my sapling is, I sold 736 books online last year, each and every one of those purchases by a reader represents a ray of the sun that nevertheless made it all the way down to me. Had it not been for my accidental affiliation with gay romance, who knows, I may have sold seventy books instead, because like all writers, nine out of ten of my readers are women, and some of them are now dear and close friends of mine, and they greatly outnumber my male readers and friends.
I can’t speak for others, and while I see their point, and while there is validity to their argument, my conclusion is a different one. Without gay romance, would there even be a “Gay & Lesbian” section on Amazon? Would we have the visibility we have today? I don’t know. Somehow, I doubt it. Had my novel Jonathan’s Hope
not been mistaken for a romance, my fledgling career might have flatlined before its seed had a chance to sprout into the tiny but proud sapling it is today.
If you have further questions, please let me know. If you have comments, if you feel you want/need to clarify or even correct me, the comments are open. My apologies for such a lengthy post. I wanted to make sure to get it right, and now I have to go back and re-read it, to eradicate the worst of my typos and grammatical errors. And I sincerely hope I haven’t pissed anybody off, because in this day and age, that can be accomplished in a single sentence, let alone thirty-four hundred words… <3
If you’ve read all this way, thank you, have a wonderful weekend, and if you like what you read, subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, or feel free to interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: There are two ways you can make an author’s day: a) is to buy one of their books and b) to leave a short review of it on Amazon. Good or bad, books without (or few) reviews are generally ignored.