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.