BLANK For You

I was chatting to a friend on Twitter this morning about Gay For You / Out For You, which is something I’ve been meaning to blog about since I saw this post on Romance Novels for Feminists. Sorry, it’s really old, but it’s a good summary of the key issues.

As with anything, I can absolutely see why GFY (both the term and the trope) bothers some people, and I can absolutely see why others are okay with it. Like many tropes, I suspect a big part of the problem with GFY is with its prevalence rather than its nature. I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way, but I am interested in the debate surrounding it because I think it highlights several important things about both the genre and wider social attitudes to homosexuality and queer identity.

Like always, there are two slightly unrelated lines I want to go down with this, the first being to look at GFY in the wider context of the romance genre, and particularly as it compares to other tropes and trends in het romance. The second is to talk about the GFY/OFY debate, and what I consider to be the problematic assumptions it seems to be grounded in.

So let’s talk tropes.

One of the big objections people often have to GFY stories that is that the GFY character will have experienced no feelings of homosexual attraction until his encounter with the hero. This is inconsistent with a worldview in which people are born either gay or straight , and since – as I will discuss later – this worldview is central to a big part of the debate about gay rights (particularly in America) a lot of readers understandably object to this. But, looking at the wider romance genre, it’s actually very common for characters, particularly heroines, to have experienced little or no sexual desire prior to meeting the hero. Ana Steele is a prime example of this: it’s very explicit in Fifty Shades of Grey that she is not merely a virgin, but has actually never experienced sexual desire of any kind (indeed, its strongly implied in the text that she rarely, if ever, masturbates). It is common for romances, of all flavours, to underscore the specialness of the relationship between the main characters by understating or, in extreme cases, actively denigrating the prior sexual experiences of one or both partners.

Of course, because heterosexual romances tend to be gendered, the denigration of these experiences tends to fall along gendered lines. The prior sexual experience of heroines is limited and unsatisfying. The prior sexual experience of heroes is often significantly less limited, but is equally unsatisfying, although the hero is only permitted to recognise this once he has sex with the heroine and realises what he’s been missing.

I should probably stop at this juncture to observe that one of the problems in talking about m/m is that it inherits many of its tropes from het but because they necessarily manifest differently they become more noticeable. This leads to an helpful style of argument which can broadly be summarised as: “this feature of m/m is problematic” / “that feature of het is also problematic.” There’s a tendency, in both m/m and het, to cite similarities with other parts of the genre, or indeed other genres, as a means to justify things, rather than to illuminate them. When I suggest that GFY is another incarnation of the common romance trope of sexually inexperienced character awakened by sexually experienced character (which you might usefully summarise as Rake & Virgin, although it’s common, albeit less explicit, in contemps as well as historicals) I mean it in a value neutral way. That is, to an extent, if one is problematic, the other one is problematic for the same reasons, and vice versa. And, obviously, context matters, especially when you’re talking about marginalised groups, although you have to be a bit careful here because one of the things that makes marginalised groups marginalised in the first place is the fact that a conversation that isn’t explicitly about those groups is assumed to have no bearing on them when, in fact, it often does.

To unpack that idea a bit more, you could make a reasonable case that R&V in het has problematic connotations for queer people that GFY actually subverts. The core idea of R&V (and of a lot of romance in general) is that there is a Right Person out there who will be the key to unlocking your sexuality and your happiness. But the prevalence of this idea in heterosexual romance reinforces the notion that someone who is not attracted to members of the opposite sex just needs to wait until they find the Right Person.  This actually erases the identities of not only homosexuals, but also asexuals and, for that matter, people with low sex drives. If I knew someone like Anastasia Steele in real life, I absolutely wouldn’t be pressuring her to look for a sexually dominant billionaire. I’d be trying to encourage her to accept that not being particularly interested in sex (or sex with men) is a perfectly valid way to live.

In this context you can almost see GFY as an attempt to balance the scales. We raise children on the idea that no matter how uninterested in the opposite sex they are, they will eventually meet someone who will change that. You can argue that it is valuable to present the opposite case: that it is equally true that no matter how little interest you have your own sex, you may one day meet someone who changes your mind. And, to be very clear, when I say “equally true” I probably mean “not necessarily very true at all” but if the idea of a sexual awakening keyed to a specific person is going to be part of our cultural narrative of heterosexual romance, it needs to be part of our narrative of homosexual romance as well. Otherwise we have a situation where heterosexuality is seen to be something you can come to at any time in your life, while homosexuality has to be established early on for it to count.

This roughly brings me to the next issue which is the GFY/OFY debate, and the question of whether it is especially harmful to present the idea that a person who has not previously experienced same sex attraction could suddenly experience it for one person. And this is a difficult issue because it is deeply grounded in ideology.

Something I have learned from my many years on the internet is that there are many different ways to win an argument, and that the most effective and the most subtle is often to make sure you’re the one who picks what the argument is about. Take, for example, the debate about whether the government should cut taxes to help the economy or increase spending to help the poor. The fact that this debate exists is actually evidence that one side has already won.  If the Left argues that it is more important to help poor people than to improve the economy, it intrinsically concedes the point that rich people are more economically valuable than poor people. In fact, there is good evidence that cutting taxes harms the economy, and increasing spending boosts it (at least at times when there’s a deficit in demand).

In the same way, I tend to feel that the Right, particularly the American Christian Right, has framed the debate on homosexuality in a way that the Left has uncritically and unhelpfully accepted.  A couple of months ago, I watched a documentary called Cure Me I’m Gay in which a gay British doctor called Christian Jessen travels around America sampling various “gay cures”, talking to “ex-gays” and generally revealing what he argued was the fraud of the whole gay cure market.

Obviously, I fully supported the intent of this documentary and I understood the point that Dr Jessen was trying to make, but it felt to me like the entire “experiment” effectively conceded to the Christian Right a huge chunk of ground that I would rather he did not concede. His whole goal was to prove that gay cures didn’t work and, thereby, that homosexuality was not a choice or an affliction and, therefore, presumably that it is not immoral.

The problem with this approach, to my mind, was that it internalised the worldview of the Christian Right. It implicitly accepted that the moral acceptability of homosexuality is predicated on its being innate, biological and unchangeable. This struck me as fantastically dangerous. In fact, I feel this is a massively important debate that we surrendered without even noticing we were doing it. The question is not, and should not be, “is homosexuality a choice?” The question is, “should homosexual relationships be seen as equally valid to heterosexual relationships?”

People who favour Out For You over Gay For You do so on the basis that the idea of a person who has had no prior homosexual feelings suddenly finding themselves attracted to a member of the same sex reinforces the idea that sexuality is a choice or is changeable, and that this undermines the validity of homosexual relationships. But this only the case if you accept the Right-Wing, religiously-derived idea that sexual behaviour must have been encoded by God for it to be moral.

This very, very problematic line of reasoning is encapsulated by Jackie in the post I link to at the top of this article:

Only when responding to the comments to the post, though, did Suede explicitly name the problem with the phrase “Gay for You”:  “GfY is a weird hybrid, enshrining the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive genre.” The logic of homophobia inherent in the trope being the idea that you can turn your sexual orientation on or off with the same ease you do a light switch (and if homosexuality is a choice, why shouldn’t you just choice to be heterosexual?)

It’s the bit in brackets that particularly troubles me. Ironically, I feel that it – far more than the phrase Gay For You – enshrines the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive environment. And, to be very fair, to the original post, I should stress that the blogger is summarising an argument that is not actually her own, so she may not doing herself or the argument justice, but the sheer heteronormativity of suggesting that homosexuality can’t be choice because, if it was, everybody would just prefer to be straight is … almost mind-boggling.

And, yes, I do understand that gay people experience discrimination, and that therefore what the original argument might have meant is “why would someone choose a lifestyle in which they are discriminated against over one in which they are not?” Except, of course, people do. Even if homosexuality is not innate, gay people can get a lot less flack by not being out. Bisexuals do not overwhelmingly choose to be in heterosexual relationships (although there is a certain cultural pressure to go that way). Religion is a choice, and people face discrimination because of it. They do not generally give up their religions as a result. And we certainly don’t argue that everyone is born with a particular religion, and that religions can’t change in a misguided effort to encourage religious tolerance.

If the only argument we can make against homophobia is that sexuality is immutable then gay rights are on very, very unsound footing. Not only are we basing our entire case for equality on a falsifiable biological claim which may prove unfounded, but we’re also erasing large sections of the community who don’t fit into the simplistic, binarist model which we’ve invented to placate the Christian Right.

In this context, there is part of me that feels Out For You is as problematic as Gay For You. For a start, it seems to presuppose that you’re only “out” if you’re actually in a same-sex relationship. If you look at the distinctions people draw between (bad) Gay For You and (good) Out For You stories, the difference seems to be that the OFY characters have pre-existing, acknowledged homosexual feelings they have merely chosen not to explore, whereas in the GFY stories they haven’t. But this is actually wholly unrelated to being out or being not-out. Plenty of people have plenty of gay sex without being out. And plenty of people are out without being in homosexual relationships or, indeed, are out while being in heterosexual relationships or, for that matter, celibate.  So ultimately the argument for OFY seems to be grounded in an ideological desire to reinforce the idea that sexuality is determined at birth, and that it is – in essence – quite simple.

And I can see that this is a politically useful message to reinforce, especially when the debate continues to be framed in terms that conflate what is natural with what is acceptable. If nothing else “Some People Are Gay. Get Over It” is a much better T-shirt slogan than “Human Sexuality Is Remarkably Complicated and Intersects in Difficult Ways With Gender. Get Over It.” But the problem is, that there is a real danger in denying the validity of a narrative merely because it is not politically useful. Not to put too fine a point on it, I have seen Gay For You stories played out in real life in that I have known people with no previously acknowledged homosexual feelings who have fallen in love with, or found themselves attracted to, members of their own sex. And I suppose advocates of Out For You would argue that these people have been gay all along and have only just “realised” it. But this is an unprovable assertion, and needlessly devalues every relationship these people have had previously.

The basic problem is that sexuality is a wholly subjective experience. I, ultimately, have no way of knowing that the way I experience my sexuality is the way that another person who claims to have the same sexuality as me experiences theirs. One of the things I found frustrating about Cure Me I’m Gay is that it basically consisted of two sets of people with utterly closed beliefs about sexuality talking past each other. When Dr Jessen was talking to people who claimed to have changed their sexualities, he refused to accept their descriptions of their own lived experiences because his worldview required their experiences to be impossible. In the same way, a lot of the gay cure specialists he talked to held axiomatically to the view that everyone was naturally straight, and that homosexuality was a learned aberration. But there was no way that either side could prove their case to the other. No matter how unsuccessful the gay cures where on Dr Jessen, the cure pedlars would insist he was just resisting treatment. And no matter how many “ex-gays” Dr Jessen met, he continued to insist they were living in denial.

Sexuality is a complex emergent property of desire, emotion, thought, experience and behaviour. Being gay or being straight is not one thing, and our idea of what it means to have a particular sexuality is, in many ways, socially constructed. Just to be very blunt for a moment, it’s kind of like pegging. An awful lot of straight men will fundamentally refuse to be anally penetrated (by their female partners) in no small part because we culturally define that sort of behaviour as gay. And, by the same token, there are some gay men who don’t like anal sex at all but we as a society tend to forget this.  But the flipside of this is that once you start to recognise that sexuality does not, in fact, consist of specific sexual acts, it becomes very hard to see what it does consist of. If we accept that it is okay for a straight man to enjoy taking it up the arse, or for a gay man not to, and we further accept that our perceptions of gender are culturally created and that many of the physical characteristics we associate with men and with women are more mutable than we willingly admit, it becomes increasingly hard to hold onto the idea of sexuality as something innate, monolithic and unchanging.

As I said at the very beginning of this piece, I suspect the biggest issue with Gay For You is not really its name or its nature, but its prevalence. And if there is a single element of the trope that gives me pause, it is the implication that sexually experienced gay men (like sexually experienced women) are not seen as sympathetic protagonists. I very much do not have a problem with the implication that a person’s perception of their own sexuality could change over time. To me, it is much more troubling to suggest that it can’t.

23

Promatoes

Oh, do you see what I did there?

ShadowsAndDreams_200x300 (1)So, Shadows & Dreams, being Book 2 of the Kate Kane series, was released on Monday. Available from Riptide Publishing, the usual reputable places, and probably some disreputable ones too for all I know.

Here’s be the blurb:

Second rule in this line of business: be careful who you kill.

My name’s Kate Kane. And right now, I don’t know which is more dangerous: my job, or my girlfriend. My job makes me the go-to girl for every supernatural mystery in London. My girlfriend’s an eight-hundred-year-old vampire prince. Honestly, I think it’s probably a tie.

A few weeks ago, I was hired for a simple missing person case. Next thing I know, I’m being arrested for murder, a vampire army is tearing up London, and even my dreams are out to get me. Something ancient, evil, and scary as hell is on the loose and looking for payback. The vampires are in chaos, the werewolves are culling everything, and the Witch Queen can’t protect everyone.

Which means it’s down to me. And all I’ve got to hold back the shadows is a stiff drink, a quirky sidekick, my creepy ex-boyfriend, and the woman who left me for a tech startup. It’s going to be another interesting day.

I always like the book closest to Where I Am Now more than any other books in the vicinity (and the further books get from Where I Am Now the more I get stressed and embarrassed about them) so I’m feeling pretty good about S&D at the moment. There’s a pleasure in adding to a series and because second books have to do less world-building than first books, there’s more space for Setting Stuff on Fire.

Which was a plot device I hadn’t previously hit on.

Also there’s plenty of Elise, some telepathic vampire phone sex, and we get to meet Eve, Kate’s Zuckerberg-esque ex-girlfriend. Oh, and Henry Percy, the wizard (vampire) earl of Northumberland.

These are all very much the sort of things I enjoy. I hope you enjoy them too.

I need to update things a bit, but there’s lots of Kate Kane extras here on the website if that, um, floats your boat.

There’s also the usual blog touring adventures, full details of which can be found on Riptide’s site, but I’ll be flagging up the main stops here as well, and Tweeting them ineptly when I remember. There’s also a giveaway, which you can enter if you are so disposed, to win the best coffee ever, and (if you like) a hard copy of your choice from my … teeny back catalogue. Of two books. Cough. The coffee will be lovely though, I promise.

Uh, finally, when I was getting my arse organised for this, I noticed I had a bunch of print copies of Iron & Velvet (Kate Kate Book 1) lying around. So … uh … here’s another giveaway (Rafflecopter is clearly very, very bad for me, but I am excited about the sheer low effortness of it – you want a thing, click here, get a thing) if anybody fancies taking a hard copy of I&V off my hands. So if you’re wondering about Shadow & Dreams, but you haven’t read the first one … here’s your chance. Now offered in an additionally inconvenient format for your reading pleasure.  It is very shiny though. And Tara Vane-Tempest adorns the back, which is something you can’t tell from the e-copy.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

(Uh, the reason there’s 1 entry on there already, is because it’s me … I had to onanistically self-enter to make sure it was working. Winner will be randomly selected but if I … select me… I’ll obviously not … bestow upon myself the thing I am trying to get other people to take away from me).

Finally – and I will stop talking about myself very soon, I promise – I am so, so happy to be able to … say … announce … wring my hands about my next book, which will be released by Riptide Publishing in October. It’s called Prosperity, and it’s a … oh holy god … it’s a queer steampunk western with a Lovecraftian twist.

Prosperity_200x300Here’s the blurb:

A breathtaking tale of passion and adventure in the untamed skies!

Prosperity, 1863: a lawless skytown where varlets, chancers, and ne’er-do-wells risk everything to chase a fortune in the clouds, and where a Gaslight guttersnipe named Piccadilly is about to cheat the wrong man. This mistake will endanger his life . . . and his heart.

Thrill! As our hero battles dreadful kraken above Prosperity. Gasp! As the miracles of clockwork engineering allow a dead man to wreak his vengeance upon the living. Marvel! At the aerial escapades of the aethership, Shadowless.

Beware! The licentious and unchristian example set by the opium-addled navigatress, Miss Grey. Disapprove Strongly! Of the utter moral iniquity of the dastardly crime prince, Milord. Swoon! At the dashing skycaptain, Byron Kae. Swoon Again! At the tormented clergyman, Ruben Crowe.

This volume (available in print, and for the first time on mechanical book-reading devices) contains the complete original text of Piccadilly’s memoirs as first serialised in All the Year Round. Some passages may prove unsettling to unmarried gentlemen of a sensitive disposition.

Also it feels unseemly somehow to be … bragging(?) … but can I just take a moment to Swoon! Gasp! and Thrill! at that breathtakingly beautiful cover. It’s so perfect I can’t even. Not that I don’t absolutely adore the covers for Kate, as well, but I had more involvement in this one … so it would have been more my fault if it had sucked. And, by involvement, I meant sending epic emails to my editor to send to the art editor to send to the artist. The actual, y’know, skill and talent and vision has absolutely nothing to do with me. That’s all on SimonéObviously.

But I’m incredibly pleased Prosperity is a thing that is happening. It’s actually the first book I ever wrote. Back in 2012? And how ridiculous to say “back in 2012” as though staring deep into the mists of time. But I’d just noticed that queer genre fiction was happening in non-traditional presses and RP had put out a call for, I think, “frontier fiction.” I love that stuff so – knowing a lot about language and absolutely nothing about writing – I wrote Prosperity. Almost entirely in dialect. They were so very nice about not wanting it that I then wrote Iron & Velvet – this time mostly in standard English – and after that Glitterland – again, mostly in standard English. It’s highly possible I may one day write a work entirely standard English. Who knows. Actually I’ve written several, but they’re all Watch This Spaces.

Anyway, between then (ye misty 2012) and now I revised the living fuck out of Prosperity. And it is now mostly in standard English. Cough. So that’s good.

It’s a weird business working on an “old” book – even if it’s not, in real terms, all that old. I’ve learned such a lot about writing since Prosperity. And language, for that matter. And how to have feelz. But there’s also an unselfconsciousness to things written before Clues Had Were Had. In general, I would come down in favour of Clues, but … there’s something, forgive the arrant sentimentality, a little special to me about Prosperity. A long journey, traces of myself, who the hell knows.

But um yeah: Prosperity: coming in October. And, then, in the new year a series of follow-up shorts about the characters and the world, which I think I’m going to be calling Liberty & Other Stories.

Since I’m wildly overcompensating for being Bad At Communicating by doing an All The Things post … it’s pretty much blue skies from there. There’s a few odd side projects which may or may not come to fruition – a kind of cyberpunk fairytale (closest to Where I Am Now, so currently my favourite thing) a very quiet novella about, err, flooding and a possibly unsellably nerdy new adult.

For the two or three people wondering about Kate Kane 3 (that’s Fire & Water) I’ll be working on that in the second half of this year. For various complicated reasons I slightly dropped the ball on it, but the ball is once again firmly in my hand.

And for them who much prefer contemps (all one of ’em what I’ve written) I’ve got a couple in the pipeline – and several more planned, including – having sworn myself blue in the face I wouldn’t do this – Niall’s story. It came to me in the shower, and stuck. Though my project list is about as long as a space elephant’s trunk right now so Niall’s book is unlikely to be more than a twinkle in my eye for at least the next couple of years. It’s a possibility, not a priority. Currently I’m mainly working on placing what I have so this is less news than, well, not that.

So. Yeah. That’s everything, I think. Um, thank you for reading my stuff, please enter the thingy, and if you have any questions or anything about what I’m doing or will be doing, I’d be happy to answer them.

18

the jossing of m/m

I do apologise for the long run of posts all about the m/m genre.  It’s just I’m trying to process its … existence, I think, and my place in it. Or if I have one, or am meant to have one. I’ll go back to talking potatoes any day now.

This is a belated reaction to an interesting post by Kate Sherwood called “Any Lawful Impediment: Conflict in Romance (especially m/m).” Its central thesis, with which I broadly agree, is that a significant challenge for a romance writer is to present obstacles to the protagonists’ relationship which could be reasonably be diagnosed as requiring exactly one novel’s worth of action to overcome. She goes on to point out that, in a lot of m/m, homophobia fits the bill perfectly, but as society has become more tolerant and more accepting, it has become less and less plausible as a source of conflict (at least in contemps).

This is usually the bit when I say “where I disagree is…” but, actually, in this case I’m not sure I have a specific point of disagreement. I just think there are some ideas in the post that bear exploring in greater depth. In particular, I’d like to talk about the different sorts of conflict that keep couples apart in a romance novel, and the ways in which homophobia can fulfil the functions of those different sorts of conflict. And finally, I want to talk about how its ability to fulfil those functions changes as society becomes more tolerant.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Broadly speaking, I think you can define the obstacles or conflicts in a romance novel as either intrinsic (inherent in the characters) or extrinsic (inherent in the world). I don’t want to over-generalise, but I think often the sub-genres (paranormals, romantic suspense, historicals, and so on) tend towards extrinsic conflicts (he’s a vampire/she’s a werewolf, people are trying to kill them, he’s a lord/she’s a match girl) while contemps have a tendency to focus more on intrinsic conflicts. Contemp m/m is unusual in this regard in that homophobia often represents a source of extrinsic conflict and, to an extent, it’s one of the few sources of extrinsic conflict you can get away with in a contemporary romance set in a western, liberal democracy.

Both sources of conflict are easy to mishandle, although I think extrinsic conflict is more suitable to a broad brush style of storytelling. I think, strangely, the biggest pitfall of extrinsic conflicts is that they’ll often take the form of social taboos or, in some cases, actual laws or professional ethics guidelines, and there’s quite a good chance that a proportion of your readers will actually agree with the taboo that the characters are breaking. This is exactly the problem Kate had with The Only One Who Knows. If you want to write about a forbidden relationship, then you basically have two options: you either write about a social taboo that negligibly few members of your audience are going to agree with (like, nineteenth century social mores, or – assuming an m/m sympathetic readership – homophobia) or else you deliberately confront the reader with a relationship that has legitimate and potentially insurmountable barriers (psychologist/client, teacher/pupil, incest).

I think it’s this specific function of homophobia-as-conflict that is becoming less plausible in m/m. Obviously, there are a great many cultures and subcultures worldwide where being gay is still a massive taboo, but in a relatively cosmopolitan city in the industrialised, liberal west, a same-sex relationship is much less likely to face explicit, externally imposed obstacles than it was twenty years ago. And, interestingly, it occurs to me that part of the issue here is that the default setting for books actually tends to be quite limited even within relatively prosperous, English-speaking countries in the west. The vast majority of books set in modern England are set in London, not Newcastle, or Truro. It’s probably true that if you are a middle class university student or white collar worker in London or New York then you’re comparative unlikely to face the kind of explicit homophobia that makes a good source of extrinsic conflict. But that becomes much less true if you move away from the financial and cultural capitals. I think homophobia actually remains quite a strong source of extrinsic conflict in stories set in more traditionally conservative areas.

I still feel, however, that homophobia or internalised homophobia remains a very strong source of intrinsic conflict, but the challenges of intrinsic conflict are very different to those of extrinsic conflict.  Extrinsic conflict goes wrong either because it’s ludicrously improbable, or because it genuinely seems legit. Intrinsic conflict goes wrong for much more subtle reasons that all add up to a lack of emotional plausibility. The baseline problem with internalised homophobia as a source of intrinsic conflict is that it’s very, very easy for it feel one-note and stereotypical: “I hate myself because I am gay.” “But I wuv you.” “I don’t hate myself because I’m gay anymore.” I think I would argue that, in order for homosexuality or homophobia on its own to be an emotional satisfying source of intrinsic conflict, it has to be grounded in a nuanced understanding of queer identity and experience.  Which, I should stress, is not monolithic. And, indeed, I would suggest that an easy way to mishandle homosexuality as a source of intrinsic conflict is to assume that it is monolithic. That is, to assume that everyone’s angst about being gay is basically the same.

Weirdly and, this is no way to related to genre-romance, the best example I can think of to illustrate what I’m trying to say is Cyrus Beene from the TV show Scandal. No-one he interacts with is in any way homophobic towards him – even the really right wing Texan guy whose name I can’t remember – and he’s not in any way angsty about being gay qua being gay. But, because he lives in a society that is still, in fact, deeply heteronormative, being gay has circumscribed his ambitions, and shaped his life in a profound, and very personal, way. To put it another way, his arc is about him as a character, and being gay is part of that, but the important thing is that it remains a story about a man who is gay, not a story about a gay man.

This sort of intrinsic conflict isn’t going away any time soon. It’s probably worth remembering that we’re only just at the point where same-sex relationships are starting to get full de jure equality with opposite-sex relationships. This is to queer rights roughly what universal suffrage is to feminism. And, obviously, de jure equality does close down some plotlines and eliminate some sources of (extrinsic) conflict. Gay men no longer at risk of execution and, if you wanted that be plot point, you’d have to set your book in the past (although not that long in the past) and, to extend the women’s rights analogy, if you wanted to write a het romance between an MP and a suffragette you would, again, have to set it in a time before women got the vote.  But the fact that same-sex couples can get married in a lot of countries now clearly doesn’t mean that same-sex relationships are seen as equivalent to opposite-sex relationships by all, or even most people. Any more than getting the vote meant that women were immediately seen as fully equal to men in all areas.

Same-sex relationships still face challenges that opposite-sex relationships don’t. Most of those challenges are no longer based in law and many of them are no longer based on socially mandated, systematic discrimination, but all that means is that prejudice is less overt, not that it has gone away. For example, it’s basically illegal in England to fire someone for being gay. But I was reading an article in the Times Education Supplement only a few months ago about a guy who’d been applying for a Head of Department job at a posh private school and one of the things he’d been asked at interview was “would you wife be willing to help at school functions?” to which he, of course, had to reply that he was sure his husband would. He did not get the job.

This is a very different kind of conflict because it is a sort of incessant, low key, grinding down. It’s being persistently reminded that when the world talks about loving, romantic relationships – or, indeed, marriages – they aren’t really talking about yours. I can see why that’s a much harder thing to turn into a dynamic, powerful conflict in a romance novel, but I think that’s its own problem. Extrinsic conflict provided by explicit homophobia is very easy to invest in. It provides a hero to root for and a clearly defined villain to defeat. Quiet, more everyday forms of homophobia or heteronormativity are comparatively invisible, and as a result they aren’t something the reader can set themselves up in opposition to. Institutionalised prejudice is not a compelling bad guy, and can’t be solved over the course of a three hundred page novel.

Of course, the other side of the coin here is that whether homosexuality and homophobia remain viable of sources of conflict or not, there’s also the question of whether it’s desirable for them to be the main source of conflict in a large proportion of m/m novels. Realism aside, society aside, progress aside, sometimes I just want to read a book with a gay protagonist where the thing that gets in the way of his relationship is that he’s a vampire, and he fancies a werewolf, or that space zombies are trying to kill him. Throughout this post, I’ve argued quite strongly that the experience of homophobia remains a reality for the vast majority of queer people but it’s important to remember that it isn’t an inherent and inalienable part of queer identity and queer experience. And, even though any contemporary romance is necessarily set in a heteronormative society, a book with gay protagonists doesn’t have to be about homophobia (intrinsic or extrinsic) any more than a book where the protagonist is a doctor has to be about medical ethics.

This clearly doesn’t mean medical ethics don’t exist, or that they’re no longer a potential source of narrative conflict, just that there’s more than one story to tell about doctors.

24

So non-con, huh?

I’ve been aware for a while now that a surprisingly – or perhaps not so surprisingly – large amount of m/m is non-con or dub-con. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it made up a majority of the genre, but I think I can say it ranks alongside college boys and men in uniform as one of its mainstays.

Now, before I go any further I should say two things. The first is that this post is about, well, non-con so naturally comes with trigger warnings. The second is that the cons, be they non or dub, are not my preferred sub-subgenre so I’m very much not writing this as an insider. In fact, to put my cards fully on the table I tend to find non-con problematic in a lot of ways, and this post is my attempt to sort that out to my satisfaction.

There are, of course, as many reasons for reading or writing any subgenre as there are people who read or write it, and I understand that, for many, these sorts of books are a way to explore important, powerful, and challenging issues in a controlled environment. I also appreciate that some readers just get off on them, and that’s okay too.

Broadly speaking, I think there are two things that trouble me about non-con in m/m and, to an extent, they might be different facets of the same thing. One is its prevalence in m/m relative to het, and the other actually comes back to something I mentioned above, which is the way in which relationships between two men seem to be seen as a safer environment to explore these issues than a relationship between a man and a woman. Also I should say that this shit is complicated, and that, insofar as it is even possible for there to be experts on it, I most certainly am not one.

By my limited understanding, there’s been a bit of an uptick in the amount of non-con and dub-con across all subgenres recently, obviously less so in some, for example inspirationals, and more so in others. I hear that at RT Carina were actively soliciting non-con and slavery stories. But while non-con has a growing niche within the het market, in m/m it seems to be a mainstream fixture, and that disparity troubles me because I’m always troubled when I see stark differences in the way homosexual and heterosexual relationships are portrayed in any medium.

I should probably point out immediately that I suspect a big part of the issue is just the relative size of the genres. M/m is clearly a smaller pool, and so it’s easier for particular trends to ripple across it. That said, I do wonder if there isn’t some component of writers and readers seeing straight and gay (and particularly gay male) relationships through slightly different lenses. If nothing else, the fact that m/m is seen as a sub-genre of romance, rather than as a way to describe romances that happen to have two male protagonists, would suggest that the market does see a relationship between two men as something quantifiably distinct.

This itself becomes problematic because there are genuine disagreements within the queer community over the best way to think about the intersection, if any, between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. I tend to be of the school of thought which holds that, while relationships in general are diverse, the gender-identities of the people involved are not a meaningful way to categorise them. A relationship between two women can be legally recognised and monogamous, with a white fence, two kids and a mortgage. A relationship between a man and woman can be legally unrecognised and non-monogamous, with sex parties, spanking and shibari. Neither relationship is more or less valid than the other.

The other school of thought, however, is that stressing the normality of queer relationships is to try and force them into a heteronormative paradigm.  To this second school of thought – and as always its hazardous to try and describe the opinions of people you don’t necessarily agree with – queer relationships are inherently subversive.

I suspect that part of the reason there is significantly more non-con in m/m than in het is that both non-con and m/m are, to a degree, seen as edgy, subversive, and outside the mainstream. Someone who is more interested in one is more likely to be interested in the other. To put it another way, non-con and homosexuality are both, to an extent, sexual taboos, and I can see that people who are interested in pushing boundaries might be interested in both. Where I find this difficult is that, to me, taboos surrounding same-sex relationships and taboos surrounding, to put it bluntly, rape are of different categories. Prohibitions against homosexual behaviour are culturally relative and, I would argue, harmful by their mere existence. Prohibitions against rape, well, not so much.  And obviously there are cultural differences in attitudes to rape as well, but tolerance of it is not considered to be a marker of a liberal society.

As a consequence, I feel the association that is apparently emerging within the genre between culturally disparaged sexualities and acts of genuine immorality is – and I acknowledge that I am currently using this word a lot – troubling.

You may have noticed that in the last two paragraphs, I shifted from the using the word “non-con” to describe the sort of content I was talking about to using the word “rape”. This sort of brings me to my second observation which is that I sometimes get the impression that non-con in m/m is somehow seen as less rapey or less bad or possibly even less real than in het. A sense I get from reviews and blog posts is that there are a large number of readers who will only read non-con in m/m. Once again this is (and I’m using this word a lot as well) difficult because there are very sensible, very valid reasons why a person – particularly a woman – would be massively less comfortable reading a non-consensual sex scene from a female perspective than from a male perspective. But this intersects quite problematically with some very gendered and very heteronormative ideas about what sex is, what rape is, and, to some extent, what the roles of men and women are.

There is a cultural stereotype which suggests that sex in general and rape in particular only count if there is a penis and a vagina involved.  This notion erases the experiences of a great many people, men and women alike. Clearly — on a personal level — people are entitled to be comfortable with what they are comfortable with, and uncomfortable with what they are uncomfortable with, and I believe people should have the freedom to explore the ideas they want to explore through the medium that makes most sense for them. But non-con is so prevalent in m/m that it feels to me almost normalising. The cumulative effect of which, when spread over a large number of books, is to present a model of homosexuality of which non-consent is an integral part.

Essentially, the stories we tell ourselves as a society are how we construct our ideas about what the world is like, and the current trends in m/m offer a view of reality in which rape is significant component of the experience of being a gay man. I should stress that this is not an issue with individual books but with the aggregate effect of a large number of titles forming a sizeable proportion of the market. And, once again, I find this… troubling.

My final concern with this whole phenomenon is that I feel it reinforces unhelpful ideas about sexual power and sexual behaviour which pretty much go back millennia. In a number of cultures, ever since antiquity, it has been perfectly socially acceptable for men to shag other men as long as they don’t go on the bottom. Indeed, in a great many societies homosexuality and heterosexuality were not a meaningful distinction. What mattered was who was penetrating and who was penetrated. In both ancient Rome and ancient Greece it was considered perfectly normal and healthy to bugger young boys or slaves, but perverse and effeminate to be, as it were, the buggeree (at least in adulthood).

And a tiny part of me wonders if non-con in m/m is an echo of these attitudes. I understand that, in the bodice rippers of the 1970s, non-consent or forced seduction was a way to permit the heroine and the reader to explore sexuality in a society where female desire was still, to some extent, taboo.

Not that this is an entirely solved problem, even today.

I have a feeling that non-consent in m/m might serve a similar function. I suspect that we, as a society, find it comparatively easy to accept and understand, within our cultural frameworks of masculinity, a man who desires to penetrate other men. I’ve sometimes heard this expressed as “he’s so manly he can fuck dudes, and it doesn’t count”. It’s much harder for us to condone a man who wants to be penetrated.

This goes directly against everything we are taught comprises male sexuality. And since a hero in a romance – het or m/m – is successful only insofar as he enacts male sexuality in a manner that the reader finds acceptable and, well, sexy, there’s an extent to which a hero who consents to be penetrated will, for many readers, cease to function as a hero. Tangentially, I notice very similar reactions against sexually submissive heroes in het, unless the author goes out of her way to make them uber-manly in other contexts.

I should probably end by reiterating that I do think it’s primarily a consequence of the size and relative infancy of the genre – but this is precisely why I believe this is such important issue to consider. M/m is still establishing itself within romance, and within genre fiction as a whole, and the trends that exist today are likely to shape what is written, published, and read for years to come.

47

How many roads must a man walk down?

This month’s hot topic in the blogosphere is the role of men in romance, to wit whether it is desirable for them to have one. The first thing I want to say on this topic, and it is basically the whole theme of this post, is that this is a conversation that the community has to have with itself.

Let me know when you decide.

The one specific point I did want to address was male members of the romance community engaging or not engaging with the community at large. There seem to be two contradictory schools of thought about this one. The first being that since romance is a female-dominated community, men have a distorting effect on it and they should therefore stay the hell away. The second being that men in the romance community have a duty to be active members of the community to show they’re just like everyone else.

I think these both of these positions have their merits (although I sometimes feel that some people subscribe to both at once, despite the fact they are clearly contradictory). Having been tangentially involved with the community since 2013, I find myself leaning increasingly towards the stay the fuck away camp, and I thought I’d take a bit of time to explain why.

The first thing to recognise is that oddities within any community do draw a disproportionate amount of attention, both positive and negative. You see classic examples of this with women in gaming, and it gets deeply problematic because for every Felicia Day you get a Jennifer Hepler. Obviously, romance is unusual because it’s a female dominated community so whereas women in gaming are both a minority in the hobby and marginalised along gender axes outside of it, men in romance are in the awkward position of being a minority within the genre with all the problematic baggage that implies, but having behind them the weight of a patriarchal society.  This immediately presents men in the genre with an impossible dilemma. It is clearly wrong to deny your status as a privileged outsider, but it seems equally wrong to draw attention to it. To put it another way, there is a fine line between checking your privilege and, for want of a better term, waving your dick.

A specific complaint levelled against men in romance and, at the risk of sounding blunt, against me in particular is that male readers and writers tend to make little effort to engage with the wider community. I know I’ve been criticised for only ever commenting on my own posts, for example. Several people have suggested that this is because men expect women to come to them, and not the other way around. Obviously it’s not my place to tell other people what to think, or what to write, but it is my place to decide why I do things, and, well, that isn’t why I don’t comment very much on other people’s blog posts.

The first observation I would make, and I apologise if this sounds glib, is that I don’t believe “women will come to you” is an expectation men are raised with. Quite the opposite. We are explicitly taught by society, books, movies, and television, hell even by romance novels, that the attention of women is something we acquire actively. When was the last time you saw a teen comedy in which the shy, nerdy hero gets a girlfriend because he meets a girl who just finds him physically attractive? I have been trained my whole life to believe that the way to get a woman to pay attention to me is to consciously seek her out and do things for her. If I was really, really invested in grabbing the attention of the romance community, I’d spend a whole lot more time commenting on blog posts, and a whole lot less time actually reading them.

One of the things I have tried very hard to learn as a white man on in the internet in general, and as white man involved in the romance community in particular, is that often the most helpful thing I can do is shut the fuck up and listen. I actually read a great many romance blogs, but I have long been of the opinion that it would be arrogant of me to believe that an interesting post needs my comment to validate it. And, given the difficult status of men in the romance community, I am deeply aware that commenting on a blog post could be seen as an unwanted intrusion into someone else’s space.

I am, at heart, quite a talkative person, and I like having conversations with people, but I do not see it as my place to butt in on conversations that other people are having perfectly well without me. When people come to my articles, or my blog, I know that they’re happy to interact with me. Whereas in the wider community, I’m conscious that my involvement in a discussion can be problematic. And, for that matter, that there many people who genuinely believe that I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff at all. Hell, I’ve seen people say that I am silencing female voices merely by reviewing romance novels.

Once again, it’s not my place to tell people what to think, what to say, or what to write, and it certainly isn’t my place to tell people what they are or are not silenced by, but in this extremely complex context I am naturally very cautious about splashing myself all over the internet. When you are aware that there are people who will feel pushed out of their own community by your presence in it, it seems only courteous to minimise that presence.

To put it another way, engaging more actively in the community would be to ignore the wishes of quite a large proportion of that community, and that just seems like kind of a dick move.

42

Axes & Allies

So it seems there’s been another kerfuffle in the blogosphere. A Facebook post, which was taken down before I could read it, prompted a broad and complicated discussion about issues ranging from the objectification of gay men to the behaviours required or not required of queer allies. It led to this post over at the Prism Book Alliance, and subsequent comments.

On one level, I very much agree with the substance of the post, which is that you don’t get to say someone isn’t a proper ally just because they don’t do the sort of stuff you think an ally should do. Not everyone goes on marches or lobbies MPs, and not everybody is in a position to do so. And there is an extent to which I question the value of an ally investing their time in telling other people they aren’t allowed to call themselves allies.

That said, when I think about it in more detail, I find the whole concept of self-defining as an ally a little problematic. Obviously, it’s not my place to tell people how they can feel, or what they can call themselves, or who they can identify with, or who they can feel they support, or who they can feel supports them, but I think there is a genuine danger in making your response to someone else’s issues part of your identity.

As ever, this is a personal post and I’m writing from a personal perspective, and so I’m actually going to try to avoid talking about queer issues here. Instead, I want to talk about why, although I do my best not to be a dick to people who are marginalised on axes along which I am not myself marginalised, I consciously avoid self-defining as an ally.

People who are familiar with my blog will probably have noticed that I like to start my posts with “the core of my argument is this thing that seems irrelevant”. For this post, the thing that seems irrelevant is Eddie Izzard’s passport. For those of you who aren’t aware, Izzard is a transvestite British comedian, famous for not doing television, and for a slightly peculiar acting career  that includes Shadow of the Vampire, Mystery Men and, recently, Hannibal. Back in the 90s, I read an interview with Eddie Izzard in which he mentions that, on his passport, he does not list his occupation as ‘comedian’ because, as he put it, “if people stop laughing, I’m not”. Obviously your mileage may vary when it comes to comedy, but I think the idea of an identity existing only as a series of moment-to-moment choices is a powerful and important one, and very strongly applicable to the desire to be an ally in a social justice environment.

Put simply, I think an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. But crucially, it’s something that exists only in the doing of it. I’m absolutely not saying that you don’t get to call yourself an ally just because you don’t go on protests or start petitions or hang out on the right tumblrs. What I’m saying is, no action can confer a status that exists beyond that action. If someone uses gay as a pejorative, and you call them out for it, you’re being an ally. If someone makes a causal generalisation about an ethic group and you correct them, you’re being an ally. If you teach your children not to be sexist or islamophobic, you’re being an ally. But those actions justify themselves and reward themselves, and they don’t change who you are, or grant you any special rights or privileges.

When I was younger, I hung out with a lot of socially insecure nerdboys who strongly self-defined as feminists.  To be honest, I was totally one of them. We all loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We all really liked to read fantasy novels with strong female characters in them. And we, all of us, at one time or another, treated actual women like shit. It is very easy and very dangerous to believe that doing particular things gives you Points, and that having those Points makes you better than people who don’t have those Points, no matter how much Points-negative or Points-neutral behaviour you otherwise engage in. I am mildly ashamed of how long it took me to realise that it doesn’t matter how offended you are by chainmail bikini fantasy art or how articulately you can call out sexism in other people if you won’t respect the personal space of a girl at a party.

I try very hard to avoid self-defining as an ally because I am extremely aware of how easily it can become an excuse for ignoring the needs and wishes of the people you claim to be allied with.

This sort of brings us back to the difficult question of objectification, appropriation and allyship in m/m. I should probably reiterate that I’m not telling people how to think, how to feel, or how to live their principles. A great many m/m writers and m/m readers have come out and said that they feel the reason they read and write m/m is because they want to normalise queer relationships, and to show they are as valid as heterosexual relationships. I have no reason to believe that these people are anything but sincere (and since it’s also why I read and write m/m, it would be deeply hypocritical of me to do so). But this whole discussion was started because a man stood up and said that he personally felt objectified by the community, and I have no right to assume that he was insincere either.

There is a slightly bullshit concept in management called “the mirror and the window” which is basically that you have be sure to get the right balance between looking “out of the window” at other people and “in the mirror” at yourself.  I have no idea how this applies to business, but I think – from the point of view an online community – it means getting the right balance between listening to what other people say and reflecting in good faith on what they’ve said. Again, I have no doubt that the people who say they want to normalise queer relationships actually mean it, but some people do feel objectified by some aspects of the community, and I feel it behoves us to look at ourselves and ask why.

I strongly believe that m/m fiction has a very important place in promoting LGBT rights, but I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think the m/m community is completely free from objectification or fetishisation.

Brandilyn, over at the Prism Book Alliance, says:

Honestly, I do not read this genre for the sex scenes (I know, gasp!). I read it for the stories, the love, and the friends I have made. I do not care whom they are sleeping with.

Once again, I have every faith that Brandilyn means exactly what she says, but looking at the actual shape of the m/m genre – even down to the very basic fact that it’s generally called m/m rather LGBT or LGBTQ or QUILTBAG – I can’t quite believe that it’s true of every reader. If there was not, on some level, a large part of the community that was primarily interested in reading stories about two hot boys kissing then f/f would be as popular as m/m, and it isn’t. And, by a huge margin. I can only really share my own data here but my m/m title has sold more than ten times as well as my f/f. And, of course, it’s possible that my m/m is ten times better or ten times less niche, but the prevailing consensus in the industry is that f/f just doesn’t sell.

I genuinely cannot reconcile the idea that readers of LGBT fiction are blind to the genders of the protagonists of their love stories with the industry reality that well over 90% of LGBT romance is m/m, and a very particular type of m/m. By my limited understanding of the market, the overwhelmingly popular books in the genre are about kink, college boys, shifters or soldiers, and involve conventionally attractive white protagonists. I do not think there is anything wrong with people liking what they like, and reading what they read, but these trends do not to me reveal a market that is primarily interested in challenging normative ideas about romantic relationships. It certainly doesn’t look like a market which is incompatible with material that could be seen as objectifying or fetishising.

When you are trying to draw conclusions about the preferences of a market, you have to base those conclusions on what the market does, not on what it says. Ulysses, in the comments to Brandilyn’s post, observes that:

While [straight women who write m/m] may have a distinct preference for hot men on their covers (which is, after all, merely a marketing technique, and one that works) to point an accusing finger and cry “objectifer!” is overdramatic and beside the point.

The thing is, you can’t divorce how a book is marketed from how it is read. It is certainly true that you can’t draw conclusions about the writers of m/m fiction from what people put on the covers, but you absolutely can draw conclusions about the readers.  When we were putting out Glitterland, I very strongly didn’t want to have a dude on the cover, but my publishers informed me it had to, or it wouldn’t sell. I have no particular problem with this, but it tells us something very clear about the market the book was selling into.

Putting conventionally attractive people on something in order to attract other people to it by playing on their romantic fantasies or sexual desires is the very definition of objectification. I’m not saying we should pillory people for doing it, but nor should we pillory people for admitting they are bothered by it. Video games, comic books and fantasy novels all regularly feature highly sexualised images of women with enormous breasts and waists thinner than their necks for marketing reasons. This is generally recognised as problematic (at least by people who care about that kind of thing) and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with readers and writers expressing similar concerns about the portrayal of gay men in m/m.

Of course, this kind of thing gets very complicated because identity politics is always complicated, especially because different people find different things offensive, and have a tendency to factionalise quite strongly over what it is and isn’t appropriate to be offended by. For example, I have a (straight, female) friend who really likes highly sexualised fantasy art. She finds it empowering and liberating, and it makes her feel sexy to consume media that has images of sexy women in it. It is obviously not my place to tell her that she is being A Bad Feminist and Doing Woman Wrong but, equally, fondness for images that other people find offensive in no way negates the offence that other people take at those images.

The fact that some gay men do not find the context or presentation of current m/m fiction problematic does not change the fact that others do. And, perhaps more importantly it does not abnegate the responsibility that the community (particularly those members of the community who are keen to see themselves as allies) has to take questions of appropriation and objectification seriously. All of us, particularly those of us who write about members of groups to which we do not belong, have a responsibility to treat one another with respect, and to sincerely reflect on our own behaviour as it affects others.

M/m fiction, and LGBT fiction in general, has the capacity to be extremely powerful in promoting LGBT rights, particularly in promoting the normalisation of same-sex relationships. But this does not mean that it is never possible for m/m fiction or LGBT fiction to be harmful, marginalising or undermining. M/m fiction has the potential to be a tremendous force for good, but the very fact that some of the people it is supposed to be good for feel marginalised and excluded by it suggests that the genre as a whole has some way to go before it lives up to that potential.

7

on content warnings & courtesy

slippery_slope

XKCD 1332

Earlier this week I read a blog post about content warnings, and what the author refers to as the Content Police, and I saw some agreement with its arguments in the comments  (although obviously that’s something of a self-selecting sample.) The main thrust of the post is that content warnings for written fiction are insidious, infantalising and a mark of amateurism. I basically disagree with all of it, and I thought I might take a little time out to explain why.

It fundamentally comes down to two things, the principle of charity, and a CS Lewis quote.

I’ll start with charity. It’s very easy to assume that if someone behaves in a way that you don’t understand that this means they’re weak, stupid or cowardly. I personally don’t pay much attention to content warnings on books, films, video games, or anything else. I’ve played Cards Against Humanity stone cold sober. I’m pretty much immune to gore. And I’ve watched enough shit alternative comedy and read enough grimdark fantasy to find people trying to shock me intensely dull. But none of this makes me a more adventurous, more open-minded or more discerning reader than someone who might be legitimately bothered by any of these things. It would be very easy for me to pretend the reason I’m comfortable reading about things that other people are not comfortable reading about is because I am somehow stronger or more emotionally mature than they are, but this is quite simply not my call to make.

Glitterland comes with a bucketload of content warnings (depression, self-harm, suicide, suicidal ideation) and while obviously they aren’t necessary for me because I wrote the damn book, it would be borderline hubristic of me to insist that they be removed because I didn’t like the idea of readers making an informed decision about my book on the basis of that information. Nor do I have any kind of right to assume that a person who decides not to read my book because of the content warnings is doing so because they’re too weak and cowardly to stray outside their comfort zone.

Amelia Gormley argues that content warnings are disrespectful because they pre-suppose that readers are:

delicate, fragile, easily-bruised flowers who might be alarmed by encountering something that has been nebulously dubbed “objectionable” for reasons which are largely arbitrary and prone to change with the social and political climate.

This is approximately equivalent to assuming that including lists of ingredients on food involves treating consumers as whiny, fussy, picky eaters. There are many good reasons you might want to know what’s inside something you’re purchasing, especially if you’re vegan or allergic to peanuts. Surely, the basis of a free market, the basis of adult life and, indeed, the basis of all professional relationships is clear communication and informed choices. Ms Gormley seems to believe that readers somehow have to be tricked into reading challenging literature, that if you make the mistake of telling people in advance that your books contains controversial content they will be too pathetic to try and read them, no matter how horizon-broadening they might be. I can’t quite see how this is more respectful than the alternative.

To lift the curtain for a moment, I should probably mention that the process of putting content warnings on books (and Riptide does use content warnings, although on the website rather than on the paper copies, not that more than twenty people have ever seen one of my books in print) involves filling out a short form that can be completed in approximately seven minutes. Again, I should probably point out that I’m a very small author, with a very small readership, but I consider seven minutes work to be worth doing even if only one potential reader ever finds it useful. The alternative involves mildly, or perhaps severely, upsetting another human being for no benefit to me or anybody else.

Being triggered is not fun, and many people like to avoid it. I am not so delusionally vain as to believe that my work possesses such merit that I would recommend a person read it, even knowing it would cause them extreme emotional distress, nor can I convince myself that a reader who makes that choice is doing out so on the basis of  some politically correct whim. I am certainly not so convinced of my own genius that I believe giving readers access to factual information about the contents of my books could possibly be doing them a disservice.

Some years ago, a British vicar was pilloried in the press for daring to say in church that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. We, as a culture, habitually lie to children. Giving people access to information and allowing them to make their own decisions is the exact opposite of infantalisation.

The second point made in the blog post is that content warnings come from fandom and that they are, therefore, a marker of amateur publishing, and this is where the CS Lewis quote comes in, the quote being:

When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

I think might paraphrase this as follows: When I became a professionally published author, I put aside amateurish conceits, including the fear of looking amateurish and the desire to be very professional. I have, I will admit, always had something of an ambivalent relationship with professionalism. One of the things I am often reminded of in my study of seventeenth century swordsmanship is that it wasn’t very long ago that professional was an insult meaning, roughly speaking, “a person so ungentlemanly that they are obliged to do something for reasons as vulgar as money.” In my actual life in the twenty first century, it has usually been my experience that professionalism is the first refuge of the unprofessional: it’s the word your boss uses to try and make you do something that isn’t your job, or to persuade you to put up with inappropriate treatment. It’s the word pretentious undergraduates use to describe their terrible productions of As You Like It.

I think Ms Gormley’s concern is that content warnings are similar to fanfic (which is not professionally produced) and that therefore the use of content warnings is itself unprofessional. This strikes me as superstitious thinking. A professional is nothing more or less than a person who makes money at something, and part of the way you make money in an industry is by communicating clearly with your market. It is certainly true that Stephen King and Anne Rice did not put content warnings on their books. Stephen King and Anne Rice, when they were first published, also did not have websites. They certainly weren’t on Twitter. Times change, and an important feature of professional persons and professional organisations is adopting best practices, wherever those practices come from. A great many media do, in fact, come with some form of attached content information, the most obvious here being films which have a very clearly delineated set of ratings.

Indeed, pulling four random DVDs off my shelf, I would note that Troy contains “strong battle violence” and is “suitable only for persons 15 years and over”, LA Confidential contains “strong language and violence”, and is “suitable only for persons 18 years and over”, Princess Mononoke contains “infrequent mild language”, “some mild references” to sex and nudity, “frequent mild fantasy” violence, no problematic themes or content and “some scenes which may be unsuitable for young children” and An Education contains “moderate sex references” and is “not be supplied to any person below the age of 12”.

This clearly does not make the DVD industry a shoddy, amateurish affair, nor is film any less designed to “shake you up, to make you think, to push boundaries. In other words, to open up the world for the proliferation of IDEAS” than the novel. A book is a book is a book and whether it is good or not, or bad or not, or shakes you up, or makes you think or pushes boundaries or opens up the world for the proliferation of ideas or not, is a factor of its content, not of what you put on the cover.

Whenever a convention arises that is to the benefit of some people and no harm whatsoever to others, there are always cries of protest, and they are always completely unfounded. It is a simple matter of Pareto optimality: if you can do something that will make some people better off, and nobody worse off, you should do it, always. Content warnings are trivial to implement, easily ignored and genuinely important to some readers. I, personally, am lucky enough to be able to read a rape scene without experiencing traumatic flashbacks, but I know a great many people who are not. It is the bare minimum of common courtesy to give people enough information to make an informed decision about whether they want to read a book.

59

Shibboleth

I am eighteen years old. I am too tall for myself, my hair is too long, my hands too restless. I meet every gaze like I’m expecting a fight.

My accent is, to most people, impenetrable.

When I say ‘epitome’ I say epee-tomb.

I can’t tell a salad fork from a fish fork.

But I learn. Mostly.

I still say epee-tomb. It’s too ingrained, and it slips out before I can remember who I am and catch it, but now at least I know how to laugh and pretend it’s intentional – a private joke that isn’t on me.

And salad forks and fish forks are scarily similar. And counting the tines doesn’t help, that’s a goddamn lie.

I live in a city of shibboleths. They gleam like veins in the golden stone. How you say things, how you do things, what you call things, what you know, what you take for granted, and what you don’t.

Yesterday, I was going to write up this comedy story, but it’s not a comedy story. But let me tell it anyway.

There’s this sandwich shop I sometimes go to. Its kind of … I don’t know how to describe it or communicate why anyone would go there ever. But I guess it’s the sort of sandwich shop equivalent to The Paper Shop Where Despair Dies. The Sandwich Shop of the Damned. Except, unlike The Paper Shop Where Despair Dies, it doesn’t make my soul shrivel up like lettuce in the rain … it fills me with this slightly hysterical, very private, British joy.

Because … God … it’s a terrible sandwich shop. It has an air of profound neglect. I mean, we were talking committed neglect here. Not, a passive, let things get a bit dusty and rundown, but a kind of active “my sandwich shop based apathy is a corrosive force” neglect.

It stands next to a Sandwich Shop of Beauty and Delight so there is literally no reason to visit the Sandwich Shop of the Damned. It would be like Dante going “no I think I’ll hang out down here a bit longer”. Unless you’re me, and you’re … I don’t know. It might have watched too much Black Books at an impressionable age but sometimes, very occasionally, when it’s kind of done with my full consent, anti-shops entertain me deeply.

When it’s not done with my full-consent and I actually have a consumer need then I hit the wall. And by “hit the wall” I mean cough a lot and look stern and say things like “this is really not acceptable.”

Our local game-shop is an anti-shop 50% of the time. It’s kind of a lose/lose situation, in some respects, because the proprietor is so lovely that you end buying things you don’t want out of a sense of social obligation and a desire to make her happy. But her husband radiates such an impression of distaste for the whole business of shopping for games that it hinders you from buying things you actually want and have gone in there specifically to buy.

I still remember with a kind of quiet fury trying to buy Middle Earth Quest, back when it came out. MEQ is a typical glossy board, many fiddly pieces, not as well balanced as it could be, but damn it looks and smells gorgeous Fantasy Flight game. But I very much enjoy the premise because it’s set before the events of Lord of the Rings so one of you plays Sauron trying to slowly gather power, and the rest of you – as far as we can make out – basically play Gandalf’s DPhil students. So you run around collecting information on this dark power rising in Mordor and this Ring of Power doodab so, you know, your supervisor can publish the paper and take all the credit.

Usually I like to play Sauron. Bwhaha etc.

Anyway, when I was trying to get this thing, I’d kind of vaguely forgotten the name but I knew it was something Lord of the Ringsy, new, and by Fantasy Flight. What more would a game shop proprietor need? But I got the proprietor’s husband, who was doing The Times crossword, and was consequently profoundly uninterested in selling me this game I wanted. He couldn’t help me with what it was called, but at last he grudgingly withdrew this tattered paper catalogue from under the counter and began to laboriously thumb through it, one page at a fucking time.

“No,”he sighed, finally, “it’s not in here.”

I managed to catch a glimpse of the front page. “Well, no, that’s because this is from 2007, and this game only recently came out.”

“Oh.” Blink. Blink. “Oh wait.” A suddenly light in his eyes. A sudden dawning of hope in my heart. “I know the one you mean. It’s really really expensive isn’t it?”

“Yes!” [So for fuck’s sake, sell it to me, so it will make a profit for the fucking shop you apparently fucking own]

“Sorry, we don’t have that.” And he smiled at me with the sort of vapidity than can only be actual, manifest evil.

So I said “fine” in my tight angry voice, and left.

And that probably happened in 2010 or something, and I’m still telling that story with impotent fury.

But since I kind of perversely choose to lunch at Sandwich Shop of the Damned, the general reluctance to give me a sandwich on the part of the surly, greasy man behind the counter is … part of the pleasure, somehow. Sometimes there are actual other living humans in the Sandwich Shop of the Damned, but we don’t make eye contact and get out as quickly as we can. There’s also a sort of hunched figure in the corner that never moves, so I think it’s probably either a decomposing corpse or a revenant.

Anyway, part of the ritual of the Sandwich Shop of the Damned is that basically … the man behind the counter (I presume he works there? I don’t know, he doesn’t look like he does, but he is behind the counter) will only make you food if he can be arsed. And if he can’t be arsed, he’ll say “We don’t have that” even if it’s right in front of you. So it’s kind of this exciting guessing game to come up with a food that man-behind-the-counter is prepared to make. And what’s really amazing about this whole business is that he always takes forever – even if it’s something amazingly simple. He once took – and I do not hyperbolise (that’s another one of my trip words – hyper-bowl) – twenty minutes to put a sausage roll in a paper bag.

That takes real skill.

Oh, and once, he was putting cheese into a panini for me, and he dropped a dirty dishcloth into the plastic container of chedder, stared at it a while, sighed heavily, removed it, and then continued putting cheese, from that very container, into my panini.

Which, after about ten minutes, he gave me.

And, for reasons that still remain a misery to me, I ate it. And I didn’t die.

Anyway, I was in there yesterday, and ahead of me in the queue, squinting bewilderedly around him as if just coming to terms with the fact he wasn’t in Kansas anymore, was this adorable, earnest American. I confess, adorable earnest Americas are kind of my kryptonite. They’re just so … … earnest. It makes you want to do filthy things to them. And I see them often around here, staggering about like punch drunk gazelles, usually saying “But … but … why?” and getting the answer “What do you mean, why?”

Anyway, AEA turns to MBTC and says “Can I get a jacket potato please.”

And MBTC asses him for a while, as if asking himself if this upstart colonial is worthy of a potato. And then comes the fatal answer: “We don’t have any.”

AEA is silent for a very long moment. His cornfield brows dip into a little frown.

Just so you can experience AEA’s bewilderment (and appreciate The Sandwich Shop of the Damned in all its anti-glory), here’s what he’s seeing:

IMAG0543-1024x430

Now here’s what I love about AEAs. Any Englishman would, at this point, just recognise he was beaten and surrender gracefully. But not an AEA. He musters up the courage that won the west or whatever, and says: “Then that’s a very strange sign you have there.”

And there is this epic fucking silence. MBTC just glares. Glares so hard.

Until, I can’t help it … and I begin to laugh. And, because I’m the only one laughing, I can’t quite stop, because I’m sort of laughing at my own laughing, and I laugh and I laugh until long after the AEA has gone. It was just … one of those moments of pure, perfect absurdity, made all the moreso AEA’s stark incomprehension and MBTC’s determinedly Kafka-esque potato stance.

I was going to write that up as a silly blog post, but then various things happened and, honestly. I don’t find it funny at any more. And I actually felt kind of  terrible. I wasn’t laughing to be cruel (when I remember it, I still want to laugh because absurd things make me laugh) but … that poor boy ran straight into a shibboleth and, heedlessly, though without malice, I cut him down in his unknowing. Forgetting that what I take for granted is entirely strange to a stranger.

I actually found him again  the next day, introduced myself and apologised. Took him to the best jacket potato place I knew. He was, in fact, fresh off the, err, boat so to speak. From somewhere they feed them a lot of corn. I think he’s now a very confused man indeed. He’s probably ringing his, err, Mom at this very moment. Telling her how English people have strange potato rituals, laugh at you for no reason and then chase you down later to fervently apologise.

It’s just I keep thinking about the past year, and how many shibboleths I have heedlessly run myself into, and occasionally aground. It’s inevitable when you try something new and – non-consensual brain trip to my eighteen year old self aside – it’s basically okay.

But I’m damned if I’m ever going to laugh at someone for this again.

29

Squee

So, um, Glitterland is a finalist for this year’s Lambdas. Which, um, is amazing. Just amazing.

And I can’t make the ceremony because New York and, also, life.

But here’s a thing I’ve done to kind of, I don’t know, celebrate in a very small way. I should also probably apologise because, err, I don’t think voice acting is the career opportunity I missed out on.

But, um, here is me reading a bit of Glitterland. Enjoy. Maybe.


56

The only ugly gay man on TV

Okay, that’s a slightly provocative title. In truth, there are no ugly (and by ugly I mean “non conventionally attractive”) people on TV in general, regardless of sexuality. Although I think we British people are slightly  more non conventionally attractive than Americans.

H and I are kind of committed serialised TV watchers. We tend to watch stuff when it airs, because our schedules are too irregular for us to easily be able to watch a certain thing at a certain time on a weekly basis, and also because I’m such a crazy commitmentphobe that even the idea of having to watch a TV show on a consistent basis scares me. But, yeah, we usually watch an episode of something or other a night, and occasionally we’ll jump from American shows to British ones and it’s … honestly jarring. We just finished the third series of White Collar, which is lots of fun, and stars two extraordinarily pretty people, and then flipped over to Line of Duty. And, ye gods. American shows are all about good people doing good work, and they make you think “God, I wish I was an FBI agent / hotshot lawyer / maverick genius serial-killer catcher” and English shows are all about corruption and paperwork, and people who look like three day old used teabags, and usually leave you thinking “Thank God I’m not a lawyer / police officer / autopsy-doer.” Or whatever.

LOD

“Who’s on makeup? Yeah, Harry, mate, can we make these people look more miserable?’

I just think it’s probably kind of telling that when the US produces shows about politics, we get The West Wing and Scandal. And the UK offers up Yes Minister and The Thick of It. So, yeah, to actually get back on topic (and there was a topic) we’ve just finished the second season of Scandal. Miles behind everyone else, of course, because that’s how we roll.

Whenever I write about TV shows, and how awesome they are, they always flip into a new season and completely destroy whatever point I thought I was making. But, hey, learning is for losers. I honestly can’t decide how I feel about Scandal. I’m wildly interested by it, but I can’t tell if I like it or not. I decided it was the best thing ever about halfway through the second season, but then it kind of turned floppy and directionless and after all this really intense, intricate, jumping off the sofa screaming “no, Cyrus, don’t do that!” plotting about corruption and betrayal and desperation and compromised morals … it was suddenly like “actually forget all that cool stuff – LOOK A MOLE.” And the second half of the second season was all about uncovering some guy from the first season so irrelevant we’d forgotten who he was. Oh. Spoiler.

But I can’t tell how far Scandal is deconstructive and, if it is deconstructive, what it’s saying about the things it’s deconstructing. It’s the one of the problems I have with those type of texts in general – I’ve read a fair few deconstructions of the fantasy genre, for example, and while it’s wildly fascinating when it’s going on, at the end of the process you’re left with some bits on the floor, and the bits don’t seem to mean anything. So Scandal is a Shonda Rhimes show, which I’m saying like I know what the heck that means. I mean, I’ve seen a bit of Grey’s Anatomy, and kind of liked it – so I guess it means, romance being Really Important, everybody being the best person at their job ever, lots of extremely melodramatic conversations which somehow totally work, and a kind of comfortably diverse cast. To put it another way, Scandal is what H and I tend to think of as Superior White Man show (it’s all about one person being awesome) except the Superior White Man is … a black woman. And I don’t know if that feels subversive, or it just allows you to enjoy the sticky pleasure of One Person Is Awesome At Everything And It is All About Them All The Time without feeling bad about it. But either way, it’s cool, and engaging.

The first season is very episode-of-the-week – Olivia Pope, and her associates (who call themselves her Gladiators) are the people you go to when serious shit hits the high profile fan. They’re lawyers, detectives, troubleshooters, fixers, spin doctors – basically, whoever they need to be, and they do it better than anyone. Olivia’s gladiators are an interesting collection of morally ambiguous misfits: there’s Harrison, she saved from a prison sentence for insider trading, there’s Abby she saved from an abusive marriage, and Huck she saved from top secret blackops / murder and torture division of the CIA. There was also some other dude who’s slightly sleazy skill appeared to be “seducing women” who fades out in a couple of episodes. But, anyway, you’ll notice the keyword two sentences back is “saved” – I’ll come back to that later. There’s also this random person called Quinn who Olivia takes in as a trainee-Gladiator but that plot – while relevant – is a bit flaccid in general. Anyway, it soon comes out that Olivia used to work for the White House – and she left under mysterious because, dum dum dum, she’s bonking the President. Or rather, she and the (very married) President are in love. And there’s an ongoing arc in the first season about someone else the President has bonked.

And this is all pretty cool. I confess I’m slightly kind of … dazed … by President as romantic lead type thing. It’s hard for me to get my head round, even though power is profoundly attractive, and he has very floppy hair. I think it might be because England and America have such very different attitudes to their politicians. I mean, even thinking about David Cameron makes my dick shrivel up. But, weirdly, it kind of works here – I mean, when you get down to it, Leader of the Free World is basically where you go when alpha billionaire dom starts to look a bit meh.

The first half of the second season, though, is some of the best television I’ve seen for a while. Basically, it takes everything established in the first season and breaks it really hard. It turns out there was a massive conspiracy to get Fitz (that’s the president) elected in the first place – leading to an epically painful dissolution of the ideals and expectations of the first season. Olivia’s gladiators are revealed in all their shattered, twisted dependence, Olivia herself is utterly compromised, and Fitz spirals into alcoholism because it turns out he wasn’t as awesome as everyone thought he was. (I don’t like Fitz, by the way, I think he’s a fundamentally weak man, but then I’m not sure I’m supposed to like him). I think what I find really intriguing about Scandal is the way it encompasses and explores the contradictions inherent in everything we’re supposed to value: so love becomes obsession becomes dependence, idealism becomes ambition becomes corruption, conviction becomes ruthlessness becomes immorality. And it comes back to these themes time and time again, both personally and politically, through the characters’ relationships with each other, and through their on-going struggles to manipulate various political and legal and social outcomes.

It’s, err, heady stuff. Especially when you look at it in the context of, say, The West Wing. Now, I kind of loved The West Wing, flaws and all, but something that always struck me was the complete absence of any ambition whatsoever. Bartlett is President BECAUSE he is a good man, the right man. It has nothing to do with WANTING or TRYING to be. The Presidency comes to him like the divine right of Kings, in recognition of his moral and personal superiority. But Scandal is dirty, deliciously dirty. The Presidency is a bloody struggle – and while everyone pays lipservice to the fact Fitz is a good man, the right man, you never see any actual evidence that this is true. He spends most of his time on-screen trying to find somewhere to put his dick. There’s an extent to which he’s nothing more than a catalyst for the ambitions of others. A patriotic justification for people who just like power and, for whatever reason, are denied the opportunity to seek it for themselves.

And don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with just liking power. But I think what Scandal  reveals is the way that lack of power corrupts far more than power itself. My two favourite characters in the show are Mellie, the President’s “political animal” of a wife, and Cyrus Beene, his Chief of Staff. I think it’s kind of telling that Scandal manages to present a show which contains both a wife and a mistress, and rather than painting either of them as “the bad one” (though, let’s face it, Mellie is kind of not a very nice person, but that’s not the same thing) instead explores the way they’re forced into, and restricted by, and damaged by those roles. The truth is, Mellie should be President, Olivia should be her awesome media relations consultant, and either, neither or both of them should be bonking Fitz when they feel like it, because I seriously can’t see any other use for the man. But because Mellie can’t be president (I mean, Jesus, why is FIRST LADY still an established role – what happens when there IS a woman president, or a gay president, are they going to have a FIRST DUDE?), Fitz is her only route to power, and she can’t even fucking divorce the guy, or be friends with another brilliant woman who could – potentially – be a worthy ally.

Cyrus is a similar case – and he actually gets a speech about it:

“I wasn’t made to be the Chief of Staff. Do you know what I was made to be? I was made to be the President of the United States. I was made to lead the nation. I was made to ensure this country’s place in the world for generations to come. I would’ve been great at that. I have the stones. I have backbone. I have the will. I would have been a great President. But guess what? I’m fairly short, and I’m not so pretty, and I really like having sex with men. So instead of being President of this land, that I love, I get to be the guy behind the President of the United States. And sure, I have power. I influence decisions. I help steer the country. But I’ll never be in the history books. My name will never be on an airport or a doctrine. Being the guy behind the guy is as far as my road goes.”

God, I love Cyrus. I know he’s a terrible human being in many, many ways. Okay, probably all the ways. But he’s still such a pleasure to me. I also like the way his sexuality is both incidental (he mentions a husband in the very episode I think, but that’s how you find out he’s gay – that very fleeting reference) and completely defining, in that it’s his whole political identity: fairly short, not so pretty, really likes having sex with men. And Fitz, of course, is tall, pretty and likes having sex with the wrong women, but that’s borderline acceptable because he looks how a President is supposed to look. It’s a fantastic episode, all round – Cyrus delivers that speech to his husband, while they’re both naked because they’re convinced the other one has betrayed them and is wearing a wire. When James was first introduced I was slightly dubious because he’s very … of a type … I suppose (a type I happen to find exceptionally attractive – elegant, slightly nerdy and bespectacled) and he spends most of the first season shrieking at Cyrus to give him a baby. But, then, when I thought about it, I realised that’s pretty much the subplot of any political-type drama: one partner in the White House, the other partner sitting at home feeling devalued and uncommitted-to, wanting some sort of family life back, and that’s an entirely ungendered situation. Or should be. It doesn’t make James “the woman”. It just makes him the one who wants who family, and Cyrus the one who wants a career. And it’s something all couples have to navigate. It’s just … troubling, I suppose, the way it instinctively feeds into our expectations about gender, and gender roles. Even when I should damn well know better.

And while H and I were talking about all this, I suddenly came to another realisation: Cyrus Beene is the only non conventionally attractive gay man on TV. Well, no, you’re allowed to be fat or bald if you’re there for comedy purposes. And, of course, as I said in my opening paragraph, nobody – whatever their race, gender-identity or sexual orientation – is allowed to be non conventionally attractive on TV. So this whole thing belongs to a much wider debate about objectification and representation. But it caught me in a more personal way because, the truth is, I get so excited by any representation at all that I don’t ask the usual questions. I go “well, is this totally offensive?” and if the answer is “no” then I … just stop. Like that’s enough. In fact, to take it further, I think I’m in such deep reaction to the “well, is this totally offensive” question that young, conventionally attractive, well-dressed, good at dancing, completely generically “acceptable” to a broad range of television viewers is kind of in my own head now as the fucking standard for non-comedy queer person on TV.

And that’s not enough.

That is seriously not enough.

And I’m kind of embarrassed that it took Jeff Perry standing around with his kit off for me to notice.

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