Read-A-Romance Month

This post was written for Read a Romance Month, and will link from Suzanne Brockmann’s wonderful piece going live on the 26th August.

LGBT Romance Matters

A while ago, I was watching an episode of The Mentalist with my partner. Back when, y’know, The Mentalist was good.  The show opened with the victim of the week getting his head smashed in on a golf range. Imagine my delight when it was later revealed that he was gay. No, really, I actually was delighted. You only find out the character was gay because the team speak to his husband over the course of the investigation and there’s no suggestion that his having been married to a man was in any way unusual or in any way connected to his death. The episode focuses specifically on his professional life as a doctor and, sure enough, the whole thing turns out to be about organ trafficking. To put it another way, it was just another episode of The Mentalist not a Very Special Mentalist Episode About Homosexuality. I turned to my partner. “You see,” I cried. “This is exactly what we’ve been fighting for. The right to get murdered before the opening credits just like everybody else.” Of course, it would have been nicer if there was an LGBT character in the actual central cast, but, hey, it’s a start.

The reason I’ve started this post about romance by talking about a dead gay man on a TV crime show is that I think it highlights the fact that one of the most powerful things popular culture can do is normalise the diversity of life and human experience. In her post at the RARM site, Suz Brockmann talks about the ways in which the romance genre has become more accepting over the past twenty years. Thanks to people like her who’ve pushed the boundaries of the genre, the marketplace I find myself entering in 2013 is completely different to the one she entered in 1993.

For a start, LGBT romance is a thing.

Except it sort of isn’t. And, perhaps, in an ideal world it sort of shouldn’t be. And this is already all sorts of complicated. And that’s sort of what this blog post is about.

When it comes to queer representation, romance is in a very funny position because, in some respects, it’s years ahead of the other popular genres and, in other respects, it’s years behind.  There’s no other genre of popular fiction which has a whole subgenre of books with queer protagonists.  If you want to read a fantasy novel with a gay hero, you have a find a fantasy novel with a gay hero (and there are some, which is great). Similarly, if you want to find a mystery novel about a gay detective, you have to find a mystery novel with a gay detective (and there are some, which is great). But if you want to read a romance with queer protagonist (or, if I’m being very honest here, with a gay male protagonist) there are hundreds and thousands of books you could read. There are entire blogs and websites dedicated to reviewing these books. The m/m community is thriving, especially when compared to analogous communities in other genres.

This should all be wonderful except there’s part of me which feels deeply uncomfortable with the idea that two men or two women falling love is a somehow seen as a different type of story to one about a man and a woman falling in love. All other romance subgenres are about, for want of better terms, setting and context. But, seriously folks, being gay is not the equivalent of being a werewolf, a sky pirate or an FBI agent.

Once again, this is getting really bloody complicated. I’m aware these issues are huge and important, and this is just one blog post, from a guy who has published one novel.

The thing is, there clearly are some people who prefer to read m/m and some people who prefer not to. In my personal utopia, those sorts of preferences would be meaningless. As meaningless as basing your reading preferences on whether the book has an odd or even number of pages, or whether the hero’s name begins with a vowel. But we don’t live in my personal utopia, we live in the real world and, rightly or wrongly, whether a relationship is homosexual or heterosexual cannot help but affect the way people react to it. And I absolutely include myself in this – in my case, I over-invest in representations of same-sex relationships in popular culture. I would love the luxury of not caring. I’d really like to be able to watch Spartacus without being aware that the director was under constant pressure to “cut out the gay shit”. I’d have liked to have seen Tara’s death in Series 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as no different to Angel’s death at the end of Series 2 or Riley whigging out in Series 5. But, unfortunately, as things stand, queer relationships exist in a different context.

It’s probably also worth remembering that genres, and subgenres, aren’t handed down from god – they’re just a convenient way of expressing the preferences of a particular chunk of readership. And so I can absolutely see why LGBT romance as a subgenre exists, since romantic stories about same-sex couples appeal to some groups of people but don’t appeal to others. And I think what makes LGBT romance (and m/m romance in particular) controversial is how those two groups are made up and how they perceive each other.

At the risk of using a horribly a mixed metaphor, it seems to me that there’s a kind of trench warfare going on between two factions trying to claim the moral high ground (and this is why I don’t write military romance). To some people, refusing to read a romance because it’s about a same-sex couple is, for want a less confrontational term, flatly homophobic. From a certain point of view, it is literally refusing to read a book because the protagonist is gay. And, in any other context, that would be pretty unambiguously not okay. On the other hand, there are people who would argue that specifically choosing to read a romance because it a concerns a same-sex relationship is, for want of a less confrontational term, fetishisation. And, again, if you were talking about a book that was read primarily for titillation, this would be pretty unambiguously not okay either.

Yet again, this is really freaking complicated because writers aren’t monoliths, readers aren’t monoliths and genres aren’t monoliths. It is certainly true that some people who don’t read LGBT are homophobes. I know at least one writer who was advised by her agent not to publicly endorse Glitterland on the grounds that it might alienate her readers. Assuming her agent isn’t completely wrong about the marketplace, there are clearly some people who read romance who believe homosexuality is genuinely wrong.   But I like to think that the vast majority of readers who choose not to read LGBT are just expressing a literary preference that isn’t grounded in any wider political ideology.

Although, as I’ve said, if we lived in a post-heteronormative society it wouldn’t make sense to have those preferences. But we don’t. So people do. And that’s okay. I’ve got a very good friend who just can’t get her head around homosexuality at all. She’s not homophobic, so just can’t understand why you would want to do that. And, although she’s not a romance reader, she would naturally find it hard to invest emotionally in a same-sex love story. I should probably also point out at this juncture that a lot of people avoid reading LGBT romance, and particularly m/m, specifically because they’re concerned about appropriation and fetishisation. And, obviously, it would be more than a little silly to suggest these readers are just being big ol’ homophobes.

Which brings us back to fetishisation, which is just as thorny an issue. On the one hand, it’s important to recognise that the stereotype of m/m romance (and slash fiction to which it is often, rightly or wrongly, compared) being exclusively written by and for heterosexual women is not only inaccurate (there are gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, trans* and genderqueer people both writing and reading these books) but it’s also irrelevant. The romance genre is dominated by women, it’s unsurprising that its subgenres are as well. This being said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the segment of LGBT romance involving two hot men getting it on is by far the most popular, which is not really what you’d expect if LGBT romance readers were en masse genuinely blind to gender and sexuality.

Once again, I want to emphasise that it’s perfectly okay to have preferences – either for or against reading about a particular type of relationship – and I can think of reasons why someone would specifically choose to read m/m over het or f/f that aren’t just “wahay two dudes is hot.” Although fetishisation is always something that you have to be extremely careful about when you’re reading or writing about someone who is more marginalised than you (insofar as that can be remotely quantified) I am equally wary of dismissing as fetishisation the very real and very complex motivations of those who choose to read m/m romance. Just as I am uncomfortable dismissing as homophobia the decisions of those who choose not to.

This whole issue is a minefield but, hey, at least, we’re tiptoeing around on it. To me, more than any other genre, romance is asking the questions that need to be asked and talking about the things that need to be talked about. As Suz says, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go. But I also genuinely believe that romance has the potential to change the way we think about the world and each other.

To me there is simply nothing more powerful than the truth at the heart of any LGBT romance: that a same-sex couple is just two people in love.

[hr]

Recommendations

I actually read quite a lot of het but since I’m currently waving the rainbow, I’ll recommend two of my favourite LGBT authors.  Just as Suz very kindly presented Glitterland to you as a romance like any other, I’d say the same about the work of both of these writers. They write truly beautiful love stories.

The first is Kelly Rand who is just a gorgeous, delicate wordsmith. For me, the stand out of all her works, is actually a short story called Pearl. It’s set in Prohibition era America, and it’s about a young woman called Edith, trapped in the stultifying routine of small town life, and Clark, a transman who awakens her to the possibilities of life. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric story that engages with a lot of complex issues in a deft and subtle way. Like a lot of Rand’s work, it feels very liminal, a moment from which many futures spiral, captured and held suspended for the reader.  A completely mesmerising piece of writing.

The second is Alex Beecroft who mainly writes m/m historicals, although she has at least one contemporary in her catalogue. Like Rand, Beecroft is a breathtaking writer, and she has a real talent for evoking historical depth and detail.  I love absolutely everything she’s written but, for me, I prefer longer works over her novellas, simply because I want to soak myself in the text and I tend to get pouty when her stories end after 35k words. So if you like historical romances, I’d start with False Colours – this is basically gay Hornblower, I don’t know what else I need to say at this juncture. If you’re prefer contemporary, then take a look at Shining in the Sun, which is an almost painfully fragile holiday romance between a man who has everything but freedom and a man who has nothing else. Also, it’s set in a gorgeously portrayed Cornwall and I enjoy UK-set romances.

[hr]

 Questions

 What is the craziest or ugliest object in your house, and why do you keep it?

The strangest object in my house is probably my giant cuddly syphilis. Here he is:

 Spyph

As is so often the case, he was a present from a previous partner and I’ve carried him with me ever since. Sometimes, when people come to my house, I give him to them.

The reason my partner gave me syphilis was because I’ve always been very into the Restoration poets and I secretly believe a true gentleman should have syphilis.

Awesome people who have had syphilis (though not from me) have included: The Earl of Rochester (of course), Charles II, Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, Leo Tolstoy and Byron probably (but Byron had everything).

If there was a movie made about your life, what would it be called? (And just for fun, who would play you?)

I thought about this for way, way too long.

I think I’d like it to be called Robert de Niro’s Waiting and I’d like it to be a jukebox musical with music provided by Bananama. Not because my life has been anything like a jukebox musical but because I kind of wish it had been.

As for who would play me, for some reason after seeing Suz Brockmann pick Martin Sheen I sort of re-interpreted the second part of this question as “who would play you assuming it had to be an actor who appeared in at least one series of The West Wing.”

So, Allison Janney, totally. Triple threat, baby.

What is the best non-monetary gift you ever received?

I’m pretty fond of the syphilis.

If you had to pick one romantic scene or couple to recommend to a first-time reader of YOUR books, which would it be? (Any picks for romance novels in general?)

Um, I’m kind of new at this. I’ve only written, well, one book. So I might just skip this question or look very silly.

romancelandia

15 Responses to Read-A-Romance Month

  1. Bobbi says:

    Great post, Alexis. Would love to continue this conversation someday. Thank you so much for being part of R-A-R M. There are so many more directions the event can go next year, and I am keeping them in mind as options. Glad you’re here. Let’s keep talking. xoxo

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by. RARM is absolutely amazing – so many voices coming together, from such disparate places and yet reflecting the amazing talent and commitment and sheer *joy* of the romance community. It makes me so happy. I can’t imagine what it took to co-ordinate that. I expect you’ll be spending September with your head under your duvet 🙂 But you must also be wildly thrilled. I’m so grateful to you and Suz for letting me add my own small voice to discussion.

  2. It’s so nice to meet you through your blog! I’m eager to read your book and to check out the two authors you suggested. Thanks for writing and sharing your talent with us!

    Diane

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh thank you, that’s terribly kind. I’m usually quite silly on my blog but I felt that Suz and Bobbi presented me with an opportunity to, well, right something that matter about something important … so that’s what I tried to do.

      I hope you enjoy the book 🙂

  3. Thank you for posting this!

    FWIW, I would have (and have had) no problem alienating those particular readers. What a sad little scary world that author and agent live in!

    AND… I named the heroine in my book INFAMOUS “Alison” after Allison Janney. (Didn’t want to be too obvious by spelling it with two Ls.) If you ever read that book, picture Allison playing Alison. Or maybe picture CJ Cregg playing Alison.

    Congrats on the release of a really beautiful book!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for your own absolutely wonderful post, and for your kind words about Glitterland, and for stopping by and and and, God, the list goes on 🙂

      To be honest, I imagine as many heroines as I can get away with as being played by Allison Janney 😉

      And, for what it’s worth, I believe the response of the author in question, and I quote it directly, “fuck that.” She’s awesome. But, equally, I hate that she’s had to make that choice. More than I can say.

  4. Sarah Frantz says:

    A good friend of mine, Tibby Armstrong, said that she once had a reader of her m/m romance tell her that it opened her eyes, because she didn’t know that two gay men could actually love each other. So the work y’all are doing it just amazing. Thank you for opening so many eyes and giving your characters their happy endings, no matter who they are or who they love.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Gosh, it feels simultaneously naive and smug to be boggled by this … but I’m boggled. I know I shouldn’t be. In fact, I have encountered such people – though sadly firm in such belief. I think I might have got them confused with fairies. You know, if I don’t believe in them they won’t exist 😉

      But, ah, love is the great universal.

  5. Allie says:

    I have read Glitterland (saw the giveaway at Jessewave, read the extract, bought it immediately and stayed up too late reading) and love, love, love everything about it, from the writing to the characters to the heartstopping plot moments. I think you have written a classic that breaks out of genre confines.

    My motivation for reading m/m was to move away from the sexism and inequality of m/f. In a patriarchal world m/m holds out the possibility of a relationship between equals, one not limited by biological inevitability or society’s expectations. With m/m I can get the satisfying emotional arc without suffering the disjunction from radical feminism (even f/f, although there is a lot less of that available so far, almost inevitably raises the spectre of the patriarchy). I’ll watch out for fetishisation though: it wouldn’t be fair to escape the confines of my own situation by imposing different confines on others.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh thank you – I’m so very glad you liked the book. Sounds odd to say it, but I did really enjoying writing it – and having the freedom to write, well, a romance between two male protagonists. When I was growing up, the only books I had that tentatively touched on same-sex relationships tended to end in misery and/or death. So it’s just amazing to have a genre full of it 🙂

      As I tried to explore in the article I think there are plenty of valid reasons for reading m/m as well as valid reasons for not doing so. I’ve actually heard quite a few say that, like you, they moved to m/m because of some of the inherent inequalities of het, which makes a lot of sense. And often feeling slightly alienated by certain types of books or heroines that didn’t match their own experiences and values. Of course, queer relationships come with their own inequities to navigate and sadly they’re just as influenced by aspects of the kyriarchy as het ones but I think they do offer new spaces of exploration and identification.

  6. willaful says:

    I wonder if this is an issue particular to romance — or perhaps genre fiction in general? When I read Fingersmith, for example, I had no idea that it could be considered f/f (a term I didn’t know then, anyway.) It was just a novel.

    The again, I suppose literary fiction also gets categorized as “gay” fiction, at least some of the time.

    I think it’s very cool that you’re writing an f/f book, btw. I remember being surprised when I realized that the great new m/m author I’d just discovered was a lesbian. But why the hell not?

    I honestly don’t know why I like reading m/m. It’s not the two hot guys are better than one thing. I just happened to try some m/m authors at a time when romance was seeming very stale, and they were exceptionally good, and seemed more innovative than anything else I’d been reading. Of course, I’ve discovered since then that m/m has its fair share of dull, uninspired stories. But now it’s just romance to me.

    One last blather — my son has a cuddly stomach bug, a gift after he had appendicitis. I don’t think he’s ever appreciated it as much as you do your syphilis. Perhaps it’s just too small for him to love. His favorite lovey is named Big Bear.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh I love FINGERSMITH. My favourite of hers is AFFINITY though, I have no idea why, because it’s really claustrophobic and a little bit mad. Her later novels have not quite worked for me though, they’re just incredibly bleak and … sort of nasty? I think literary fiction, because it doesn’t exactly have explicit subgenres, tends to be slightly more inclusive just by default. I mean, I’ve read a lot of queer-ish lit fic and they don’t say “oh this is a gay book”, they say “this is a Booker prize winner.” But, again, these are just generalisations. I guess it’s all changing anyway because most of us book shop online and electronically so the structure of how books are categorised is changing too. I mean, no longer have to walk to the bit of the shop with where the x type books are kept.

      Well, I’m not sure if my f/f book will be any good. It may turn out to be horribly appropriative or something :/ But I’m kind of pricklingly uncomfortable about the intersection of notions of “authenticity” with queer fiction. I mean, identification and empathy are fluid – and if we only ever wrote, or read, about people who were literally exactly like us, fiction would be horrendously impoverished. But I do dislike the “by straight women for straight woman” dismissal of LGBT romance – firstly because it marginalises a whole host of queer-identified people and secondly, as I said in the article, it’s not relevant. Who cares who is writing or reading? The important thing is being written and read.

      I hope I didn’t make you feel you had ask yourself why you read m/m – I mean I think the question is problematically politicised in a wider context but on an individual level you might as well ask me why I read het: because I like it 😉

      I think I love Syph so much because he is so small. I actually have a really lovely teddy bear called Linus who was present from a previous partner, and he is the best bear ever. Sort of golden and zen-looking, with wise black eyes and this faintly wrinkled brow, and he seems to be saying “AJH, I am faintly worried about you but in a loving way, and I have faith that whatever is happening, you’ll figure it out.” But I’m slightly too old to be able to get away with, you know, having him on my desk or something. So Syph it is 😉

      • willaful says:

        That’s pretty much I thought. Perhaps it’s part of the… whole ambiance of literary fiction? Like a literary fiction reader would be far too cool and sophisticated to be concerned about whether there were gay characters? 🙂 (I admit to some reverse snobbery — I do love beautiful writing, but I can’t stand books in which nothing happens.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *