The rest is drag

As usual I’m going to start by linking to someone else’s post and saying I mostly agree with it before going off on a random and largely unrelated tangent. The post in question is this one by E.E. Ottoman. It touches on a lot of complex issues so it’s quite difficult to summarise but broadly it’s about the difficulties inherent in the assumption that the primary audience for LGBTQ romance is heterosexual, cis-gendered women.

I do, as I observed in the first paragraph, basically agree with everything Ottoman says. There is an unchallenged assumption that the primary audience for LGBTQ romance is, should and must necessarily be cis-gendered straight women. And, like Ottoman, I feel very strongly that this is not okay. But where I think we part ways is that I feel it’s important to distinguish the is from the should from the must be.

Ottoman persistently refers to the idea that the majority of LGBTQ romance readers and authors are cishet women as a myth. I simply don’t think it is.  I mean, yes, you can argue there’s never been an in-depth longitudinal study but you only need to run down the author lists of any m/m press to see that there is a clear trend in sex and admittedly a slightly less clear trend in sexuality and gender identity. To argue from the position that cishet women do not represent the numerical majority of the audience for LGBTQ romance is to argue from a false premise. Not only that, but it is to argue from an unnecessary premise. It is perfectly reasonable to assert that books about queer people should, by default, assume a queer audience and that to do otherwise is erasing and othering. In questions of – for want of a less contentious term – ethics, the realities of the market are neither here nor there. You can make a strong case that it is wrong to write books about queer people that exclude queer readers, no matter how many straight people would buy them, and no matter how few queer people would buy the alternatives.

The problem is, to a great many people, the realities of the market are extremely important. I, personally, am in quite a privileged position here. Being a middle-class person with no dependents and a good income, I don’t actually rely on my books to pay the bills and I can, as a result, afford to write what I want and what I think is appropriate without worrying too much about whether it will sell. And I’m in the fortunate position of having an agent and a publisher who are both very supportive of this, even though it would be strictly better for both of them if I tried to write more commercial material. The thing is, not everyone is in the same position. And if you really need the money, then you do have to pay attention to the market. And, yes, there hasn’t been a formal academic study of the LGBTQ romance audience, but publishers do have very good demographic knowledge of their customer base. The simple fact is, the vast majority of demand for LGBTQ romance is demand for a very specific type of romance between two men, who are themselves of a very specific type.

And this, I think, cuts to the heart of the issue. When people say that the audience for LGBTQ romance consists primarily of heterosexual, cisgendered women, what they’re really saying is that the audience for m/m romance consists primarily of heterosexual, cisgendered women and that m/m romance makes up the vast majority of LGBTQ romance. And I find this particularly difficult because I have, in the past, argued very strongly against drawing an artificial distinction between m/m romance, on the one hand, and LGBTQ romance on the other.  And, indeed, part of the reason I object to this distinction is exactly what Ottoman outlines in the post: the fact of an assumed cishet female audience is used to justify content that marginalises queer readers. The flipside of this argument, though, is that if we don’t distinguish between that category of m/m which is written primarily by and for heterosexual cisgendered women and broader LGBTQ romance written with at least the awareness of a potential queer audience we run the risk of the former squeezing out the latter. Or, worse, the assumption that the former constitutes the latter.

This next part might seem like a bit of a tangent, but stay with me. About six months ago, the UK National Curriculum was revised in such a way that To Kill A Mockingbird was removed from several GCSE syllabuses. This caused massive outrage, partly because the book is rightly recognised as a classic, and partly because the book has a reputation for being The Way You Teach Kids About Racism. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think To Kill A Mockingbird is, in many ways, a remarkable book. But, specifically, I think what it does remarkably is capture the experience of being a middle class white girl in the American south in the 1930s. What it isn’t, however, is the final word on race issues in America, let alone race issues in general. The thing about TKAMB is that it absolutely has value, but it also represents an unfortunate tendency for books about marginalised people written by and for people who are not themselves marginalised to dominate our understanding and our public dialogues of marginalisation.

One of Ottoman’s key complaints about the current state of LGBTQ romance is that it often describes queer experiences with the assumption that the audience has not lived through them. There is a strong tendency for LGBTQ romance to be about queer people, but for straight people. This is really difficult because, on the one hand, this is kind of not okay because it is, in essence, systemically excluding a group of people from books that are ostensibly about them but, on the other hand, books about marginalised groups targeted at people who are not part of those marginalised groups have real social value. It is, after all, useful to have books that teach white kids not to be racist. Unfortunately, the nature of power dynamics in a socially unjust society have a strong tendency to privilege narratives about marginalised groups targeted at people who are not marginalised above narratives in which marginalised people tell their own stories. It leads to a very strange and subtle form of objectification in which some groups of people are perceived to exist only in order for other groups of people to be educated about them.

Of course, not all LGBTQ romance written for a straight audience is necessarily about educating that audience with regards to queer issues. And this is the kind of LGBTQ romance – and, by that I almost exclusively mean m/m romance – that I have most the difficulty with. As well as those stories which try to speak to queer people, and those stories which try to speak about queer people, there is a third category which uses the trappings of queer identity (especially gay male identity)  to explore fantasies or fears or other issues relevant to the author or the reader. You get a remarkable number of writers and readers in m/m who specifically say they write or read it because they want to escape from the gender dynamics of heterosexual romance or, indeed, of conventional, mainstream society.

It is this third category of (primarily) m/m romance which I think is the most visible and most problematic. It’s also probably the hardest to talk about because it gets into some very complex intersectionalities. Women are, after all, a marginalised group as well and it would be equally problematic for me to turn round and start telling them how they are and are not allowed to explore their sexualities and experiences. Nevertheless, these stories also perpetuate a culture which erases and marginalises queer experiences and which treats queer people as existing merely as decorations in a heteronormative world.

This type of m/m used to sit really uncomfortably with me until I had an epiphany. And that epiphany was this: it’s drag.

By my understanding, for some people, reading and writing m/m is a means to explore aspects of themselves, their sexualities or their experiences which they are either socially prevented from or personally uncomfortable with exploring in an m/f context. This includes people who want to write characters they feel they couldn’t get away with writing as female and people who want to work with ideas that would be difficult or, indeed, triggering for them to write about if they were not doing it through an assumed identity from which they can maintain some emotional distance. To me, this feels very similar to the notion of men dressing as women in order to explore or express parts of themselves which they don’t feel able to express as men.  And this clearly has value to the people who do it.

Obviously, this analogy only works if you don’t think drag is unacceptable. And I think what I’m doing here is challenging my own beliefs rather than anybody else’s. The way I tend to approach ethical issues is to compare my instinctive responses to two analogous situations, and if those responses are different to try and understand what makes them different, and if I cannot, to recognise that this must be a contradiction. The thing about drag is you can make a strong case that it is appropriative and indeed othering: it is one marginalised group using the trappings of another marginalised group’s identity to explore its own. And while drag can be performed respectfully, it can also edge very easily into misogyny. Although drag is a very complex subculture, which takes many different forms and means many different things to many different people, one thing it definitely isn’t is primarily addressing an audience of women. And I can’t reconcile the fact I am okay with drag, which you can argue is gay men appropriating female identity, with my resistance to that sub-category of m/m which is women appropriating gay male identity.

I should stress that I recognise that both are problematic and for very, very analogous reasons. Both perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the imitated group, and neither are particularly interested in representing the authentic experiences of the people under consideration. And, obviously, it’s perfectly reasonable to be against both or neither or one or the other but I can’t articulate to myself any argument that would make drag acceptable and the third category of m/m unacceptable. And, once again, I find myself concluding that the issue is not that it exists, but that it is conflated with the less common and less popular type of story which genuinely seeks to explore queer issues from a queer perspective.

In theory, I would love to say that there is room in romance for all kinds of LGBTQ stories. The problem is that this is only partially true. The most commercially successful and most socially dominant narratives will naturally squeeze out more marginalised voices.  The fact that heterosexual cisgendered people control the bulk of the buying power means that there is necessarily pressure to produce books that appeal to and are within the comfort zones of heterosexual cisgendered people. I would absolutely never condemn someone for responding to that pressure but nor would I condemn someone for railing against it. Like many social injustices, it’s an unacceptable situation that is nobody’s fault and everybody’s fault. If more people wrote romances that did not assume a cishet readership, more people would read them. If more people read them, more people would write them. But no one person can meaningfully change a market by changing their behaviour, and so nobody has any particular incentive to challenge the status quo. Indeed, a lot of people have massive, massive disincentives because they have real money on the line.

This certainly doesn’t mean that people who write books for an assumed heterosexual audience are bad people or should be thwacked hence with distaffs but deeper injustices in our society allow the desires of the majority to overwhelm the needs of the minority, which is why it’s important every so often to stand up say “I get that’s how it is, but wouldn’t it better if it, y’know, wasn’t.”

musing

42 Responses to The rest is drag

  1. sofia says:

    Great post, lots of food for thought as usual Alexis. As a cishet woman I am interested in seeing examples of both types of books, so that I can see where I stand at the moment with my reading likes. I do understand though that it might not be possible to name books.

    Ciao
    Sofia

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Glad you liked the post, Sofia 🙂

      To be honest, I’d really wary of naming books because this kind of thing is very subjective and I think it would boil down basically to books that spoke to me and books that didn’t. And while I think I some authors are very consciously and deliberately writing “drag” I think it would be really problematic if I started labelling people. I think there are writers who are self-consciously educative writers, and I think that’s slightly easier to identify and engage with.

  2. E.E. Ottoman says:

    First of all thank you for such a well thought out and thought provoking post. Thank you also for linking to my post and for keeping this conversation going.

    I can see where you would argue that it doesn’t matter if there is a cishet majority or not and I agree with you it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. I can also see where you are coming from in thinking there most likely is a cisgender heterosexual majority among writers and readers. My main point I guess in calling into question whether a cisgender heterosexual (mostly female) readership exists at all is to highlight how little time most of us in the genre spend thinking critically about these kinds of assumptions and their implications. We all assume (myself included) that cisgender heterosexual female voices are the most dominant within the romance genre and thus must be taken the most seriously without unpacking any of that. While it might very well be the case that they are the majority I think we can both agree that there needs to be more widespread discussion about what exactly that means and the power dynamics involved when the majority in power creates and consumes images of a minority.

    To do this I decided to come in guns blazing, because that’s my style 🙂 But I don’t expect, or want, mine to be the last word on this, which is why I was so pleased to see your post.

    I also don’t begrudge anyone from looking around the LGBT romance genre seeing that m/m romance sells a literally hundred times better than lesbian romance and trans romance combined and doing what they need to do to survive. I actually am right now trying to live off of the money I make as a writer without any kind of outside financial safety net. Which means living royalty check to royalty check and hoping for the best. So yeah, I more than understand not feeling like you can write what you otherwise want to because the market isn’t there and you need to eat.

    This is part of where my frustration comes from in fact. I struggle (and have so far failed) to make a living producing work that feels authentic to me in a genre that prides itself and often sells itself to the outside world as being all about representing queerness. That’s something that needs to be talked about not just accepted as the status quo. But is a really complicated topic that involves a lot of things and will definitely take a long time to tangle and unpack.

    I also want to thank you for taking my discussion of different kinds of m/m romances further. Particularly I really like your discussion of m/m romance that depicts fantasies or issues that the authors and readers feel safer projecting onto male bodies than they would female ones. Your comparison to drag I think is a good one. Both I think are incredibly complicated artistic phenomenon that can be both helpful, even liberating, and problematic, sometimes at the same time.

    All and all thank you for such a thoughtful response to my post and continuation of the conversation.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      At the risk of degenerating into an orgy of thanks, thank you for commenting, and for the original post. I think talking about LGBTQ romance and m/m in particular can be quite complicated – partially because of it status in relation to het, and also because of all the intersectionalities involved. But something that’s making me personally a lot more comfortable with m/m at the moment is the fact there do seem to be more discussions about the genre taking place.

      I think you make a very good point that it is important not to let received wisdom about the genre go unchallenged, and I recognise part of what you were trying to do in the original post was to deconstruct common arguments. I think questions of intent and audience can be quite problematic for romance in general. I mean, obviously, for a lot of people “by women for women” is a really important, really powerful feature of the genre but equally that can be very erasing and alienating for some people, especially if you feel you deviate from some of the genre expectations of your gender. And that becomes even more difficult in m/m because a lot of m/m writers feel very strongly and often state quite explicitly that they see m/m as something created by and for women, which makes the question of where gay men or trans* people or non-binary people fit into it. Or even if they’re supposed to.

      I can very much understand your frustration as a writer in the genre. These are certainly questions I’ve wrestled with, but I’ve sort of managed to avoid making any compromises basically because … well … class privilege *awkward face*. But it does put you in a really difficult situation when you know that the best way to find an audience for stories about queer people is to write them for an audience of straight people. And that, in turns, creates this very complicated marketplace in which it’s very hard to navigate the tensions between queer-as-product and queer-as-consumer.

      For what’s it worth, I do think the audience and the market for LGBTQ are slowly changing, and I think there is more space being made for less normative voices alongside the shirtless firemen 🙂

  3. Lee Lee D says:

    Like EE’s, this was an excellent post. Below I copy and pasted my comment from his blog. He felt it also applied to your post and I agree.

    “This is an excellent post. I was a very active member in the GoodReads MM Romance community for years. I don’t call it LGBTQ Romance because almost no one except for cishet gay men is represented. From what I’ve seen and experienced it might appear that the audience is mostly cishet women (which I don’t think it is) because for a long time they were the most vocal. The GR community was full of women who identified as cishet. They spoke the loudest, posted the most, and fervently posted pictures of naked or near naked white men, whether solo or in some kind of sexual position. (I’ll get to the fetishization thing in a moment)

    For a long time GoodReads was where you went if you wanted to put your finger on the pulse of the M/M Romance community. If publishers were seeing what I was seeing, and didn’t dig any deeper, then they would think that it was only cishet women reading MM. To tell you the truth I think that’s exactly what happened, and most publishers just haven’t let go of that impression/assumption.

    Now, on the subject of fetishization…please forgive me if I get a little worked up in this next paragraph but I’m pretty passionate about this. First of all, if it walks and talks like a duck, I’m going to damn sure think it’s a duck. When I first started reading M/M I was in the closet as a lesbian. Reading about anything in the LGBT community was comforting and I flocked to it because it was just nice to see people who said “This a safe place for LGBTQ people”. As the years passed though I became extremely disillusioned and very sad. So much so that I stopped reading MM, stopped participating in the community. Now, this doesn’t apply to every person who reads MM but I saw the attitude a lot. What am I talking about? Women who said they were allies but were obviously interested only in “hot”, white, gay men or young gay men, or cis gay porn stars. There’s this strange and disturbing air of these women viewing the stereotypical gay illusion as a possesion. To me, that is fetishization and people need to understand that wanting to watch or fantasize about gay men having sex does not make them LGBTQ allies. It’s fetishization, plain and simple.

    As a black, gay woman I felt completely ostracized from this community that claimed to welcome everyone in the spectrum. It was pretty hurtful. Now, I’m starting to see more representation but I’ll admit that I’m gun shy. There are spaces where I have to, as a black person, demand to be recognized and respected. There are places where, as a woman, I have to demand to be recognized and respected. Why should I have to do that with people who claim to be supporters? It’s tiring. It ruins my reading experience because part of what I love about reading is sharing ideas with people.

    Hopefully, something happens that makes me trust in a safe reading, review, and community space again but until some of these problems are rectified? I just don’t know.”

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the comment – obviously as my post was essentially a continuation of the conversation Ottoman started it makes sense that your thoughts would be similar 🙂

      For what it’s worth, and I don’t know if this will be comforting or not, your story echoes quite similar patterns of hope and disillusionment I’ve heard from a number of other people. At the risk of sounding cynical, my go-to assumption is that the extent to which a community talks about how it inclusive it is fails as a guide to how inclusive it actually is. Nerddom is kind of famous for this. But I’m glad to hear you’ve been able to find at least some spaces where you feel comfortable.

      On the fetishisation thing, I have noticed there seems to be a much smoother trajectory from m/m romance to porn, at least in the eyes of some readers. Obviously there’s some fetishisation of male bodies in het as well, but it seems less, well, pornified. I think, again, it comes down the additional distance that a reader can keep from the text (or the viewer can keep from the film) when it’s, in essence, mediated through someone else’s sexuality. And, again, I can see how it could be genuinely liberating since – in a sense – women don’t have “permission” to watch straight porn, and even if they did feel able to, a lot of it is horrifically misogynistic.

      But obviously this creates a very difficult environment in the m/m community because it absorbs the whole of queer identity into a cis white man with his shirt off. And that’s slightly uncomfortable for people who are cis white men, and – I suspect – even more uncomfortable for people who aren’t.

      • Lee Lee D says:

        **I apologize in advance for the length

        I definitely think it is uncomfortable for cis white men and those who aren’t. More than once I would get private messages on GoodReads from young men who felt uncomfortable. A few of them because they would be obsessed over by certain women simply because they were young, white, male and gay. They wanted to have discussions and make friends in a way that wasn’t overtly and, for them, uncomfortably sexual.

        Mostly though messages would come from young men who were partially out or not out at all. They were drawn in by the promise of acceptance but then bombarded with images that didn’t reflect them. One young man I remember was dark skinned and had acne. He told me he would cry because what people found beautiful was not what he was. Another was overweight. It was heartbreaking to get these messages.

        I know that kind of thing happens in het Romance as well but I feel like the LGBTQ Romance community should be more aware and try harder to live up to their promise of inclusion. We have young people, a lot of whom, are already insecure about their sexuality and finding someone. I feel that the community should consciously make an effort to not add to those insecurities. For a lot of them the book and Romance community in general is the only place they can be themselves.

        There are authors/readers/reviewers I see Twitter and Facebook posts from. They yell inclusion, diversity, support, acceptance and all they post are pictures of young, white, cis men and a million muscular porn stars. They worship them as beautiful and it makes me want to call bullshit while it makes me mad and sad all at once.

        • KJ Charles says:

          This is a really important and sad point. Because while I’m bang alongside women exploring their sexuality, it is not OK for anyone to to do that at other people’s expense, and particularly not while waving a rainbow flag.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          It’s difficult because, from a certain point of view, the way gay men are portrayed in m/m romance is exactly the way that straight men are portrayed in het romance. I remember being really tripped up by Meljean Brook’s HEART OF STEEL (a book I really like, btw, by an author I admire) because the hero was kind of a dandy adventurer con artist and so I sort of went through the book imagining him looking a bit like me. Which meant it was really jarring, and slightly alienating, that no – he was apparently built like every other romance hero, with a broad chest and massive forearms.
          Obviously there’s a massive contextual difference between the portrayal of men het and the portrayal of gay men in m/m because it’s not like straight men flock to romance novels looking for role models and acceptance, and het romance doesn’t claim to be about or for them (although, I maintain that anybody can find value in a good romance novel).

          It’s yet another example, were any needed, that attitudes and behaviours that are perfectly (or, at least, relatively) acceptable in one context are very much not in others.

          A long time ago, I saw a blog post which, to me, felt really brave. Unfortunately I can’t remember the blog, or the writer, only that he was a queer-identified man and he’d essentially posted a picture of himself next to a picture of how he felt the community perceived gay men. And, obviously, there were differences. I mean, don’t me wrong, this was a perfectly attractive guy, but he wasn’t … well … shirtless and toned and he didn’t have zero percent body fat. And, of course, the gay community itself tends to be just as objectifying and body normative, but the internal issues of a community are not necessarily something that should be replicated by external communities that promise acceptance.

          I think a semi-unique problem that same-sex stories have compared to het stories is that, generally speaking, in a het story there’ll clearly be one character you’re supposed to empathise with and one you’re supposed to fantasise about, usually the heroine and the hero respectively in het romance, the hero and the heroine respectively in fantasy, the nerdyboy and the manic pixie girl dream girl in a certain kind of early 2000s coming of age movie. Of course you can write stories where you can empathise with both, but it’s very difficult to write a het story in which you fantasise about both, unless you’re assuming a bisexual audience (which, as Ottoman points out, might not be a bad thing, actually). But in a same-sex story, targeted at a heterosexual audience of the opposite sex to the couple in the story, then you can make both of the characters fantasy figures because your expected audience won’t be looking for identification in those characters.

          Which can obviously be very alienating for queer readers.

  4. Kaetrin says:

    Thank you for another thought provoking post. The more I read about queer romance, the less I realise I know. I’m worried I don’t see some of the objectification/fetishisation. When I first started reading m/m I didn’t even know what the concept meant. I think I’m better now but I really don’t know. I do know that being involved in the online romance community – all of it – has made me more socially aware and more interested in being better. But, at the same time, I tend to be a person who needs to see examples of things to understand what they really mean. Concepts are too amorphous for me. So I’ll admit that I kind of understand the point of the posts by both you and EE Ottoman but there’s a level where I just don’t, because fundamentally, I’m not confident I can tell the difference between a queer romance which is (for want of a better word) okay and one which is not.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I genuinely wasn’t trying to suggest that queer romances could be categorised as good or bad on the basis of objectively determined criteria. I think it’s more about trends and tendencies. If a book is not written with the awareness that it could be read by queer people, then it is less likely that queer people will find a space of identification within it. But this is very, very subjective. And something I was trying to do with this post was unpack how much of a problem it is or it isn’t. Because, obviously, on a personal level if you feel something is about you, and you should be able identify with it, but you can’t, then that’s very alienating and can feel quite hurtful.

      In some ways, what’s more problematic is the response you get to people who feel alienated in that way. Basically if you represent a member of group [x] in fiction, particularly if you’re not yourself a member of group [x], it is very almost inevitable that someone will turn round and say “Members of group [x] don’t act that way.” And I think there are two (arguably three) ways you can respond to this. The first is to say, “well members of group [x] aren’t a monolith and so what feels appropriate to you isn’t necessarily what would feel appropriate to someone else”. I’ve often seen people criticise romance heroines with lines like “a real woman wouldn’t do that” and the “not a monolith” response is normally used in that context.

      The second response is “I am not trying to portray this group accurately” which is often the response you get when people criticise the portrayals of gay men in m/m.

      The third response, which is sort of similar to the second response, is “I am not trying to portray this group accurately because of these contextual reasons.” Often characters in books simply behave in ways that are determined by genre convention or plot necessity, not fidelity to real world examples.

      I think it’s probably worth remembering that all of these responses can be valid, and all of them can be problematic. For example, the “not a monolith” defence can easily morph into the “my gay friend” defence. The “not trying to be realistic” defence has, as I’ve pointed out, two different incarnations, one of which is significantly more acceptable than the other.

      I think, in a lot of ways, social justice is like quantum mechanics (he says helpfully) in that thinking you understand is evidence that you don’t. Something I’ve had to realise over the years is that there aren’t just rules you can learn. There are just things you can be aware of. In a sense, to me, the most important thing to recognise is how things affect other people. So if you read a book and enjoy it, you don’t really gain anything by worrying too much about whether it’s doing things “right” or not. What’s important is, if someone else says to you, “I had a problem with that book for this reason” that you accept that and listen to them. You don’t have change your opinion or immediately start hating something you liked previously, you just have to care about other people.

  5. darla says:

    Thank you for such a deeply thought out and well written post on this subject. I very much appreciate the drag analogy. This is a very complex topic and I think this analogy is spot on in illustrating the levels of complexity involved. Appropriation=shudder. And yet, there are some flipping fantastic drag artists and there are some brilliant (female) (and male!) m/m romance writers. Ultimately, the artistry wins over the many instances of mediocrity, but do the majority of m/m romance readers realize they are a participant as such, as an audience member to a drag artist does? Or, are both audiences merely consumers? Each time I start thinking *hard* on this subject I start drowning in it all and then I reach out for the life vest that is this thought: GENRE, Genre, genre.

    I have a bookshelf on goodreads – it is called m/m romance. I did not file Isherwood’s Berlin Stories nor Miller’s searing Song of Achilles on this m/m shelf. I love genre fiction and am an unabashed consumer of genre fiction: romance, m/m romance, sci-fi, fantasy, and sometimes mystery. I *prefer* my genre fiction to be written well. (Has anyone ever been better at writing romance than Heyer? Or Austen? Okay, my opinion.) But, ultimately, it’s still genre fiction. It’s really tricky to pick this topic apart from the position it currently occupies in the marketplace. There are truckloads of aspiring authors hoping to publish in this genre that has exploded over the years and made it possible for many poor authors to get published by publishers attempting to satisfy a hungry audience. It seems as though the genre is hitting the glut factor. Perhaps authors hoping to change the dynamic of this particular genre will be able to do so provided their writing is good enough. I look forward to observing how this market changes over the next few years. It is quite surreal to read about myself as a consumer in these posts–I am a cisgender het female who does not like “fill in whatever heteronormative blah blah about me here” and for whatever resulting reason finds stories about two men finding love together (I don’t care if they are white/hot/porn, in fact, would like to see more diversity–so far it is a white white world here in m/m land and that seems creepy to me) very redemptive in this hate and violence filled world. I find it quite repellent to think that I am reading in a genre written ‘by women for women’–eww! I am fascinated by otherness–I work at a college because I like diversity and seek it out in life. I’m blown away by the bravery of men being able to walk in this world today as gay and out. (I’m purposely excluding the entire rainbow here.) It’s still a violent and hate filled world. I like to see/think/believe there are a few pockets of magic here and there where someone can be who they are and have happiness in life. I read books for this reason: to see the world and live vicariously through another’s experience. And, as I mentioned earlier, I read a lot of genre fiction. It’s a thing. I burned out reading Regency Romance because it became the same story over and over. (Though Courtney Milan is telling some great stories, and yes, I know she is not ‘Regency”.) I am fascinated by m/m romance because it is still, to me, a new set of stories. (I’m seeing examples of the same story over and over by now, but there’s still a vast selection of ‘new’ to me stories.) As long as there is a good writer telling a story well written, it doesn’t matter what the trope, I will read it and enjoy it–bring it on.

    A fascinating topic–I’m much enjoying reading the posts from those of you willing to put such thought into your writing about it–I’m barely able to fashion a sentence on it–I’d like to Skype the topic out over drinks, roundtable style and may the winner slur cisgender all over his/herself. (It’s a perfect word to slur, lol.) Bravo to you!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      These are all really complex issues because, in reality, there’s no clear objective line between valuing diversity and fetishising otherness, and what’s inclusive and empowering to one person can be alienating and objectifying to another. I think people who are attracted to same-sex romance stories, at least heterosexual people who are attracted to same-sex romance stories, have to walk a really difficult line because there is, of course, nothing wrong with finding additional pleasure in a story that shows people overcoming a system you believe to be unjust. On the other hand, it’s really important to maintain an awareness that non-standard relationships of a kind that you are not personally involved in exist primarily for the benefit of the people who are in those relationships, not in order to give well-meaning observers the warm fuzzies.

      The same is very much true of cultural diversity. I like to think of myself open to other cultures and other viewpoints but at the same time I try my best to maintain an awareness that whatever pleasure or fulfilment I may find in another person’s culture is secondary to that culture’s function as well, that person’s culture.

      In a way this is kind of the central paradox of multi-culturalism. It’s obviously very important to embrace diversity but I feel it’s important to recognise that the point of embracing diversity is to embrace the individual, full and human value of a diverse range of people. I think it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of thought where you see diversity as only being the whole, and therefore see marginalised cultures and lifestyles as existing merely to contribute to this tapestry that is called diversity. To put it another way, it is all very well for me to feel a sense of cosmopolitanism when I am in a multi-ethnic environment, but this is something I can engage in selectively, whereas – not to put too fine a point on it – Asian people have to be Asian all the time.

      On a lighter note, I’m a huge fan of Courtney Milan. Have you read any Cecilia Grant? Regency set, but not at all traditional.

      • darla says:

        This is a topic that is challenging for me to formulate a cogent response–I’m beginning to wonder if your day job is a faculty position in a sociology department…grin.
        My reading habit in this genre has changed radically from when I began reading–at first I suppose I was reading it as a form of erotica of some sort–it was titillating to me, in the same sense I found het romance titillating. This aspect was not the sole reason for reading in the genre–I’m looking for escape, different places, adventure, etc. I was not even conscious that that might, in and of itself, be problematic…um, until I started looking at some of the discussions…I naively thought, well this is being written for a reason, right? Audience? I was just part of an audience–participating in this capitalist venture.
        A few books changed the way I am reading in this genre: Merrow’s Muscling Through, Lanyon’s Adrien English series, Hall’s GLITTERLAND and KJ Charles Magpie Series and Think of England. These writers are doing something different, something smart. I don’t know that I’m gifted enough to write just what is going on, but I know I’m going to be picking my way through this genre more carefully than I ever did because of these novels.
        As for diversity–I am able to value it only from my own personal experience of having my world view enriched/expanded by having the opportunity to experience diversity through direct interaction, not by knowing empirically that some vague statistic has been met. And, I hear what you are saying about someone having to live in their own skin all the time–I feel that strongly by virtue of the fact of being female in this world. I might have the vote in the US, but it feels like a relatively recent development and if you follow some of the incredibly invasive (for women) politics going on here, well, ’nuff said. I’m often thinking how close we could slip right into some version of Atwood’s A HandMaid’s Tale society rather all too easily.
        So, I’ve collected Male Nude photography books for many years–(I collect fewer female nudes, though I do have some) I’ve always found the male nude a compelling subject. There’s a certain architecture there that I find very compelling. Why am I so intrigued–I kind of think that it is because I know the female form having one and all. I am intrigued by that otherness that I will never know of the male form. I don’t think I have penis envy per se, but I am very fascinated. I’d always thought I was just profoundly curious about wondering what it would be like to have a man’s body–now, reading these posts, I’m like, great, I’m fetishizing? Oy. Really some food for thought. And I came to this genre, originally, for some “fun”.
        Very interesting tangents from this blog post. Thank you!

        • Beth says:

          Darla,

          You basically just wrote most of what I was putting together to say here.

          To Alexis,
          I came to the mm romance genre through a known author who added an mm couple in her scifi series and I fell in lust. I read to escape, I want stories far outside of normal which is why I (until recently) read scifi, paranormal and fantasy. The mm genre gave me even more. Plus, as a cis white woman I enjoy the male body, much more than a female body. I was, very bluntly, tired of and disgusted with what are called ‘heaving bosom’ or ‘nursing mother’ books usually found in het romance. Honestly, as a woman, I enjoy the fantasy escape of two (or more) men much more than a man and woman.

          I found but mostly ignored several problems with the portrayal of gay men and ‘gay sex’ in these books until I rejoined GoodReads and met a struggling writer Julio Alexi Genao. His starkly painful honest reviews opened my eyes to the rampant problems inherent in the heteronormative mm romance written ‘by women for women’. He also introduced me to a whole slew of much better writers.

          I would like to see the genre move in the direction of inclusion where the community written about is portrayed in a way they feel represented. That can happen by authors, such as yourself, writing honestly. In just the short few months I’ve been back on GR I’ve seen large amounts of the mm romance genre readers move toward books written by gay authors and great discussions regarding the books and authors.

          I’ve always considered myself an ally of the LGBTQ Community and and have always done what I can to help but, I had the great pleasure of getting acquainted with a trans-curious young person on Twitter who really forced me to pay attention to my cis woman privilege. Yes I am marginalized as a woman in today’s society but I am still afforded more privilege than the LGBTQ community. It was pointed out to me I can’t call myself an ally to any group or person, that group or person has accept me as an ally. That conversation as well as this post discussion has given me a lot to think about.

          Ps. I hope nothing I wrote caused insult or injury. I continue to try to understand and learn but of course will never be inside the culture.

  6. Cecilia Tan says:

    Great thinky and thoughtful thoughts. I’ve wrestled with this myself and I had come to terms with what certainly can look and feel like problematic co-opting of male homosexuality on one end being karmically balanced with overall greater sympathy and empathy for gay rights within mainstream US suburbia that I believe is at least partly fueled by the growing popularity of m/m romance for the het audience. But I’ve also observed so much complexity within it, including at one leading edge a not-trivial number of authors I’ve known over the past 20 years who started out as straight-acting, straight-seeming married-with-kids housewives who happened to like to write gay sex scenes, who then went through full and complete transition to trans male (and some of whom then disappeared from the writing scene since they no longer needed the outlet, they were living it while others have stuck around, some even under the same names). I’ve never felt comfortable “calling out” anyone, cishet women included, for their sexual fantasies: my entire activist life has been built on telling people (especially women) that it’s OK to own their erotic fantasies, no matter how weird or politically incorrect they may seem, including rape fantasies and so on. What I do try to emphasize always, though, is the knowledge of the difference between fantasy and reality. That includes recognizing the ways in which one’s fantasy may or may not intersect the real world and may or may not impinge on the real world. I think most of the writers I’ve met who still identify as cishet female but who write m/m romance have grown their awareness of real life gay men and gay culture over time (if they began without one), and I think as new writers jump into the still-expanding pool that will continue to happen. Maybe Tumblr and the Internet skew me to a privileged set of contacts with those whose consciousness has already been raised, but I don’t think so. I think the message travels. And I think it’ll keep traveling (not least because of posts like this one).

    tl;dr – huzzah and thanks for all the thoughts

    • Alexis Hall says:

      In short: yes.

      In, err, longer…

      I genuinely do feel that LGBTQ romance in general, and m/m in particular, is a net social good, but at the same time I think it’s very easy for people to assume that “net social good” means the same as “has no drawbacks.”
      I think I’m also a bit little leery of the idea of karmic balance because, ultimately, doing three good things and three bad thing is worse than doing three good things and no bad things, and is – in fact – not really comparable to doing zero good things and zero bad things. And I should stress that, like you, I absolutely don’t think it’s wrong for people to have whatever fantasies they want to have (even if those fantasies are arguably problematic) but I get jumpy when I encounter the idea that having otherwise enlightened social attitudes makes your problematic fantasies unproblematic. It’s the “some of my best friends are [x]” argument in slightly different language.

      The other thing that I find difficult with attitudes to LGBTQ romance is the focus on who writes it. I think the genre as whole has a really uncomfortable attitude towards ‘authenticity’ and, obviously, there are issues of standing, in the sense that I will tend to give someone the benefit of the doubt if they’re writing about a group of which they are part in a way that I might not otherwise. But I’m sort of troubled by the notion that – for some people – an author transitioning in some way validates that author’s writing. And, even more peculiarly, trans* male writers who come out as trans* seem to get a backlash in the opposite direction: people freaking out because they’re “really” women.

      Thank you for the comment – glad you enjoyed the thinky 🙂

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  8. This is a great post, Alexis. And similarly, EE – your post too. I’ve been seeing posts around this topic cropping up a lot recently and I’ve been holding off commenting, though for no more complicated a reason than I know this is going to take time. Since I don’t actually HAVE any time, I’ll make this as short as I can, while hopefully caveating and qualifying what I’m saying sufficiently well to get across my intentions, which are broadly to offer some explanatory thoughts rather than to justify anything.

    The comment you made, Alexis, that really chimed with me, was when you observed that there is fetishisation of male bodies in het romance too. As I think you know, I am a longstanding romance reader. I literally began reading Mills & Boons when I was 9 or 10 and I went on to devour Georgette Heyer, Ethel M Dell, Sergeanne Golon etc. as a teenager. I read heavily in a variety of straight romance genres long before the advent of ereaders and the emergence of queer romance as a genre in its own right, and I developed both a deep and abiding love for romance novels and an appreciation of the language and conventions of the genre (a fascinating and rich topic in its own right). Later, when I began blogging, I would write quite a few exploratory and curious blog posts about the romance reading experience, specifically where the reader is / what place they occupy as they read. I was never (am still not) convinced by the overly simplistic idea that ‘reader = heroine’ in straight romance and that the reader ‘falls in love’ with the hero. However, it is unarguable that heroes of romance novels are frequently fetishised and indeed often super-sized, super-able men whereas heroines tend to be smaller in scope, more ordinary, more classically “identifiable” to the reader (although they too may fetishise traditionally-viewed female characteristics such as ‘innocence’). I don’t recall seeing many men complaining about the depiction of men in het romance, but of course this may not be viewed as terribly problematic for, say, a white, cisgendered billionaire (to take one category of men that might consider themselves overrepresented in the romance genre). The difficulty is that, when you import the same attitude/language/conventions towards men – without any malicious intent – into a different context, namely queer romance, very troublesome things happen.

    Whilst conventional romance is not the only “gateway” into queer romance for readers and writers (I’ve only recently become aware of how influential fanfiction is) it is the gateway for many of us. And I can see that “two readers instead of one!” may seem like a minor adjustment to someone who is immersed in the language and conventions of the wider romance genre and hasn’t considered the ramifications of simply importing this into a different context. I want to emphasise again that this is NOT an attempt at justification, but it IS an attempt to set out some kind of context (albeit a personal and somewhat anecdotal one) to some of the problematic things that appear in queer romance, and why so many readers and writers possibly feel quite defensive about books that they may see as very typical romances.

    One last thing I’d like to say is that I think the very fact this discussion is taking place is something to celebrate, even as we acknowledge that the impetus for it arises from things that have hurt and troubled people. Reading and writing queer romance has changed me/my views in significant ways, and it continues to do so when I read discussions like this (e.g. I pondered your drag analogy at length and found it very helpful both in considering the issues you raised and in considering drag itself, which I’ve never much enjoyed personally). Considering how maligned the romance genre is, how insignificant and silly it’s viewed as being by many non romance readers, I find the fact that this discussion is taking place fortifying.

    • willaful says:

      Just for a data point, my husband is often offended by the covers of my romances because of the common dressed woman/shirtless man depiction. And he read a few of the In Death books and Roarke really pissed him off. 🙂

      This has been such a great discussion… I don’t feel like I have much to add, but I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts. I’ve been remembering the first m/m book I really loved, which was Pricks and Pragmatism by J.L. Merrow. Part of what I loved was that it didn’t feel like a sexualized fantasy for women — I think the two heroes *must* have sex at some point, but primarily I remember the narrator having some really sad sex with someone else — but I now also think it gave me a sense of… a genre with more room and possibilities in it than I was seeing in het romance. Fewer rules and expectations. Maybe that had more to do with it being from a small publisher than being m/m…

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you for the comment, and the kind words about the post. I’m thankful people are taking the time to discuss this, and to EE Ottoman for starting the conversation, because I think it’s important.

      I don’t much have to add other than I agree 🙂

      Honestly, I do think the status of men (as in male characters) in romance is lowkey problematic because it does reinforce some arguably quite harmful ideas about masculinity and maleness. And, ironically, you could argue that sorts of men to whom these ideas are most damaging are exactly the sort of men who are likely to read romance novels. Of course it becomes very difficult because the axes of power involved in men reading romance are very, very different from the axes of power involved in, for example, women reading fantasy or superhero comics.

      I’m very aware that part of the issue is a kind of double-standard. Women are sexualised and objectified to one extent or another in basically every medium that exists. Men are sexualised and objectified in romance and that’s sort of it. And so complaining about the portrayal of men in romance seems pretty churlish, particularly because for male romance readers, that kind of portrayal of men is inherently escapable. If you want to read about a hopeless nerdboy who gets an implausibly attractive, sexually adventurous kooky girlfriend you totally can.

      And obviously I’m kind of talking about romance as if it’s a monolith here, and it totally isn’t. You can find relatable male characters in romance, just like you can find relatable female characters in fantasy, they’re just rarer.

      I do, however, basically agree that a lot of the problematic elements of the portrayal of gay men in m/m are essentially inherited directly from het romance, where the power dynamics are very different. While a straight man looking for relatable portrayals of straight men is basically spoiled for choice, gay men, well … aren’t. And so when the genre of literature which arguably contributes the numerically largest source of portrayals of gay men is one that presents as them as a particular kind of female fantasy that can get really difficult.

      And, obviously, again I should stress that there’s nothing wrong with fantasies in general, or female fantasies in particular.

  9. Allie says:

    I have come to suspect that when I dislike an m/m book it is often because it derives much of its content from porn: over-describing the physicalities of the main characters and containing blow-by-blow tell-not-show sex scenes, in which the author essentially writes a description of what I imagine was whatever young, hung, white and hot gay porn first came up in the author’s browser. This would at least explain why those books so often fetishize, and do so with such a limited cast: they are reflecting and magnifying the faults of the porn industry.

    Romance should be an entirely different beast: it is two (sometimes more if we are to be fully inclusive) people getting to know each other’s characters and falling in love as they do so. In that approach, detailed physical descriptions can not only be unnecessary but positively inartistic, as in your dandy with the muscleman forearms – Jane Austen did not include a discordant physical description of Darcy. Sex scenes are not even necessary in a romance, but those there are drive forward the emotional story, rather than being a “this goes there” how-to manual. The end result of the process of writing (and reading) romance mindfully should be an inclusiveness and an avoidance of offensiveness and objectification which is natural rather than added-on or forced. I suppose I think that those who do not live up to this are failing as writers and readers of romantic fiction, and that it is this that leads to them being offensive objectifiers and fetishizers – but that is of course from the point of view of my own (fiction-reading class) privilege.

    Wave (who was not cishet white and whose presence as a reviewer I miss very much) on the Jessewave blog championed diverse m/m stories, and while sadly the blog is discontinued the old posts are still up, so this list from 2012 is available –

    http://www.reviewsbyjessewave.com/2012/05/05/diverse-mm-books-2012/

    It does of itself reveal biases within the attempts at inclusiveness – blindness appears to be by far the likeliest disability for a gay man to have. I don’t know whether anyone has taken up the challenge of keeping the list updated.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’m actually really on the fence about the tendency towards more erotic content in m/m romance relative to het romance (obviously erotica is a separate issue). While I’m sure porn has some influence, there’s also a wider cultural perception (which I think is diminishing somewhat) that gay men are inherently promiscuous. I think this comes from a lot of different sources, partly from an even wider cultural perception that men are inherently promiscuous (“men have needs”) but also from the tendency for the specifically sexual aspects of marginalised sexualities to be the focus both of oppression and resistance to that oppression. It has, after all, never been illegal for two men to be in love with each other – only for them to have sex.

      And this, in a peculiar way, creates two divergent sets of taboos which seem bizarrely independent of each other. So, on the one hand, you have people are totally okay with the idea of two men wanting to have sex with each other, but who can’t really encompass the notion that two men could be romantically in love the same way a man and woman can be romantically in love. And, on the other hand, you have people and cultures who are completely okay with the theoretical notion of gay couples but who are squicked out by the reality of same-sex sexual contact (this is the ‘as long as they don’t force it down anyone’s throat’ argument).

      So it’s almost like, in popular culture, there are two completely distinct sub-species of gays: you have the ones that just have sex, go to clubs, take drugs and get arrested in public toilets (the original Queer of Folk was arguably full of examples of this “type” of gay), and the ones who have loving relationships that are completely desexualised (like the two dudes in Modern Family, who a lot of the time really do seem like they’re just good mates).

      So, I think, an emphasis on sexual content in an m/m novel can come from a lot of different places. And, certainly, one of those places is thinking that two men doing it is hot. But another is a desire to faithfully represent an understanding of gay male sexuality (or, for that matter, just plain male sexuality) which places an emphasis on physicality over emotion. And yet another is the desire to reinforce the notion that gay people don’t have to be celibate to be acceptable. And, actually, I suspect that the notion of authentic male sexuality is a major contributing factor. I’ve seen a lot of m/m writers and reviewers state quite explicitly that they feel m/m stories with too much emotion in do not read as believably male. This is the phenomenon that some people rather offensively used to refer to as ‘chicks with dicks’.

      • Beth says:

        This reminds me of a conversation I had with a straight man while everyone was waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on DOMA. Basically he was against gay marriage because gay men having sex is squicky. I was dumbfounded. Nothing about equality or love, just men having sex was squicky. Just to be sure I asked him about porn and I was correct. He finds two women together hot and has no problem with it. Of course nothing I said about rights made a difference. I gave up.

        Another problem regarding the mm romance genre has come up recently regarding covers. This of course comes under ‘sex sells’ but has caused many complaints and lower rating on GoodReads. Two books come to mind, ‘The Ghost on My Couch’ by L.A. Gilbert shows ripped abs on the cover but the MC has a paunch and finds exercise boring and ‘Beauty and the Bookworm’ has a athletic man in white briefs Laing down when the MC is a cardigan wearing librarian. Both are wonderful books with great characters and plots but almost every review while loving the stories hated the covers.

        • willaful says:

          I think this is an issue with the romance genre in general. But perhaps m/m readers notice and complain about it more, because m/m is somewhat more open about unconventionally attractive heroes than m/f to begin with.

    • E.E. Ottoman says:

      I just wanted to jump in here with my perspective because I’ve been pondering the whole erotic content thing for a while now.

      Most of the romance authors I tend to hang out with don’t often write a high level of erotic content in their books. Some of the authors I know do, but many of the authors I know don’t and/or are not that comfortable doing so.

      I’m not and never have been like that. Although some of my books have limited or no erotic content I LOVE writing sex scenes and more erotic leaning books. I’ve noticed I am particularly fond of it when I write trans romance, lesbian romance or other queer romance which is not m/m.

      I think for me I value erotic content in these kinds of romance because it’s important for me to see the commitment and the love but also the sexual desire. For example, as a non-binary trans dude I don’t see many images of people like me portrayed as sexual desirable. In fact it’s often the opposite, where our bodies and sexualities are portrayed as grotesque and perverse. This goes for many, many kind of queer bodies and many different female bodies and disabled bodies.

      I am a 100% for thinking critically about fetishization, and talking about the fetishization of the male body in m/m romance. I also think we need to be thoughtful about our understanding of the interconnectedness between romance, erotica, and porn. I do think we need to ask ourselves hard questions when we write sex and be mindful of all sorts of things including fetishization and objectification. A sex scene should also only be there if it drives the story.

      Yet I am loathed to reject erotic content in romance outright because of all of these groups of people who do not get to see themselves as sexually desirable very often. In some cases they don’t even get their ability to be sexual acknowledged very often. I want to write about fat women, trans women, butch women as sexy and sexually confident instead of ugly and undesirable which are things they get told they are every single day. I want to write a steamy, hot, blow-by-blow sex scene for every time I, and every trans guy I know, was told “your gross” and “no one will ever want to touch your body.”

      So I think the romance is important, but the sex can be important too.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Basically: this 🙂

        Sex in romance is a horrendously complex issue, as is the relationship between romance, erotica and porn. One of the things I find quite difficult about romance is that it can have a very narrow idea of what sex is, and what sexual desirability is.

        Just to talk about m/m specifically for a moment, not exclude the rest of the spectrum, but it’s something I’m slightly more comfortable talking about … I’m occasionally quite troubled by the way expectations about sex seem to be translated wholesale from het to m/m. From a fixation with a very phallocentric, penetration-centric understanding of sexuality (which I find equally problematic in het, to be honest) to, in extreme cases, a tendency to tacitly assume that one partner is “the woman” and this is connected to both your personality and whose penis goes where.

        I was reading a random review thread of KJ Charles’ THINK OF ENGLAND fairly recently, and several readers expressed disappointment that the central didn’t affirm their intimacy by having anal sex. And, obviously, readers are entitled to think what they think and want what they want, but it seems really problematic to suggest that a gay relationship that does not include anal sex is less intimate or committed than one that does. It’s also particularly strange in the context of that book because the whole emotional drive of ToE essentially comes from the intersection of masculinity, social expectation and intimacy.

  10. cleo says:

    Thanks for this. The discussion is really good too – it’s nice to find thoughtful discussions about mm.

    I like your comparison to drag and your identification of 3 approaches to mm. It gives me a lot to think about and a new way to think about it.

    As a bi cis woman who reads mm romance, I think and worry about this. If I think it’s kind of problematic that so much lesbian p0rn is made for men who like women and has nothing to do with actual queer women, why do I keep reading mm, which can have a similar dynamic? As you say, there’s a lot of mm that doesn’t have much to do with the experiences of actual queer men. And if I accept mm, do I have to accept “lesbian” p0rn? I don’t know. I think I mostly read mm that’s not exploitative, but I’m not sure I can always judge that, since I’m not a queer man. I really hate the mm sites with the beefcake photos interspersed with rainbow flags – so icky.

    TL;DR – thanks for the thoughtful post – now I have to go think some more.

    • Lee Lee D says:

      It’s so interesting and comforting to me that other people feel conflicted about whether they should be enjoying MM. I seriously thought I was a freak for feeling that way and maybe I was just examining it too deeply when you’re not supposed to.

      When I realized I was indirectly contributing to all of it by buying the books and reviewing them it made me feel…bad. Maybe that was really what made me separate myself; the fact that I couldn’t separate the authors’ actions from their work. There are some authors I’ll still spend money on because their work is good and they don’t post pictures, obsess over porn stars, make ethically questionable statements, or objectify.

      Honestly, I felt bad for not being able to separate the work from the authors. As an artist I think that in most cases the two should be as distant as possible. The work of art should be appreciated for what it is and not who created it. MM kind of challenges that because there is so much transparency and interaction between authors and readers since the community is not that large. I think that makes it a bit different from drag for most people too. Most go to see maybe one drag show. They know nothing personal about the performer or why they do what they do. As a result I think that people shine a positive light on it all. In the MM Romance community, for most authors, that mystery has disappeared. You can follow blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, the whole shebang. Readers know their politics, lives, ethics, and much more. That makes it hard for me because then it goes from “wow that book sounds so good!” to “I don’t want to give this individual my money” because (in your opinion) the author is doing things for reasons you may not agree with.

      In some ways I appreciate that because I feel information helps to give me more control over what I support and what boycott. In other ways, I hate it. It’s made me challenge myself and weigh enjoyment against how strongly my actions will support my convictions. It’s also made me aware of how willing I am to speak out against problematic issues.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        @Lee Lee

        Sorry to butt back into the conversation, I know you’re talking to Cleo, but I found this comment really interesting.
        I think it’s probably true that readers in small communities have more access to authors than readers in large communities, although it may be as much to do with communities that grew up in the age of social media as to do with relative size.

        I also agree that I rationally believe that an author should be considered separate from their works but, in practice, often can’t. I don’t read Orson Scott Card because, well, bigot. And I know several avid fantasy readers who boycott particular authors for their politics (particularly if they’re openly homophobic, racist or misogynistic). Of course the flipside of this is that I’m probably a little bit hypocritical because if I really like someone’s work I’ll tend to be more forgiving of their politics.

        One of the things I’m very aware of when I’m making these kind of judgements it that human beings are extremely bad at analysing their own beliefs and their own preconceptions. I will be quick to condemn books and authors I dislike, and quick to defend books and authors I do. And I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and swear that there a particularly strong correlation by how much I dislike an author and how offensive they are.

        Interestingly, I find it a lot easier to separate an artist from their work if that artist is an actor. Adam Baldwin, Jeremy Irons, Sean Connery have all said terrible things in public. The hot guy in the mentalist is by all accounts a raging right-wing douchebag, but I still watched four seasons of the show because I enjoyed it. My first instinct was to assume that this is because with a TV show or a movie you’re a lot more aware that there are multiple people involved so you’re a lot less inclined to throw out the whole thing just because you object to one person. But, on reflection, I’m pretty sure I have boycotted movies because I didn’t like the director and so I wonder if it isn’t that – paradoxically – it’s a lot easier to separate a person from their work when you can see them. When you see someone’s face it’s very humanising and you realise that they have depth and nuance to them, even if they are on some levels a complete arsehole. But when your only way of interacting with someone is through their words then it’s a lot harder to separate out the homophobic rants on their blog from the text in their book.

        Sorry, that’s a tangent, but I do find the ways in which we judge works relative to their creators really interesting.

        • Lee Lee D says:

          Butt back in any time! First, can I say how sad I am that the guy from The Mentalist is an ass? He did Something New which was an interracial romance movie that I LOVE.

          Boycotting actors is so hard. I boycotted Tom Cruise for a long time because of his views on mental illness but now I watch many of his films on streaming sites because that way I’m not supporting his career by going to the movies. I think. I’m not completely sure. I hope. But I agree that with art where multiple people are involved it’s almost impossible to keep track of whose views on life you don’t agree with.

          I think that’s a excellent point you made about being more forgiving of a person when you can see their face. It humanizes them. An example is an author in the genre whose online presence is very aggressive and somewhat arrogant but in person they are unbelievably sweet. So much so that I found once I’d met them in person I was, for a time, more forgiving of their online persona. However, After maybe a month or two I went back to being put off by them. It was very strange to the point of being kind of surreal. You wonder which side is the most honest representation. The author/ reader interaction in MM, in person versus online, has really brought to light for me how much some people compartmentalize their personas and lives. It’s a great representation of how reality often clashes with the internet world.

          That may be why readers find it easy to fetishizes and objectify gay men. It’s just a picture on a screen and the people who are hurt or offended are just words. There’s no visual impact. There’s no real confrontation where people are faced with the results of their actions and attitudes. I’d be interested to see how people would feel if there was a photo essay or visual art series that combined their statements with visuals of the emotions those statements evoked.

          • Alexis Hall says:

            Uh, my information about the guy from The Mentalist is very much second hand – I haven’t actually bothered to check up on his personal politics. So I could just be slandering some perfectly nice gentleman.

            I think, in general, the more sides of someone you get to see, the more inclined you are to realise they’re a whole person and, therefore, not entirely good or irredeemably evil.

            I’m not sure but sometimes I think it’s easy to over-state the inauthenticity of the internet and, more generally, I think it’s – to an extent – meaningless to identity or try to identify one of two personas as being authentic, or the real person. The way a teacher acts with their students, or the way an employer acts with their employees, or the way a parent acts with their children, or even the way an individual acts with different groups friends are all likely to be unique to those circumstances. Somebody who is sweet in person, and a dick on the internet is sweet in person and a dick on the internet, and those two aren’t necessarily a contradiction. And you could say that the internet-identity is a person, or you could say the internet gives them the freedom to be their “true” self, but the reality of it is they are simply both people. It’s a cliché but we all contain multitudes.

            Sorry, I feel I’ve gone off on several tangents now 🙂

            I guess the thing about objectification, as you say, is that’s it self-reinforcing. It is, by definition de-humanising, and once you de-humanise someone, it is necessarily easier to treat them in a way that further de-humanises them. Sort of like DOGVILLE. Basically, if you start from the position that a group of people are Other People, then it becomes it very easy to treat them and think about them in a way that reinforces that Other Peopleness. And, here to an extent, visual representation doesn’t help because you’ve already put yourself out of the mindset of thinking of those people as people.

          • Lee Lee D says:

            Hmmm. I’m going to follow the tangent about the inauthenticity of the internet. I kind of think it’s an important one. Most people, I believe, have both good and bad qualities. I also believe that in most people it’s not completely balanced. Everyone has their shitty moments but when someone’s shitty moments outweigh the positivity they put out into the world then they become toxic. I understand people compartmentalizing in different situations but they can make an effort to have their interactions in every situation be more positive than negative. Yes, no one will be successful every time but the effort should still be made.

            Now this is a bit of a pessimistic thought but it lends itself to your comments about how being face to face with someone helps you see them as more of a person. I actually think that most everyday people are who they are in their heads, in their deepest thoughts, when they are interacting on the internet. They say what they would say if they could talk to a person face to face with no fear of aggression physically. It’s like they’re talking to an inanimate object. Also, they’re not speaking out loud. A lot of people think things that they would never say out loud.

            So, back to readers and authors, some are rude, dismissive and arrogant. Some are very comfortable treating men like objects there for their enjoyment but if they met a gay man or couple they’d smile in their face and be the sweetest person ever. And then you have the funny, sweet, and intelligent people who are that way even though the lack of repercussions means it’s not necessary.

            So while someone might be sweet in everyday life but a dick online, the fact that they can be both shouldn’t lead to someone discounting that they are a dick. The way someone acts when there’s are no repercussions is extremely telling about how the good, the bad, and the grey area plays a part in who they are.

            So maybe it’s not that the internet lacks authenticity for most people because online you are free to be what you see as the most ideal version of yourself. Maybe it’s that (for everyday people not preying on others) they are at their most honest in front of a keyboard.

      • cleo says:

        That’s a tough one. I’m also an artist and in general I prefer to separate the art from the artist – and I tend to do that, except when I can’t. And I’m not that consistent.

        I limit my participation in the online mm community and I’m much happier for it. I doubt that I could read mm if I didn’t limit my online intake – there are exceptions, since I’m obviously here. I also limit my author interaction with mf authors – there tend to be fewer mf kerfuffles, but I try to avoid those too. I just don’t care about most authors’ cats or politics.

        • Alexis Hall says:

          I don’t think anyone is under any moral obligation to separate or not separate art from artist, or to be particularly consistent about when they do it and when they don’t. I’m not very consistent myself, there are some authors I kind of follow quietly around the internet because they say the sort of things I’m interested in reading, either about other books or their own writers, and there are others are just read and ignore completely. Similarly, there are some authors offend because their politics offend me. While I’m sure there are others who think offensive things but I haven’t bothered to find out about.

          As for communities, I think they can really cut both ways – sometimes getting involved can really fire your enthusiasm for something, and other times it can crush it completely, especially if you feel slightly out of step with the rest of its members.

          And thank you for commenting 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      @Cleo

      To me, once again, the difference between m/m “by and for” women and lesbian porn “by and for” straight men” is the power dynamic. And, obviously, it’s very difficult because while, in the case of lesbian porn by and for straight men, things are very clear cut (relative to straight men, lesbians are marginalised on axes of both gender and sexuality) in m/m you have one group marginalised alone one axis, and one group marginalised along the other, which makes things a lot less clear.

      I think another difference is that with porn, you’re explicitly dealing with, well, porn. There is no attempt in lesbian porn targeted at straight men (LPTASM) to reflect, represent or appeal to a lesbian audience. I think m/m is more of a spectrum. There are clearly some writers and readers don’t give a crap about gay men and just want to read about hot dudes doing it (and this is fine as long as you recognise that it’s exploitative) but there are a lot of people who do perceive themselves as striking a blow for queer rights by reading and writing m/m and this can get into very difficult territory. Basically it leads to the “beefcake photos and rainbow flags” problem that you identify. And, of course, every reader and every writer has to decide where their own lines are.

      In a way, I might suggest that a better analogy than lesbian porn is what I’ve sometimes heard expressed as the “everything is better with lesbians” attitude. There’s a very strong tendency among a certain sort of man to fetishise lesbian relationships in a way that isn’t explicitly sexual. Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I realise, with mounting depression, how dated that reference is becoming) are a good example of how complex this can be. On the one hand, I know that a lot of queer women found Willow/Tara to be a profoundly important source of representation and acceptance, but I also know some who really didn’t. And I can also see in it elements of an unhelpful and quite male-centric attitude that lesbian relationships are inherently better, an attitude that often feels grounded in male sexual competition.

      • cleo says:

        Ooh, good point about “everything is better with lesbians.” That’s a much better analogy than my p0rn one. And now that I think about it, I used to believe that – until I came out and actually started (attempting) to date women, and had queer female friends who went through bad relationships and ugly break ups.

        I think there’s a tendency in our culture to blame all problems in m/f relationships on the man. Because patriarchy, I guess? And the collarary to that is that dating women must be easier than dating men. Um, yeah. Not in my experience.

        (My flippant response to anyone who expresses EIBWL is to say that they obviously haven’t witnessed or participated in a lesbian breakup.)

  11. Suki Fleet says:

    Wow, okay, I have to admit the subtleties of this argument are new to me (and I’m sure I am ignorant of many of them still) as I have written in my own little bubble for years. It’s only recently I have been introduced to the women writing m/m romance for women thing–so I’m coming to this pretty late in the game.
    As a writer I’ve always hoped for a truly diverse readership- I write mainly about younger LGBTQ characters and with that subject matter it is especially important to me to strive for an authentic voice (this, I guess, is also a related but subtly different argument). And while I don’t write particularly for a young audience I have always though my audience would at least comprise of some LGBTQ YA’s. But this is where I discovered the crack in the market (or perhaps I disappeared down it…I’m not sure yet *scratches head*) because I don’t necessarily write the type of ‘romance’ that the M/M market wants.
    I don’t think it’s wrong for women (or men) to write for whatever audience they want (AT ALL) but I do agree it’s pretty awful that fetishisation is actually causing harm–to people’s self esteem/perceptions ect. in the same way porn does–by not presenting the reality of LGBTQ experience. And as you allude to, I do also worry that the market will at some point (if it hasn’t already) begin to swallow it’s own tail as the ideal romance that sells becomes the binding formulaic romance that author’s find themselves having to write if they want to make a living from selling their books.
    It’s a sensitive subject for sure. The upside to this is people are talking about it openly. It also seems author’s sticking their necks out here to broaden the market is key.
    (Oh, and Alexis, I truly enjoyed Glitterland 🙂 that’s how I found, and am randomly interjecting my opinion, on your blog)
    Suki^^

  12. Dani Myrick says:

    I really appreciate your thought-provoking blog post. I’m brand new to the M/M romance genre as a published author, and before I was published I had no familiarity with reading it at all. I had no idea of the perception, whether true or not, that cishet women were the driving market force, nor had I considered the implications of this. I’ve never written with the thought of market forces in mind (which could explain why it was 20 years before I was published), and I don’t plan on starting now. However, because I am so new to the M/M romance world, I’m not sure what you mean by this statement: “The simple fact is, the vast majority of demand for LGBTQ romance is demand for a very specific type of romance between two men, who are themselves of a very specific type.” I’m not expecting you to name names or point out particular books, but I would love some clarification. Are you referring to the predominance of perfectly sculpted, hot (usually white) guys? Or something else? I asking from a place of ignorance rather than an attempt to put you on the spot. As a queer woman myself, the last thing I want to do is through ignorance further the objectification or fetishization of any particular group based on their sexuality.

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  14. lawless says:

    I read this post when it first came out and thought “Cool! Yes! As usual, Alexis and I are on the same page about this!” But now that I’m rereading it, I have a thought. Isn’t it possible for a book or story that is the author’s way of dealing with gender dynamics or other problematic features of m/f romance and RL interaction to also speak to, or be intended to speak to, queer people? Is being a gay man necessary for a text to speak to gay men? What if the author is queer but isn’t writing about his/her own experiences, much as is the case with f/f stories? It’s not as though the three categories you’ve identified are necessarily exclusive.

    I think that’s the key. If a story is written with the intent to speak to or about the queer experience rather than fetishize it for the benefit of heterosexual readers, it’s less likely to be problematic and more likely to be appealing all around. There are plenty of heterosexual readers who avoid m/m because of this fear of appropriation, so as many people as are gained by open fetishization, some are lost to the genre by it.

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