Tag Archives: romance

If you’re a straight cisgender woman writing m/m romance, sorry, you are not striking a blow for equality

Stahp

[Dear people reading this in the Year of Our Lord 2017: I don’t know where you’re all coming from, or why you’re coming here now, but I wrote this literally years ago and don’t give a shit anymore, so please be aware that when you feel the need to register your disagreement with me, all you’re doing is clogging up my inbox with opinions I don’t care about regarding a thing I don’t care about. Which annoys me. Given that, I’m locking the comments. Thanks and enjoy your stay.]

Just to get my argument clear in the headline.

A lot of things have prompted this, and nothing in particular has. The truth is that this is something I’ve been feeling for a while. It’s something I’ve wrestled with a bit, given that two of the novels and two of the novellas I’ve sold have been marketed as m/m romance, though I’m not cisgender, nor am I straight. It’s something I’ve gotten shades of since I started really being aware of m/m romance as a genre, and since I started understanding the uglier side of it, it’s something I’ve come to understand features heavily in a lot of parts of the slashy areas of fandom. In fact, if something in particular prompted this little tantrum – aside from some very self-congratulatory stuff I’ve seen recently about standard m/m romance doing exactly what I said it isn’t doing up there in the headline –  it’s a good recent piece by Jim Hines about the times when something just isn’t your thing to make a story out of.

So when a reader says they don’t want white people writing about their culture, and that they don’t want me specifically to do so, I find myself struggling. And I think it’s good for me to struggle with it. I refuse to write books where I pretend other cultures don’t exist. But I also recognize that there are stories I’m simply not qualified to write well, that no matter how respectful I might try to be, my story wouldn’t be true. (An odd thing to say about fiction, but I hope you understand what I mean.) And I know that sometimes I’m going to screw up.

Here’s something you have to do if you’re in a position of privilege and you’re writing about people who aren’t: ask yourself if it’s your story to tell. Ask yourself every single time. You may not arrive at an easy answer. You may not arrive at an answer at all. But storytelling is very fucking political, and you owe it to you, your story, your characters, and everyone who might ever read it to ask the question.

You may want to tell the story. No one can stop you from telling the story. But at least be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. And I cannot escape the feeling – not least while so many publishers of “LGBT” romance almost entirely ignore the L, the T, and frequently shove the B into the whole “menage” category – that the reasons why a lot of m/m romance exists are not tasteful.  To borrow from Hannibal/Thomas Harris, they are not tasty.

Then I found this.

Amy began by saying that “love is redemptive” and if any group needs the redemptive qualities of love, it’s gay men.

are you seriously

Writing about two men falling in love is completely different than the traditional romance. For one thing, both characters are equals, each with his own power.

are you seriously

“In fact, in many ways, I feel like a man,” Josephine stated in her British accent. This realization makes it easier for her to bypass all the traditional tropes found in mainstream romances.

“I’m tired of women’s nasty, mean games, and don’t want to write about them,” Amy added. Backbiting and undermining of friends’ goals and aspirations aren’t often found in gay romance since men are more direct in their interactions.

oh my god

Mary echoed this thought by saying, “I don’t want to write about bitchy women.”

tumblr_n3je956RLE1r67kwvo1_500

I should be clear that I don’t know what the sexual orientations or gender identities of these people are. But just. Meoskop at Love in the Margins has a way more coherent takedown of this abomination and I recommend you read it. Regardless, I’ve seen this before, I see it a lot, and it’s this attitude that actually keeps me away from most m/m romance. I write it sometimes, sure. But for the most part I don’t wanna read it.

Look, I know about all the arguments that transformative works – out of which a lot of this springs – allow for queer readings/reimaginings of existing canon and that’s great. I buy that argument, because what I’m buying into is the possibility of it. But in practice, no, and that extends to m/m romance in general. In practice what we have is a tremendous amount of stroke material featuring white cisgender traditionally attractive mostly able-bodied gay men, written by and for the consumption of straight cisgender women. And you can’t claim to me that this is all striking a blow for queer equality and have me take you seriously.

“Redeeming” gay romantic relationships is patronizing. Focusing on cisgender male erotic relationships to the exclusion of other queer identities because you find that stuff hot is erasure. Reducing the significance of characters to gender and sexuality – especially in the interest of depicting erotic sexual activity – is fetishizing. I’m not the first person to say this, but now I’m gonna be another one. And sure, you can do the whole #NOTALLGAYROMANCE thing and you’d be technically correct, but when one of the largest m/m romance review sites clutches their collective pearls over any depiction of sexual activity that isn’t entirely cisgender male dudes with other cisgender male dudes, that’s at once gross and majorly indicative of some deep problems that have direct connections to not only ugly misogyny but to some very toxic homophobia:

The reduction of complex human identities to sex acts is essentializing. It’s dehumanizing. I’m guessing that most of us have heard someone at some point say something like “I have nothing against those gays. I just don’t want them flaunting it or anything.” Which really means I want them invisible. I don’t want to have to confront the fact that they exist because they threaten me.

I get that a lot of us like some porn, and I get that sometimes we just want our porn and we want to not have to perform sociocultural analysis of it before we make use of it. But that’s why I said what I said above. Write what you want. Read what you want. Just please, please be honest with yourself about what you’re doing.

And don’t you dare claim that you’re doing something progressive on behalf of populations to which you don’t belong. Because you aren’t. It’s not your progress to make. And I’m getting really tired of seeing straight cisgender women congratulate themselves for it.

[ETA] Read Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. I mean, pretty much every writer should.

So hey let’s talk about romance for a sec

Because I think it’s appropriate at this juncture.

Warning: This might be whiny, though I’m also trying to talk about what I see as a persistent and troubling issue in how genres are marketed and how Feelings in SF are seen by some. Skip if none of that sounds appealing.

A day or so on Tumblr I saw a post making the rounds wherein someone was begging for reqs for non-romance genre fiction that nevertheless had a romantic sub-plot (queer in nature). Like any good self-serving author I was tempted to jump in with HEY I HAVE THIS BOOK CALLED LINE AND ORBIT THAT FITS THE BILL MAYBE YOU MIGHT WANT TO CHECK IT OUT OKAY PEACE

I didn’t, partly because it seemed like it might be obnoxious, but also because Line and Orbit is a science fantasy/space opera novel that is both categorized and marketed as gay romance, and it would look like I was effing lying.

I find myself in this position a lot when it comes to trying to get more mainstream SF-crowd attention for this book, the position of feeling like I need to say LOOK IT’S NOT ACTUALLY ROMANCE DON’T GET SCARED WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING COME BACK. I hate the idea of saying that, partly because, while the romantic relationship between Adam Yuga and Lochlan d’Bideshi is not really the primary focus of the book, it is nevertheless very, very important, and it probably is fair to categorize it as SF romance. But I also hate saying it because it makes me feel like I’m complicit in the disparaging of romance as a genre, which – let’s face it – tends to be misogynist in a really gross way as well as being silly and baseless, especially coming from SF&F, a genre wherein no one should be putting on airs.

But either way, I do feel like – I could be completely wrong about this – I’m fighting a general probable reaction of “oh, romance, that just doesn’t sound like it’s for me.”

I also feel like I’m fighting a less general but nevertheless very existent reaction of EW LADYFEELINGS IN MY SF but you know what basically fuck those people. They aren’t my audience and I don’t want them. There’s plenty of stuff out there for them.

The thing is, I’ve read books recently that were every bit as heavy on the romance as Line and Orbit, but were marketed as SF, and I do feel like those books have an easier time of it in terms of attracting attention from that crowd. Which, duh, marketing counts for a lot and ends up meaning that certain things are on people’s radar and certain things just aren’t, and that’s mostly fine. I’m also aware that sometimes people just don’t like a book, and that’s fine too; I do not mean to suggest that I think that PEOPLE AREN’T READING MY THING BECAUSE SEXISM. But at the end of the day, I still feel like I’m in an uncomfortable authorial position brought about by relationships within genre that are intensely problematic and also unlikely to change anytime soon.

This is all to say: I wish lines between genres weren’t so damn robust sometimes. I wish it didn’t get really, really sexist. I wish I was less clumsy at promotion. I wish I had a million dollars and a pile of kittens.

But I do hope that writing these kinds of books might, in a tiny little way, help. There should be a place for romance in science fiction and fantasy (and also vice versa, because I also get the sense that a lot of romance readers – rightly – feel very unwelcome in SF and don’t tend to go there), and really I think the two are natural partners – it’s there already. There should be absolutely no shame in it. And people shouldn’t be afraid of writing it or talking about it or liking it or just checking it out sometimes.

Get your ladybusiness out of my dudes: M/M romance and the problems therein

First, a little preamble.

I’ve written more than one thing that’s been marketed as M/M romance – including Line and Orbit (and I’ve alluded to my slight disagreement that that 327038__safe_twilight-sparkle_image-macro_vulgar_equestria-girls_balloonsparticular book deserves that particular label). But in fact I’m not especially comfortable with the idea of being an “M/M” author. I don’t like that I have that discomfort, and I wish I didn’t feel that way, and I recognize that feeling that way is also sort of problematic, but nevertheless it’s the way I feel. And a lot of that has to do with what I’m going to talk about next.

Simply put, I’ve come to feel – perhaps unfairly – that the “M/M” label doesn’t capture the diversity of the writing that I think I do and hope to do more of. I’ve written about gay men, lesbian women, trans* people, bisexual people, pansexual people, genderqueer people, and I hope to write more in the future about asexual people. I’ve also written about straight people. I try to include more than one part of the spectrum in any given story, when doing so is appropriate for that story. I prefer “queer” fiction or “QUILTBAG” fiction. I don’t like borders. I don’t like expectations of what something should be, which mean that it’s always going to risk failure in ways that have nothing to do with quality.

I understand that it is, first and foremost, a marketing label. But I think we should all understand that how things are marketed has major social consequences. It affects culture. It affects culture in ways that are not necessarily okay.

Enter Jesse Wave.

Read the pertinent post here. Well, how charming: The post has been deleted, but here’s a screencap. I don’t want to go into a lot of depth about the post itself but instead to outline some of my own problems with what’s going on in it. Essentially, Wave takes issue with what she frames as a recent influx of review copies of books that feature “on-screen” sexual content involving people who do not have penises, which violate her review policies. She characterizes such books as “disrespectful” to the genre as a whole:

Why are M/M readers treated so disdainfully? Are we not on par with het romance readers? M/M romance has been around for a decade, so why can’t our authors get it right? Clearly we are not respected because if we were this wouldn’t happen, and so often. Would authors insert graphic gay sex scenes in het romances? Not f*****g likely, unless the book is a ménage or a bi romance.

I think that characterization is a huge part of what’s gotten some people up in arms. If she had said that the submission of review copies that don’t follow the site’s guidelines was disrespectful, I think there would have been less of a backlash.

But anyway. There was the usual THIS IS MY SPACE response, and WRITERS CAN WRITE WHATEVER THEY WANT response, and I’m honestly surprised that the word “censorship” never came up, except maybe I missed it.

Look, here’s the thing: I don’t think the primary issue is one of policies or guidelines or labeling. I think it’s one of attitude. And yeah, I think there’s some misogyny all up in here, along with a tasty helping of trans*phobia.

Wave’s problem is that she’s reducing this entire thing to body parts and what happens when they get mashed together. For her, it comes down to sex acts. She claims that she’s fine with straight characters (or, I presume, bisexual characters or various combinations featuring trans* characters) engaging in romantic activity – provided that she isn’t exposed to the details of said activities.

That is really not okay.

The thing about homophobia is that, while the core of it is patriarchy, its visceral component lies in the reduction of all the nuances and complexities of erotic love to sex acts and then finding those sex acts icky. Straight love is fine because – at least traditionally, though this is starting to change – the social legitimacy of heterosexuality allows us to accept heterosexuality in forms that go above and beyond sex. Heterosexual relationships are not only accepted but assumed. They are the default. Being gay is about penises, and that’s where homophobia draws a lot of its visceral power from.

A great example of this can be found in a study done by CBS/the New York Times wherein 500 people were asked via phone survey whether they supported the open inclusion of “homosexuals” vs. “gays/lesbians” in the armed forces. The results were dramatic.

“Homosexual” includes the word “sex”. We hear it and we immediately think of queer sex acts. Which – because they challenge gender identity, because they challenge heteronormativity, because they challenge patriarchy – make people uncomfortable on the level of the gut.

The reduction of complex human identities to sex acts is essentializing. It’s dehumanizing. I’m guessing that most of us have heard someone at some point say something like “I have nothing against those gays. I just don’t want them flaunting it or anything.” Which really means I want them invisible. I don’t want to have to confront the fact that they exist because they threaten me.

If you’re okay with two gay guys walking down the street together but you freak out when you see them making out, yeah, I’m going to call you homophobic. Doesn’t mean you’re an awful person, but you do have some homophobia going on there and maybe you should look to it. By the same token, if you find lady parts viscerally icky – to the point where you say you want to be warned about it, to the point where you call it things like shocking – I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have some internalized misogyny happening.

By the way, that blew my mind: Some people in the comments in Wave’s post, including Wave herself, were talking about including warnings for non-gay male sexual content as though that content was triggering in the way that rape and excessive violence is. There followed a bunch of backpeddling and claiming that really it was just about labeling things for consumer reasons, but sorry, no: once the word shocking shows up, I don’t buy it.

[Addendum: It’s also worth pointing out something else that Wave doesn’t seem to understand at all, which is that sexual organs ≠ gender. You can be a man with a vagina. You can be a woman with a penis. You can be any permutation of any gender with any set of organs. So to assume that “gay” means “two penises” is just so cissexist that I can’t even.]

And no, claiming that it’s okay because the straights all do the same thing is not a good argument. It’s a stupid argument. It’s bad and the people making it should feel bad.

Of course, this is all problematized further by the fact that Wave is right about one thing: mainstream romance has been traditionally heteronormative, with gay relationships often made invisible or presented in ways that are less than positive. Because hey, that’s the entire culture. The culture is changing, and things are getting better in most respects, but there has indeed been a lack of space – for queer romance of all kinds, not just the gay stuff. So yes, the inclusion of straight romance in a book that’s focused on a gay romantic relationship isn’t quite the same thing as the inclusion of gay romance in a book that’s primarily focused on a straight romantic relationship. But you know? Anytime someone starts saying things like “keep your ____ out of my ____ because it SHOCKS ME” I get really uncomfy.

And you know what else? I think Wave’s attitude does readers of M/M romance a disservice. I think a tremendous number of them are way more open to variety and diversity than that.

I’m not saying that Wave has to change her review policy or that readers shouldn’t read what they want for whatever reasons they care to have. But again, we’re at the point where individual preference crosses over into the wider culture, and I think we need to have a conversation about it that rises above the level of I’M NOT A BIGOT I CAN DO WHAT I WANT. This is a great opportunity to be more self-reflexive than we really have to be, and to confront some difficult things. We’ll be better people for it. So will the genre. I want to be comfortable with the M/M label. I have high hopes that someday I will be.

For what it’s worth, a great response by Heidi Belleau can be found here. Sara York also has a good post on the problems with “disrespect”. LA Witt and Aleksandr Voinov weigh in and both are very worth reading.

Oh, PS: Wave – and others – don’t say “het”. Oh my God, do not say “het”. I immediately infer so much about you when you do, and none of what I infer is flattering.