Male Writers in the Romance Genre
By Sam Brougher
This report focuses on male writers in the romance industry and seeks to prove that men are both able and successful writers of romance fiction. The paper has three parts. First, it will explore the myth that men are incapable of understanding the romance genre, and therefore are unable to successfully write within the genre. The next part of the paper will consist of a brief survey of men in the romance genre who have achieved success on levels comparable to their female peers. Through showing that there are in fact numerous successful male romance writers, the myth laid out in the previous section will be thoroughly debunked. Finally, the paper will look at the interesting case of the lack of male writers in M/M—a genre whose subject matter centers on men. It will consider the implications of this surprising authorship distribution.
The Myth of Men Being Unable to Write Romance
There is a long-standing myth that the romance genre is the sole purview of female readers and writers. This notion has its roots in the idea that romance is a female genre. Jayne Krentz writes that romance novels “are stories that have been told to women by women for generations ” (Krentz 6). She further notes that the novels contain coded language, or “allusions and resonances that are unrecognizable to outsiders” (Krentz, 6). Krentz and Barlow describe this coded language as “a collection of subtle feminine voices…part myth, part fantasy…that have been passed down from one generation of women to the next” (Krentz and Barlow, 16). The “coded language” proposed by Krentz and Barlow is portrayed as a language directed toward female readers.
This is a language, Pamela Regis claims, that men aren’t brought up to understand. In A Natural History of the Romance Novel, she points out that many men struggle to read across gender lines while female readers learn from an early age to identify with the male heroes who dominate most literature (Regis, xii). Because men face this gender barrier, there is a lack of understanding “both of the heroine herself and of the genre in which she appears” (Regis, xii).
Jayne Krentz also writes that penning successful romance relies on much more than one’s technical writing ability. It’s more about, “how compellingly she (the author) can create her fantasy and on how many readers discover they can step into it with her” (Krentz, 4). Krentz highlights the importance of an author’s deep understanding of female romantic fantasy in crafting a successful story. Taken together with Regis’s assertion that men lack understanding of the genre, this suggests that the cards are stacked against male writers.
There is evidence that female readers also perceive a lack of understanding on the part of male writers. Carol Stacy, then publisher of Romantic Times (now RTBookReviews), was quoted saying (about an all-male written romance series), “The readers nailed it…It’s just that what a man considers romantic isn’t what a woman considers romantic. Women don’t trust that a man knows what romance is ” (Barry). She states further, “Over the many years I have been in this business it seems that readers always know when a romance novel is written by a man” (Lyons). There is a notion that male writers simply don’t measure up to their peers. Harold Lowry, a successful male romance writer, knows this sentiment firsthand, noting, “Women think there must be something I don’t do as well as another woman” (Barry).
This supposed lack of proper insight to understand and therefore write genre romance is attributable in large part to societal expectations of men. Sara Lyons—a well-known publisher and romance blogger—observes that societal expectations of gender and sex play a key role in the perception of a male romance writer as remarkable. The only thing remarkable about a successful male romance writer, she notes, is that he steps outside of traditional notions of sex and gender (Lyons). In the next part of this paper I will briefly survey the myriad male writers who have found success in the genre romance industry. In doing so, it will become clear that while—as Krentz notes—women are key to the genre and its origin, that by no means precludes male writers from achieving great success and writing as well as their female peers in the industry.
Debunking the Myth
In 2016 Romance Writers of America (RWA)—the flagship writers’ association for the romance genre—conducted a survey of its membership. Allison Kelley, Executive Director of RWA, provided the following data from that survey: in a sample size comprising 40% of the association’s members, 95% of the respondents identified as female (Allison Kelley). Men, perhaps unsurprisingly, comprise a small minority of the organization, and extrapolating, a minority of all writers of genre romance. However, that isn’t to say men have found minor success in the industry. Contrary to the notions outlined in the previous section of this paper, several male writers have had incredible success as romance authors.
A cursory glance at the romance section of a bookstore would indicate only female authors. That’s not the case: there are male writers on the shelves, albeit under different names. Men have been in the industry from the outset. Tom Huff was part of the vanguard of historical romance in the 1970s when the genre launched with only eight authors—now known as the Avon Ladies—and himself (Barry). Huff, a Texan, wrote most notably as Jennifer Wilde. He found great success as a writer: his novel Love’s tender Fury had forty-one printings, his novel Dare to Love reached the New York Times best-seller list (Allen). In addition, he was awarded a career achievement award by Romantic Times in 1988 (“1987-1988 Career Achievement Award Winners”).
There were several successful male romance writers who started writing during the 1980s. Harold Lowry—mentioned earlier in this piece—found success under the pen name Leigh Greenwood writing western-themed romances. Greenwood also served a term as president of RWA from 2000-2002 (Ward). He is the only man who has served as president of the organization (“Romance Writers of America Presidents”).
Emma Darcy was a pen name for husband-and-wife writing team Wendy Brennan and Frank Brennan. They co-authored dozens of romance novels under their nom de plume and found great success: although Frank passed away in 1995, between 1983 and 2001 they sold sixty million books (“Emma Darcy”). The Brennan’s are only one of many successful husband and wife writing pairs. James and Nikoo McGoldrick are a husband and wife pair who write under nom de plumes including Jan Coffey and May McGoldrick. They began writing in 1995, and together have penned several best-selling books. They are two-time RITA® award finalists—perhaps the most prestigious award in the romance industry. Their 2017 book Taming the Highlander is a RITA® finalist (“May McGoldrick Bio”).
Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon have been writing sci-fi/fantasy romance together under the pen name Ilona Andrews since 2007. Their novels have spent numerous weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (including time at number one), and in 2014 they were awarded an Australian Romance Readers Award (“Reviews and Awards”). Both husband and wife writing pairs—the Gordons and the McGoldricks—continue to write today.
Of all the male writers in the industry, perhaps the most compelling is Bill Spence, who is best-known for his romances written under the pen name Jessica Blair. Spence was in the Royal Air Force during World War II. His first novel was called Dark Hell—a far cry from the romances he would eventually pen (Kamp). Spence is now a grandfather and continues to write. In 2014, at age 90, he was nominated for a Romantic Novelists’ Association award—no man had ever won the award (“North Yorkshire war veteran’s novel nominated for romance award”). Spence loves writing romance and was quoted as saying (about returning to writing other genres), “I’m Jessica Blair now and the publishers want me to keep producing them” (Kamp). Spence demonstrates that not only romance writers as a whole come from diverse backgrounds, but so too do the subset of male writers.
Quite clearly men have found great success writing in the romance industry—they have been successful as standalone authors and as part of writing pairs. Further, their success lies far beyond the feat of simply being published—they’ve had spots on bestseller lists and won some of the most prestigious awards in the industry. Male authors of romance come from diverse backgrounds and demonstrate that any supposed barrier to men successfully writing in the industry (the barrier discussed in the last part of this piece) is a complete fallacy.
An Interesting Case Study: Male/Male Romance
If there are male writers in any part of romance genre, one might expect them to be in Male/Male romance (hereafter M/M). After all, these are stories with men—and the experiences of men—at their core. Interestingly, however, the M/M category, as with heterosexual romance, is dominated by female writers. One circulating estimate is that 80% of M/M romance is written by female authors (Fogal). Men clearly make up a proportion of writers in the category (which further supports the conclusions from the previous section), but given the subject matter the proportion is still surprisingly low.
Jamie Fessenden—a writer of gay fiction—has an interesting take on this phenomenon. He notes that M/M romance doesn’t trace its roots to mainstream gay fiction, but rather slashfic. Slashfic is fan fiction centering around a romantic relationship between same-sex characters in a popular TV show, movie, or book series. Overwhelmingly slashfic is written and read by females, and Fessenden observes that because M/M romance traces its evolution to slashfic, the same reader and writer demographic has persisted (Fogal). Another piece on this blog explores the origins of M/M romance extensively.
Ironically, then, M/M has come to be dominated by women. Fessenden notes on his blog, “The fact of the matter is, M/M Romance may be about gay men, but it isn’t really ours (Fessenden).” He claims that while the genre centers around men in homosexual relationships, it doesn’t accurately reflect what those relationships mean, or how gay men experience them. Fessenden notes, “The genre is full of tropes that often baffle and frustrate us—all couples must be monogamous, despite a very large percentage of gay couples having open relationships” (Fessenden). Tropes like this are so frustrating that “many gay men have difficulty writing them…many gay men have difficulty reading them” (Fessenden).
Fessenden characterizes romance publishers as gatekeepers looking for a certain kind of M/M romance that will be commercially successful. Because the readership of M/M is overwhelmingly female, many gay authors struggle to write novels that publishers deem appealing to their readers. He writes, “They (male authors) sometimes pour their hearts into a manuscript, writing about gay characters dealing with the difficulties gay men face every day, only to have it rejected by publishers of M/M Romance because there isn’t enough romance in it” (Fessenden).
The prevalence of female writers in the M/M industry raises interesting questions about outsiders—heterosexual female authors, in this case—writing stories about individuals from a totally different walk of life—gay males, here. For one thing, an issue of accuracy arises. That is, can an author truly put herself in the shoes of a gay male character? Based upon Fessenden’s observations, that isn’t the case: the relationships portrayed by heterosexual female authors are in many cases far from the experiences of the actual men in these relationships (Fessenden).
One blogger highlights (rather scathingly) further issues with M/M novels written by heterosexual women. The blogger writes, “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… is fetishizing” (Moraine).
In an interview with two successful female authors of M/M fiction, when asked why the category is overwhelmingly female-written one responds, “I think it’s because women know the value of romance, period…This is our genre—we’re the ones who have picked up romance as the banner of hope for all people” (Fogal). Later in the interview, when asked about the broad appeal of M/M romance to a female audience, one author replies, “I think M/M stories are full of opportunities to explore ‘forbidden’ love, personal authenticity in the face of oppression and love against all odds” (Fogal).
Because M/M fiction arose from fan fiction dominated by female readers and writers, females continue to dominate the category. For that reason, many gay men feel that M/M doesn’t accurately reflect their relationships (or what matters to them in a relationship). Further, gay male writers face a hurdle in that their works don’t always align with the interests of the female reader base. A gay male relationship as experienced by a man isn’t necessarily what a female reader wants to see on the page. This raises important questions about the dangers of misrepresentation of gay relationships in these works, fetishizing of certain aspects of these relationships, and erasure of essentially all that isn’t appealing to the women reading the books. In a larger context, it raises broader questions about situations in which an author is writing about someone else’s life or experiences.
The myth that successful romance fiction is out of reach for male writers centers around the idea of romance being a fundamentally female genre. As such, there is a supposed lack of male understanding of the genre based on societal expectations. These notions are all provably false: there have been numerous men from diverse backgrounds who have found great success in the industry both writing by themselves and with a writing partner. Their success stretches beyond simply being published—many have won awards and spent time on bestseller lists. Finally, the female-dominated authorship distribution within M/M romance has left many gay men (whose relationships are at the core of the stories) feeling like their relationships aren’t accurately portrayed and that in some cases aspects of their relationships are fetishized. This raises interesting questions about what it means for an author to write about an individual or group of individuals with whom the author does not share the same experiences.
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Allison Kelley, e-mail message to the author, April 28, 2017.
Barlow, Linda and Jayne Krentz. “Beneath the Surface, the Hidden Codes of Romance.” Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992): 1-9.
Barry, Ellen, “Tall, Dark, and Gender Neutral: The Men of Category Romance.” The Boston Phoenix, October 26th, 1996, http://www.bostonphoenix.com/alt1/archive/styles/96/10/ROMANCE_NOVELS_BAR.html.
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