By Emily Brooks, Alex Buben & Fender Lauture
The romance novel industry encompasses a significant percentage of the publishing market. According to the Romance Writers of America (RWA), to be classified as “romance,” a novel must focus on the romantic relationship between two individuals and include a “happy ending” (Romance Writers of America); however, within this genre, there are many subgenres, including contemporary romance, historical romance, and romantic suspense, which count themselves among the most popular subgenres of romance. Among the less popular subgenres, and perhaps one of the most largely ignored, is LGBT romance, specifically M/M romance. Consequently, traditional publishers and the average reader, for the most part, overlook the LGBT audience and this particular subgenre. [EGB]
The M/M romance subgenre automatically faces significant disadvantages within the traditional publishing industry. Similar to most genres of fiction, traditional publishers of romance novels rely on “genre” fiction for the bulk of their profits. Therefore, they publish novels that follow standard tropes and guidelines that have proven to be successful within the industry. Within the romance genre, this typically equates to a heterosexual relationship, which requires M/M romance authors to adapt traditional roles of a romantic relationship from hero/heroine as well as common masculine stereotypes in order to fit homosexual relationships within the hero/heroine dynamic (Crisp 335). [EGB]
Considering known information about the audience of romance novels, the reluctance of the traditional publishers is understandable. The RWA regularly surveys its readers and found that the average romance reader is between the ages of 30 and 54 and largely represented in the American South with 84% of the readership being women (Romance Writers of America). To a traditional publishing company, these statistics might signal that the M/M romance subgenre would be less likely to succeed in this female-dominated market. However, this logic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which, should the interest exist within the known romance audience, it would go unnoticed and unsupplied, driving those consumers once-again to the standard heterosexual romance novels or alienating potential consumers from the genre. It is also interesting to note that the sexual orientation of the readers surveyed was not investigated. Without this information, it is more difficult to judge whether or not there is a potential target audience within existing readers. [EGB]
Fanfiction also tends to easily lend itself to M/M romance because of the necessity of an almost “utopian” setting for the romance (Pattee 159). According to Thomas Crisp in his analysis of gay adolescent fiction, real-world stigma makes it difficult for M/M romance to exist outside of a “utopian” setting, a setting that does not reflect reality but is instead altered to suit the story that is being told. Consequently, traditional heterosexual romance does not require this “utopian” setting. History, and the inherent homophobia included in the majority of the world’s history, makes historical and regency subgenres, two of the most popular subgenres according to the RWA, almost impossible within the realm of M/M romance, barring an author’s artistic liberties. Even contemporary fiction remains difficult. Within fanfiction, it is easier for authors to undermine or completely ignore the existence of stigma and to place the focus of the story on the love story, rather than on the stigma itself. It allows for diversity of conflict within M/M fiction, rather than the same obstacle existing within different contexts. For this reason, M/M romance novels tend to also fall under the subgenres of “paranormal” or “urban fantasy” romance. By placing the stories in magical or otherworldly universes, the writers effectively remove stigma from the equation and allow readers the “escape” that is part of the draw of the romance genre. [EGB]
Fortunately, the rise of technology has allowed for the dissemination of this subgenre, but only within audiences who already know where to look. The Internet has allowed for individuals, who find that traditional romance publishing houses do not supply their desire for M/M, to explore this genre themselves. Readers and writers commonly use fanfiction to satisfy the demand for M/M romance, which is usually referred to as “slash” within the fanfiction communities. According to Catherine Tosenberger in her discussion of Harry Potter slash fiction, the rise of Internet access means that writers have access to a wider audience than they might within brick-and-mortar bookstores that often do not have large selections of LGBT romance due to its low readership (186). The increased popularity of e-books and e-publishing has allowed for the demand for M/M romance to be met more easily. Within fanfiction, readers also have more opportunities to request any stories that they themselves might be interested in reading. One of the disadvantages of fanfiction, however, is that, as its title implies, it must operate within the universe established by the creators of the original work. Fanfiction writers are often forced to impose their own interpretations and ideas on these works. This can cause discord within the fandom, as slash readers are often said to be twisting or rewriting the canon of the original work (Tosenberger 187). [EGB]
Although M/M romance can trace its roots to online fan fiction, its thematic elements have been reshaped over the past decade, advancing the genre past its limited focus on same-sex experimentation between popular fictitious characters and towards the emphasis on same-sex romantic relationships seen in today’s novels. M/M author Josh Lanyon notes this increasing contrast between M/M romance novels and those earlier, highly-sexualized short stories, which are typically denoted as either or “gay romantic fiction” or “slashfic.” He explains, “All M/M fiction is romance fiction, but the stand-out thing about M/M versus gay romantic fiction is that there’s a distinct sensibility to M/M fiction. In effect, it’s gay men in love and making love versus gay men fucking” (Lanyon 18). A transition from the mechanical to the emotional defines this progression from the narrow scope of sex to the broader range of love and romance. Other M/M authors like Lloyd Meeker acknowledge this arc as an “extension of [M/M romance’s] origins in slashfic” and offer optimistic predictions that M/M romance will “continuing evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic” (Meeker, para. 9). This bridging of the gap between physical and emotional intimacy has thus carved a space for M/M dynamics in modern romance fiction. [AJB]
This is not to say, however, that the romance community has fully accepted M/M fiction, which is no more evidenced than by the controversy surrounding the 2012 More Than Magic contest. Romance Writers Ink (RWI), an Oklahoma chapter of Romance Writers of America (RWA), sponsored the annual contest for published romance authors. In 2012, RWI revised the rules of the contest to bar same-sex entries in all categories, claiming that chapter members were “uncomfortable” and that same-sex romance was simply “too much” (as cited in Booth, para. 7). The decision sparked backlash not only for its homophobic implications, but also for its clash with RWA’s own definition of romance fiction: “The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” (Romance Writers of America, “About the Romance Genre” section, para. 3). Public reaction eventually led RWI to cancel the contest and paradoxically announce that it “did not condone discrimination against individuals of any sort,” but questions about the acceptance of M/M romance, and same-sex romance in general, lingered (as cited in Booth, para.12). Courtney Milan sums up the apparent conflict between what the romance community accepts as legitimate and what it dismisses as intolerable:
“Apparently it’s possible for the More Than Magic contest to get entrants’ books in the hands of diverse judges from multiple RWA chapters who are comfortable with all types of romances and heat levels. You can write M/F erotica. You can write M/M/F. You can write about aliens from another planet that has tentacles or barbed sexual organs. You can write degrading rapes. None of those things are barred from entry in the More Than Magic contest, and if you write them, they’ll try to find judges who are predisposed to like your books. But they won’t do that if you write same-sex romance – even if it’s a sweet romance with no sexual contact whatsoever. No – when it comes to same-sex romance, the fact that they might be able to identify judges in their chapter or outside of it who would be willing to read same-sex entries and judge them fairly somehow becomes irrelevant. In that instance, the majority gets to say that those entries don’t belong.” (Milan, para. 9-10) [AJB]
But cultural resistance to same-sex relationships is not the only obstacle facing M/M romance. Internal debates in the LGBT community challenge not only how authors depict M/M relationships, but also why they use the M/M dynamic. Author Jamie Fessenden proposes that gay men struggle to write in the typical style of published M/M romance because of the prominence of tropes like strict monogamy and the view of anal sex as the only “real” form of sex, which run contrary to many same-sex relationship dynamics (Fessenden, para. 22). The heart of the issue may rest in M/M romance’s predominantly female authorship, through which the “write what you know” mantra results in what is essentially a heterosexual dynamic implanted in a homosexual relationship (Brownworth, para. 22). Mainstream LGBT advocacy has stressed that gay men are no different than straight men, at least in terms of the human rights to which they are entitled, but M/M fiction is often hampered by a literal interpretation of this “no different” perspective, resulting in romantic dynamics that fall short of addressing the emotional and sexual intricacies that set real-life, same-sex relationships apart from heterosexual romances. [AJB]
Women dominate the M/M romance subgenre in authorship as well as readership, which has led to passionate debates on the validity of M/M romance novels. Journalist Victoria Brownworth introduces the writer’s edict “write what you know” as an explanation for the implementation of heteronormative dynamics within same-sex relations. In fact, gay male and author of M/M romance, Jamie Fessenden, wrote on his blog, “M/M romance may be about gay men, but it isn’t really ours” (Fessenden). Popular themes and tropes like gay-for-you and monogamous relationships further increase the divide between the idealized view of same-sex relationships in M/M romance novels and the reality of same-sex relationships. This divide has caused many to question whether women can write authentic gay male romance. [FTL]
Brownworth takes a different approach in her criticism of female M/M romance authors. Whereas some argue that gay males are the only authentic M/M romance authors, Brownworth compares female authors of M/M romance to “male pulp writers and pornographers [who] wrote about lesbians as sexual objects” (Brownworth); thus, shifting the debate from “can women write gay romance” to “how women write gay romance” and the sometimes inherent sexual fetishization of gay males through these novels. According to Brownworth, “queer writing gives queers their own agency in describing and portraying their own lives;” however, straight women who are unfamiliar with queer lives fetishize “the lives of gay men” (Brownworth). There are some women writers such as Erastes and Alex Beecroft, who sexually identify as gay men. In fact, Beecroft is married to a man and a mother of two kids. [FTL]
In an interview with Out Magazine, Beecroft states, “in my sexual imagination, I’m a gay man. I write to satisfy a sexual desire that I can’t physically satisfy in this body” (Wilson); however, these women are fantasizing queer relationships. Even though they identify as “penetrative gay men” (Wilson) they are not gay men. Furthermore, journalist for Out Magazine, Cintra Wilson, found that novels written by Beecroft and Erastes both feature sex scenes “structurally similar to straight romance novels [and] tended to culminate in a blissful, breeches-ripping penetration scene” (Wilson). Following Brownworth’s criticism, Beecroft and Erastes’ novels are not authentic gay romance fiction because the authors are not portraying their own lives; thus, their novels are fetishizing gay men. Additionally, both authors write gay romance within a heteronormative dynamic as seen in not only their penetration heavy sex scene but also in their identities as “penetrative gay men.” [FTL]
The issue is not whether women can write M/M romance. Women have dominated authorship in this subgenre for years; however, the issue that remains is whether straight women can write authentic gay relationships. Straight women who write M/M romance tend to write about “what they think are gay male relationships” (Brownworth), which can lead to distorted views of same-sex couples. For example, the gay-for-you trope, monogamous relationships, and anal sex, which many gay men are against, are all popular tropes within M/M Romance. [FTL]
At best, these inaccuracies may frustrate gay male readers, but one misguided M/M trope could have more harmful ripple effects. In some versions of M/M romance, a heterosexual man finds himself inexplicably attracted to another man, even though he does not find himself attracted to any men other than this special individual. This “gay-for-you” romance thus allows the protagonist to explore same-sex intimacy while still maintaining a heterosexual identity. Aside from its flaws as a plot device, the trope could have worrisome implications for the mainstream acceptance of M/M relationships. Damon Suede, an author of M/M romance and erotic fiction, describes the gay-for-you dilemma as a way in which authors are unintentionally “enshrining the logic of homophobia in a gay-positive genre” (as cited in Horne, para. 6). In suggesting that men can simply turn their same-sex attraction on and off, authors who rely on the gay-for-you device unknowingly play into the belief that homosexuality is a choice. Rather than creating a believable same-sex romance, the prevalence of gay-for-you fiction fetishizes M/M relationships. [AJB]
Critiques of the fetishization of M/M romance are not limited to the gay-for-you device. Although it lies at the extreme end of criticism, Brownworth’s review of M/M fiction bluntly condemns the dynamic as a way for straight women to fantasize and fetishize misguided notions of what they imagine M/M relationships to be (Brownworth, para 8). However, others have tempered their reactions, seeing the issue not as inherent in the M/M dynamic, but rather a result of the dynamic’s popular execution, which often relies on the mere presence of a same-sex relationship to draw in curious readers. Meeker describes the tendency of M/M romance to loosely emulate early slashfic structures with a “handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks, and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot” (Meeker, para. 27). Rather than a romantic dynamic that can exist in any genre, this variety of M/M romance is treated as a genre in and of itself, where the main draw of the novel is the same-sex relationship rather than the content of a love story between two people. Fessenden explains, “The fact of the matter is, M/M romance may be about gay men, but it isn’t really ours” (Fessenden, para. 23). As M/M romance continues to become more prominent, the community will have to reconcile this gap between the fetishized same-sex relationship as a genre-defining trope and the same-sex relationship as a real-life dynamic that exists independent of genre. [AJB]
In recent years, the rise of the eBook has also allowed for the expansion of the romance market beyond the scope of traditional publishing. Though traditional publishers exist within the realm of e-publishing, as well, the increased options for self-publishing have opened doors for writers who find themselves drawn to genres that might not be popular choices of traditional publishing houses. According to Dru Pagliassotti of the Yaoi Research blog, M/M romance readers are more voracious than any romance reader, an audience that is known for devouring an astounding number of novels, leading to the increasing popularity of the subgenre in the online market. These readers do note, however, that M/M romance novels are particularly difficult to find, even on an eReader market. One possible reason for this difficulty is that M/M romance tends to be classed as “erotica,” rather than “romance” in the e-publishing market. This is an important distinction for readers, as “erotica” is literature that focuses on explicit sexual relationships, rather than the love stories that romance deals in. It cannot be overlooked, however, that heterosexual romance novels also include sex scenes, many of them explicitly written. [EGB]
The M/M Romance subgenre has grown exponentially from its fanfiction roots; however, the subgenre still struggles to be approved and accepted as seen in its common classification as erotica and not romance as well as in the More Than Magic contest scandal. Furthermore, the subgenre continues to try and define itself based on its authorship and the authenticity of women authors. The issues within M/M romance are not only limited to women authors. The M/M romance readership has shaped the genre in ways that make it harder for gay male writers to become successful. As Brownworth argues, “reinterpreting gay male relationships for heterosexuals in a fashion that is fetishistic and sexual and which thus can be accepted because it is ultimately negative” (Brownworth). This reinterpretation causes its own slew of problems for the accuracy and validity for M/M romance novels. For example, Stephanie Vaughan’s Off World series features a reimagining of heterosexual stereotypes within a homosexual relationship. Sarhaan, the alpha male, embodies the masculine traits; whereas, the beta male, Caleb, is young, svelte, and feminine. Furthermore, these reinterpretations make it even harder for gay male writers to become successful within this subgenre. As Fessenden mentions in his blog:
“Gay men, in fact, often find it frustrating to write in this genre. They 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 MM Romance because there isn’t enough romance in it. Or (somewhat ironically) female readers will rate a story badly because there isn’t enough sex in it, which can make us feel as if we’re prostituting ourselves. And while there are a few gay men on the top of the charts, there are far more women up there.” (Fessenden)
Thus, new questions arise: what are the readers’ expectations and in what ways do female authors deliver this expectation? [FTL]
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