Conflict in the M/M Romance Genre
Conflicts seem to erupt in the M/M community on a regular basis. I’ve been observing (and sometimes participating) in these dust-ups for the last eight years. There are some things I’ve observed that I feel could prove helpful. You may disagree, that’s cool, but at least you’ll have thought about things from a different perspective.
In this most recent squabble, I’ve seen several people talking about community and what it means to be a guest in someone else’s community. I noticed that they were actually talking about different communities. There isn’t one M/M community. There is a community of people who read and write romances about gay men and another community of people who are gay men and allies who write about gay men (sometimes in the form of a romance and sometimes not). Two overlapping communities, each with a difference emphasis. And in a very real way, we are guests in each other’s community.
Because we tend not to think about these communities as separate, there are often comments that don’t make sense to us. For example, some in the romance community don’t understand why there is conflict at all and want people to be “nicer.” Those in the gay/ally community understand that being “nicer” doesn’t get you respect.
Of course, there are people with an affinity for both communities. Like sexuality and gender, these communities aren’t binary. And like most generalities, there are always exceptions. However, I do think it’s constructive to think about M/M as overlapping communities and then ask what our relationship is to them.
In every conflict, I’ve been stunned by the number of women who don’t seem to want to listen to gay men. I find that stunning because we’re the topic. We’re what you’re so interested in. Logically women should be thrilled when gay men express an opinion, any opinion. Too often, though, they’re not. This confused me for a long time until I remembered that we all have multiple identities.
I’m a white, male, cisgender, homosexual writer. At various times I speak from one or more of those identities. When, as a gay man, I raise an issue in the M/M world, very often I’m no longer seen as gay and simply become a man. What a large portion of the community hears is women being criticized by a man, which does not go down well. What I hear as a gay man, though, is completely different. I hear straight people being disrespectful of me and my community and that does not go down well either.
Always remember that there can be an important difference between what’s being said and what’s being heard.
GENRE AND AUTHENTICITY
M/M romance, gay romance, and gay fiction are all separate, distinct genres. You may like and read one or all of them, but they are different. In the het world, the corresponding genres—which translate roughly to romance, chick lit and literary fiction—are not clumped together.
For a lot of reasons, the genres that make up M/M are clumped together. Amazon’s hands-off approach to genre, the sometimes overly aggressive marketing of publishers and authors, the struggle to find an audience to connect with, all of these contribute to the mish-mash. And, since the genres are small, working together does help. But it also hurts.
Each genre has very specific rules, but the basic difference between them has to do with authenticity. The level of authenticity takes its lead from the het world. I’m not a reader of het romances, but they don’t have a reputation for presenting women (or men for that matter) at their most authentic—which is more the purview of chick lit and literary fiction. Romance is a fantasy genre. By its very nature, the characters are not authentic, they’re not meant to be—whether we’re talking het or m/m. They need to be believable within the constructed world, but they don’t need to be real. They are often the best versions of real. And yes, I know that when you’re talking about genre you’re always talking about a spectrum and books that overlap genres—again, these are generalities.
It is important to talk about the differences between genres because when people don’t understand them, it leads to conflict and disrespect. One of my first experiences in the world of m/m was finding out that I was wrong. Readers would read my work and say that what I had written was wrong because it violated the rules of the romance genre. This has led me to attempt to make it clear that I’m not a romance writer and am not even trying to follow those rules. But it still happens. Just last year a reader complained that my book Femme was too much about prejudices within the gay community and not enough of a romance. I understand the reader doesn’t understand genre, but she also failed to understand that saying a book is too much about gay issues is going to be offensive to a gay author.
Something I’ve seen, and something other gay authors have also noticed, is that too often female readers feel completely comfortable saying that they don’t like to read male authors. Think about that for a minute. Women want to read about gay men, but they don’t want to read gay men. I know that the comment is rooted in the belief that women write better romances but…if you can’t see the homophobia in those statements, you really need to give it some thought. A lot of thought. And if you’re still having trouble just exchange the word gay for the word black. Would you say that you don’t like to read books by black writers? In public?
DO YOU EVEN LIKE GAY MEN?
After one of the conflicts, I saw a comment by a very successful m/m romance writer who said she felt the m/m community was splitting into two, losing its sense of fun, and becoming something she didn’t like. At the time I felt, and still feel, that this was a veiled reference to the increasing number of gay men entering the community. Without saying so directly, she made it clear she’d like us to go away. And certainly, I think a lot of her fans agree.
Many of the comments I see during these flare-ups have that same subtext. A lot of women, readers and writers, seem to prefer gay characters to real life gay men. I’m not in any way saying that people should not read and love romances. There’s nothing wrong with it as long as you remember that it’s not authentic, and not meant to be. Gay men are never going to live up to the characters in the stories you’re reading. We’re prickly and difficult and opinionated—we wouldn’t have come as far as we have if we weren’t.
We’re also not going away. To quote an ACT-UP chant, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
If you’re queer, one of the things you know is that it takes a long time, sometimes a lifetime, to clear yourself of the internalized homophobia that society pushes on each of us. When I see someone who considers themselves an ally make a misstep I think, there’s someone who’s not thinking about internalized homophobia. It’s too easy for allies to make a decision that they support LGBT rights and they’re done. They’ve made a decision and they don’t have to think about it anymore. Unfortunately, none of us is done. We’ve all internalized homophobia just as we’ve internalized racism and misogyny. You only escape these things by constantly confronting them. So, thank you for being an ally and you’re not done.
I’m actually heartened by many of the things I’m seeing on Facebook and in blogs. As painful as many find these upsets, they are making both communities stronger. They will make for better writers and better people. I’ve seen a lot of support coming from allies, more than I’ve seen in the past, and that is terrific. Thank you to everyone who is willing to listen to gay men, and thank you to those of you who are willing to consider what being an ally really means.
Change is hard. But it’s worth it.
About the Author
Marshall Thornton is the author of the popular Boystown series. He has been a finalist for the Lambda Award five times and won once. His romantic comedy, Femme is currently a Lambda finalist for Best Gay Romance. Other books include My Favorite Uncle, The Ghost Slept Over and Desert Run.
Find out more about Marshall at his website, marshallthorntonauthor.com.