Entertaining Comes First
Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and to instruct, and only in that order.”
We writers of gay fiction or gay romance have an especially heavy burden on the “instruct” side of things. Any time we are writing about gay relationships, we are touching a contentious subject. Any time we are writing about gay people living in society—not on a deserted island or on a forgotten space station—we have to address topics like homophobia and straight-out anti-gay hate. Even if we choose not to portray those topics in our stories, that in itself is already a statement—by not mentioning homophobia, we are already speaking by not speaking.
I’ve been rapped on the knuckles for not making social advancement for GLBTQ or gay people the primary focus of my work. I’ve been given a few slaps, even if only gentle ones, for focusing my writing on fun and romance and making readers happy rather than focusing primarily on advancing better understandings of gay people and gay life.
Of course, I can write whatever I want. And equally, people can criticize me however they want. That’s the free exchange of ideas. And if I take a certain path in my writing, I should be willing to accept criticism for it.
So, here is my most basic answer to the criticism: if you write socio-political polemics, you won’t reach anyone who needs to hear them. If you write a serious text about GLBTQ social advancement, yes, some people will read it. Some people will applaud. But the only people who read and applaud will be those who already agree with you. Sure, you’ll get agreement and acclaim for them. But I guarantee you won’t reach anybody who needs to be reached—anybody who either doesn’t care about gay issues, or who is even hostile to gay people. Those are the people whose minds we can potentially change. And if we are to have any hope of those people reading our books, then our books have to—absolutely have to—be pleasant and fun and nonthreatening to read. That’s the only way anybody will read them.
Soren Kierkegaard refused to write philosophy as philosophy. He always cloaked it in a story. He said that only professional philosophers will read philosophy-as-philosophy. And there’s the similar explanation about why politicians have to make vacuous promises and put everything in unrealistically simple language: if they were totally serious and totally honest, they’d never get elected. You need to get elected before you can change politics. And you need somebody to download and read your book before you can change their mind.
Then, of course, is the supply-side part of the answer. Even writers need to eat. Even the most brilliant social theorists need roofs over their heads. We have to sell books in order to have the food and coffee and laptops and desks that let us write books. It’s a somewhat uncouth thing to talk about, but we do all have to eat, and unless we have a family fortune (as Soren Kierkegaard did), we have to sell books to pay the bills.
So, we have to entertain. We have to entertain to get our books read. We have to entertain to get our mouths fed and our internet bills paid.
But within the realm of entertaining, we still have some leeway. We still have some leeway to at least try to send the kind of message we want to send. We have to remember that our book may be a person’s first significant encounter (even if only in print) with gay people—that is a tremendous responsibility.
I especially feel that responsibility when thinking about gay or questioning young people—perhaps teenagers, or twentysomethings, or maybe even pre-teens who might encounter my books. I do consciously try to send a message of hope and things always getting better for gay kids when they grow up. “It gets better” doesn’t excuse or condone homophobia or bullying or child abuse, but “it gets better” is at least a glimmer of hope I hold out for gay kids, or their friends or relatives who might read my books.
In my first novel, The Mechanic and the Surgeon, a deeply closeted young car mechanic learns to be out-and-proud from his client who later becomes his boyfriend. In my historical romance Civil Wars, two Vietnamese twenty-year-olds are separated by war and homophobia—until their happy reunion thirty years later, in a less homophobic place and time. And in my new book, Meow, a gay teenager is thrown out of his father’s house, but finds support and companionship with a gay veterinarian who went through the same experience in his own youth.
I can only hope that a teenager who encounters my books will know that they are not alone, and that they will find acceptance and love soon, even if not immediately. I can also hope that someone might read these books and recognize their young son or grandson or nephew or even car mechanic, and wonder whether there’s anything they can do to help a gay teen struggling with familial and societal rejection.
My books entertain and instruct, in that order. Entertaining comes first. But I, and many writers in my vein, put a lot of thought into instructing, especially into holding out our books as a beacon of hope for young gay people and their potential allies.
Clair is a brilliant nineteen-year-old disowned for being gay…
Clair’s father found his Chrome search history. Now Clair is homeless, living in his car and dreaming about making use of his Harvard acceptance letter, or ungaying himself to make his life easier. His only friend is his cat Linus. In an emergency, Clair has no choice but to take Linus to Blake Jorgensen, the rage-filled veterinarian everybody warned him about.
Blake is an ultra-successful veterinarian with a lonely heart and a dirty mouth…
Everybody knows: Blake Jorgensen isn’t a nice guy. His clinic is called Pussy-Hound, and the building looks more like a strip club than a vet’s office. Blake rains profanities on clients who don’t take proper care of their animals, his office music is Marilyn Manson, and his assistant is a nervous handlebar-mustachioed dude named Catsmeat. But mostly, Blake is profoundly lonely. He knows that no man in Amelia Island would put up with a boyfriend who works fifteen-hour days and is singularly devoted to helping animals.
Clair and Blake’s first meeting is a mess. Blake dresses down Clair, while Clair worries about what a guy named Catsmeat will do to Linus. But Blake is the only person willing to help not only Linus recover from tularemia, but Clair recover from his loneliness and uncertainty.
Clair can’t stop admiring Blake’s ripped body, his professional dedication, and his wacky humor — while Blake is in love with a lanky young man who’s smart, wise, caring, and handsome way beyond his nineteen years.
Blake offers Clair a room at his beachfront mansion, with absolutely no obligations. Clair assumes Blake expects a little something-something, but Blake pushes him away. If Clair can’t accept Blake’s secret, he and Blake might remain nothing more than housemates.
Meow is a gay romantic comedy with a feel-good HEA, copious breath mints, a profanity-activated feeder, lots of laughs, and a whiny cat named Paul Lynde. No cliffhanger, no cheating, and no sad kitties.
About the Author
Steve Milton writes gay romances with sweet love, good humor, and hot sex. His stories tend toward the sweet and sexy, with not much angst and definitely no downers. Steve crafts feel-good stories with complex characters and interesting settings. He is a South Florida native, and when he’s not writing, he likes cats, cars, music, and coffee.
He is happy to correspond with his readers one-on-one by email, whether about his books or about life in general. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.