An Epic Win for M/M Readers

Back in 1992, my wife and I were living in Colorado during the Amendment Two battle. For those of you who did not live in Colorado, Amendment Two was a law designed to prohibit all legislative action at any level of government that would designate LGBT people as a protected class. It was three days before the vote. Propaganda flew thick and fast.

Massive campaigns had been launched to register LGBT voters (mainly in bars) while equally massive campaigns targeted the state’s young Christian voters (mostly in churches). My wife was in art school at the time, and we were at the apartment of one of her fellow students whose name I honestly can’t remember, but let’s just call her Amy for the sake of narrative ease. Amy was torn about how she would vote.

At her church, she was being told to support the amendment. She didn’t know any gay people—or rather she didn’t know she knew any gay people, because she didn’t know she was sitting in the room with two of them.

Amy’s apartment was absolutely full of crosses and pictures of horses. She was 18 years old. Tentatively, late in the evening, she asked if either one of us had read Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage series. We said that we had, and she lit up. She’d purchased the book because it had a picture of a white horse on the cover, and through reading the series she’d come to realize that the primary character, who she loved, was gay.

Amy asked if we thought that real gay people could be good people, like Vanyel.

Sure, we said, why not?

She asked if we knew any gay people and we said that yeah, we did.

All at once she decided. She said that if that were true, then she could not possibly vote ‘yes’ on the amendment. She said that for the sake of Vanyel she would vote ‘no’.

I was absolutely amazed. Never before had I heard of anyone changing their vote because of a fictional character. Moreover, a fictional character in a fantasy novel. Wouldn’t Mary Renault’s The Charioteer have been the more influential book? Or Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner? Or any book that did not include talking ponies?

Apparently not. Not to Amy, anyway.

I completely reassessed my view of the purpose of speculative fiction that day. Rather than being a collection of sentences detailing how life really is, spec fic became about characters and about stories about how life could be if we could imagine it. When we started Blind Eye Books fourteen years later, I kept Amy present in my mind. I decided that the single most important thing about a manuscript for our company was whether or not the author allowed their GLBT characters to be heroes and whether or not they allowed those heroic characters to win and to be happy. Because even the charming Vanyel never got a real Happily Ever After, but I was betting that there were young gay and lesbian people out there who wanted to see people like themselves reflected in fantasy fiction the way that straight people get to be–kicking ass, saving the day, and getting the hot guy (or gal) at the end of it.

My own personal goal in building a line of books is to connect to an audience that is not only starved for positive images, but that is nearly bereft of genuinely heroic characters. I want to publish books where the GLBT protagonists smite all adversaries, against all odds, superseding mortal limitations. I want to publish stories of characters whose greatest triumph at the end of the book is not simply to be allowed to live, but who get an epic win.

That was my ideal, my goal and my purpose—to give these kids somebody to want to be. I wanted to present characters who were as cool as Aragorn, as sympathetic as Harry Potter, as badass as Wolverine, as sizzling hot and relentless as Alice from Resident Evil, while simultaneously being really, really unambiguously gay. I thought the gay community would constitute the bulk of readers of our books. That, as it turns out, was wrong. Most purchasers of our work are people just like Amy—M/M readers.

I was surprised, to be sure. But then after spending a few minutes doing the math, my confusion left me. There are simply many, many more straight women in the world than there are GLBT people of any persuasion—let alone GLBT individuals who are also interested in science fiction, fantasy and paranormal romance. The M/M readers are a crossover audience who, by virtue of sheer statistics, far out-populate the intended target.

I’m okay with that.

I advance this thought for consideration: Though publishers and other producers of media have in times and places discriminated against actual GLBT fiction writers as people, the deliberate marginalization of GLBT characters goes far beyond any real-life bias. It’s systematically enforced by marketing departments as they process data from focus groups. It’s viewed as prudent by accountants worried about the bottom line. While I believe that some of this marginalization is naturally the result of homophobia, the primary reason is that most people still believe that only homosexuals will read about homosexuals and so the potential buying audience for any book featuring queer characters is too small to bankroll most projects.

This is simply not true. I don’t propose that, for example, “gay Star Wars” would ever be as huge as the original. I merely suggest that because of crossover readership, it would be bigger than conventional wisdom would initially conclude. Because there exists a buying audience heretofore mainly invisible, but loyal and devoted and worthy of remark.

Though our company still produces books that are primarily intended for GLBT readers, it is the sales dollars and support from the M/M community that allows Blind Eye Books to continue. Not acknowledging that simple fact is, at best, juvenile — like asking your mom to drive you to the movies, pay for your ticket and buy you popcorn, and then pretending you don’t know her once you’re inside the theater.

I decided to offer this anecdote—the Blind Eye Books origin story, as it were — because it is a real example of one vote being determined by something as seemingly inconsequential as a series of genre novels featuring a gay protagonist written by a straight woman and purchased by another straight woman.

One vote changed is not what one would generally describe as an epic win. But unlike the epic wins of fiction, that one vote was real. Because of Vanyel, Amy became an ally. Allies are important. Because, really, when it comes time to count the ballots, you can never have too many friends.
Cover art from Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage Series (DAW Books)

Tags: , ,

7 Responses to “For the Sake of Vanyel”

  1. 25 April 2011 at 11:06 AM #

    Such a wonderful story! Mercedes Lackey is the first author I can remember reading who positively portrayed a character who was gay. She didn’t hit you over the head with it, and didn’t make the story about being gay . . . she just introduced it as another (albeit important) aspect of Vanyel’s personality. I loved her for that, and have never been shy about recommending that series to others.

    Thanks for everything you’ve done with Blind Eye Books, Nicole, and a great big thanks to Amy for helping to provide you with a little direction. :)

  2. 25 April 2011 at 11:08 AM #

    Gosh, I really try and steer folk away from the Vanyel stories because there is so much self-loathing, so much angst. And yes, he never does get a decent ending. So many better books out there, spec fic and mainstream, for queer youth to read.

  3. 25 April 2011 at 12:12 PM #

    As an aside, there are plenty of M/M readers who are not straight women, as well. I know quite a few LBT women who are M/M readers, as well as a few straight men. Your point is quite keen, though: the perception of the M/M story market as small is really quite against proof.

  4. 25 April 2011 at 8:46 PM #

    I’ve been writing gay (what’s called “slash”) fanfiction for ten years, and if you want to know how powerful the straight or bisexual female reading audience is for gay characters, please, look no further. They aren’t just the readership; they’re the authors! Women LOVE gay men and sometimes gay women, too. I consider myself pansexual, and I’m in a committed lesbian partnership and have been for ten years. I’ve learned through writing fanfic online that not only do straight women love slash and write it, but it has the power to, as your story of Amy illustrates, change minds, hearts, and lives.

    The reason I know this is that my partner and I wrote X-Files, Mulder/Krycek slash together, and we have one very special fan, a Mormon girl who believed homosexuality was wrong before she met and got to know us and before she read and fell in love with the Mulder/Krycek relationship. Because of reading our stories, she’s become not just accepting but celebratory of gay love and relationships and even sex!

    So don’t ever doubt that characters like Vanyel are for a wider audience than just the GLBT crowd, not that that wouldn’t be enough. But it’s a beautiful thing that so many women who would not have been persuaded otherwise have had their minds and hearts blown open by gay fiction. Gay fiction, at its heart, is human fiction. It can and does touch everyone.

  5. 17 July 2011 at 8:10 AM #

    Hi, Nicole!

    I had read your article, but I was traveling then and I couldn’t comment at once. I do it now, because I’ve just reread it (it was quoted on Goodreads).

    I enjoyed the little but significant anecdote you share. I’m absolutely persuaded that women are the most powerful ally of GLBT people. I also think that most of the women reading m/m books are very vocal in supporting the GLBT cause. I saw this development in a fandom I was active in: some of us shared an old interest for supporting equal rights, but some others were new to the theme or even changed their former opinion *because of being in the fandom*. And now lots of them are reading m/m books.

    BTW my compliments for the excellent quality that characterizes Blind Eye Books!

    Be well!


  6. 29 February 2012 at 2:51 PM #

    Yup, I’m one of those straight female M/M readers… and F/F… and M/F… I really don’t care as long as the characters and the story are good.
    As for Vanyel’s lack of a happy end though – have you read any of the later Valdemar books? Vanyel is *still* happy with Stefen about 500 years later :)

    • 29 February 2012 at 4:20 PM #

      Oh good! It’s been about twenty years since I read the original trilogy. I’m so glad to hear he got that happy ending!

Leave a Reply

Please fill the required box or you can’t comment at all. Please use kind words. Your e-mail address will not be published.

Gravatar is supported.

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>