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Recently, I sat down for a conversation about romance with three gentlemen who are prominent writers, editors and critics in the genre. Amos Lassen teaches writing in Arkansas, where he relocated after Hurricane Katrina. He writes the influential book review blog “Reviews by Amos Lassen .” Jerry L. Wheeler is the editor of Tented: Gay Erotic Tales form Under the Big Top, Lethe Press, 2010, a 2011 Lambda Literary Award finalist, and he is the co-founder of “Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews.” He writes out of Denver, CO. Timothy J. Lambert has written under various pen names with his writing partner, Becky Cochrane, and others. Lambert lives with Cochrane and her husband in Houston. Lambert and Cochrane’s books include Three Fortunes in One Cookie by Cochrane Lambert (Alyson Books, 2005) and When You Don’t See Me by Timothy James Beck (Kensington, 2007).
What draws readers to romance? And once there, what keeps them coming back? My own first encounter with romance was accidental. I was newly unemployed and bored with looking for jobs that weren’t there, so when I saw an ad on Facebook with a sexy book cover, I clicked on it. I think it was Mexican Heat by Laura Baumbach and Josh Lanyon (MLR Press, 2009). Shortly afterward, I bought all of Scott and Scott’s Romentics series. I admit my criteria for what to purchase was the pretty cover. But Scott and Scott were a fun diversion for a guy out of a job. I liked the series because while the stories were sexy, they were also truly romantic, with a solid central relationship to hang onto. And romances like Mexican Heat by Baumbach and Lanyon, the L.A. crime romance series by P. A. Brown, and Neil Plakcy’s desert adventure series weren’t just fun diversions—they were seriously good reads.
Amos Lassen reflects on his first “time.” He says, “As much as I can remember, I think it was The Front Runner and it was the beauty of the story that Patricia Nell Warren gave us.” He said, “It showed us that it was okay to love, and I think that is what surprised me most.”
Jerry L. Wheeler is still not convinced about romance: “I sort of backed into gay romance fiction (pun fully intended) from writing erotica and then getting into reviewing. I can’t remember my first because it was probably one of those god-awful ones that all sound the same. I wasn’t impressed with the genre. Gay romance is far too assimilationist. In the larger scope of things, all these genres—gay mysteries, gay action, gay westerns—have their roots in straight culture.” Wheeler says, “What I would like to see is a book about male/male romance that doesn’t rely on any of these conventions and is uniquely gay.”
Timothy J. Lambert says, “I think the first romantic gay novel that I read was My Best Man by Andy Schell (Kensington, 2002). What I liked about Andy Schell’s book was that it was a romantic novel in the ‘boy wants boy’ sense, but it didn’t have the melodrama and desperation usually associated with romance novels. It was a light, fun, contemporary novel. At the time, my friends and I were writing what would be our first Timothy James Beck novel, and Schell’s book reminded us of what we were doing, so it led us to contacting his publisher, Kensington Books, and getting our first book published.”
Two things surprise me about gay romance fiction: much of it is written by straight women for straight women, and it is a lot more graphically erotic than I had expected. Second things first, I want to know if, when writers write for the gay men’s market, do they heighten the eroticism? If they do, this is one reader for whom they are humping the wrong leg. I like eroticism in the context of romance, but I am embarrassed when my nose is shoved in a “puckered asshole,” as Timothy J. Lambert put it. It is especially jarring in a book that would otherwise be somewhat literary, such as Michael Thomas Ford’s The Road Home (Kensington Books, 2010). After reading several such grapplings it gets to be a bit of a bore. To me, less is more erotic because it leaves what’s happening to the reader’s imagination. But does gay romance have to be more graphic to satisfy gay readers?
Amos Lassen says, “I think that all literature is much more graphic now than ever before and that erotic literature has come of age. However, good erotica is rare. It is easy to write sleaze but not so easy to write literary porn. I do believe that those who write for a gay men’s market place a bit more emphasis on sex. Someone who is dressed is very sexy because we are kept guessing. I wonder if he were naked, would he be as sexy with his penis under my nose?”
Timothy J. Lambert agrees. “I don’t believe that gay romance has to be graphic to satisfy readers. I think there’s a very clear distinction between the two genres, but, unfortunately, a lot of writers and readers don’t seem to agree. I think that it’s jarring to read graphic sex in a work of contemporary gay fiction. And if I’ve written well developed and interesting characters, my readers will want to imagine them in bed if I fade to black, just like they will want to imagine their lives after I write ‘The End.’”
Jerry L. Wheeler has another take. “As a writer of erotica, I think you can successfully write about fucking and still keep it fresh. It’s no different than keeping your own sex life fresh by changing things up—and there’s a huge crossover between soft erotica and romance. Today’s romance seems to certainly be more graphic, but I’m not so sure that’s about satisfying gay readers. Today’s world is more graphic, more realistic, more in-your-face and I think a tendency towards more graphic sex in romance reflects the larger society.”
Getting back to straight women writing gay men’s romance—Is this still a point of controversy? Can women get “it” right? My first “Book Lovers” column for Lambda Literary Review addressed this issue and veteran gay writer Victor J. Banis bluntly commented, “Oh, wow, does this read like a bunch of crap. I don’t buy any of it. Readers don’t give squat whether a man wrote the book, or a woman (And how would one know? Some of the men you quote, aren’t). What matters is the story, the book. If it works, nobody cares. And if it doesn’t, nobody cares.” I agree. But the subject still elicits strong opinions.
Amos Lassen doesn’t like straight women writing for gay men. He says, “A straight woman—or a gay woman, for that matter—cannot possibly feel what we feel or know what we know, and I do not care how good of a writer they are, there is no way that they can honestly relate graphic m/m sex the way we can. I also do not understand why they review our books; it remains a total mystery to me. I know that a woman cannot possibly experience the way we relate.”
Timothy J. Lambert says, “It probably is a point of controversy, but nobody wants to talk about it. Certainly, nobody wants to offend or be offensive. Nobody wants to say, ‘Women should not write gay fiction,’ and well they shouldn’t. I’ve read good books about gay men that were written by women. Kate Christensen’s Jeremy Thrane (Anchor 2002), for example. For that matter, my writing partner, Becky Cochrane, is a straight woman. I think any reader of our books would be hard pressed to highlight which characters were written by Becky and which were written by me. (Easy answer: we each write them all).”
Jerry L. Wheeler says, “I’m iffy on straight women writing about gay men. As an editor of gay male erotica, I don’t reject stories by straight women—I’ve published Dale Chase, Erastes and others—however, some straight women simply don’t have the talent to write about gay men. Instead, they graft the male sex onto what they already know about females and assume it to be true for men. That doesn’t work for me.”
Why is romance so often poorly written, even to the point of being ungrammatical? Is it because it is predominantly e-published? Are writers slumming when they write romance and so don’t care? Or is it that romance attracts a lower caliber of writer or reader? E-publisher writers’ guidelines are quite strict about the quality expected from submissions, but I don’t always see those standards on the page.
Amos Lassen says the poor quality of much romance writing “bothers me, and it does seem that if there is a dab of graphic sex, the writer seems to manage to get by. It should not be regarded as lower caliber, but then again it could be that the person writing has never felt romance and has a hard time writing about how it feels. As for e-books and romance, I guess I am old fashioned. I will only read or review an e-book if I have no other way of accessing the book.”
Jerry L. Wheeler says, “There used to be a phalanx of editors to prevent errors from reaching print, but there are fewer eyes proofing manuscripts before that button is pressed these days. And it shows. Part of the publishing ‘gatekeeper’ function was to produce polished, professional prose but now it’s all product, made for money and not for love. That’s why the quality has deteriorated.”
Timothy J. Lambert says, “I’ve never submitted work to an e-publisher, and I can’t speak for other writers, but I can’t imagine sending a manuscript to an editor—be it a traditional publishing house or an e-publisher—that wasn’t my best work. I understand that mistakes happen, but it would appear that the days when an editor would shape and guide the career of a gifted writer is a tale of yesteryear that has been long tossed into the remainder bin. That’s why I try to stick to the traditional publishing house; the editors I’ve worked with in traditional publishing have always worked with me to better my craft and put a good book on the shelf.”
As a reviewer, I have been more generous towards certain writers than I actually felt after reading the work. Part of it is modesty—some editor who is actually paid, read this and thought it was publishable, maybe there’s something there I’m not getting. Part of it is that I want to be a cheerleader for gay romance fiction and encourage writers and readers. But maybe I’m not doing anyone a favor by not being a “venomous fishwife” when I read something I think is really bad. What’s your approach to reviewing? Any favorite authors?
Amos Lassen says, “Favorite authors—there are so many—Wayne Hoffman’s new book, Sweet Like Sugar (Kensington Books, 2011) is gorgeous; Lev Raphael, whose fiction and nonfiction is sheer genius; Evan Fallenberg’s Light Fell (Soho Press, 2008) stole my heart (he has a new one coming, When We Danced on Water, Harper Perennial, 2011). And, of course, Andrew Holleran. I was lucky to spend time with him when we brought him to speak on gay literature at the Arkansas Literary Festival a few years ago. Of the new writers I think Nick Nolan is wonderful—his latest Double Bound (AmazonEncore 2010) picks up with the same characters from his debut novel Strings Attached (BookSurge Publishing 2006).”
“As for my approach to reviewing,” Lassen says, “I must admit that I am a bit different and have an agenda. If you have ever read my reviews (of which there are some 5000 plus), I rarely, if ever, give a bad review. It is my goal to get people to both read and write, and I have learned from academia that a fair word is better than a nasty slur. I want to encourage and not discourage and since this is my mantra, that is what I do. If I read something that should get a bad review, I will not post a review at all. There is no point in hurting someone who worked hard and had unsuccessful results.”
Jerry L. Wheeler says, “I like Erastes (Mere Mortals, Lethe Press, 2011). And Jardonn Smith (Suspicious Diagnosis, CreateSpace, 2010). And Erik Orrantia (2011 Lambda Award winner for Romance, Normal Miguel, Cheyenne, 2010). Three nicely original voices. I try to be as supportive and positive as possible, but sometimes crap’s crap and you have to call it such. I’ve only written three or four “whatta piece of shit” reviews, and all of books written by people I didn’t know or have any connection with. In a community this small, it doesn’t pay to be venomous. Karma, baby. As a reviewer I’d like to see more originality and less of a reliance on stereotypes. I’m all for breaking molds, pushing envelopes and doing something different—even if it doesn’t work.”
Timothy J. Lambert says, “I’ve never been comfortable reviewing another writer’s work.” Among his favorites is Rob Byrnes. He says, “When we (Timothy James Beck, Someone Like You, Kensington, 2006) lost the 2006 Lambda Literary Award to Rob Byrnes (When the Stars Came Out, Kensington, 2006), I was genuinely happy, because I’ve consistently enjoyed Rob’s work.”
I’m looking forward to diving into P. A. Brown’s latest, Bermuda Heat, (MLR Press, 2011) by the pool this summer. By my bedside, I have The Handsome Prince (Cleis Press, 2011), a gay erotic romance story collection edited by Neil Plakcy. And yes, I bought L.A. Affair (Bruno Gmünder, 2011) by Kriss Rudolph, translated by Jeffrey Essmann, for the cover photo by David Vance, but I can’t wait to get between the covers.
As Timothy J. Lambert says, “Gay romance is a reader’s guilty pleasure, and guilty pleasures always last.”