Romance in Theory and Practice
Author: Dick Smart
January 23, 2013
I’d like to think we’re past the controversy over straight women who write and read m/m romance, but the Sturm und Drang that arises every time I mention the subject in this column makes me appreciate the service that best-selling romance adventure writer Geoffrey Knight has performed for the gay and m/m romance communities with his study, Why Straight Women Love Gay Romance, (ManLoveRomance Press, 2012). Knight interviews 32 writers, editors, publishers, and readers—all straight (well, only slightly bent) women—to get answers to his title question, and along the way he discovers stories that he says made him “laugh, cry, and shake my head in astonishment.” Me, too.
Ebooks opened the world of gay and m/m romance to many of these women who were already insatiable romance readers and were just looking for a new book. Many of the women mention first encountering m/m romance at Ellora’s Cave, a publisher of women’s erotic romance. What captured their attention sometimes does fit into the stereotype that straight women read romance differently than gay men do. Upon first looking into J.L. Langley’s The Tin Star (Loose ID, 2006), m/m writer Kimberly Gardner says, “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! This is incredibly
hot!’ But it was so much more than the hotness factor of seeing two sexy men together. Because I love romance, the act of falling in love, it was that process which most captivated me.” Jennifer Tilt, who writes m/m romance as Jonathan Treadway, says about the male lovers in m/m romance, “They still wanted what I wanted as a woman: a permanent, loving, happy, safe, equal relationship.”
But sometimes why these women read romance doesn’t fit into neat preconceptions. A romance reader named Teresa realized that she “wanted to read about guys touching each other” rather then just two men focused on the woman in a m/f/m ménage à trois. Elisa Rolle, indefatigable gay and m/m romance blogger and reviewer, who presides over the well-known Rainbow Awards, suggests that the female reader of straight romance “identifies herself in the hero and not in the heroine, and that is the reason why the hero is so strong in the romance novel in comparison to the heroine.” This feminist motivation for reading m/m romance is picked up by Jess of the influential m/m review blog www.reviewsbyjessewave.com, who says that in m/m romance, “There isn’t usually the male/female dynamic of the helpless TSTL (too stupid to live) damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by the swashbuckling hero. Instead, the guys rescue themselves.”
Knight devotes a chapter to writing about how straight women writers get “it” right in gay sex scenes. M/M romance writer, Poppy Dennison says, “I did what any other writer would do: I researched.” But it took practice. She says that when a gay friend read one of her first gay sex scenes, he handed it back to her and said, “You need to stop thinking like a girl.” She advises, “Have someone else take a look at what you’re doing and give you a reality check.” But mostly the chapter is not about how to consult The Joy of Gay Sex, but more about how to write “characters as real human beings.” One of the most moving stories shared in the book is told here by m/m writer Norma Nielsen who creates “a Happily Ever After” for a dying young man.
Knight says that women who read and write gay romance go through a sort of “coming out” that is transformative of their political and social experience. He writes, “I found a once-silent army of women who simply through their love of gay romance, have become an army fighting for equality.” Gay erotic romance writer Erica Pike says, “When people ask [why she writes m/m romance], I still can’t say, ‘Because I like it,’ it’s always along the lines of ‘I find it challenging’…Here I feel a bit of a hypocrite for writing about men coming out when I’m afraid to do so myself, but at least I get a firsthand glimpse of what it might feel like to hide.” MLR Press editor, Kris Jacen, says that telling others that she edits gay romance is “almost like revealing a little secret, a guilty pleasure.” Sheri, blogger at www.mantasticfiction.wordpress.com, says that when she told her husband she wrote m/m romance, “We had a very big fight. He refers to them as the other men. He didn’t want to hear about it or see cocks ramming other men in the ass and I did.” Anne Brooke is a devout Christian and a writer of m/m erotic romance. She says when she tells Christian friends what she writes, “I just say the truth—which is that I’m a writer of fiction in many genres and that my most popular genre is gay erotic fiction.” She says, “Most people react by laughing and/or getting embarrassed and their interest in me as a writer usually fades away at that point. I find that hurtful, to be honest, as it makes me feel like less of a writer.” She continues, “This is why the online [romance] community is so hugely important to me—as I don’t feel like a second-class citizen or a second (or possibly third-) class writer there.” Several of the writers and readers report losing close friends because of their love for m/m romance, whereas others recruited new fans from friends in book groups, daughters and mothers.
A good sequel to this book might be Do Gay Men Read Gay Romance? Poppy Dennison was afraid that her gay friends would think she was “fetishizing their love lives” by writing m/m romance. She observes, “In general, the readers of romance are women. In general the writers of romance are women…Then I went back and added the word gay before romance. The assumptions didn’t change.” She adds, “If someone is looking to read a gay romance written by a gay man, they can find one…. I’d hope that one day they’d open their eyes and realize that the ladies in the genre are very talented as well. It’s a bit too close to a misogynistic view for my taste.” The common bleat made by gay men against straight women m/m romance writers is that they can’t possibly get the sex right, but I think it would be instructive to do a blind study to see how many gay readers can tell the difference between a gay sex scene written by another gay man and one written by a straight woman. In a chapter on “Exploring the Boundaries,” Knight’s interviewees share their avid interest in reading and writing about gay sex and they provide some important distinctions between gay erotica and gay romance. Elisa Rolle makes a very telling comment about romance as literature:
“I once read a blog by Elizabeth Lowell, replying to someone accusing romance to be not really ‘literature,’ replying that romance was the first type of literature.The first stories ever told were love stories.”
At the end, Knight generously throws in a comic romance short story, “Video Store Valentine” that manages to capture several of the genre’s sub-genres in a few well-written pages—crime thriller, alternative reality (the romantic hero speaks his interior thoughts out loud unawares), bondage (the romantic duo are locked in a closet together), and holiday theme—and serves as a good example of what romance is all about. But it is the book’s main content that earns it a permanent place on every romance writer and reader’s reference shelf.
Creed by Michael Chavez (Regal Crest Enterprises, 2012) is one of those “finds” that I discovered while trawling through all the recommended books that pop up when purchasing a book on Amazon. “Fate has a way of weaving disruptions…through our lives and sometimes they get us back on track,” so Mr. Chavez weaves together the lives of so many diverse characters in this novel that I was fascinated to keep reading just to see how he was possibly going to pull it all together. The complex plot involves a young Hispanic man accused of double murder, a priest from a New Mexican pueblo, a Washington journalist dying of cancer and a Moroccan political prisoner, and climaxes in a satisfying Perry Mason type of courtroom reveal.
Through a beautiful parallelism, Chavez interweaves the journeys or camino sagrado of Theo Jaquez—a young gay Hispanic man from an impoverished and abusive home, who is unjustly imprisoned for being a Good Samaritan—and Elijah Bashir, a gay Moroccan political prisoner, who is the unwitting beneficiary of Theo’s heroic good deed. In a nail-bitingly suspenseful plot driven by “miracles, blessings, coincidences, accidents, misfortunes, good and bad luck,” Chavez guides these two men towards their aclaracion or clarity of love. When the innocent Theo is jailed for double murder by a crooked cop with political ambitions, he can’t defend himself and also carry out the good deed he promised to do for a dying friend. Meanwhile, half a world away, Elijah is being tortured in dungeon-like conditions for an act of terrorism he didn’t commit, desperately waiting for the help that only Theo can give. Though the two have never met and Elijah is wholly unaware of Theo’s existence, Chavez manages to create a mystical connection between the two men in language that often verges on the poetic—“his soul weeping with an incomprehensible joy.”
Unfortunately, when Theo and Elijah finally are united, Chavez prudishly shuts the bedroom door. We’re kept waiting mighty long for a love scene that is one paragraph long. Like Theo, we may wish, “If only it would last forever” or at least for a full chapter. But by that point we’ve become so enchanted with the novel that all is forgiven. Chavez concludes the work with a list of foreign language words and phrases he uses throughout the novel, but he does such a good job of bringing out their meaning in context that it is hardly necessary.
Chavez’s next book, Haze, which promises a similarly complex plot is due out from Regal Crest Enterprises in May. For more Chavez, go to www.mjchavez.com.
Sin and Seduction by Allison Cassatta (Dreamspinner Press, 2012) is an entertaining erotic romance that boasts one of the sexiest anti-heroes I’ve encountered in some time, but it left me wanting a bit more. Not more sex and drugs and violence, which is pretty much cover to cover (and which Cassatta unnecessarily seems to apologize for in an author’s note), but a richer plot that would give the book’s sinister anti-hero, Dorian Grant, more room to move within his mob underground world. Cassatta masterfully paints this compelling character’s psychology:
Inside the club, it was the same old story: assholes to elbows, barely enough room to move or enough quiet to think. That’s what he liked about the place. He could sit back, toss down some high-dollar whiskey, and forget everything that had happened…He didn’t have to hear the screams…In the club, with the noise and lights, the sweaty bodies and booze and drugs, he didn’t have to think about the names his father had called him until the day the asshole died…There wasn’t room for shit, except his high and the lucky little dancer who would have the privilege of playing with his cock that night.
But because she doesn’t show us enough of his exterior world as a mob boss, when she puts him in a scene of violence it almost comes across as mere posturing rather than real menace. Even though his sexual violence harms his pole dancer boyfriend, Jansen, Cassatta doesn’t create the needed emotional ambivalence that makes the reader truly fear for Jansen’s physical and emotional well-being.
A major turn-off is when Cassatta goes chicksy dicks and makes Jansen’s career ambition as a pole dancer the central plot conflict. When Cassatta sets up the conflict—
“It still felt like a dream. When his boss had come to him and offered him the audition spot, everything in the world stopped moving. He’d barely been able to breathe. It was the answer to everything…It was his chance…”
—it could have been an opportunity to create real pathos in the character. Such a pathetic ambition, to be a pole dancer. Our hearts should have gone out to the hapless Jansen as he fell
into the powerful Dorian’s dark world. But instead Cassatta is serious—she wants us to really think that Jansen’s ambition to be a pole dancer creates a conflict for him between his career and his love when Dorian insists he quit his job and allow Dorian to provide for him. Really? I mean, he’s a pole dancer, not a dancer with the ABT. This misplaced feminist context is completely unbelievable. When Jansen walks out on Dorian to pursue his “career,” right at the moment that Dorian has a death sentence hanging over his head, our sympathies lie totally with Dorian. Why shouldn’t Dorian want him to quit working in what amounts to a sex club? I don’t think I’d want any boyfriend of mine working there.
Yet, Cassatta has given us such a complex and sexy anti-hero in Dorian that his character alone makes the book worth reading. He just deserves a better lover. My nomination is his loyal wingman, the “wide-assed” Angelo, whom Cassatta describes as a big hulking thug. Now, him I’d like to see more of. Way more.
Cassatta also designed the picante cover art. For more Cassatta, go to allisoncassatta.blogspot.com.
Other Voices, Other Worlds
I felt a frisson of excitement as I read the first page of G. B. Gordon’s exciting first novel, Santuario (Riptide Publishing, 2012), and realized I was in the presence of a major new writer. I was reminded of LGBT favorite Maureen McHugh’s outstanding SF novel, Mission Child, because like McHugh, Gordon creates a fully orbed world, Jarôvegur, that is as real as our own, but… different.
Alex Rukow is a police teniente on Santuario, a brutally hot island in the South Sea of the planet Jarôvegur. The inhabitants of Santaurio are the descendents of a generation ship that landed on the planet some 200 years earlier and found it already colonized by settlers from Earth, the Skanians, who live in the northern climes of Jarôvegur and who banished the new arrivals to Santaurio. The Skanians enjoy a representative government, strong family connections and a prosperous way of life. Meanwhile, the Santaurians are kept impoverished under the rule of a repressive oligarchy of elite familias. As our story opens, the Skanians are considering opening their borders to Santaurians, but as it soon becomes clear not all embrace this globalization and when the first of a series of bodies appears, Alex reluctantly begins to investigate murders that the Securitas of the ruling familias may not want solved. When Bengt, a nosey and overbearing investigator with the Investigation Commission for the Executive—ICE—arrives from Skanian to put the heat on the local policía to resolve the potentially embarrassing political situation, he is immediately offended by the taciturn Alex’s apparent indifference to the case. But as Bengt breaks through Alex’s icy exterior and he begins to understand the political and cultural differences between him and the Santuarian, his heart begins to warm towards him.
As is probably clear from even this brief synopsis, Gordon, like Maureen McHugh, uses the eyes of a different world to look afresh at some of our own pressing social and political issues, for example economic disparity and immigration, while successfully avoiding heavy-handed moral allegories. He tells too good of a story to preach:
“The Santuarians have a point, you know.” Svenja nodded toward the newspage. “I suppose you could make an argument for isolation when they first settle here, before they started working in the mines. But you can’t have it both ways. If you want them to work for us, you have to acknowledge them.” Halden shook his head. ‘They should be grateful we gave them a place to stay. The second we let them step off that island, they’ll make trouble.”
“But they’re already here. Working shit jobs. Without any rights or protection,” Svenja countered.
Having just read Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, and being impressed by how rapidly evolutionary change can sometimes take place, I was particularly intrigued by Gordon’s allusion to a possibly evolved difference between the small, slender, dark Santuarians and the big, bulky, fair Skanians. The two populations had been separated for generations even before the Santuarians arrived on Jarôvegur, with an additional 200 years of physical and cultural separation on the planet. Perhaps the difference that Alex and Bengt feel towards each other is not just metaphorical. For example, Bengt must take medication to withstand the heat that is normal to Alex. Gordon uses the cultural strangeness that Alex and Bengt feel towards each other to suggest how odd our own culture’s homophobic attitude really is. Even more, the physical difference between the two men creates a visceral sensation in the reader. Their otherness towards each other isn’t a simple case of opposites attract, when the two touch each other it is almost like interspecies sex. In this scene, Alex sees the Skanians for the first time:
Barrel-chested, long hair tied in the back, they were definitely not hunchbacked. Their faces were shaved, and they wore long-sleeved, dark suits that made Alex cringe in the heat. They looked like boxers who’d taken a heavy hit, until the taller of the two came down the steps and held out his hand in a gesture that looked freshly learned. Alex took it and shook it briefly. Firm grip, but no crushing contest. The nails were cut short, the back of the hand covered in soft, blond fuzz.
Indeed, a single touch in this book is more intensely erotic than pages of sex in others:
Alex looked intently at the Skanian…‘I really want to know what’s going on in your head today.’ Bengt looked back at him with the same intensity, then very deliberately laid both hands on his shoulders. Alex felt his body heat through the fabric of his shirt, despite the sun. Slowly, the Skanian ran both his thumbs up Alex’s throat and along his jawline. “No,” he said with conviction, “you don’t.”
Not to worry, Gordon does give us a great love scene but his sex isn’t simply graphic, which I don’t find particularly erotic, but expresses the character of the men and actually furthers the plot rather than just titillating the reader’s Id, which, for my money, is a lot hotter.
Gordon’s antagonists are just as interesting as his protagonists because he doesn’t give us paper-cut-out villains, but characters with rich histories of their own and fully embodied emotions. Alex’s “search” for his father is one of the book’s major sub-plots and the man is both deeply sinister and emotionally complex; like Alex, we can’t simply hate him.
When Gordon appears to stumble by introducing the clichéd device of the old boyfriend showing up as a romantic obstacle, he surprises the reader by putting the device to good use to show something more interesting about both Bengt and Alex. Towards the end of the book Gordon rushes a bit too much to tie up plot details when I believe the reader would feel satisfied with less resolution. Considering how some authors jaw on for 300 pages or more, Gordon is effective at just 200, but with writing this good we wouldn’t mind if he did dawdle. I felt positively relieved to see on Gordon’s blog that Book Two in the series—Free Falling—is in the works. Can’t wait.
Reese Dante perfectly captures Gordon’s vivid descriptions of Alex and Bengt in a lovely cover portrait that complements rather than supplants the reader’s imagination.