A Romantic Conversation

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.

Wildcat Press

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.”

Lethe Press

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.”

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8 Responses to “Book Lovers: A Conversation about Romance”

  1. […] Original post at LambdaLiterary.org […]

  2. Michael Thomas Ford 14 June 2011 at 12:58 PM #

    While I suppose I should be pleased that Dick Smart considers my novel THE ROAD HOME to be “somewhat literary” — or at least would if the sex scenes were removed — I’m concerned with the notion that putting graphic sex in our novels somehow cheapens them. The last time I checked, sex was an important part of our lives as gay men, and since those of us who write for gay audiences are doing so because we want to capture what it means to be a gay man living at this point in time, why would we leave out something so important, particularly if sex is one of the driving forces behind our characters’ decisions? This kind of blushing, virgin schoolmarm reaction to sex is really tiresome. “Romance” is more than holding hands and looking longingly into each other’s eyes. If readers want a Disney version of romance, there are plenty of books that fade to black when it comes time for the characters to shed their clothes, but to dismiss the inclusion of sex in our stories or suggest that it’s somehow embarrassing smacks of self-loathing and literary snobbery.

  3. Amos Lassen 14 June 2011 at 4:36 PM #

    Nicely done Dick.

  4. Erastes 17 June 2011 at 12:31 PM #

    Thank you, Jerry – you are a wonderful supporter. However like to point out that I am in no way a “straight” woman! :D

  5. Dick Smart 17 June 2011 at 4:48 PM #

    Someone didn’t read my glowing review of his book in the April 4, 2011 edition of this column, entitled, “Magical Thinking.” “Somewhat” was a poor word choice, I meant to convery that Mr. Ford’s work surpassed being classified as merely genre fiction and demands consideration as a literary work. That said, the graphic sex scenes are even more jarring–at least for me. I can’t think of any mainstream literary work that uses graphic sex in the same way (I expect I’ll be corrected!). As sex goes, Ford’s sex scenes are, well, sexy, but is sex being used in his novel to convey character, or to turn the reader on? I supposed he’d say, what if? I applaud Ford if he is using gay sex to forge an independent gay literary tradition and as a reviewer this gives me fresh eyes for seeing it. Certainly as a multi-nominated Lambda Award winner, he knows better than I. I sincerely hope all this sex talk contributes to sales, his work deserves a wide readership.

    • Michael Thomas Ford 21 June 2011 at 12:28 PM #

      I did indeed see the lovely review for TRH, and commend you for your excellent taste in literature! I was just giving you a little poke. My point, really, is that this is a discussion that has been going on forever and I don’t really know why. For some reason, many people subscribe to the notion that if there’s graphic sex in the book, it’s no longer literature. Personally, I find this bizarre. As writers we’re supposed to capture life in words. Yet over and over again we hear, “Well, except for sex. Unless it’s in a porn story. Then it’s hot.” As many people know, I wrote a lot of porn stories back in the day (insert shameless plug for my collection TANGLED SHEETS). For me they were exercises in how to write about desire in different ways. So when I started writing novels, it never occurred to me NOT to put sex in them. But as I said, there are the “fade to black” kinds of novels and there are the “turn the lights on” kinds of novels, and readers will have their preferences. Perhaps having been weaned on the novels of Gordon Merrick I was predisposed to enjoying a certain amount of romping about in fiction. I do enjoy it when readers write to tell me that reading my novels on airplanes or subways has resulted in moments of arousal that require strategic placement of the book. As to your question about graphic sex in mainstream novels, that’s a good question. I remember a very odd section of one of the Updike “Rabbit” books in which Rabbit is thinking about maybe engaging in wife swapping and washes his asshole because he’s heard rumors that sometimes women liked to lick them. I recall thinking that Updike must have some seriously repressed fantasies going on. Then I went back to reading Jackie Collins novels and realized that it’s just an old straight white guy thing.

  6. JW 17 June 2011 at 6:04 PM #

    Oops – Sorry, Erastes. Just goes to show you how much attention I pay to my writers’ orientations. And MTF, your comment was extremely well-put. Bravo.

  7. Pat Brown 17 June 2011 at 6:16 PM #

    As far as sex goes, I put as much in as the story needs. In Bermuda Heat, there’s very little sex on the page, whereas with Placing Out there’s a great deal more. In Bermuda Heat, Chris and David have been a couple for a while, so it’s their relationship that’s important. In Placing Out, my first historical, the sex was more relevant since it was about a cop during Prohibition who hides his orientation successfully, until he meets a man he wants too much to do that. The reader needs to see this out of control desire, which means more sex on the page.

    As for saying women shouldn’t write gay novels, I reject that just like I reject the idea I can’t write about other races or cultures. I can and I do — most recently in my second historical novel which deals with Irish Catholic immigrants in America. I’m actually Protestant Irish which puts me on the other side of the ‘Irish problem’. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from writing it.

    No one told Arthur Golden he couldn’t write Memoirs of a Geisha. I’m not going to let people tell me what I can or cannot write. I write fiction. It’s all made up. Judge me by my words, not my sex.

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