In a world where Lisbeth Salander is tearing up the bestseller list with her clunky motorcycle boots and her refusal to fit neatly into the category of gay or straight, it seems the revival of queer sensibilities has come upon us. This is something that the expanding genre of Male/Male fiction tackles head on. Although these novels are described as gay historical fiction they are (as the press release details) “written primarily – but not exclusively – for women”. This complicates how M/M fits into the genre of LGBT fiction. How does a genre of fiction that is exclusively centered around homosexual love, and largely written by and for explicitly straight writers and readers challenge the typical notion of what LGBT fiction is? Perhaps more significantly, how does it problematize the mutual exclusivity of homosexuality and heterosexuality?

Both Lover’s Knot written by Donald Hardy and Tangled Web written by Lee Rowan are part of this genre. Each of these novels feature male characters that fall in love and must navigate homosexuality in worlds where it is legally and socially forbidden. Set in 1906, Lover’s Knot chronicles the life of Jonathan Williams, a young man who has unexpectedly inherited a farm from a relative. With the newfound responsibility of property ownership, and ghosts of the past that reemerge over the course of the novel, the reader follows along as Jonathan navigates his new life and his deep love for an old friend. Dealing with issues of class more forthrightly, Tangled Web tells the story of Brendan Townsend who traverses class boundaries and age differences in his quest for love. Brendan’s first love interest Tony, a former classmate, proves to lack the maturity that he seeks, and it is not until he meets a significantly older man that he must not only cross class boundaries, but age boundaries as well. Significantly both novels feature mostly chaste main characters who do not seek out casual sexual encounters. Instead, each of the main characters is on a quest for “true” love; a quest that does not veer too much off course from the traditional genre of romance fiction.

Class is of utmost importance in each title; both Brendan and Jonathan struggle to maintain the reputation of their family name. In fact, by the end of the novels neither man explicitly comes out. As it is legally forbidden during the time periods, these men choose a peacefully monogamous relationship that is kept hidden from their families and from society writ large. In Lover’s Knot there are instances where men of lower classes perform their sexuality in public spaces, but for each of the main characters who either come from upper classes or who inherit wealth throughout the course of the book this type of public sexuality is looked down upon. The public/private dichotomy works to reify certain class constructions but it also reveals the precarious line that queer men and women must walk if they want to subscribe to certain norms of heterosexuality.

Author Victoria Brownworth responds to this essay and her thoughts on M/M Romance in general. To read click here.

Despite the traditional approach to romance, love, and sex, each of these novels manages to complicate notions of sexuality. Isn’t there something queer about two men choosing to live seemingly heteronormative lives? Isn’t there something queer about redefining the bodily boundaries of virginity? And even more than this, isn’t there something queer about the fact that supposedly straight men and women want to read and write fiction where this choice is possible?

Ultimately I am not trying to claim that there are no political repercussions of having a genre of fiction that purports to represent a version of gay male love that is largely created by and for non-LGBT audiences. Instead, I seek to unravel how this genre works to challenge our notions of what LGBT is, and by extension, what straightness is. The question becomes what defines the LGBT community? Would a white lesbian woman have the authority to write about a black gay man? Would a white gay man have the credentials to write about a straight white woman? Do LGBT authors have inherently queer sensibilities that unite their experiences? Perhaps more important than the question of what makes queerness queer is what makes straightness straight?

The demand for M/M romance novels within a straight community signals a want to challenge strands of heteronormative love. With the wild success of Stieg Larsson it is apparent that there is a demand for queer characters in the mainstream media. This is not a call to abolish LGBT as a category, or genres of fiction that center themselves around LGBT communities. Clearly in a world where Obama cannot mention marriage and homosexuality in the same sentence and where transgender men and women are systematically targeted for murder, there is a need to organize through and around the category of LGBT. But isn’t it time to stop policing the gates of the LGBT community and begin to embrace the queerness that exists in even the most seemingly heterosexual spaces and places? Isn’t it about time that we allow writers to have as complicated identities as the defiantly queer heroine, Lisbeth Salander?

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29 Responses to “Can M/M Romance Challenge the Definition of LGBT Lit?”

  1. Scott 18 August 2010 at 11:39 AM #

    Why not consider ‘gay’ fiction, whether M/M or F/F, as commercial fiction or mainstream fiction?

    The fact is, the publishing industry is divided into genres so that bookstores know where to put the books: chick lit, romance, sci fi, mystery, literary fiction, mainstream fiction, LGBT fiction, and so forth. Agents list what they represent on their websites. Fiction regarding the LGBT community is a niche market and, at least in my opinion, a bit hard to break into, i.e., find an agent who represents LGBT fiction.

    In my personal writing, whether mystery or whatnot, I consider it commercial fiction. Perhaps it’s easier to list it as such in order to get an agent’s attention.

    Lastly, where is the LGBT fiction dealing with the gay community by LGBT writers? Just wondering . . .


  2. Leslie 18 August 2010 at 12:28 PM #

    “Would a white gay man have the credentials to write about a straight white woman?” The credentials, first and foremost, are: can the man write? Has he experienced pain, love, grief, longing, etc, etc? Can he tell a good story? And do it with authority? The answer is a resounding “yes”. As you know, there are so, so many gay men who’ve written masterpieces of fiction about straight women. So I don’t see why anyone–gay or straight–can’t write about whatever gender or sexual orientation he or she wants. What other credentials or qualification would an author of fiction would need?

  3. Matt M 19 August 2010 at 12:34 AM #

    The idea of GLBT lit is one of my pet topics, as I’ve done a bit of research and written a few articles on it. As far as Scott’s comments go, I think simplifying the categorization of books to nothing more than a marketing tool is rather short-sighted. Books exist in genres to ease findability, which certainly helps with marketing but has much larger, much more important ramifications. As an example, think of all the GLBT youth, especially those who live in more conservative towns and villages, who are trying to find community, connection, etc. Going to GLBT lit, whether it’s marked as such in a bookstore or an online catalog, is a huge boon. (I’m speaking from personal experience here, as well as anecdotal evidence.)

    As far as what constitutes GLBT lit, and what we have marked as such, I think that needs a major redesign. So much of gay lit now, at least as far as what gets placed there in the bookstores and libraries, is either How-To-Sex books or pulp fiction. Any book that aims to be “literary,” it seems, gets placed in fiction or resists the label. This is a problem. I think the label needs to be assigned based on the book’s agenda, spoken or unspoken, and if it in some way addresses gay life, being gay, etc., rather than simply having a character or two that happen to be gay.

  4. Lee Rowan 19 August 2010 at 4:48 AM #

    Isn’t there something queer about two men choosing to live seemingly heteronormative lives?

    Well, no, darling, not when there’s a death sentence for sodomy. If you’re going to snark at historical fiction, a bit of historical research would not go amiss.

    And for you zipper-sniffers… my wife and I moved to Canada in order to have the same civil rights as any heterosexual couple. I am most certainly not straight and you can take your closet and … hide in it.

    What I find absolutely fascinating is the obsession so many people have with what’s in a writer’s pants instead of between the covers of the books.

    Oh, and while we’re at it… what’s this fascination gay men seem to have with dressing up as female torch singers? Isn’t that just a little queer?

    Or perhaps there’s more to sex, and human beings, than genitalia and who’s in your bed?

    This discussion has really turned into wank. Bottom line? Women are writing books that sell. How dare we?

    How very 1950…

  5. Jules 19 August 2010 at 5:47 AM #

    First, I’d like to know who is going to give the “authority” to a white lesbian woman to write about a black gay man. Does Anne Rice have the authority to write about vampires? She’s obviously not one of them. Does Jeffrey Eugenides have the authority to write about what it’s like growing up with both genders? I don’t want to live in a world where I have to ask permission before deciding on a character to write.

    Second, as a (not straight!) woman who does enjoy the m/m genre, I’d point out that several of my gay male friends read m/m romance novels. Not to mention the fact that there are plenty of gay male writers in the genre (I believe Victor J. Banis and Aleksandr Voinov fall into this category) some of whom have been writing m/m romance novels for decades; long before they were called “m/m”.

    And, lastly, I’d think that it would be a good thing that there are straight men and woman opening their viewpoints by reading and writing books about people outside of their normal perspective. In the US we’re still struggling for equality and it seems to me the more straight people we reach, the better our chances of opening doors.

  6. Erastes 19 August 2010 at 6:02 AM #

    I strongly agree that gay romance (I’ve always hated the M/M tag, despite it appearing on “Transgressions”) should be in the romance aisle/section of bookshops. Of course it should. That was Running Press’ plan, in fact, but some of the major bookshops scotched that, because customers had complained that OMG there were two fully clothed men on the covers and it was offending their eyes. (while they bought their far more luridly covered het romances!)

    In a time when we are all fighting to bring GLBT marriage into the framework of our countries, it seems to me that celebrating that even in the Regency (or any other time that we write about, and it ranges from Ancient World to Modern) men were capable of finding each other, falling in love, companionship and living together hopefully under the radar. Would you say that GLBT people of today are seeking to live heteronormative lives by wanting to marry? Surely seeking a parter is just a human instinct, and has nothing to do with heterosexuality.

    The Running Press press release was obviously written by Running Press – not the authors – and that statement is entirely wrong. The original statement was worse “written by straight women for straight women” which we as authors firmly scotched. (considering one of us is a man!) The Running Press titles are written by a married woman, a bisexual woman, a lesbian and a gay man. NONE of us are writing for straight women. If the publishers choose to pitch them in that way, then that’s up to them–although if they are, then why aren’t they making more of an effort to get them into the straight women section of the bookshop? We write for ourselves, as most writers do. I personally write the stories I want to read, and because there have always been homosexual men and I wanted to explore how their lives may – may – have been led.

    As for “for women” that’s proving to be more and more untrue. Granted, the bulk of readers are probably women. I say probably because we really don’t KNOW. What I do know that here on Jessewave’s popular blog a poll revealed that 15 percent of people who voted were men who read the genre.

    Nearly all of the letters I get from readers are from men. This is probably because women are more used to reading gay romance–and the general theme from the men I’m getting is “wow – thank you for writing this–I didn’t know there was gay historical fiction” one poor guy said he’d been reading het historicals to get his fix of sexy men in historical clothing.

    Gay bookshops – notably Different Light and Giovanni’s Room both often have gay books written by woman in their bestsellers.

    The thing is, that overall, publishers have never had a problem with what is between my legs, or who is in my bed. Readers certainly don’t care and are voting with their money – But it seems to be (over and over and over again) the media that reports it in a bemused, baffled, and often patronising manner.

  7. […] echoes from the OUT article rumble on. Lambda online weighs in with an interesting point of view, that of saying that perhaps we need to redefine GLBT fiction. […]

  8. […] Lambda Literary ~ Can M/M Romance Challenge the Definition of LGBT Lit? But isn’t it time to stop policing the gates of the LGBT community and begin to embrace the […]

  9. Marshall Thornton 19 August 2010 at 12:19 PM #

    The article is interesting but it does leave something out. The m/m publishers are largely small presses, many focused mainly on ebooks. I work with two of them and though I don’t consider myself a romance writer they’re willing to publish my work. I think if you look through what these publishers are publishing you’ll find a great deal of variety, much more so than this article suggests. The larger publishers still have a narrow view of what’s acceptable GLBT work – not that I don’t enjoy some of what they publish but their choices are less and less inspired.

  10. Selah March 19 August 2010 at 4:47 PM #

    I am a straight woman who writes “m/m” romance.

    When I was in college, I brought home a male friend, “Tom,” for Thanksgiving. My parents assumed we were dating. When I told them Tom was gay, they couldn’t understand why in the world I’d want to spend time with him, since there was no chance for a romantic relationship. Sadly, they had a hard time seeing past his sexuality to the smart, funny, caring person I’d come to know.

    I remember struggling to make them understand that there was more to Tom — as there is more to every human being — than whom he chose to take to bed.

    Fast forward twenty years. As I mentioned, I write romance, and some of my books feature men loving men. I have no “literary” pretensions. My books are commercial genre fiction about the redemptive properties of love, in all its flavors. I work as hard as any other writer to make my books as satisfying as possible to my readers, whomever they may be. I believe I hit the mark more often than I miss it.

    I’m disappointed to discover that when it comes right down to it, all that really matters to an awful lot of folks who should know better is… whom I choose to take to bed.

  11. NL Gassert 19 August 2010 at 8:53 PM #

    Why are we still debating the “credentials” of writers? Aren’t we past that yet? No one’s asking crime fiction writers if they’ve ever been arrested and/or masterminded a heist.

    • Pat Brown 5 October 2010 at 6:28 PM #

      I don’t get asked if I’ve ever killed anyone, but I do get a lot of odd looks when they look at my library of forensic books and murder. LOL. There may or may not be more women reading my books, I don’t know, but I know I don’t write them for women, I write them for readers who want the kind of darker crime books I write.

      Besides, don’t the statistics say more women than men read, period?

  12. Deirdre O'Dare 19 August 2010 at 10:50 PM #

    I find it awfully funny that everybody seems to get their drawers in a knot over how can a straigt black womm write about a gay white guy etc ad nauseum. Nobody ever asks how a perfectly law abiding person can write about a serial killer or a bank robber or even a child molester! Get a grip! People write about outer space and aliens and all kinds of paranormal things with absolutely no ‘background’ or experience in any of it. Hey, guess what FICTIon is based on imagination and some degree of knowledge and experience in being a human being! I know what love feels like and sex, from my perspective (mainly SWF) and sharing with/observing various partners. It fascinates me and I write about it. So bleeping what! I know people used to titter about romance writers doing ‘research’ and so on. really that is too damn funny. If we’d get the Victorian hangups off our backs and start being real there would be no issue!!

  13. Jacqueline Stirrup 20 August 2010 at 9:49 AM #

    There is a lot of snobbery in the gay community. Lesbians don’t like the butch/femme dynamic because they say it is emulating straights. Gay men think they are all experts on home decorating and anything artsy. All queers are convinced nobody understands them. I am a gay woman into butch/femme who writes m/m and straight romance.I suppose I don’t know what I’m talking about.We all need to get the rod out of our asses. If you write it they will come. There’s an audience for everything. It’s just not always the one you think it is.

  14. Jendi 20 August 2010 at 10:27 AM #

    Until the modern era, most published writers were men because of patriarchal limitations on women’s opportunities. Male writers have always *assumed* they had the authority to represent women’s experience, and the best writers have done this with empathy and honest willingness to understand, instead of projecting their own fantasies onto another’s experience. Well, boys…turnabout is fair play!

    When I, a straight woman writer, discovered this gay male character inside me who needed to tell his story, I did a lot of research (reading and conversations) to try to be true to his perspective. It’s always a balancing act to integrate this feedback without abdicating my authority as the storyteller. Women historically have not been encouraged to claim this authority – think of George Eliot, for instance, a woman writing under a man’s name in order to be published (how queer is that!).

    Ultimately I think the crossover trend is politically positive because it challenges straight writers and readers to identify with a marginalized group, yet also pushes gay men to recognize the “boys’ club” dynamic that would invalidate female voices. I always supported GLBT rights in the abstract, but when I began to feel my characters’ pain, I became an activist.

  15. Marcus 23 August 2010 at 4:42 AM #

    I really do wonder how it is people have come to the notion that gay men are not reading these books. I am personally acquainted with several who are.

    Maybe it’s another of those “men don’t read” things? Or a “men don’t read, especially when it comes to romance” thing? It seems the authors are writing for whomever will buy. People are targeting authors as writing for straight women, but have they even considered that it’s probably the marketing department targeting these women? Marketing is going to target whatever audience they think will bring them the most money. Who traditionally bought the romance novels in your home? Was it mom, or dad? And if you subscribe to the theory that men don’t read, or at least so few do that they don’t impact the analysis reports, is it any wonder that marketing would try to make their product appeal to straight women? And of course it’s okay to read it even though it’s about gay men. Look, a woman wrote it!

    Tell ya what though. I’ll write about pie without knowing how to make it. I know a good thing when I taste it.

  16. Marcus 23 August 2010 at 5:12 AM #

    (And yes, I realize many homes do not have the mom/dad set-up. Mine didn’t. It was more playing into the cookie-cutter life that marketing hoists on the general population.)

  17. Laura Baumbach 5 October 2010 at 6:06 PM #

    Rolling Stone Magazine has just put M/M romance on their 2010 HOT LIST. That says it all. Issue 1115. Page 90.

  18. Sarah Black 5 October 2010 at 10:11 PM #

    Why are we still bickering? I feel like hiding my head under the pillow. I’m not writing for straight women or gay men–I’m just so grateful for readers of any flavor I could hug you till you beg for release. Our human relationship to each other seems to have been lost in all the recent debate- I’m a mother, daughter, aunt, sister, cousin, friend, and I love you, all of you, and want you to have good romances to read. I’m writing the very best story I can, and I want you to go read it. I can’t remember if I’m G, L, B, T, Q, I, or just an oddball. (It’s been too long, and menopause is killing my memory.) Can we please all agree to try to get along? If things get any worse among us, Thanksgiving is going to be hell! Hugs, Sarah. (I’ll start the pies! Dinner at my house!)

  19. Victor J. Banis 6 October 2010 at 6:06 AM #

    Thanks, Jules, for mentioning my name, and yes, there are plenty of male gay writers (and for all I know, straight, that’s none of my business) working in the genre – interestingly, they are writers like myself mostly ignored by the big NYC houses and find themselves instead published by the small indies, many of whom are – gasp! – hotbeds of the M/M movement – e.g., William Maltese, Rick Reed, Neil Plakcy, Alan Chin, J.P. Bowie and a host of others. One could argue convincingly, and I have elsewhere, that the women of the m/m movement are keeping the glbt genre alive, for which I am grateful. MLR Press is probably the premiere publisher of m/m, yet I am one of MLR’s top sellers, with decidely “gay” books. So, what is it that MLR Publisher Laura Baumbach knows that publishers at, say, St. Martin’s Press, don’t seem to grasp? Could it be a sense of what readers want?

  20. Andy 22 February 2011 at 11:28 PM #

    I found this article… Strange…

    Are you saying Lee Rowan and Donald Hardy are straight?

    When I read Lee’s bio, I assumed she was a lesbian after reading her bio

    And I also just assumed Donald Hardy was gay, as I didn’t expect a straight guy to write a gay romance novel… But maybe I’m wrong

  21. Betty Blue 27 April 2011 at 6:23 PM #

    I found the *response* to this article strange. Am I reading the same article as everyone else? Did no one read to the end? “But isn’t it time to stop policing the gates of the LGBT community and begin to embrace the queerness that exists in even the most seemingly heterosexual spaces and places? Isn’t it about time that we allow writers to have as complicated identities as the defiantly queer heroine, Lisbeth Salander?”

    Everyone seems to be reading something exactly the opposite of this conclusion into the article. I think it’s only natural that this question would arise in the first place (wouldn’t it, if African American romance suddenly became hugely popular among caucasian writers and readers?). We shouldn’t confuse the discussion for an attack when it plainly ends with a call to expand our thinking about who has the “authority” to write what (in essence, it’s saying we don’t need “authority” to be authentic writers about the human experience).

  22. […] wankage alert on that link. For a MUCH better Lambda-sponsored editorial on the issue, see this one by Lizzy Shramko. But avoid the comments with their kneejerk responses.) The fact that most of the best m/m authors […]

  23. […] “Can M/M Romance Challenge the Definition of LGBT Lit?” Lambda Literary (Aug. 18, 2010) <;. Accessed Feb. 19, […]

  24. scavola 14 September 2012 at 2:01 PM #

    I won’t read M/M.

    1) The term is too sanitizing, a more ‘socially acceptable’ way of saying gay or homosexual.

    2) M/M is based in fan fiction featuring two STRAIGHT men.

    3) M/M typically features a strong, butch, straight / ‘questioning his sexuality’ ‘ALPHA’ and a smaller, feminine, cute little gay ‘beta’ that has to be saved/rescued, which is more a classical (outdated) heterosexual dynamic.

    4) M/M is easily and often derived into M/M/F, where one or both have or share a sexual relationship with a woman.

    5) M/M typically has not only intense action or conflict but also a HEA, ‘happily ever after’, ending.

    6) M/M ‘books’ are novellas or short stories and primarily erotica, ‘beaters’ as I call them.

    7) M/M is not about acceptance/support of the LGBT community, as lesbian and trans fiction isn’t nearly, if at all, as popular.

    Let’s just say it, women like to read about two guys going at it like men like to watch to girls go at it, as long as they can maintain the fantasy of joining them. That’s what M/M is.

    • scavola 14 September 2012 at 3:38 PM #

      . . . that being said, I don’t care who writes it.

      • scavola 14 September 2012 at 5:40 PM #

        OMG, I totally saw ‘August’ but not ‘2010’! I’m 2 years too late!

    • Ksb78 26 September 2015 at 3:44 PM #

      I agree with Scovola.

      Gay romance is written by women and the audience is women. One can do all the research about real gay men in the real gay community, but what it comes down to is two hot fire fighters/police men/ rich billionaire/ wolf or vampire shifter seeing each other for the first time and falling in love. They’re always six foot something with abs of steel and great bodies with piercing eyes that can look into your soul. They are not real representations of gay men, they are fantastic ideals that we women love to read about. We love the endorphin release when the two hot guys come together in the happily ever after. That’s what comes down to; women love to read about two hot guys coming together in fantastic escapist way. And who better to write that than a woman cause a woman knows what women want in their gay romance. Japan got it right! Look at yaoi ( boys love) manga. They know that it is romantic fantasy written by women for women and bear no realism what so ever to the real LGBTQ community. Thats how they market it cause its the truth. There is a difference between m/m romance novels and gay/LGBTQ fiction. And all these romance novels full of guys falling for each other and hot sexin scenes may have the heroe coming to terms with his sexuality and those around him not understanding, but that does not make it a book about LGBTQ issues. Huge difference.

  25. Sam 12 March 2013 at 9:52 PM #

    I think its about time that major publishers look at the GLBT themes in books as not a taboo. Cause in recent years the GLBT Community has grown.

    Also to when it comes to GLBT Books i would like to walk into the romance section of a bookstore and see a GLBT theme romance.
    Regardless of what women might think of two men falling in love on the cover. but for some reason if its erotica then they file them together.

    So basically what i’m saying is it doesn’t matter if the author is straight/Gay or in between. What matters is the story period.

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