Why M/M Romance?

I came across this thought-provoking commentary on jessewave last night regarding tropes in M/M romances and whether the genre was aimed at women or men.  I immediately sat down and wrote a long response to it–only the site ate my response and I hadn’t saved it.

You know that moment where your hand hovers over the ‘send’ button and you waffle about hitting it, which is when your brain tells you ‘if there’s any doubt, don’t do it!’ and you hit send anyway?

Yeah, I had one of those moments.

Fortunately, the site ate it, and it gave me an out. I could either sit on my hands altogether and go back to working the the WIP (which, though moving at a glacial pace, IS moving), or I could re-draft and repost my response here.

I know what the social media gurus would say: Are you nuts? Don’t make waves! Keep your online presence smiling and cheerful. Don’t do anything to offend your potential readership!

Yeah, I’m so good at that!  *eyes political ranting and frothing-at-the-mouth rage of the past year or so and has grace to look embarrassed*

I have to admit, I had a hard time even knowing how to title this post. I started out calling it “Why Women Read and Write M/M Romance” but the truth is, I can only speak for me.  It’s not like I haven’t written about the subject before. I’m not sure why I’m tentative now. Maybe it’s because I’m more aware of how controversial this subject can be now.  I dunno.

The jessewave post opens with the author describing a romantic interaction between him and his husband in the purple prose terms of many a common M/M novel. It was funny, it was ludicrous, and by the end of his demonstration, I could see where it could be called demeaning and insulting, as well.  And yet my first thought when I read this was, Yeah, so? Show me a typical romance novel that doesn’t simplify and stereotype the main characters.

Mind you, I’m not defending it because everyone else is doing the same. I think that this is part of the problem with the genre, not specifically M/M romance, but ROMANCE in general. I also think new writers learn by copying others–and it takes logging in many hours at the keyboard before you develop a strong enough style and sense of identity to step away from repeating patterns seen in other stories. Remember too, most of us write because we want to tell the kinds of stories we love to read–so breaking free from the herd can be tough at first.

As I read the article, the general gist of the complaint seemed to run along the lines of feminizing male characters in order to fulfill a traditional male/female relationship–and that the reason for doing this seems to be to sell more books in the M/M genre, which admittedly is one of the hottest subgenres at the moment.  I gotta tell you, though, one of the reasons I write M/M romance is because the main characters *aren’t* women. “Chicks with dicks” is the last thing I want to create. Also? I write because I love it. I write because it’s a compulsion (cheaper than therapy!), and it is harder to create in a vacuum, hence the attempt to market what I create in the hopes that someone else will like it too. I’m not going to Paris on the proceeds!

How do I best explain why I write M/M romance and not M/F? Maybe it is because every time we create a bad-ass awesome heroine in fiction, we find ourselves creating all these qualifiers to go along with her. If she is too tough and aggressive, then she’s a mean bitch. If she likes baking or knitting, then she’s a piss-poor throwback to the 1950s. I’ve been accused of being misogynistic simply because I didn’t like a female character and thought her ill-suited for her role in the story. When we create that bad-ass heroine, she either stands out as an exception to the rule, or else she is the clone of the last bad-ass heroine we’ve read about. We as writers just can’t win.

Now, that may sound like a weenie reason for abandoning my sex and running off to play with male characters, but it is more than that. When I was growing up, the men got all the good parts. Kirk got to go down to the planet and save the day, while Uhura sat on the bridge and announced that the hailing frequencies are open, Captain. Do I disparage the Uhura of the day? No! We needed her! We needed to see Nichelle Nichols on the bridge, depicting a black woman in some other role than a maid. Do I love the direction the remake made with Uhura? You damn betcha! I love her competence and her desire to reach out and get what she wants–what she deserves. But there was a forty year gap between those two incarnations, and it would have been impossible for us to bridge that gap without each new, slightly revised female role model along the way.  I keep insisting that one day I will write a female main protagonist that I won’t want to bitch-slap twenty pages into the story, but it hasn’t happened yet. Why? Because at this point in time, her story doesn’t grab me.

With the exception of such standout television shows as The Closer, it is often difficult to find an outstanding portrayal of a strong female character that is in some way not a caricature as well. One of the reasons The Closer worked for me was (unbelievably talented writing and production aside), that Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson was first and foremost a fully-fleshed out character–who happened to be a woman. I’ve been asked why I’ve never tried my hand at Closer fanfic. Well, damn.  How can you top that? The show provided everything I, as a viewer, could have hoped for. For me, fanfic was unnecessary.

I write M/M romances because these are the characters I most identify with and want to know more about. I identify with the marginalization and inequalities that members of the GLBT community feel, even though, as a straight, white women in the US, I have a lot less to complain about than any member of this community. I still ‘get’ being the outsider, though. The ‘outsider’ experience doesn’t usually take center stage in my stories–I’m writing romance, not gay fiction.  But it does color the actions of my characters even as it affects most of my interactions today. Bottom line, these are the characters that interest me, whose stories I want to tell.

One of my favorite authors, the creator of some kick-ass top-notch heroines, is male. He writes tech-heavy sci-fi space opera, and I love his work with a passion. Do I question his ability to write a believable heroine taking a lover for the first time at the age of 45? No, not really. I suspect it’s because his story is not fundamentally about the relationship–the relationship is but a small piece in the background of a much larger story.

Perhaps this is why the question of women writing M/M romances keeps getting raised. The fault lies in the fact that the entire story is built around the relationship, and that getting the characters together is the whole reason we’re here. As such, there is definitely a sense that we as women are inserting too much of what turns *us* on into our stories, rather than completely immersing ourselves in a man’s mentality. Or maybe I’m wrong in that impression. I can’t help but feel that if we were writing about hobbits, elves, dragons, serial killers or murderers, there would be less talk of how women can’t possibly write about something they are not.

At the same time, we need reminders of when tropes become outdated or offensive. We need reminders that what may be hot for our female readership might even be demeaning to the men we are trying to portray. We need someone to poke fun at purple prose and take us to task for falling into the trap of repeating everything we’ve read before us. Gotta tell you, I don’t see the old rape-turned-love trope as much anymore, and man, am I thankful for that! Talk about a trope to make me grind my teeth! I’m grateful for women writers, such as J. P. Barnaby, who will ask her male friends how often they really jack off in the shower, instead of mindlessly repeating what is admittedly a damn fine visual trope. So I salute Stuart, the author of the jessewave piece, for turning a spotlight on the subject.

A while back, I misread a prompt for a story, got 60 K into it, and realized I didn’t have a market for what I’d written. No problem, I decided. I’d already published with Dreamspinner Press at that time–I’d simply change the female leads into men and send it in.

There was no ‘simple’ to it. No mere matter of doing a find and replace on names and pronouns. I had to re-write every single line. Because men move differently, act differently, speak differently. Hell, they even think differently. It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience, and I’m glad that I did it. Not only that, but the story became ten times stronger for the revision. It turned into Crying for the Moon, and I can no longer imagine it in its original form.

I just wanted to state for the record that while we need gentle reminders, and it is up to us as writers to keep improving our information, I don’t want to feel as though I’m being deliberately exploitative. I just write what I love.

While I’m here, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dreamspinner Press is celebrating getting over 10 K likes on their Facebook Fan Page by offering free stories, revolving discounts, and all kinds of giveaways! Do check them out (one of those free stories is a little ‘first kiss’ story of mine!)

2 thoughts on “Why M/M Romance?

  1. One of my biggest complaints about some m/m books are men being written like women. I’m not going to point fingers, and I sure as hell don’t want to piss anyone off, but there are some female writers who simply can’t write men. They write their guys from a female point of view and don’t seem to get there are very real differences in how the genders react to things.

    It often reads like women’s fantasy about how they wish men /were/ as opposed to how they /are/. Those are the books I don’t finish.

    I think some readers also like reading about fantasy men rather than real men. Witness the extreme dislike voiced by many of them when a male character in a book is behaving in a way they don’t agree with. In my book, The Blue Paradise, the main characters, new to one another but deciding to explore the romantic possibilities, are geographically separated for a time and agree to casual sex for the duration. To guys, this is logical. They weren’t married, weren’t in a relationship yet, and hey, why not? The uproar over this was deafening. “They’re CHEATING!”

    Actually, they weren’t. These readers wanted the men in the book to act like women. But men /don’t/ act like women, and they should be written true to their gender.
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    • I believe that this was the tenor of the complaint, and I can certainly see why that would be the case. As one of my friends elsewhere pointed out (much more elegantly and concisely that I have tried to state here) we wouldn’t be happy with a romanticized view of disability or, as the author stated in his comments to me, one religious sect taking a romanticized view of another one.

      The very scenario you mention in The Blue Paradise is exactly why I ran that deal breaker poll a while back–I was curious as to what some people viewed as cheating, among other things. The mutually agreed upon relationship you describe would not be considered cheating in my book, nor, as a woman in such a relationship, would I consider it cheating either. But there are obviously many who do.

      This is one of those things where I see social media as both a good and a bad thing. It probably took male authors of the seventies and eighties much longer to realize that the rape-turned-love trope is truly appalling and offensive to anyone who has ever been raped than it would today, simply because readers and writers have greater contact than ever before.

      On the other hand, having your story get blasted by a legion of angry fans because you depicted something very real within the scope of your experience has got to be incredibly frustrating.

      So I agree with the author of the commentary, and I take his message to heart. I just think that change, she will be a long time coming.

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