Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reviews, Writing and the Victor/Victoria Principle

Yikes. A tough review of "The White Stag" from Tam at Tam's Reads :

"Joshua met Jude (a Senator's son) at a grief support group for those who lost people in 9-11. They eventually hook up but Joshua won't commit because Jude is an atheist and Joshua can't be with someone who doesn't believe in God. They remain friends though and he's invited to the fancy Christmas party. Can they work out their differences? I had issues with this book, well with Joshua I guess because I'm an atheist and I can't believe someone would refuse to be with me because I don't believe the same things they do. Arrgghh. You bigoted asshole. It's mentioned that Joshua's family is totally fundie and he left the church, and yet he treats Jude the same way his family would treat anyone not as religious as them. Also I found there was this whole scenario at the end with a white stag coming out of the forest and bowing down to Jude which was a bit too out there. Couldn't they have just worked it out without some supernatural element? Anyway, Joshua's attitude pissed me off and I didn't like him much so I didn't care if he and Jude got together, in fact I'd rather they didn't because it's going to rear it's ugly head again, guarantee it."

This is the entire text of the review of my story, but check out Tam's Blog for more reviews and commentary on the m/m world. Looks like she reads widely and has a clear grasp on the genre.

Which brings me to my reason for posting this review: Is the m/m romance genre the place for me? I think a great many of my friends marvel that a guy so drawn to dark themes is writing romantic fiction. Writing fiction has been an interesting journey for me and I am still struggling to define myself as a writer . . . or maybe not to define myself as a writer.

A couple of years ago I stumbled into the world of m/m romance. I had read a lot of fan fiction (mostly X-Files and Doctor Who slash) and even read a few chapters of an early edition of Henry Jenkins's Textual Poaching: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (which is still in print and has been available on kindle since 2007). I liked the fiction a lot, but the art was often a stunning springboard for my imagination.

(Sidebar: If you like slash art and have not been to The Theban Band, take a look. The Mulder/Krycek page is pretty fantastic, but there's a lot of great stuff there. Be sure to look in on Sam & Frodo and the gang at Hogwarts while you're there.)

Initially the idea of rewriting film and television mythology appealed to me for the obvious reasons. As a gay man, I could watch The Empire Strikes Back and simultaneously want to be Han Solo and want to be experiencing the beginnings of a flirty, sexy relationship with him (like Princess Leia). This instantaneous mental and emotional vacillation from one perspective to another was my way of dealing with a world in which one of the characters on the screen was usually the wrong gender. And of course, Science Fiction has not traditionally been filled with man-on-man romance or sex. (Go figure.)

I was fascinated to note at the time that the vast majority of the people I encountered online creating and consuming m/m slash fiction and art were women. I didn't know what to make of it, but the concept fascinated me.

After a while, my attention wandered. From online slash archives I meandered a bit, reading a lot, but eschewing traditional and m/m romance in my own writing because I knew that my own heart tends to the darker side of experience. I was drawn more to erotica, horror and alternative history. Erotica, for me, was a place to explore dark emotions and the kinds of topics that don't really provide naturally happy endings (obsession, regret, melancholy, loneliness, violence etc). We are drawn to the themes we write; we do not choose them.

I stumbled back into the romance genre by reading (believe it or not) MaryJanice Davidson's Undead series. I have always wandered occasionally into the borderland between the worlds of romance, contemporary "chick lit" (a descriptive term I use, but also deplore), and paranormal. I had been reading Laurell K. Hamilton, watching as Anita Blake transformed from a hard-ass private eye into a sex queen. When you look at these dueling vamp writers, you can really get a feel for the breadth of the paranormal romance genre.

When I came back to the m/m genre for some reason I didn't read the paranormals. I read Zahra Owens's novel Diplomacy, which I really enjoyed and which inspired me to give this type of writing a try. I also read and enjoyed Nicki Bennett and Ariel Tachna, and the charming Lisa Marie Davis. What I eventually discovered was that all of these authors write for Dreamspinner Press.

And so I embarked on an experiment. I produced a novelette called "How Could I Not" that was eventually published by Dreamspinner in an anthology called Sindustry Vol. I.

I struggled to write a story about a male prostitute that wasn't mired in pathos or grit or grime and which ended happily. Happy endings have always been a challenge for me. I tend to default to happy beginnings. And so I grappled with the material, seeking lyricism, humor and romance and walked away with reader comments like "a complex little story." I also got busted from an "A-" to a "B-" by one reviewer for allowing the characters to have sex without a condom.

There are apparently a lot of rules in this genre.

One of the interesting challenges of writing in the m/m romance genre, with its roots firmly planted in the slash fan fic world, is that there are very few male writers or readers. It is still a young genre that is very much defined by women writers (who often use male pseudonyms) and women readers, and as such, it is different than the environment one might expect in a genre whose characters are all men who love men

I imagine sometimes the idealized world that produces romantic prose and happy endings can accentuate this difference. The rules of the genre encourage safe sex, emotional commitment, the healing power of love, transformation and, of course, those buggery happy endings. I have read some reviews about my fellow Dreamspinner writers that hacked their work to bits for containing analingus or main characters who cheat on one another. I think the gay world treats these things as de rigueur, part and parcel of the gay experience. The thing that makes this genre interesting and challenging to me as a writer is what I have come to think of as the Victor/Victoria Principle. As a male writer of m/m romance, I have to find a place in my head where I can become a woman pretending to be a man writing about two men from the perspective of a woman.

Tam's review brought me to ponder all these things. In reading her response to my work, I understood that she got the character of Joshua. The fact that he is not a very tolerant Christian and is unwilling to have a relationship with someone who is not Christian is a situation I have encountered personally several times here in the American South. Religion is a big deal to people here. At work I am often asked by people I have just met, "What church do you go to?" and I often hear co-workers talking seriously about "mixed marriages" in which Christians are trying to make it work with a partner of another faith. It's startling sometimes, the assumptions people make here about religion.

I had a boyfriend who was a pretty devout, but admirably liberal Christian who was brought tears when we discussed my own lack of belief. Joshua is not a particularly broad-minded person, which is perhaps his greatest fault as a person, but one of the things that makes him an interesting character. I was somewhat mystified by Jude's intense interest in Joshua, but who am I, the lowly writer, to intercede? Perhaps Joshua's relationship with Jude will open his eyes to the possibilities the world has to offer. Or perhaps Tam is right that he's a "bigoted asshole" and the issue of religion will rear its ugly head again. Maybe Joshua will eventually get upset about something else Jude says or does or believes and storm off in a rage.

Tam was also right to say there is more to come. There will be more. Jude is a great character, though I don't know how long he will be with Joshua. To stay with Jude, Joshua will have to really change his outlook, because in Jude's world, the bowing dog and stag are really just the tip of the magical iceberg. So will Jude appear in another romance? I've noticed that his heart tends to the melancholy, but only time will tell.

One parting photo for you. This is Jude's beloved Florida prairie near where the White Stag appeared.


  1. I read (and really enjoyed) The White Stag, enough to find your blog/site and want to read more from you, so I'm delighted to see that these characters will appear again.
    My religious beliefs fit neither of the protagonist's views, but I enjoyed their story. That this (religious belief) is one of the potential roadblocks to a relationship is true - there are more, like vegetarianism/veganism, politics .... Working through differences is as satisfying as finding that immediate/perfect "fit", the journey is just different. On the writing gender-swap thing, I don't know how much it matters, as the more so-called m/m I read, the broader my boundaries seem to be. I still read more books written by women than men in the genre, but I have noticed a change in the ratio over the last year or so (or perhaps more men are writing for the publishers I habitually check?). I think that any writer with the imagination to write fantasy is already a romance writer to some degree - the HEA or HFN is as tangible in The Lord Of The Rings as it is in the latest m/m (or m/f) release. I have always read fantasy (and therefore fantasy romance) and I hope that this will include more stories from you.
    Cheers and thank you.

    p.s. I also like murder-mystery series if happened to be pondering on something along those lines. *g*

  2. You're being very hard on yourself, Jamie. I can understand your frustrations and bemusement at some of the 'conventions' of m/m romance, which you are right are very closely linked to that of m/f romance. Then again for every reviewer/reader who criticises your writing for being too gritty, there will be other reviewers/readers who love that grittiness. Many readers do hate cheating partners, but many don't; many hate rimming, but many don't. I have to admit, safe-sex is usually a must (and yes, I know this doesn't always happen in RL, but reader's don't like their heroes taking unnecessary risks - although I personally think that, unless the hero is a hooker, condoms for oral is taking it a bit too far). There does have to be a happy ending though: That is one romantic convention that is set in stone, even if it's only a 'happy for now' or a promise of things to come.

    Do I have a point here? Possibly not! Other than to say that you should just write what makes you happy, what you want to write. If that means that you begin to move away from the romance genre then so be it.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful remarks and your encouragement.

    I think whenever I am exploring a new genre, it feels like a puzzle box. What happens when I try this? What happens when I force this moment? Learning the language and structures of the genre can be maddening and frustrating and exhilirating and magical.

    Jenre, your comments about safe sex, real life and happy endings (or happy for now) are well said.

    H, I like the idea of fantasy as a genre occupying the land between romance and magic. You are correct that the boundaries between these two genres are more fluid than some others and fantasy skills trasfer to romance. A good insight that I hadn't thought about before.

    I am working on an outline for a mystery. I've got great characters, but the plotting is intricate and requires a level of planning to which I am unaccustomed. (Another puzzle box for Jamie.) It reminds me of writing sonnets or sestinas in that you have to put together a pretty rigid framework in order for the finished project to make sense, but if you're too rigid, your words won't soar. (So maybe soon . . .)

    And there is more Jude coming. I have other Jude stories written before this one that will eventually see print and Jude always seems to come around asking for more stories. He's a good character.

    Many thanks (again) for taking the time to join me in this conversation.

    Yours thoughtfully,