no defense needed

This is a real thing that happened to me this week:

Monday night, I was in SoHo for Lady Jane’s Salon, NYC’s monthly romance novel reading series. I got there early because things are slow at the day job, so I decided to stop at this coffee shop for a snack and a latte. I sat at the window and read The Windflower—a bonkers old-skool romance recently reissued that I seriously loved to bits—and so I was reading about pirate-y adventures and sipping my latte. This guy came over and dumped his laptop on the counter next to me and asked me to move over to make space for him, so I did. Before he even turned his laptop on, he said, “Is that a good book you’re reading?”

“Yes,” I said, because this book, I can’t even.

I will interrupt this story to say: 1) Ihis is maybe the third or fourth time some guy has hit on me by asking about what I’m reading, and it’s not a bad tactic as far as it goes, but usually this happens to me on the subway after a long day when all I want to do is go home. The guy who got the closest to picking me up this way was really cute, but then he told me he was a reporter for a right-wing newspaper, so he was disqualified.

2) This guy at the coffee shop was 20 years older than me at least and had the word “fuck” tattooed on both hands. On his hands. One letter per finger. So: not my type.

But he seemed nice enough and was not hard on the eyes. Not a creeper, from what I could tell. He said, “Oh, what are you reading?” and, because this guy did not look like the sort of man who would know about the magic that is The Windflower, I said, “A romance novel.” “Oh, darn,” he replied.

He got up to get coffee then, and I thought that was the end of it, but when he got back, he said, “Oh, I’ve got it. The most romantic movie I’ve ever seen.” He then proceeded to tell me, in excruciating detail, the plot of some movie from the 1930s that I’ve forgotten the name of, and it was charming of him to try, but his story ended with him saying, “Well, I guess it’s not really a romance, but I thought it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen,” so that happened.

I walked out of the coffee shop not long after that, but actually, the interesting thing about this encounter is that he never once derided my choice in reading material (perhaps because he wanted to get in my pants?) and instead went a little out of his way to find common ground, which is admirable, but I couldn’t get past the hand tattoos.

I think this incident is kind of an interesting contrast to the myriad mansplaining articles that have come out recently in which dudes try to explain about romance and its readers and they are often baffled that women can be so successful while writing fiction they find beneath them.

It’s not really worth it to get outraged anymore. I mean, these are the facts: romance is the biggest genre on the planet. Its authors have achieved significant financial success. The books make people happy. Full stop. What more do you need?

I started reading romance again in my late twenties after a post-college, “I only read Literature” phase, and the first thing that struck me was just how much fun I had reading those books. And many, many romance novels are well-written, emotionally resonant, superbly-constructed novels. Some make you laugh, some make you ugly-cry, some are just thoroughly enjoyable.

So that’s it. The books are good. The authors are successful. That’s the bottom line.

And, hey, maybe some of these male authors writing trend pieces on romance will do the mental acrobatics the hand-tattooed guy did for me, trying to understand why I, a not-unattractive woman reading in a coffee shop, would find the genre so appealing. (This guy also asked me what a good romance novel was, and I suggested Flowers from the Storm, one of my favorite books of all time and my go-to, “So you are a lit fic reader who wants to try romance,” suggestion. I lend my copy out all the time to convert people. He said he’d check it out, but I don’t know if I believe him.)

m/m writers in the news

Did you guys see the article about Alex Beecroft and Erastes in Out?

I’ve enjoyed both Beecroft’s and Erastes’s writing. The article has some interesting bits. I liked this exchange:

“It isn’t all about the porn,” Beecroft laments.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

“I know. People don’t, and it’s such an annoyance. Do you think a 300-page book that’s got three sex scenes in it is all about the sex?”

Erastes concurs. “I think people automatically think gay equals sex. That would be like saying heterosexual equals sex, and that is a very unfair thing to say.”

Both agree that the first kiss in their books is “almost more intimate than sex.”

I know that for me as a reader, I like the sexy times, but a novel is not held together by sexy times alone; it needs a good story. I always think about story first when I’m writing. I feel pretty strongly that the sex scenes should serve the story in some way. So I agree with Beecroft and Erastes on that level.

The discussion of gender identity was pretty interesting, too; I leave it to you to read and think about. (I have Opinions, but I don’t want to shove my foot in my mouth too far. I totally respect Beecroft and Erastes, but I’m coming at the genre from a different place.) I do like this conclusion: “M/M fans already know (and the rest of the world must catch up eventually) that love abhors all limitations, and gender is among the least of these.”

if nothing else, I am a huge dork

Elisa posted an interview with Ryan Field that I thought was kind of interesting (and a good test of my Italian skills; that is one of my secret talents). Here, I will translate for you (this is the second question):

What kind of readers are you addressing? Those who believe that sex and love are inseparable. And I think that readers are always looking for this union. I also consider that readers are looking for novels with a happy ending that raises them from the stress of real life. Reading a novel, regardless of genre, must help them escape their problems. And from the letters I get, it seems to me that readers are eager to escape reality.

(Italian is not my first language, obviously, so apologies if I goofed anywhere.)

I’ve been thinking a lot the last few days about my own expectations as a reader and why I like romance novels and what I want out of them and so on. I do like realistic, slice-of-life sorts of novels. I like fantasy, too. For example, I just read Jungle Heat by Bonnie Dee. I had some niggles in terms of things I didn’t think were quite realistic, but I really enjoyed the book as a fantasy, insofar as my thinking was, “I’m not sure this could have happened, but wouldn’t it have been cool if it did?” That’s maybe the crux of historical or speculative fiction. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the stuff I’ve been writing lately, which has definitely been more on the fantastical end of the spectrum. I don’t really know if ghosts exist, but what if they did? How cool would it be if someone had lived through hundreds of years of human history? If someone from 1850 were plunked into 2010, what would they think of all this? Pros, cons, bad, good, what would happen? These are things I think about when contemplating what worlds and ideas I could explore as a writer.

Romance is a different kind of fantasy, though, often “realistic” in that there are characters who live in our world, characters that make mistakes and have mundane jobs and are mostly like us. But romances also take us to world where everyone has a true love and lives happily ever after. Where we get into the heads of characters who lead different lives than we do, characters for whom good things happen. And maybe, as Ryan Field says in the article, part of the fantasy of erotic romance is that sex and love are the same, that one is borne of the other or is an expression of the other or both. Maybe part of the fantasy of romance is that we read these novels and think, “Life could be this way.”

I’ll tell you what my fantasy is: for the sun to break through the thunderstorm currently raging outside my window, and for a good night’s sleep after almost two weeks of travel (I spent the weekend traveling around New England with my family). Actually, if the orange glow on the buildings across the street from my living room window means anything, it’s that my first wish is coming true. Sleep next!

man oh man

There’s an article in LA Weekly about gay romance. Mostly, it’s cool that attention is being paid to the genre. But comments, I has them.

She uses the pen name “James Buchanan” because in the niche of the gay-romance novel, publishers see male writers as more authentic and, more importantly, so do readers.

I wonder about this. There’s probably some truth to it. I’ve read one of James Buchanan’s books (Hard Falling, which I quite enjoyed) and didn’t know she was a woman until I read the About the Author at the end. The statement, though, ignores excellent female writers of m/m romance with female names like Clare London and Laura Baumbach, to name a few. When I started pursuing publication, I gave the pen name thing a lot of thought. I came down on the side of having an obviously female name, I guess because I figured my readers would know they were getting a romance written by a woman. Whether there’s a difference between m/m penned by men or penned by women is up for debate. (And the article continues: “It’s an entirely hollow gesture to the genre’s growing number of fans. They know Buchanan is a woman, just as they know that most gay-romance novels are written by women like her.”)

In many ways the growing popularity of gay romance represents nothing less than a tectonic shift in a culture that says women don’t (and shouldn’t) consume porn. Hot and steamy gay-romance literature is to women what Internet porn is to men: They get off on it, mostly in secret, and keep coming back for more.

This is also true to a point, but bothersome. I hate the “romance novels are porn for women” meme in discussions of the genre, because it’s not really true. It’s certainly not why I read romance novels. I personally am a sucker for a good love story, but also, there’s a lot of interesting, subversive stuff happening now, especially out of small and ebook-only presses, and saying “romance is porn” undermines a lot of it. Not that there aren’t a lot of smutty books coming out, too.

But, example: Sean Kennedy’s novel Tigers and Devils was nominated for an ebook award in the erotica category. The book is excellent and definitely worthy of all the award nominations you want to pile on it, but there’s no on-the-page sex at all. To me, a book with no explicit sex scenes is not erotica. But both people engaging in the off-the-page sex are male, so… must be erotica?

Although, to be fair, the article discusses some other reasons why women are devouring gay romance. Some theories are reasons I’d agree with. There’s the obvious: straight women like to watch men make out with each other the same way straight men like to watch women get it on. There’s the less obvious and, to me, more compelling: gay romance is romance with the gender politics removed. The protagonists are on equal footing.

Or, you know, porn for women. *eyeroll*

For UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson, author of the forthcoming Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, pornography is to male psychology what romance fiction is to female psychology. These books are “the story of a heroine overcoming all these obstacles to unite with a hero,” he says. “That is what pushes these male-male romance stories. If you make it two males, they still embody female psychology. There’s still the quest for romance, love and intense emotional feelings.”

The male characters in gay romances, then, are perhaps men only superficially. At heart they’re women. They may look like boys, and make love with male bodies, but they think and act and love like girls.

I disagree. There was some discussion of this in the comments of this Jessewave post. I’ve written here that one of my goals is to make male characters read authentically male. I think the best writers in the genre (some of whom are male) accomplish this.

The article also has interviews with some big names in the genre, like Jet Mykles and AM Riley, but mostly they talk about spicy sex scenes.

I don’t know. Above all, I want to tell a good story. The tricky thing with romance is that traditional romance is so full of gender essentialism and, dare I say it, sexism. One of the things that I’ve really loved about exploring romance via the big e-publishers is that these smaller houses are more willing to take chances on novels that are unusual and different. I view the sexy parts as gravy.