Book Lovers: What’s It All About Alfie?
Author: Dick Smart
June 20, 2012
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
As we celebrate the 24th annual Lambda Literary Award winner in Gay Romance, Every Time I Think of You, by Jim Provenzano (CreateSpace/Myrmidude Press), I invited three leading romance writers and critics to join me in discussion on the meaning of the gay romance genre within the larger context of gay literature.
Best-selling m/m romance writer Josh Lanyon has written about the background of m/m fiction and how it emerged from straight female fan fiction, whereas gay romance emerged from the pulps (Man, Oh Man! Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash, MLR Press, 2008). Romance was foundational for the emergence of gay literature, from Gordon Merrick to Patricia Nell Warren to the burst of gay literary fiction pre-AIDS.
Yet, Lanyon says, “Romance is always looked down on. Literary fiction writers look down on genre fiction, and within genre fiction, romance is the redheaded stepchild. And within romance, erotic fiction is the embarrassment. And yet it’s not like relationships and sex are not an important part of our lives.” Lanyon asks, “So what is it about us all—straight and gay—that makes us want to dismiss and disown romance fiction? While at the same time romance outsells everything else?” Lanyon says, “Our relationships give our lives meaning. The big stories are always love stories.”
2011 Lambda Literary Award winner for Gay Romance, Erik Orrantia, said, “I know that my novel Normal Miguel (Cheyenne Press, 2011) brought up the debate as to what gay romance actually is. In his review of the book in ‘Reviews by Jessewave,’ Victor Banis wrote, ‘It is really more about universal truths.’” A full-time elementary teacher with a degree in psychology, Orrantia says that Erik Erikson’s model of life-stages speaks to him about the meaning of romance fiction. He says Erikson describes “one’s life trajectory as a series of challenges or obstacles. After a person emerges successfully from one obstacle then he or she, now changed, proceeds to the next.” Those who fail to overcome the obstacle may suffer stagnation, he says, facing the same obstacle again and again. Orrantia says that Erikson’s life stages point to the central conflict that drives all romance fiction. “If there is no conflict, there is no story, right?” He says, “In Erikson’s young adult life-stage, Intimacy vs. Isolation, a person learns to develop an intimate relationship, risking solitude. In order to overcome the conflict, he must challenge himself and/or the other. Of this romance is made, and made, and made.”
This formulaic aspect of the romance genre referred to by Orrantia is given witty and pithy definition by 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist in Gay Romance, Eden Winters, in his novel Settling the Score, (Torquere Press):
“In your books, what happens when one lover runs away?”
“The other gives chase and woos them back?”
“Well, duh! What’cha waiting for?”
If romance is formulaic by definition, can there be such a thing as a non-traditional romance? How much latitude does the author have to experiment with the genre? I’m thinking non-monogamous relationships, unhappily ever afters (HEA), homely boyfriends, chubby chasers. Or how about just giving the romantic protagonists ordinary names like Joe and Bob, instead of Blake and Trent?
Leading gay literary blogger, editor and writer, Jerry L. Wheeler (Out In Print: Queer Book Reviews, www.outinprint.net), says, “I gravitate towards those books which expand (or totally obliterate) those constraints.” Wheeler complains, “The thing that bothers me about this genre is its unrelenting heteronormality.” Wheeler terms it the “assimilationist ideal.” He says, “It’s all about finding the ‘right guy’ and having that monogamous relationship with no possibility that there can be other sorts of relationships that can be just as romantic. Many of these guys don’t even have sex on the first date, which is totally not my experience. Is it a function of my age? I don’t think so.” Wheeler asks, “Do gay men fall in love and romance each other differently than straight couples do?” He says, “While I can’t generalize about every gay man, I do believe there’s a difference on how we approach romance.” He says, “My gut tells me that there’s more to it than what I’m seeing on many of these pages.”
Wheeler believes the problem lies in viewpoint, “The [m/m romances] I read authored by women tend to be heteronormative, monogamous, and assimilationist, aiming for a male-male, white picket fence, HEA scenario as the ultimate positive outcome and that goal is never denied, leaving me feeling left out because as a reader and as a gay man, that isn’t my ultimate objective.” Wheeler asks about viewpoint, “Is this because they’re written by women? Not wholly, because the male authored ones I’ve read are just about the same. This leads me to wonder who is the audience for these books? Are they written for gay men or straight women? From what I understand, m/m fiction comes from a monogamous, heterosexual female standpoint.” He says, “That said, it could hardly speak to my experience as a gay man. Therefore, it’s not written for me.” Wheeler says, “If it’s written for straight women, why are we considering it for a gay award? Because the characters are gay? Well, they’re really not, are they? They’re written as women with different genitalia.” He says, “Perhaps we should stop kidding ourselves and just re-title the Gay Romance category the M/M Romance category.”
Josh Lanyon responds, “The majority of books nominated in the Gay Romance category this year were submitted by gay male writers. In fact, given the outcry against (straight) women writing gay romance, I’m surprised any women submitted at all. In fact, I think we would have had a much more interesting mix of books if more female m/m writers had submitted.” Lanyon says, “My readership is probably two thirds female—however it might surprise you to know that many of those women are lesbians, not straight female readers. And in fact, lesbians run many m/m romance publishers—Blind Eye Books is one example, Torquere is another, and so is Bold Strokes. I think this is something that has been forgotten or perhaps overlooked in the backlash against ‘straights appropriating our experiences and identity.’” Lanyon says, “Women didn’t create the romance genre and they didn’t create the ideal of a romantic love with a soul mate. That whole soul mate thing came from the Greek (male) philosophers, right?”
Lanyon says, “I think the majority of our gay male romance writers—many of whom state in their bios that they are happily married to long-time partners—cherish and foster this romantic tradition every bit as much as female (straight and otherwise) writers do.” Lanyon says, “Men write some of the sappiest god awful stuff in this genre. Are they compromising on the ‘truth’ because they just want to sell a lot of books to an audience they fail to accurately assess?” Lanyon doesn’t think so. Lanyon says, “Most romance readers (male and female) have an expectation—rightly or wrongly—of a happy ending.” Lanyon says, “If that HEA is not delivered, the book will rarely do well. Which means publishers (and authors who hope to make any money at all) usually provide happy endings. So it’s probably a business decision as much as anything else.” Lanyon points out that a HEA in gay romance might be more radical than some contemporary critics may think, “I advocate happy endings because I grew up reading books where queers did not get happy endings. They were generally portrayed as freaks or villains or victims. So I take great pleasure in a publishing environment that permits and even encourages happy endings.”
“I suspect you guys aren’t really reading that broadly within the genre,” Lanyon says, “because there is actually quite a bit of experimentation and pushing of boundaries—racial boundaries, cultural boundaries, even stories about middle-aged bald, chubby guys.” One example of a romance that pushes the limitations of traditional narrative structure was the 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist Barry Brennessel’s Tinseltown from MLR Press. Lanyon says, “It’s not all brooding vampires and their outcast werewolf lovers or two handsome homogenous thirty-somethings raising an adorable inherited baby.” Still, Lanyon asks, “Do stories about middle-aged bald, chubby guys sell well?” In a word, “No,” Lanyon says, “because romance fiction is genre fiction and genre fiction is about escape from reality.”
Jerry Wheeler believes there is “definitely a problem in categorization” when it comes to defining what books qualify as romance. For example, Elliot Mackle’s critically acclaimed Captain Harding’s Six-Day War (Lethe Press) was nominated in the Gay Romance category for the 2012 Lambda Literary awards but did not make it as a finalist. Likewise, Felice Picano’s masterful collection of short stories, Gay Contemporary Romances (Bold Stroke Books). Were these books technically romances? Lanyon says, “As the Romance Writers of America understand that definition? No. As the Lambda Literary Committee understands that definition? No.” Lanyon says, “I believe to technically qualify as a romance—as most people (publishers, editors, readers, reviewers) understand the term—the story must revolve around the journey of two people to become ‘as one.’” Wheeler says, “I think we need to seek a broader definition of the genre—one in which a romantic (and sexual) relationship is the primary focus of the book. Period. That means there’s much crossover potential with so-called literary fiction as well as erotica as the romantic conflict is a basic component of all fiction.”
Lanyon wonders if “some of our definitions are perhaps not literary so much as cultural or even socio-political.” Orrantia says for him, “The bottom line: I will refrain from trying to define a romance category of literature by any formula. Instead, I’ll respond, like a good psychologist, by answering with a question: How do you feel?” He asks, “Was your heart tugged? Did you fall in love with the falling in love?” He says, “If you answered yes to these questions, I think you just read a romance.” Perhaps the best example of classic romance in this year’s Lambda Award finalists in Gay Romance was Mel Bossa’s beautifully written Split (Bold Strokes Books).
In Sarah Schulman’s recent The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, (University of California Press), Schulman writes, “Queer sexually truthful literature is seen as pornographic.” In an exchange I had with author Michael Thomas Ford over my review of his novel The Road Home, he chided me for having a schoolmarm’s attitude towards graphic sex in gay romance because I felt the explicit sex in his novels removed them from mainstream consideration as literature—which both Ford and Schulman say in effect, it does, and that’s the point. For our literature to be authentic to the gay experience it must be explicitly homosexual. Schulman writes, “Being out in one’s work, sexually honest, and truthful about the lived homosexual experience guarantees that one’s work will never be seen for its actual merit.” She says, “To be acceptable, literature cannot be sexually authentic. And, even though this is a requirement for approval, we look at the highly conditional and restricted approval [‘mainstream’ gay literature receives] as a sign of success instead of the failure that it actually is.” Thanks to Ford I began to see graphic sex in gay romance as a way of forging an authentic gay literary tradition. Or in Schulman’s understanding, gay romance should be seen as an inherently culturally transgressive literature. I’m thinking it takes more guts to read a gay romance on the subway with two bare-chested men lip-locked on the cover than it does to read a more demure mainstream gay novel.
Josh Lanyon doesn’t think the objection is solely homosexual. Lanyon says, “It’s touchingly naive to me when gay writers imagine that it is just the queer element in their sexual writing that makes modern mainstream readers veer. In fact, it is probably the erotic element, period.” Lanyon says, “You cannot write about sex and be taken seriously in the mainstream. It’s that simple. You will either be labeled a romance writer (end of all serious literary aspirations!) or you will be labeled a literary fiction writer (end of all commercial aspirations!). But you cannot write general mainstream fiction and write detailed, explicit sex. End of story.” Case in point, many libraries are pulling the New York Times best-selling straight erotic romance trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James from their shelves. But would a gay erotic romance have found its way into mainstream library collections in the first place?
Jerry Wheeler says, “In order to be true to our identities as gay men, graphic sex should be part and parcel of romance because—let’s face it boys—it’s the natural and logical outcome of gay romance. Love and companionship are part of the deal, but when you really come down to it, it’s all about fucking from the get-go. That’s a generalization, of course, but I think it’s true in more instances than not. And unless gay romance embraces that and celebrates it, there’s an essential component missing.” Wheeler says, “In a way, it’s literary assimilation—a sacrifice of an essential part of our lives in favor of a wider societal acceptance—and it’s disingenuous.” Wheeler adds, “And if you’ve ever visited any of the m/m forums, the authors who write this stuff agonize over having to write gay male sex scenes—which totally invalidates their work to me.”
Ironically, Sarah Schulman points out that the ultimate HEA—legal marriage—has been granted to our Canadian queer brothers and sisters even while our sexually explicit romance literature has been criminalized. She writes:
“In 1994, a coalition of feminists and right-wing politicians in Canada passed a tariff code called Butler that was designed to restrict pornographic production. Instead, it was applied in such a way that it allowed officials at Canada customs to systematically detain and destroy gay and lesbian materials at the border.”
Schulman was called as an expert witness on behalf of a suit brought by a Vancouver gay bookstore against the Canadian government. In Gentrification, she reproduces her court testimony that the works of well-known author John Preston are not “obscene.” She testifies:
In terms of the ‘literary merit’ of the books, I am struck by their conventional narrative formats. Each story is motivated by the development of a first-person character. Usually he is a gay man with a particular job, sensibility, or environment who is motivated by psychological or emotional issues. Typically through his relationship with another man—an intense, personal relationship involving sex and often love, the protagonist resolves or moves beyond his initial interior conflict.
Schulman’s description of Preston’s work sounds like Orrantia’s definition of romance using Erikson’s life-stages model or Lanyon and Wheeler’s definition of romance as a work where the romantic or sexual relationship is the primary focus. Yet, the bookstore lost the suit. Schulman reports:
The judge ruled that Canadacustoms officials had, and still have, the right to decide which materials are not suitable to come into the country. Interestingly, they quickly ratified gay marriage, while continuing to retain the right to insure that no married gay man will ever go looking for Mister Benson.
These are far from merely theoretical considerations for Erik Orrantia. Normal Miguel shows Orrantia’s love of teaching on every page and it was published by Cheyenne as young adult fiction, but he says, “I have suffered through years of litigation over Normal Miguel brought on by a school district that Schulman would love to argue with.” Orrantia says, “It’s an obvious point, but the homophobes’ real problem with homosexuality is the sex, right? I mean, unlike other minorities whose skin color or religion is different from the ‘mainstream,’ the difference between homos and heteros is the gender with which they have sex. If we didn’t ever bring it up, or if we didn’t do it, perhaps they’d have no problem, but then, we wouldn’t really be homos, would we?”
Orrantia points out another taboo celebrated by so many ‘coming out’ romances and that is increasingly being used to re-criminalize gay sex—sex between gay minors, “Most homosexuals sexually explore with the same gender before their eighteenth birthday which is something that is also a deeply deplorable truth to many who find homosexuality distasteful.” Jay Bell explored just such a sexual relationship between two teenagers with charming humor in his 2012 Lambda Literary Award finalist, Something Like Summer (Jay Bell Books). In a frightening scene in the novel the two boys flee arrest after almost being caught in flagrante delicto in a park by the cops, an incident that leads to their break-up. Orrantia says, “Welcome to the closet, homosexual adolescents—try reading The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to their Younger Selves, edited by Sarah Moon and James Lecesne (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2012) if you need reassurance.”
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Check out the Popular Romance Project (popularromanceproject.org). Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Project will eventually include a documentary film, a one-day symposium at the Library of Congress, an ALA-supported nationwide library program, and a huge, interactive website. The Project actively includes m/m romance. If you have some academically-focused things to say about any part of the romance genre, email Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D., associate professor of Literature at Fayetteville State University in Arkansas and president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, at email@example.com with a blog topic proposal. Support the Project by following it on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/popularromance and liking its Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/PopularRomanceProject. M/M author James Buchanan was recently featured in an interview on the Popular Romance Project website.