What do I mean by “this is Coffee table guest chat?” – I mean that I sat down and actually chatted with the guest rather than just interview them. This is a little longer than a normal blog, but I hope you bear with it and enjoy 🙂
To quote a source: “The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.”
For me personally, that one sentence sums up the whole issue of tropes in fiction in general, and romance fiction (male-on-male) specifically.
I read a great deal. I love a swathe of genres when it comes to books, from historic adventures, science fiction and fantasy, contemporary urban, and romance fiction – currently I’m working my way through “The Life of Pi.”
Yeah, I know a lot of men would baulk at admitting they go anywhere near romance fiction (or chick-flicks either). But it is a field I write in, and I guess one way to find out something about the market it to actually read what’s currently available.
To be honest when it comes to fiction with gay characters, the shelves tend to be a little bare (or completely non-existent) in book stores. Thanks to online shops, and the recent proliferation of online publishing and eBooks, it’s far easier to find fiction that’s a lot more inclusive – and fiction that (supposedly) understands what it’s like to be a gay man today.
Romance fiction is where the bulk of these books exist; Male/Male romance has become the new hot genre to write in, and perhaps it’s not so surprising that most of the authors writing Male/Male romance and erotic fiction are women. Women, like men, have fantasies too – and many heterosexual women are just as, umm, “intrigued” by guy-on-guy action as heterosexual men are by girl-on-girl action. In a way, most of these books, whilst about gay men, are not targeted at gay men to read – but rather straight women to read.
Many of these authors have migrated over from writing Male/Female romance and erotica. Whilst the primary characters of these books are men and mostly out gay men at that, there is this trend that exists in most of them… A trend that follows the pattern of hero “rescuing” a weak younger man.
I’ve invited fellow blogger and (M/M) writer, Dominic Murray to chat about this;
James Snaith (JS): Afternoon Dom, I know you’ve read a few of these books yourself. What’s your general impression of them?
Dominic Murray (DM): If I’m going to put a line in the sand then that line is going to say that they…fail in some way. That is, they are not written as ‘gay romance’ or ‘gay fiction’ in the true sense of the terms: they are not primarily written by gay authors for a gay audience, (although there are gay authors and gay readers!). They are written by and for straight women.
JS: Definitely – it’s all so very trope-ish: The big strong Alpha Male (who’s also a fantastic top) and the weaker, smaller (younger sometimes) Omega Male (who loves to bottom) and needs taking care of. In some of these books, you could swap the Omega Male for a woman, and the story would still work.
DM: I think that’s definitely what some of the authors do: take the female perspective of love and sex, and put a man’s head (and cock) on it. Hence, you get the feminised ‘bottom’ who needs to be ‘fixed’ by a Big Strong Man. I understand that we’re dealing in ‘fantasy’ – and god knows that m/f romance/erotica has enough wrong with it – but at some stage, you have to reflect real life, don’t you? I don’t think it’s possible to take a homosexual relationship and apply the same heteronormative associations.
JS: You and I recently read an interview with M/M romance author A.B. Gayle where she discussed why she writes what she writes, and her reasons for staying away from certain types of male characters.
DM: The well-rounded ones? 😉
JS: That’s the one (link to the interview in question). It’s quite clear early on that one of the reasons she’s taken to writing M/M fiction is purely for the fantasy side of it.
DM: to quote “The easy answer is that if one man is good… then two men must be better. Make them gay (not suggesting that Thor or Wolverine are that way inclined 🙂 ) and story ideas just jump out of the page.” I think it’s important to realise that “slash fiction” came out of women writing gay-themed fan fiction based on characters that already existed (I think one of the earliest pairings was Spock and Kirk). I think that’s the difference between a ‘gay fantasy’ and ‘gay fiction’ though – and part of a wider issue: how ‘real’ should ‘fantasy’ be portrayed?
JS: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. A lot of gay fiction is little more than fantasy/erotica. You and I have discussed before how sex scenes – hell, even simple scenes like kissing – tend to be written as little more than porn. They start kissing, clothes magically vanish, and then they’re suddenly at it and able to get into some interestingly difficult positions, lol. The fact that the primary characters are two men isn’t relevant to the whole mix. The problem is, it’s still considered gay fiction, and lots of younger gay men read this stuff. Personally I find books like “Boy Meets Boy” and “The Geography Club” better. They are in essence romance novels – but it’s a small part of the story.
DM: Is there also an element of gay culture being appropriated by women to satiate themselves? (I’m not saying that straight men haven’t done this to women for centuries, up to and including faux-lesbian porn.)
JS: Yes, I think some authors have appropriated this part of gay culture to sate themselves. But what annoys me – worries me even – is that many of them think they are serving the gay community with what they write, that this type of story is helpful to young gay men.
DM: I think some authors – and some women – deal with this better than others, but there’s certainly an element of naivety about it. I’ve read a lot of bad sex scenes in my time (both literary porn and, ahem, sleaze). You can always tell the authors who have had sex and those who are just detailing their wank fantasy: “It was huge and he put it in me and it hurt. But then I loved it and he loved it and he came after hours, and I came and he came again and then we fell asleep with him inside me. I love him and he loves me.”
JS: Certainly, when I was a teenager that wasn’t far off how I thought sex between two men happened. Then I had sex with a man and found out the reality. But sex between two men or two women or a man and woman – it’s not all that different as it’s cracked up to be.
DM: Although a woman can write about sucking a cock from her own experience, can she write about having a cock sucked?
JS: Some feel they can. And some do take the time to ask men about the experience.
DM: That’s true – and some of them even watch gay porn to insure a certain amount of positional veracity.
JS: But porn is a far cry from actual sex.
DM: And it doesn’t deal with inner monologues – or repercussions. Unless that repercussion is your straight roommate coming home and joining in…
JS: I have had to tell a guy to not use his teeth. It’s not instinctive as some authors make it out to be, and some guys do enjoy sporting teeth marks on that part of their body… The truth is, sex isn’t instinctive, it does require a certain amount of “yes, no, left a bit – bit more… yes, that’s the spot”
DM: Which leads back to the veracity expected from fantasy.
JS: Exactly, at most the inner monologue tends to be “am I really doing this?” or “did I wash enough down there?” or “I hope the garlic I had for lunch doesn’t repeat on me.” I’ve never had a straight roommate walk in – or be curious about joining in either, lol
DM: Neither have I – but isn’t that a porn thing?
JS: Yes, lol.
DM: Slightly digressing, however 😉
JS: Not too much, lol. I think that’s the point about a lot of these stories. They are just porn.
JS: Porn with a little plot, but porn none the less.
DM: I like to read a well-written character. If I’m honest, I don’t necessarily care if the author is a man or a woman. Good writing always shows. The ability to get into a character’s head – into all the little dark spaces – is what wins me over. And I think that in a lot of instances (not all – there are some great female m/m authors) this is what makes them fall down. Gay men are not all uber-straight-men-who-like-cock or women-with-penises. If all you are able to present are these two polar opposites then I feel that you are failing the community you’re writing about.
JS: Exactly, some authors do get it right. We don’t all fit into the “Alpha Male” “Omega Male” roles either.
DM: Do men like that exist? Of course. But the line between the two of them is much wider – and full of much more interesting characters, to my mind. One needn’t be “only” a top or “just” a bottom.
JS: In fact the vast majority of gay men don’t engage in penetrative sex. Do you think the fact the characters are written this way is more about “dominance” in the relationship?
DM: I think so. But it’s a dominance that isn’t based on biological gender.
JS: It’s a fantasy dominance.
DM: Or rather a difference in that gender. It’s a form of safe domination.
JS: It’s the whole “Knight in Shining Armour” thing isn’t it?
DM: The woman can partake in the that domination whilst not being exactly a part of it. Which might be a bit of a strong statement 😉
JS: It is a strong statement, yes. But I think that is part of it – and part of why fiction like this is still being written. Maybe it makes some women feel safe to think that dynamic is the same between men as well?
DM: Why would they think otherwise? How would they think otherwise?
JS: Exactly – romance has always been about the dominant man rescuing the woman. It’s been translated over – and it doesn’t really work with M/M romance.
DM: I agree in that it has been translated that way – but I don’t think it fits. As I said at the beginning – you can’t take a woman, add a cock and end up with a gay man.
JS: No, because gay men are not women with cocks.
DM: Would I love a fabulously wealthy older man to whisk me away from all my troubles? If I wasn’t married, then yes, probably. Do I want to read about it over and over? Meh, not so much. There’s nothing wrong with the fantasy of it. However, when it’s the only fantasy presented then it can be damaging.
JS: It’s a trope – and a trap that some writers have fallen into.
DM: Do I want to read about how two men have a relationship of equals, not dissolving into fits of drama and hanky-flapping at the least provocation, or being emotionally stunted? Quite possibly!
JS: All stories have drama, but does it have to come from within the relationship?
DM: If it does then you’re having the wrong kind of relationship with the wrong sort of person. There’s a TV series in America (I can’t remember the title) about gay men in San Francisco, that’s loved by women and slammed by most of the gay community as being unrepresentative.
DM: That’s the one! thanks. Sex And The City was hardly representational either. However – one is about an ill-understood ‘minority.’ People didn’t suddenly think that all women (in New York or otherwise) behave like Carrie and Co. But when you have an ill-understood minority being badly represented then you have a problem. And I feel it’s the same with this element of gay fiction.
JS: Have you ever read a story where the couple were not only gay, but were already together and had been for years – and the drama wasn’t about them, but just involved them?
DM: Ha – no I don’t think that I have.
JS: I think we’re going to have to wrap this part of the discussion up for today. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we stop for cake?
DM: I think it’s important to stress that we’re generalising here about straight women writers of m/m fiction. There are amazing ones, and there are awful gay male authors of m/m fiction (in my opinion). The problem is not the gender of the author; it’s the way the subject is being used.
JS: I quite agree the gender of the author doesn’t actually matter. Maybe the best way to sum it up, is; simply writing M/M erotic fiction doesn’t serve or really help gay men – it’s just about the titillation, it’s not representative of anything other than fantasy. LGBTTQI fiction should be about more.
Thank you for taking the time to chat about this today Dom, I really appreciate it. And thank you for being my first guest blogger 😉
Please go show Dominic Murray some WordPress love, and look out for Part Two of our chat which delves more into what it’s like being an openly gay author.
More soon folks!