Sep 22 2009
Lambda Literary Awards have redefined its focus:
The Lambda Literary Foundation (LLF) seeks to elevate the status of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people throughout society by rewarding and promoting excellence among LGBT writers who use their work to explore LGBT lives.
As such, it should be noted that the Lambda Literary Awards are based principally on the LGBT content, the gender orientation/identity of the author, and the literary merit of the work.
Essentially Lambda Literary is requiring that only GLBT authors will qualify for the LGBT awards. I thought that this might be a good opportunity to discuss the issue of LLA and the concept of m/m fiction as a whole. I invited Dr. Sarah (aka Joan) to discuss the issue with me.
Jane: I think this is a direct response to the rise of straight women writing m/m fiction. We review m/m romances here at Dear Author without thought to the gender of the author. I did bring up the issue regarding gender of an author in a post I did regarding authenticity. The comments exploded. At least one person accused me of being a zipper sniffer.
It’s obvious that the gender of an author, as well as his or her sexuality, is a hot button issue for LGBT books.
Sarah: First of all, is LLF going to require a dick check (or the female equivalent)? How are they going to do that? How are they going to prove, for example, that Josh Lanyon is a man and/or how is he going to prove it? I know of authors (and no, just to curtail debate, I’m not talking about Lanyon here) whose entire online personae are masculine, without a single slip ever, but who are female. Where’s the affidavit requirement?
Second, physical biology aside, how carefully do authorial identity and literary subject matter have to match up? I know of (at least) two FTM transgendered authors who write exclusively m/m romance. Their subject matter is gay male romance, and they themselves identify as transgendered, so it would seem that they qualify (literary merit aside) for the Lambda, but do they really? Or do they have to write only about the experience of being transgendered? Is biology destiny here? Surely that mindset is counter to what the Lambdas are all about? What about the gender-queer authors? I know many more of those: authors who are biologically female, identify as gender-queer (but not transgendered), and are usually bisexual, but again, they write m/m romance. Do their books count? Technically, it seems like they should, but I bet they don’t.
There are Lambda categories for both Gay Romance and Lesbian Romance, which is wonderfully forward-thinking of the LLF. (I also find it incredibly ironic, considering this whole post, that they quote the RWA’s definition of romance to define the category.) And I agree with Jane that this is a direct response to the rise of straight women writing m/m fiction, but I think this is deeper and in a way more pernicious than that, because I think it’s actually a direct response to the extremely high quality of fiction produced by straight women writing m/m romance. If the quality of books by people like Laura Baumbach and James Buchanan and Alex Beecroft weren’t so high, this wouldn’t be an issue. And if I were being bitchy and pessimistic, I’d say that they’re specifically trying to cut Alex Beecroft’s brilliant False Colors out of the running, because I can’t imagine that any other book would win the gay romance category if “False Colors” were entered (and boy, isn’t FC having a fascinating life, because it looked at the time like Amazon Fail was a direct response to the success of FC). I think that the real matter for concern here, therefore, is that LLF is specifically shutting out brilliant books that have something awesome to say about being gay because they’re not written by the “right” person.
However, I think this choice is more deeply problematic, because in cutting out Alex Beecroft from the Gay Romance category, they’re compromising other categories. There’s two categories for Memoir/Biography (gay and lesbian), and categories for LGBT Non-Fiction and LGBT Studies, and surely (SURELY!) NON-LGBT writers are capable of writing ground-breaking biographies about LGBT people, non-fiction work about LGBT issues (“Books and subjects for the general reader, e.g. histories, politics, community organizations, humor, parenting, religion, spirituality, relationships, psychology, travel, etc.”), and academic studies of LGBT issues (“Scholarly work oriented toward academia, libraries, cultural professionals, and the more academic reader”) that “elevate the status of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people throughout society” without the authors having to be LGBT themselves?
Jane: I have very conflicted emotions about m/m romances that have developed overtime. On the one hand, I don’t think that you need to live an experience to write about it. On the other, I don’t think that you can compare writing about vampires and werewolves as analogous to writing m/m fiction. Vampires and werewolves are about myths and legends and so long as you are consistent, you can pretty much write those characters however you want.
Sarah: No, I also don’t think that comparison works. The analogy I’ve heard the most, though, is writing mysteries. One doesn’t have to be a murderer to get into the mind and write from the perspective of a murderer. I find this analogy a problem, too, because, well, I’m not comfortable comparing LGBT people to murderers. :) So let’s, instead, compare it to BDSM, which I consider a sexual identity, as much as LGBT (which I know is a controversial declaration, but let’s go with it for now). I know of at least two authors who are not BDSM-identified or BDSM-practicing (as far as I know), who manage to capture the psychology as well as the physicality of the BDSM experience perfectly (Victoria Dahl’s “The Wicked West” and Ann Somerville’s The Remastering of Jerna). How or why is that different from a straight-identified person being able to write LGBT characters realistically and with sympathy and imagination?
Jane: Individuals who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual can live under a specter of hatred and prejudice. I have my doubts as to whether a straight person can fully understand the concept.
Sarah: Agreed. And this is how LGBT is different from BDSM, because it is possible to hide or camouflage a BDSM identity in an apparently heterosexual, monogamous marriage. LGBT people can’t hide their choices if they wish to live “in the sunlight,” as Suzanne Brockmann (a straight woman with a gay son) writes about her gay character Jules Cassidy. So someone who is LGBT-identified will live with discrimination and threats, hatred and prejudice that someone who is BDSM-identified usually won’t have to deal with. And there’s no way to get around that point, I don’t think.
Jane: I remember the discussion over at Karen Scott’s blog in response to the Beautiful Cocksucker title (BC II has been released). The title is provocative and at least one gay man tried to explain why he found this title offensive. The author and the editor disagreed. Both were (straight) women. Jill Noble, editor and publisher of the book explained that while she did not intend to offend anyone or have a sensational title, it just fit the book perfectly. (It must have been a great title because it apparently fits the title of the follow up book perfectly too). I had a live book chat with a couple of my friends, both gay, regarding the book, Custom Ride by K.A. Mitchell. Mitchell had received a very positive review from Dr. Sarah here at Dear Author and I thought it would be a good read for my gay friends. In the livechat, my friends noted that the book didn’t really accurately portray gay men. Commenters noted that the audience for these books aren’t gay men but straight women. It seemed the argument was then that authenticity didn’t matter.
Sarah: That argument about authenticity is just wrong, to my mind. Unconscionably, inexcusably wrong. Totally misses the point. Because making an argument like that DOES devalue everything that LGBT people go through every day of their lives to live with honor and integrity. Saying that their experience doesn’t matter is tantamount to a form of homophobia.
Jane: So is the question whether a well written book that doesn’t authentically portray the gay man’s experience be allowed to win a LGBT writing award? Of course you can argue that one man’s gay experience may be entirely different from another man’s gay experience and therefore the authenticity issue is all relative.
Sarah: Eh. I still think the question is whether a well-written book with “literary merit” that DOES authentically portray a gay man’s experience should be allowed to win. Because what if, horror of horrors, one of those straight women gets it RIGHT? Yes, there might be writers and/or readers who think that authenticity of the gay male experience doesn’t matter, but those aren’t the books that are going to final in the Lambdas. But books like Laura Baumbach and Josh Lanyon’s “Mexican Heat” DO final (in 2008) and whatever we know or don’t know about Lanyon, I’ve met Baumbach and she’s all woman. I’ve heard feedback from gay men about James Buchanan’s “Hard Fall,” calling it incredibly authentic. How to deal with THESE books?
Jane: The Essence Awards were established in 2008 to highlight and elevate African American authors. There are non black authors who likely write beautiful and arguably authentic African American fiction but the Essence Awards have chosen to specifically reward authors of a particular racial identity. Is the LLA anything substantially different?
Sarah: What would the Essence Awards do with an African American author who writes about white folks, I wonder?
Jane: My biggest discomfort comes down to this. With m/m romance written by women for women, you have ostensibly one power group writing for the, as someone else put it, “consumption and excitement” of the power group but not for the benefit of the oppressed group. I.e., I think I would be offended if white women were writing about African American romance but for white women and making money off of it. This is not to say that white women can’t write about characters of other races but that when you write your work to the exclusion of the minorities, it seems exploitative. I know that I would be offended if there was an entire genre of romance books about Asian people written by non Asian people for other non Asian people. I mean, why would there be such a genre if not to feed into some kind of strange Asian erotic fetish? Then again I read erotic romances that contain sexual scenes and stories about sexual lifestyles that I have no experience with. Am I engaging in the fetishization of a culture as well?
Sarah: And this is the really interesting question, because I think this gets beyond the Lambda issue and into the much broader question of the problematics of straight women writing m/m romance for other straight women. I think this gets to issues of what the purpose of this fiction is. Because for some authors, yes, the purpose is to present a realistic depiction of the gay male lived experience. But for other authors and readers, I believe it’s a hyper-focus on the experience of the hero and two heroes are better than one. Because, after all, what right do women in general have to write a heterosexual man falling in love? What can we know about that, besides what we can imagine and glean through observation and conversation with those strange creatures?
Then again, what right did, oh, Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson have to found the entire genre of the novel on representations of the lived experience of women (Moll Flanders and Roxana by Defoe and Pamela and Clarissa by Richardson)? Or Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter)?
Isn’t the romance genre, at its heart, all about the female construction of masculinity? What does it matter if that masculinity is straight or gay?
Yes, I know I’m being flippant here. I know there’s a difference, precisely because of the dangers of the lived experience of being gay and the honest need to highlight texts by LGBT authors. But what if an LGBT author chooses to write a straight romance? Shouldn’t their novel be celebrated too, or are they being traitorous to the cause?
I have no answers here, besides my (I believe) sincere understanding of LLF is trying to do but my visceral disagreement with it, because good gay romance is good gay romance no matter who wrote it.
Jane: Please feel free to carry on the discussion in the comments. I know that feelings can be heated around these issues so I will be vigilant in axing comments that I find step over the boundaries. I’m having a root canal today so I can tell you that my patience will be very short. In sum, if you want your opinion to be heard, be courteous. Otherwise, the opinion, no matter how important of a point you are making, will be deleted.