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Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

Accumulation or: The Problem With Too Many Dukes

One Too Many Die Hard Movies

At our recent m/m roundtable, Sunita and I had a bit of a discussion in the comments about the Out for You and Gay for You tropes in m/m romance. That discussion and various others around the internetz got me thinking about Problems in Romance and the nature of them.

I’ve come to the conclusion that for the most part, the issue is not so much that a particular thing exists – it is more that there exists too much of it. That is, it is more the frequency of the thing which has a cumulative effect and that then becomes the problem.

Apparently in Regency England there were 27 real life dukes. (Earls were a lot more common).   (I think there must be at least one more now because William is Duke of Cambridge and I recall that title was newly created, but I stand to be corrected on that).   One historical romance story which is about one duke is not in itself a problem. Arguably, 27 stories (let’s be egalitarian and say they’re all from different authors but it probably doesn’t matter) featuring one duke would also not be a problem because the representation of dukes vis a vis the rest of the population was about right.   I haven’t done any empirical research but I expect that most historical romances don’t feature more than 27 dukes in any one book.   So, the representation in one example of a historical romance is probably not that big a problem.   That is to say, if one reader read one (or possibly up to 27) historical romance(s) featuring a duke she would probably not have a skewed version of reality (at least as it pertains to their number within the population).

But, as we all know, there are way more than 27 dukes in romance. A simple Amazon search on “duke” comes up with 29 pages of historical romances – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Sunita pointed out:

And I don’t think manufacturing hundreds of dukes never hurts anyone. Basically we’ve turned Georgian and Victorian England into a romance amusement park. We’ve erased the politically active working class, we’ve made Chartists and Luddites and agricultural workers into comic relief and/or people to be saved by the aristocracy. Sure, none of them are alive now, but their descendants are.

I think it is the same in Gay for You and Out for You. There are real life versions of these stories. They’re nowhere near as common as the representation of either trope in m/m romance would suggest however.

I could go further. How about the Alpha hero? Or the Billionaire? Infidelity in New Adult? The problem, it seems to me, lies not in one book, or even a handful. But at some point (and I don’t know what that point is exactly), one more romance tips over into too many and the accumulation of them as a group becomes the problem.

There is another side effect. Some may say that any Alpha is one too many but I think that the bigger issue is not so much that there are books which contain them, but that there are so many of them, they can make discoverability of other books more difficult.

The first person who ever wrote the “sassy gay friend” probably based that on a real person. I’m sure in the population, at least one exists somewhere. But a stereotype becomes a stereotype because it is copied and copied and copied. And, all of a sudden, the “sassy gay friend” is seemingly everywhere and appears to make up a large proportion of gay representation. (There is also the issue of the stereotype becoming a kind of “shortcut” and therefore being only shallowly drawn – it is almost as if authors expect readers to “import” characterisation from numerous other books to round out what is missing in the story at hand. But that is an issue for another day).

It is all well and good to say that fiction is fiction and readers are savvy enough to know what is not real – but, are we really? Or, are we always? If I read a book set in Africa – a place I’ve never been and know little about, I’m likely to suck that information up like a sponge and assume it to be true. When I read a book set in our world, my default is to assume what it says about the world is true. Unless I know it is not or unless what is incorrect is pointed out to me, I would never know.

When I saw the movie The Duchess, I was taken aback by how apparently heartless and awful the Duke of Devonshire was. I think I knew that not all dukes were romance heroes but I had to have a bit of a conversation with myself about Ralph Fiennes’ performance and what must have seeped into my consciousness from so many books about dukes who love passionately and with fidelity, dukes who would never dream of merely bending their new wife over the marriage bed (sans foreplay and afterglow) and just sticking it in to get the job done. And The Duchess was still a fictionalised version of events; I haven’t forgotten that either. Even so, Ralph’s portrayal is likely much closer to the truth than what is in most romance novels. I hadn’t realised I had taken so much of the romance genre mythology in.

And there can be an insidious effect from the problem of too many. Perhaps it is that a large portion of the LGBTQ community is under-represented or worse, absent, from the romance genre. Perhaps it is that the romantic, emotionally compelling stories about people who are out and proud are pushed aside in favour of a trope like Gay for You. Perhaps it is more subtle – maybe it is that authors/publishers believe that a historical romance without a duke won’t sell, so we don’t get the stories we might love about the Chartists and Luddites. Or those stories that do exist are hidden behind 150 dukes and so are hard to find. Perhaps an author, looking at the proliferation of dukes thinks her Chartist book won’t sell and therefore writes a book about a duke which may not be as good as the one she really wanted to write.

The discussion is difficult when it comes down to a particular book though. Because ONE book about ONE duke isn’t, in itself, wrong, is it? And why should book 254 (say) be the book that makes things problematic? Where is the tipping point? What if the very first duke book a reader reads contains fictional duke number 1543? For that reader, it is her first duke. How does the individual reader who is exposed to very little of each individual “problematic thing” fit into all of this?

And who’s to say that the 1468th book about a duke won’t be an absolute cracker which brings something new and fresh to the genre? Should a queer person whose own lived experience is “Gay for You” not be able to write a fictional book based on that experience? Should the straight person who writes an Out for You book which deals with the challenges of coming out and the risks and pitfalls that might present to a relationship be not allowed to write that? Is the woman who is married to an Alpha Carer not allowed to write an Alpha hero? Because there are already too many? Do we ban billionaires? That doesn’t seem right either.

Perhaps the challenge for a reviewer is to judge the book on its own as well as within the wider context of genre. But even that is difficult. My own experience of Motorcycle Club romance represents about .003% of my personal reading library. I know there are many, many more MC books out there but I haven’t read them. So how do I judge the wider context?

In a general sense, I think it is okay to like problematic things. But I also think that those things should be talked about and critically examined.

So, this is me, talking about a problem of accumulation. I’ve no answers, only a lot of questions and thoughts – but it’s at least the beginning of a conversation.

REVIEW:  And Call Me in the Morning by Willa Okati

REVIEW: And Call Me in the Morning by Willa Okati


Dear Willa Okati,

I requested the sequel to this book, And Call Me in the Evening, for review (which will be posted soon) but when I started it, I remembered too little about the first book so decided to read this one again.   And Call Me in the Morning was among the first m/m romance books I read, recommended by a friend after a discussion about the Gay for You trope.  I guess revisiting it is kind of timely after the recent m/m roundtable where this trope was one of the subjects of discussion.  When I first started reading m/m was basically clueless and had no idea Gay for You was regarded as problematic.  As I understand it, it does sometimes happen in real life, so I think it’s not so much that the trope itself is ‘bad’ but more, that it is so prevalent in the genre and can give an unwary reader a false idea of gay experience.   Nevertheless, I don’t read a lot of Gay for You these days because there is something about it, at least in volume, which has a subtle suggestion that Gay for You = a more “socially acceptable” way to be gay.  By that, I mean, it could be twisted to mean, he’s not really gay because apart from that one guy, he’s totally straight and that’s not so bad right? That’s not what I think by the way but I think the trope in such numbers does some erasing of people who are not gay for anyone but are gay just because they are gay.

No matter how I twist my brain however, this book is definitely Gay for You, there’s just no denying it. So my conscience pricked as I was reading.  It probably explains, at least in part, why it wasn’t quite as successful for me the second time around.

Eli and Zane are both doctors at a Chicago hospital.  Eli is a working class guy, a former policeman who was injured in the line of duty and then decided to switch career tracks and become a doctor. He’s 43 and a year out of residency.  He’s a “hospitalist” which Google tells me is a kind of in-hospital GP.  Eli has found his vocation in medicine. Zane comes from a wealthy family of doctors and was always destined for medicine.  He doesn’t love it like Eli does but that seems to be mainly because he cares more about the patients than the politics and the money and he’s a bit jaded by the latter. He prefers to work in the free clinic (which is where Eli and Zane met when Eli came for a second opinion about his work injury) but funding is low and it looks like the clinic will be closed.

Eli was married but his wife left him after being too long alone as a policeman’s wife and then a medical student’s wife.  Ever since Eli and Zane met, there was a connection between them and they became very close friends.  Now, years after that first meeting, they are kind of joined at the hip.  They hang out together all the time and are casually affectionate – so much so that their other good friends in the hospital, Diana (a cardiologist) and Holly (a psychologist) tease them constantly about whether or not they are gay.  Holly and Diana ask Eli where his “wife” is and they don’t mean Marybeth, the ex; they mean Zane.  That it’s a gendered comment isn’t really addressed in the book.  Zane is a guy – shouldn’t he be a “husband” in this scenario?  I think what they meant is that Eli and Zane, to all appearances, get on like a (happily) married couple. That’s how I read it the first time but I admit the “wife” tripped me up a little on re-read.

The set up is basically that these two guys are just clueless and need Diana and Holly to give them a push in the right direction. In the end, Zane proposes an “experiment”.  He will kiss Eli and if, as they expect, it is gross, they will be able to tell Holly and Diana they’re wrong and the teasing will stop.  They’re both unprepared for what it means when it is anything but gross.

The story is told from Eli’s third person POV and he is extremely taken aback by the arousal he experiences from Zane’s caresses.  It opens a door to him seeing Zane in a new way and noticing him as a desirable being as opposed to being in the “best friend” slot to which Eli had previously assigned him.  It becomes clear that Zane had been thinking about a romantic attachment for some time but my impression was that both are nevertheless surprised at how much they desire each other and how right a sexual and romantic relationship feels. (Zane’s character is a little murky because we are never in his head – he’d been thinking about being with Eli sexually for a while but he says he’s surprised by how good it is when it actually happens – I took him at his word – I guess others might not.)

Eli is not a fan of public displays of affection by anyone to anyone. He didn’t even like holding hands with Marybeth in public back when they were married. Zane is much more openly affectionate and this represents a challenge to Eli.

I said earlier that the men were “casually affectionate” and this was part of why people assumed they were a couple.  But that kind of affection isn’t the same as a public display in the sense of holding hands or kissing and Eli sees those things as quite different. The kind of affection he’s comfortable with in public is more that buddy-jostling some guys do, with the faux-punch, etc.  And, they have little by way of personal space barriers between them, which sets them apart also.  So I didn’t think this aspect of Eli’s character was inconsistent.

The men try sex in all most of the various ways as the book progresses – some of it is kind of funny as they navigate the differences from previous experience which was, for both, entirely heterosexual.  Here I can definitely see the analogy to the “virgin trope” and the reader gets a twofer because this is uncharted territory for both men.   In some ways I think that aspect sets this book apart (whether in a good way or a bad way is perhaps open to debate) because most Gay for You I’ve read has one gay partner and one straight-until-then partner.

Eli and Zane are such good friends and so close, that even before the sex, they could virtually complete each other’s sentences.  They know each other so well that, once they commit to the romantic aspect of their relationship, there is very little conflict between them.  Zane isn’t close to his family and Eli doesn’t have any and all their friends are from the hospital.  Of course, everyone at the hospital thinks they’re gay already so coming out isn’t the same kind of experience as in other books. Even so, Eli does have occasion in the book, more than once, to specifically and categorically state that he and Zane are together as a couple and this challenges Eli so it’s not like coming out is without challenge for him. On the other hand, apparently, Zane has no such difficulty.

Much of the conflict in the story is apparently about career issues – the free clinic is closing and Zane needs to do something else; there is a potential opportunity elsewhere for Eli and, despite the fact that these guys are very close and talk about everything, they actually don’t in this instance. I think this sudden lack of communication is because they are finding their footing as a romantic/sexual couple rather than buddies and that leads to some mis-steps.  Still, when the proverbial hits the fan, it is kind of a whiplash moment. Things are great and then, literally, within ten minutes, things have turned to custard.  They are fighting about career issues but at its heart, it turns out to be not about that.  I didn’t make the leap between the two so I felt a bit left behind there.

I have mixed feelings about the book. I liked it well enough (perhaps in spite of myself) and there was angst toward the end (hint: Zane is allergic to strawberries) which worked for me even if the final argument confused me because I felt it hadn’t been set up sufficiently. But it stretched my credulity a little too much to think that Eli, having been such close friends with Zane for years, having been constantly teased about being a couple by other close friends and he never ever thinks about it at all? Never? And then, after one kiss, he’s all “okay then, let’s go”?  So I think there is a fairly large element of wish fulfilment in the story. I feel it was written with the female gaze in mind.

On the other hand, there are good things – the ex-wife isn’t demonised and the other females in the story are strong, positive and have lives of their own outside of the main couple.  The story features an older pairing which I liked and I liked how Eli and Zane talked about sex and how they navigated those uncharted waters.

I didn’t like it as much the second time around but it was still very readable and I breezed through it in a very short time.  And maybe it is shallow of me but I love that cover.

With my sensibilities having changed in the four years since I read the story however, I think it was a book which was better in memory.

All that, mixed up together to come up with a grade?  I think it probably comes out at about a C+.



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