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Letters of Opinion

Dear Author

Reading m/m: a guide for the perplexed

The debate at AAR and elsewhere over m/m books and authors got us to thinking about whether the differences between m/m and m/f romances are as great as some readers on both sides seemed to believe. Four of us here at DA regularly read and review m/m in addition to m/f these days (and Janine and Jayne have read and reviewed both as well, with Jayne also reviewing f/f). We talked for a while about how the two genres are similar and different in terms of the books we read, and we thought it would be fun to write a post and ask DA’s readers for their opinions in the comments.

(1) Do you remember the first m/m you read? What worked? What didn’t?

Kaetrin: Not really. I think it might have been Off The Record by Matthew Haldeman-Time which was (at least at the time) available online for free. I think I first read m/m in about 2008. Whatever it was, I enjoyed it enough to try more and more.  But I had read a m/m romantic storyline first in Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter’s series.  Jules and Robin remain favourites.

Sirius: My first original m/m book (I am not counting Harry Potter slash I was reading for years before coming to m/m) was The God Eaters by Jesse Hajicek.  I do not remember for sure when I read it, but it was sometime in 2007-2008. I remember thinking that the world building was very imaginative, that the author took some things we know from history and science fiction/fantasy and managed to create something if not unique, something original and fun. Great world building is a must for me in a fantasy/science fiction. I also remember being impressed by the character growth of the two leads. Basically a lot more worked in this book for me than did not and I was eager and interested to read more m/m.

In very close succession I read The Charioteer by Mary Renault and Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale. These books also set a standard for me which I defined as “less sex, more story and characters”. Unfortunately for months after these three books I encountered the books which I thought of as “sex, sex, sex, sex, sex and a tiny bit of story and characterization”, and I was almost ready to give up. Thank goodness I eventually found many authors to enjoy and I’m not planning on giving up any longer.

Willaful: Like Kaetrin, my first romantic m/m storyline was in the Troubleshooters series, and I loved Jules and Robin. My first specifically m/m romance was The Dickens with Love by Josh Lanyon. What didn’t really work for me with that book was the sex scenes — not that they’re bad in any way, I just wasn’t into them at that time. I guess it’s an acquired taste. Come to think of it, pretty much all sex scenes have been an acquired taste for me.

What most interested me about the book at that time was the difference in the couple dynamic when one member isn’t much more physically powerful than the other. I came to it from a lot of category romances and older historicals, where violence by the hero against the heroine is fairly common. The Dickens With Love has positively traditional romance themes — deception and betrayal. At one point, one hero even calls the other “a liar and a cheat and a whore”; I felt so at home. But their conflict is expressed almost entirely in words, without the threatening aspects so common in older romance.

Now that I read more current and contemporary romance, in which authors are much less prone to having heroes overpowering heroines, this no longer stands out for me as specific to m/m. But the dynamic when a couple negotiates around physical control is still somewhat different.

Sunita: My first book was a sports-themed book by T.A. Chase, I think, that was free through the publisher. In retrospect it wasn’t great, too much sex and not enough characterization, but I loved the sports part and the novelty was intriguing. I read a few more free books and then started to look more systematically for authors I would like. I wound up with Fair Game and Tigers and Devils, and those set a high bar for the future.

(2) What would be the first book you’d offer someone who wanted to try reading m/m, and why?

Kaetrin: I think I’d say Tigers and Devils by Sean Kennedy.  It’s not an explicit romance but it is deeply intimate and romantic as well as funny and it has secondary characters (including a female) who are fleshed out and well-drawn. It’s one of my favourite romances and I recommend it to everyone and anyone. Other recommendations would include Muscling Through by JL Merrow, Blessed Isle by Alex Beecroft, Strawberries for Dessert by Marie Sexton and No Souvenirs and Regularly Scheduled Life by KA Mitchell.  I’ve had the opportunity to look at my co-reviewers’ recommendations and I think I have all of them in my own collection – most of them are on the dreaded TBR which goes some way to explaining why they’re not included in my own recommendations list.

Sirius: It depends on what this person is looking for. For m/m fantasy I suggest The Lord of the White Hell or The Rifter serial by Ginn Hale. or The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles.  They have action, magic, great characters and of course a love story. For m/m romantic mystery, I suggest Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English series or Death by Misfortune by AM Riley. Actually, since Adrien English is five books, Death by Misfortune would probably be the one I recommend first. I think this book encompasses what m/m romantic mystery is for me. For me it is a close to perfect blend of mystery and romance. For a contemporary gay romance, I would suggest Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger. For a historical m/m romance, oh, who am I kidding, if the person would just ask for m/m romance I would suggest, no I would push on them as hard as I can, Whistling in the Dark by Tamara Allen. I have been pushing this book on my suspecting and unsuspecting friends both those who are already reading m/m romance and who have never read m/m romance before.   This book is just so great in my opinion – it is about two young veterans of First World War coming home, meeting each other, falling in love. Remember what I said before about wanting to get to know the characters in m/m romance as people as opposed to just sexual beings? This book delivers that in spades.

Willaful: Like Sirius, I would want to know their tastes and what they’re looking for. One of my most frequent recommendations is Pricks and Pragmatism by J.L. Merrow, just because it’s so beautifully characterized; it would be my first choice for someone hostile to romance, like my mom, because it’s atypical in many way. For someone with a literary bent, I’d suggest Harper Fox’s exquisite writing in Winter Knights. Tamara Allen’s lovely historicals are a great choice for a nervous newbie, for the reasons Sirius mentions, and I’d second Almost Like Being in Love for anyone who enjoys humor or epistolary novels. I think of it as a novel rather than a genre romance, but it’s delightful either way.

Sunita: My favorite introductory books are Fair Game and Come Unto These Yellow Sands by Josh Lanyon and Kennedy’s Tigers and Devils. For readers who want a historical I’d recommend Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark and The Only Gold, or Joanna Chambers’ recent Enlightened trilogy. For readers who are interested in darker books with non-standard characters I strongly recommend Aleksandr Voinov’s Dark Soul series. All of these are as good as the best genre fiction, in my estimation.

(3) What are your most and least favorite tropes in m/m?

Kaetrin: Least favourite would be the evil woman who is evil.  There are villains in fiction but I want more from them than a one-note performance. I’m looking for nuance and depth to characterisation.  I have read books where the evil woman who it evil could have been given motivation but instead it’s come down to “she’s just a bitch” and that’s not a good enough reason for me.  It’s not that a woman can’t be the villain in an m/m story for me, but if she is, I want more than she’s just “bad” and I also want to see other female characters who are sympathetic without also being stereotypes.  I’d like a sense that they have their own lives and stories and they’re not there merely to serve the plot or as foils for the villain. While I do see the evil woman in m/f it seems to me that she’s far more common in m/m and often, she’s the only female character.

When I first started reading m/m I read a bit of “gay for you”.  I’m a little embarrassed about it now but I do still enjoy “out for you” stories.   I think you told me, Sunita, that you have friends in real life who would fit the “gay for you” paradigm but I gather it is not at all as prevalent in real life as it is in fiction.  I don’t believe that people choose their sexuality and the “gay for you” trope in m/m fiction tends to suggest otherwise.  I don’t think it’s as easy as “who would you turn for?”   Out for You stories however are a little different because there is an acknowledgement that the character has had homosexual/bisexual attraction before, whether or not he has acted upon it.  I like the idea of a love so great that the person is willing to make sacrifices (in any fiction, not just m/m) – in m/m that is most commonly seen in the out for you trope.  Coming out is, or can be, full of risk and being willing to be vulnerable for someone else is inherently romantic and intimate for me.

In general terms, I like the same tropes across all romance – friends to lovers, second chance at love and I love a good rescue. Except in an AU book, you won’t see marriage of convenience (I love MOC stories) in an m/m but most other tropes are available in both m/f and m/m and I’ve seen great examples of in both as well as awful ones.

Sirius: I happily glom books which deal with “from enemies to lovers” trope in any way, shape or form. The men do not even need to be full blown enemies – any kind of initial antipathy which transforms into friendship and love would do.   But as much as I love the books with the varieties of this trope, I will get cranky if the men are enemies on one pages and best buds and lovers on the second page. I think the main reason why I love this trope so much is because if it is well done, it provides me with tons of unresolved tension between the characters (sexual and otherwise) and I love it in my romances.  And if the change is done too fast, here goes my tension.  I think my favorite book which deals with this trope is Kei’s Gift by Ann Somerville. The leads are initially on the different sides of war, they are really and truly enemies as the book begins and at the end they are not and I completely believed in the change.  My other favoritebook with the variety of this trope (the men are not war time enemies in this book, but they certainly do not like each other much when the story begins) is The Only Gold by Tamara Allen. Otherwise I do not look for tropes when I pick up a m/m book – if the topic interests me here I come.

My least favorite trope – “rape him till he loves me”. With only a couple of exceptions where I thought the author managed to make me forgive the rapist, this trope almost never works for me, ever.

I am not a big fan of “Gay For You” either. I do not hate it and I even like a variety of this trope where the guy just repressed his feelings for men and  because he meets a guy whom he falls in love with, he is ready to acknowledge his feelings and admit that he is gay or bisexual (preferably bisexual). However “I meet you today and I never ever felt an inkling of attraction to men before and now I am gay” makes me roll my eyes. Recently I started a book where the guy seemed to turn gay after he read an erotic gay story written by the other guy. I did not continue reading that book.  I realize that all varieties of this trope are fantasy, but I guess when I read I can believe in some of those easier than in the others.

Willaful: My least favorite, because I’ve run into it so many times, is “We’re totally straight, really, but earning money by pretending to be gay for a porn site.” Some surprisingly good books use this plot, notably Hot Head by Damon Suede, but it’s just been done to death at this point.

I don’t think I have a favorite trope as of yet. Most of the wacky themes I love in m/f romance — convenient marriages, amnesia, revenge — aren’t common or likely in m/m. I also enjoy “second chance at love” stories, and I don’t think I’ve yet run into an m/m version. (Recommendations?)

But I enjoy the same general qualities in m/m as m/f. Heartbreak. Tenderness. Wit. Sincerity.

Sunita: Least favorite is Gay For You by a country mile, although I’m not very fond of Out For You either. I think few authors pull off the complexity of the issues for the person coming out in the latter, and the former is too often a shortcut way to signal The One True Love. If it’s well integrated into the story I’ll read it, but I’ve read so many that aren’t that I’m allergic at this point. Favorite is probably reunited lovers or relationship in trouble. I like reunited lovers in the m/m context because the good ones blend external and internal conflicts and take advantage of the idiosyncracies of same-sex relationships, and I always like relationship in trouble wherever I find it.

(4) Are there ways in which m/m romances are like m/f, and are there ways in which they are different, aside from the obvious?

Kaetrin: I think they are the same in many ways. Let’s face it, there’s not all that much that two guys can do sexually that a girl and a guy can’t do. Anal sex is not confined to m/m – it’s all over m/f.  The only thing I can really think of that is in m/f and that isn’t in m/m is a vagina.

I read across both genres and I want the same kinds of things from my m/m reading as my m/f .  I want well drawn characters, demonstrated courtship and intimacy, showing not telling, a HEA/HFN (mandatory).  While, on its face, in an m/m book both protagonists start off equal in terms of gender (I think this is not always true but more later) and in an m/f it could be said that they do not because of the patriarchal nature of our society, I think it’s a fallacy to suggest that there is no power differential.  When it comes down to it no two people have equal power in all things.  They have equal value. But power can be about class, employment, finances, race,culture, social structure, age, personality.  Ultimately, I think any book about a relationship between two people has, at its core, either explicitly or implicitly, an examination and negotiation of power dynamics.  And they will look different from book to book.  There are m/m romances where one partner is younger or less affluent or where one stays home and keeps the house – they have to negotiate their power both with the other protagonist as well as with the wider world. Because our society still sees many of these things as “weaker”.   I think that there can be a gender power differential between two gay men, particularly when one is more “traditionally masculine” and one is more “femme” (and the more I read, the less I like either term). I don’t think that our patriarchal society views a “femmy guy” in the same way as a “manly man”.

Typically of course, an  m/f books isn’t going to put homophobia and bigotry at the forefront of the story and queer romance (of any stripe) can and does (although not always). And in general terms, m/m isn’t going to explore feminism  or women’s issues terribly much.  But what I’ve learned from reading m/m romance is that  the difference between them and m/f is very often more about the individual characters than their gender identity.

Sirius: I feel significantly less well read in m/f romance than I am  in m/m (or some other genres), however especially in the last few years I have read at least some m/f books which I really enjoyed. So I decided that I will try to answer how the good ones are similar rather than different.  I mean the differences are of course based on the obvious difference – the issues of homophobia, coming out are not going to be addressed in m/f romance. Although I’ve noticed that some m/f romances now include secondary gay romances (The One That Got Away by Kelly Hunter, for example). But these issues would not be present as a source of conflict for main couple in m/f romance.

Besides as I stated before, m/m for me had always been an umbrella term not just for m/m romances, but for mysteries, fantasy,  sci-fi which include a romantic storyline with two men falling in love (or being in love and saving the world, finding the murderer, etc.). This is a huge difference for me, because I do not believe that mysteries and fantasy with m/f romantic story are being included under romance necessarily.

But m/m *romance* where the central storyline is about the couple working through the initial pitfalls to form a relationship or trying to make their existing relationship better and getting their happy ending has a lot of similarities with m/f romance in my opinion. In several m/m romances that I have read one guy is really rich and another is either very poor, or just regular middle class on the lower part of middle scale. Mary Calmes’ books are great example of that. In “Frog” one guy is a rich doctor, and another poor cowboy, who is literally struggling to support himself and won’t agree for the other guy to support him financially, that is why he won’t agree to stay with him permanently.  In “Old Loyalty, New Love” one guy is a young billionaire and his love interest is his bodyguard. I think the power dynamics they have to work through are similar to m/f romances where the guy is a billionaire/millionaire, and falls in love with the woman from poor family. I read plenty of Barbara Cartland when I was young though and this is what I am reminded of when I read those stories.

Stories that I love most in m/m and m/f have the partners respecting each other, leaning on each other if needed, helping each other in tough situations. All the  books  I would have recommended to the reader who is a newcomer to m/m deal with it in a way I love – I would also add Jordan Castillo Price’ books to that mix. M/f books that I read last year that come to mind which have the power dynamics that I loved were the Chocolate series by Laura Florand.

Willaful: The largest difference I currently see between m/f and m/m romance is that m/m seems less constrained by traditional ideas about sexuality; without the outwardly imposed double standard coming into play, there’s less baggage (probably not no baggage) about what is and isn’t okay. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an m/m hero worried about whether he’s being slutty, for example, which is surprisingly common for heroines of erotic romance.

And of course, the type of plots available are somewhat different — though authors do sometimes use fantasy worlds as a way around that. I confess to having been unable to resist an m/m fated mates/forced marriage vampire story.

Other than that, I think most m/m romance is… romance. It focuses on love, intimacy, physical pleasure, and commitment, just as m/f romance does. It can be just as beautifully written or just as dismal.

Sunita: I think the ways in which they are same are in terms of the romance tropes deployed. You see most of the same ones across the two genres, or what I think of as ones that serve essentially the same purpose even if they look different (Gay For You is analogous to the Virgin Heroine, for example). In terms of difference, I think the biggest difference is that in m/m you have two people who are socialized to be in charge, but good relationships often require that authority be shared. Watching two (cis) people from the same side of the gender binary negotiate that sort of compromise is fascinating to me. I don’t find many books that explore this issue (or do it well), but the ones that succeed are among my favorites.

Readers, how about you? For those of you who read both, how do you compare reading m/m and m/f romances? For those that only read one, what types of books from the other genre are most likely to appeal to you, if any? What would you like to see more or less often?

 

Dear Author

POC romance and the authenticity question

Over the years we’ve had a lot of spirited debates here at Dear Author about questions of authenticity and authority. Who gets to tell the stories of the disadvantaged and the historically silenced? As women, many of us are keenly aware of what it means to have someone more powerful, more connected, and more privileged tell our stories, and we don’t want that power relationship reproduced in our genre fiction, even if we’re “only” reading for fun or relaxation. We’ve mostly had to agree to disagree or stop talking to each other, since there is no one resolution that suits us all. Some readers are happy to read books about POC characters that are written by non-POC authors, others think that POC books by POC authors are the way to go, and still others argue that the most important goal is for more POC authors to be able to write whatever they want, whether they write traditional Regencies or multicultural contemporary.

I’m not going to rehash that debate here. What I want to do is have us think seriously about what it is we’re asking for when we ask for POC books. What experiences are we seeking to read about? What do we consider “authentic” in a book about historically disadvantaged or marginalized groups? And what makes an author the “right” person to write about these groups?

I’m approaching these questions as a reader, not an author. I’m interested in how readers can navigate the increasing numbers of books we come across that are written by POC authors and feature POC characters. To make things easier, I’m going to use examples from books I’ve read and have reviewed (or have reviews in the pipeline for). For the most part, these are books I really enjoyed and strongly recommend.

Example 1: Jeannie Lin’s The Sword Dancer and The Lotus Palace. Jayne reviewed the former, which I enjoyed even more than she did, and she and I jointly reviewed the latter, which is one of my favorite books of the year. I think that Lin does a superb job placing the reader in Tang Dynasty China. I and others have remarked how well she conveys the customs, social relationships, and language of the time, even though the book is indisputably a genre romance novel. The books feel authentic, which is my holy grail in historicals.

Lin satisfies the strongest condition, that of a POC author writing about POC characters, in an under-represented setting. But does it matter whether or not she’s actually Chinese? If she’s East Asian, is that sufficiently close? And if it is, why? Do we think the differences between different East Asian cultures are so insignificant that if you know one, you know them all? I certainly hope that’s not the case. There’s no doubt in my mind that Lin’s familiarity with Chinese culture enhances her ability to tell her story, but so does her research, her imagination, and her natural talent.

Example 2: Zen Cho’s The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. I love this book and want everyone to buy it and read it. It’s a terrific novella about a young Malaysian Chinese woman in 1920s London. One of the potential love interests is an Indian Tamil man, Ravi, also living in London. We rarely see multicultural historicals, let alone a multi-cultural historical where the non-white heroine rejects the handsome, rich, charming white option, so on that basis alone you have to love the setup. And Cho does a superb job both of locating her characters in the time and of conveying the pricks and slights of what it means to be a nonwhite colonial in the imperial capital. There’s a great scene where Jade is at a party; she is handed an empty glass by someone who thinks she must be the help, and she wishes she could talk to the Indian servant rather than the English guests.

Cho makes the reader understand what it’s like to be an outsider in London (even though as a colonial, Ravi is as much a subject of the Crown as the English Hardies). But what the average reader might not pick up on is that while Ravi and Jade are outsiders in London, Ravi in particular is the product of immense privilege. He chooses to come to London and we can assume from the storyline that he rejects some of the casteism of his particular Indian Brahmin community. But he has clearly benefited from the dominance of Tamil Brahmins, who were not unlike the 1% we talk about today. They comprised about 5 percent of the population where they lived and exerted extreme social, political, and economic dominance over everyone around them except the British. One of the most important Indian social movements for equality was called the non-Brahmin movement and was directed at lessening this dominance. So Ravi is a pretty complex character. He’s open-minded, sensitive, and generous, but he’s also the embodiment of a specific type of male, caste privilege.  And of course both Jade and Ravi, by virtue of being able to attend college in England in the 1910s, are members of elites in their home countries.

Example 3: Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel. I’m in the process of reading and reviewing this book, about which I have very mixed feelings. It is a historical novel with romantic elements that is set in 1940s India, and it is written by an Indian-American author whose family are from the area she is writing about. Her family were also part of what social scientists sometimes call the comprador class: they were indigenous elites who benefited directly from colonialism by gaining employment in British businesses. The narrator, Layla, marries Manik Deb and goes off to live on a tea plantation in Assam. The evocation of the countryside and the British managers, as well as the feel of small-town Indian life, are very well done. But the story also reproduces unpleasant stereotypes about some Indian regional and caste groups, and the narrator seems to sympathize much more with the British at the plantation than with the Indian workers (who are mostly represented as childlike and happy to be led by their superiors). The book definitely captures aspects of this world very well, but I’m not entirely comfortable reading about people for whom independence from colonialism was at best a mixed blessing, and whose prejudices about their fellow Indians go unchallenged. It’s realistic, though, so should I really object, just because these were the type of people who made the job of fighting for independence more difficult (or at least more complex)? I’m honestly not sure. It’s definitely Patel’s story, and she has the right to tell it. But it isn’t what I signed up to read POC books about.

Example 4: The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye. I haven’t read this book. I’ve tried multiple times and failed every time, even back in the 70s/80s when I would read pretty much anything that had romance in it. It’s just too White-People’s-Raj for me, and I don’t find Indian princes and princesses interesting. But the biggest problem I have is that every time I hit the point when Ash is saved by his ayah because she stains his skin brown and he passes for an Indian child, I flinch. That requires too great a suspension of disbelief. But I am in a minority on this book. It is beloved, and not just by non-Indian readers. Kaye’s books are widely available in India at bookshops and lending libraries, so Indians are clearly reading them.

By POC-author rules, Kaye fails because she was British. BUT … she was raised in India. She had more immediate familiarity with India than she did with the country of her ancestry. Wasn’t the story she was telling partly her story? Do you only get to claim authenticity if you are ethnically similar; does lived experience not count? Imperialism and colonialism (and migration more generally) created generations of people who had intimate familiarity with countries whose ethnic heritage they did not share. Jade, the Malaysian Chinese character in Cho’s book, is both Chinese and Malaysian (or more correctly for the time, Malayan). An Indian like my grandfather spent more than half his life as a subject of the Queen-Empress/King-Emperor, studied English common law in law school, and was governed by British law until independence. We don’t deny him his British-Indian status, so can we deny Kaye hers? Can we say that her lived experience isn’t enough to allow her the legitimacy to write a book set in the country in which she spent her childhood and part of her adulthood?

I’m an academic, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t have answers to these questions. I don’t know where to draw the boundaries for legitimate authority when it comes to reading about disadvantaged people and underrepresented places. For myself, I try to read and talk about books written by these groups, even when they’re not really written FOR readers in these groups. And I can’t help but notice that even when we’re reading POC books, we’re all too often reading about characters who are part of the social and economic elite.

But I ultimately evaluate the text, not the intentions of the authors or the publishers. So I seek out books by POC authors like Zen Cho and Jeannie Lin, but I also read Guy Gavriel Kay. When I have trouble with depictions of POC characters and contexts, as I do with the Patel book, I try to explain why. I tend to cast my net widely rather than narrowly. That’s how I’ve come to terms with some of the complexities; I’d love to hear how you negotiate these waters.