All m/m fiction is not created equal
A while back I was tweeting about m/m novels with a couple of m/m writers. I mentioned that my least favorite explanations for why women read m/m romance was “If one man is good, two men are even better!” Both of the writers agreed, and we moved on to other topics. I went back to surfing romance blogs and what did I find? A post answering the question, “Why do straight women read gay male erotica?” And what was the answer? Yes, you guessed it: Two men are twice as hot as one. Argh!
I should mention here that it is not only mainstream romance bloggers who give this reason. Writers of m/m have also been known to put it at the top of their list of reasons for writing it. And those of us who review m/m here at DA are not shy about expressing our satisfaction with books that offer explicit depictions of gay male sex. So why does the constant refrain of 2XY > 1XY HotHotHot!!! get to me so much?
For one thing, there is a tendency to lump all m/m fiction into the category of erotica (the post in question conflated romance and erotic m/m novels). Moreover, many readers don’t appear to distinguish between well-written, thoughtful erotic fiction and stories that are aptly called “stroke novels.” The latter serve pretty much the function their descriptor suggests; as long as they are sexually arousing, the quality of the prose and the characterizations of the protagonists are almost beside the point.
Booksellers like Fictionwise still categorize most gay and lesbian romance titles as erotica. And remember when Amazon pulled its m/m titles on the grounds that they were porn? This is unfair both to writers whose work is being mischaracterized and to readers who are looking for erotic novels and wind up with romance (or vice versa). Now maybe, for some readers, reading a short, less than explicit passage in which male characters have sex is emotionally equivalent to an extremely explicit scene of heterosexual sex. In that case, all m/m romance is erotica, regardless of heat and quality levels. But I think for many veteran readers, the distinctions between warm, hot, and extremely hot sex in m/m are pretty similar to those in m/f, and so calling all m/m erotica collapses one of the key distinctions for romance readers: the centrality of a romantic (as opposed to sexual) relationship and the guarantee of an HEA/HFN ending.
Second, this conflation of distinct types of m/m fiction feeds into existing stereotypes of all romance, i.e., that the distinctions we make between erotic romance, erotica, and porn are beside the point because romance novels are just stroke novels, porn for women with no redeeming literary value. Just as we distinguish PwP novels from erotica and romance in m/f, we should maintain that distinction in m/m writing.
Third, I worry that by privileging the importance of sexual titillation over the other types of rewards that we receive from reading m/m, we run the risk of focusing on gay men and their sexual relationships to the exclusion of other characteristics. That focus has the potential to reinforce the stereotype that gay men are all about whom they sleep with. When we fail to distinguish between romance, erotica, and stroke fiction, we’re extending that perspective to the whole genre. Distinguishing among them doesn’t mean that we categorize by the amount and type of sex in the book, but by the role that sex plays for the narrative and the characters. When the sexual dimensions of a relationship (or an individual’s journey) move the story and characterization forward, they are integral to the story.
However much romance readers understand that they are reading fiction, they take away and store information that they acquire in novels. You only have to look at historical romance to see how the process works. Scottish romance teaches people about Highlanders and kilt-wearing in ways that are divorced from actual people and practices. Novels about colonial India leave readers with the impression that the most important inhabitants were Anglo-Indians and the most important event was the Mutiny of 1857. These fictional exaggerations and falsehoods are mostly harmless and inconsequential for Scots and Indians then and now. But it’s a bit different when we’re talking about contemporary issues and people. For minority groups in particular, the majority’s understanding is heavily influenced by stereotypes, and the less concrete knowledge one has, the more stereotypes are likely to contribute. The best examples of m/m romantic and erotic fiction, whether explicit or relatively tame sexually, undermine stereotypes and depict the complexity of human relationships just as much as the best examples of m/f romantic and erotic fiction do. Stroke novels are about something else entirely. They’re useful and we love them, but they’re not part of the same genre.
Hours after I first drafted this post, Rick Welts, the President & CEO of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, came out of the closet in a front-page story in the New York Times. When I read the story, I realized that he had had two long-term, committed relationships in his adult life. One was cut short by his partner’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1994, after 17 years together. The other, which lasted 14 years, ended because the demands of the closet made the relationship too difficult to sustain. If I have the arithmetic right, Rick Welts spent the majority of the last 35 years in two non-overlapping committed relationships. I’m guessing he would make a fairly boring main character in an m/m stroke novel (although who knows, he could have had a rich and varied sex life). But I’m positive he’d make a helluva romance hero. I really hope he gets his HEA.