[UPDATE 10:20 am 9/20: Apparently Josh has said that “women writers sometimes just…try too hard” and “much of the M/M stuff written by women doesn’t quite ring true to me.” Also, as of this time Josh’s Goodreads profile identifies Josh as Male.]
I was going to say nothing about the recent revelation that “Josh Lanyon,” M/M writer and author of guides on writing M/M, is actually a woman. But the more I think about it, especially after reading “Josh’s” blog post, the more disturbed I am. If you’re seeing this preview on Facebook, well, you’ll have to click the link because I have a fairly long chain of reasoning here.
I know that the majority of readers don’t care that “Josh” turned out to be a woman, for a number of reasons.
First, there is the valid reason, oft discussed in this genre, that there’s no reason a woman can’t imagine man-on-man sex as well as a man can. True. I’ve written female characters, quite a few as “Orland Outland” in fact, and some of my favorite writers can write the hell out of women characters – right now I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s Purity and his women, the very many women in this book, are insanely deeply felt from the inside out.
Secondly, the fact that the writer is not a man, presenting actual first hand experience of mansex, is not as important in a genre where for the most part, readers aren’t looking for “reality.” They’re not looking for how gay men actually talk and think and fuck, or even act how men really do in general. They’re looking for how they want men to talk, to be. It’s a fantasy. Gay men are no more likely to sit around for three hundred pages talking about their feelings than straight men are, but if you want a world in which they do, there is fiction available for you.
Again, I think of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Man, there are some passages in there I cannot read for long, page after page of two people tearing each other to shreds because they know each other that well. Yeah, I get that there are times you do not want that.
All the same – I don’t read a lot of M/M, and that’s because I do want my characters to feel real. I improve as a writer by reading books like Franzen’s, by feeling my amazement at his talent, my jealousy at his economic ability to spend years on a single book (what could I accomplish if I had enough money to do that…), my admiration at his creating a 550 page book that sucks you in on page one and ruins your life for days. And he can write about loneliness, awkwardness, jealousy, oh shit everything.
And being a man is no guarantee you can write man-on-man, because it’s no guarantee that you can write at all. Most people can’t write for shit. Not every flower is special. I championed Kora Knight when she started out, precisely because her characters speak like actual human beings, and her men experience sex and do sexy talk the way actual gay men do. She’s really, really good at it.
People have said, well, “Josh” never used a male pronoun to describe “Josh.” But. The author’s reviews are full of quotes like this one, pulled from “Josh’s” how to book on writing M/M romance:
“I discovered him in March and by the end of May I had whipped through his complete oeuvre. Whew, this guy can write. When I discovered he had written a how-to, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.”
Silence = assent. Every customer who reviews “Josh’s” books uses the male pronoun. And to use a male name when…writing a how to book on M/M romance…is to set yourself up as the male voice of authority on writing about men. There’s a presumption, and a promise. “I am a man” is the promise that silence in the face of the male pronoun delivers.
Now, there are two things that upset me about this. Number one, which is the least upsetting. There are only a handful of actual men writing in this genre – maybe less, as we found out the other day. I’m one of them. I’ve “verified my identity,” in Facebook speak, by doing podcasts and videos and outing myself under my legal name.
And not only are there are very few gay men who write these books, but very few who read them, often because they ARE looking for reality, verisimilitude, they are looking for their own lives in fiction in which they are the stars. They come in to this virtual bookstore and say, “I am a gay guy and I want to read a book by a gay guy.”
This is one of the recent reviews for my book, Given the Circumstances, from a gay guy:
“I thought there was something different about this book! I don’t usually pay much attention to authors’ names (wrong, I know!) Normally when reading M/M romances I skip right through the sex parts. This time, though, I found myself actually reading and enjoying them. When I looked again at the author I realised why. For once, man on man sex scenes written by a man (who surely knows what it’s like!)”
“Josh’s” name could lure a gay man into buying a book that promised that authentic voice. Or that could lure a potential writer into thinking that this man had the first hand experience to author a guide to writing an M/M book.
And what happens to us actual male writers when that gay man discovers that he’s not reading a man’s book? You say it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that it “shouldn’t” matter, the fact is that it does matter. “Oh, that genre, it’s all women pretending to be men.” And there goes a potentially lucrative audience for gay male authors… This is not about feelings or opinions – this is about a direct economic impact to gay male writers.
Was it necessary for “Josh” to use a male name, to infer maleness? No, this is not a “George Eliot” situation. This is not a woman writing about the human condition who has to masquerade as a man to get published because only men get published. There is no secret committee of men preventing women from writing about gay men’s sex lives. The overwhelming majority of writers in this genre are women, and if they don’t want to identify as such, they use initials. But the biggest names, the ones making serious bank, are openly female – Mary Calmes, Amy Lane, Kindle Alexander (two women, but still, women).
And there’s a piece of misdirection in her blog statement about never having really pretended to be a man:
“Anyway, old timers have known The Secret for years–one of my former publishers has made a point of “outing” me at every single GRL–but there are so many new faces in M/M that I guess this week’s revelation does come as news for some.”
We aren’t talking about other writers here. We’re not talking about what insiders do or don’t know. We’re talking about what a reader, walking into a virtual bookstore, sees. Assumes. Has been led to assume. No, Josh did not, in the small and insular world of M/M publishing, ”pretend to be a man.” But on the shelves of the bookstore, Josh did pretend to be a man. Josh did pretend in the eyes of the readers who weren’t one of the “old timers.”
Okay. So for those of you who have read this far, and appreciated my reasoned tone.
This is where my blood boils.
“Josh” defends herself on her blog by claiming that this genre belongs to women.
“Male writers frustrated because they believe female writers have created a false expectation in the M/M audience…I get that. But these guys still don’t understand that this genre evolved from a different literary tradition and the expectations and tropes were already in place when M/M became an actual marketable genre.”
In other words…turning the argument against women writing M/M on its head…Josh declares that this genre does not belong to men. Because it originated in fanfic, written by women about Kirk/Spock, etc.
It’s not our genre.
We’re the guests here.
And we have no right to complain when an author of books about men who have sex with men under a man’s name turns out to be a woman.
And if this isn’t our genre, if it’s always been a woman’s genre, then…
Why call yourself “Josh” in the first place?
What was the reasoning for claiming maleness if the readers and writers of “this genre” have always been women?
I’m just floored. I get it, that when you’re attacked, you counter attack. But the…the what? The gall? The arrogance? The insensitivity? The tone deafness? The rudeness? All of the above? To say that men “don’t understand” the man-on-man genre.
Recently there was a scandal in the world of poetry. An old white man who couldn’t get his poem published under his real name, resubmitted it under an Asian woman’s name…and after half as many rejections, got it accepted. Why? Because within the name, with no other available data, was the presumption, on the part of the acceptor, that this was written from the viewpoint of an Asian female. Should it have mattered? Certainly not. Did it matter? Did it assist this author in getting published? Yep.
I hate shit storms. They aren’t productive. But it was reading that last bit on her blog that set me off. Telling me I “don’t understand” the genre. Me, the gay man.
And you know what? Maybe I don’t. Maybe that’s why I’m second tier, financially. (Third tier, some months.)
But I’m playing a long game. I’m playing a game for a day when the readership of novels with gay men in them is not narrow, because the content speaks to everyone. Because people will “get over” the gay sexin’ bits and read a novel because it’s good. Because the characters are real, the dialogue is real, the voice of research and experience draws them in and overwhelms whatever squeamishness they may have about the gayness. Which, given recent surveys of teenage sexuality and how flexibly they identify themselves, is going to be pretty damn soon.
And I’ll be there. Me, Brad Vance, aka Orland Outland.
I get reinvention. “Orland’s” literary career died a slow ugly death. But then, three years ago, I was able to become “Brad,” a new person, funnier, bolder, sexier, more confident, a phoenix from the flames. And I hid “Orland” because I had a day job where it might not have been so great to be known for writing, you know, “Luke’s Brutal Abduction.” (It’s not that brutal, he pays for the experience – but, you know, marketing!)
But I was Brad. That old pic of me with my shirt off and my hat pulled down, that was me, albeit in the literal and figurative shadows. I never led anybody on.
And maybe I’m a genre of one. Maybe I’m not part of “this genre…from a different literary tradition.” Maybe I don’t want to be part of that style of writing. I want to write (well, excepting werewolves) real people with real feelings. From imagination, and from experience, and from empathy.
If you “don’t understand” that, well, as the great Kurt Vonnegut said, So It Goes…
[EDIT 10/11/15 – Since people are still coming in some numbers to read this post, I would appreciate it if you would also read the followup/conclusion to my thoughts on this matter on the next day’s post: https://bradvanceerotica.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/bradzilla-has-left-the-building/