In the matter of: Gay Fiction v. Gay Romance

Hear ye, hear ye, court is in session…

I just read Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief. It’s the first novel I can think of that talks about what it’s like to be gay and what straight society calls “middle aged.” Which in gay society is basically, “whatever sexual attractiveness you had has, like the elves of Middle Earth, taken ship and Gone Into The West.”

Honestly, it’s the first “gay novel” I’ve read in years. By which I mean, a novel about being gay, which is a very different animal from a “gay romance.”

A romance is a trope-adhering fiction. In a gay romance, it’s one in which the main characters happen to be gay. In all successful romances, the genre requirements in play at the moment of its creation are upheld – for instance, since “new adult” came along, it’s necessary that both characters have Wounds and Dark Secrets that their scowling beauty conceals. The main male character (preferably both of them in gayrom) must be possessed of a sexy form of employment, preferably requiring a uniform, or at least an expensive suit. There is a “you must be this tall to ride” standard for men of approximately six foot two. Any backstory or character development is not only unnecessary, but is often discouraged by the number of two star reviews a book with “too much” of it will receive (he said, from experience).

And, most importantly, the romance novel is about the relationship, more than it is about the individuals in it. A romance is constantly violating the “Bechdel test.” Alison Bechdel once said her rule about what movies she would and wouldn’t see was basically, it had to have two women in it who spent time together onscreen talking about something besides a man. The romance novel, for the most part, is about either the two main characters together, or apart and talking to someone else about the other and/or the relationship. If you don’t do this, you’ll get reviews that say “the mains were almost never together on the page.”

(Ironically, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would probably receive a two star review, as there are all manner of things going on it that have nothing to do with Elizabeth and Darcy, nor are those two very often found “together on the page.”)

Where might you draw the line between what’s Gay Romance and what’s Gay Fiction? We’re capitalizing now, to talk about them as different things with different goals, and to refer to their existence as separate Amazon categories. Almost every Gay Romance is a bestseller in both categories.

I’d say scope is the divider. Most lives include “romance,” but most romance novels dial in only on the narrow portion of time in those lives between “They met” and “They married.” Most literary novels avoid this entire section of time – many of them are about a “marriage under the microscope,” about everything that goes wrong later, after the HEA. (Way too many, actually; it’s like you can’t get your MFA without a Raymond Carver-esque tale of a crumbling marriage.)

Andrew Holleran’s novels are distinctly Gay Fiction. They are about being gay, the life that a gay man lives outside the context of any romantic relationship. His first novel, Dancer from the Dance, is one of the greatest novels ever, period. It’s about being gay before AIDS, and his latest book Grief is about being gay after it (“after AIDS” being a condition dependent on sufficient income and good insurance). Neither book is a romance, and the one relationship embarked on by Malone, the main character in Dancer, ends with enough mutual disillusion to qualify it for one of those “microscope” stories.

What romance delivers is escape. What fiction delivers is realism, at least compared to how much of that you get in romance. In the case of Gay Fiction, it’s truth – the truth about gay men’s lives. Gay Romance gives its audience what they dream of, but, as gay men, only Gay Fiction gives us what we need.

I’m 53 years old. I had an episode recently, when a hot young guy at my gym, who I’d been staring at for some time, actually looked back, with a grin of acknowledgement, a message that yeah, I see you checking me out, that’s cool.

And I totally froze, indescribably upset. As long as he hadn’t made eye contact, I could let my imagination run away with me, planning the wedding. But once he acknowledged my existence, well, then it was either let the fantasy run wild and put the bunny in the cookpot, or squash it in a bitter session with multiple bottles of wine.

And then I was angry at him – why can’t you just ignore me like all the other hot young dudes! Why do I have to feel all this now, when I’ve finally established a quiet life without feelings!

And I had no context for these feelings, just a sense that I didn’t want to go back to the gym, didn’t want to see him again, didn’t want to upset myself again. And I just didn’t know how I was going to get around that and get back to the gym without dramatically changing my schedule or something.

Then I read this passage in Holleran’s book, from the POV of a man in, roughly, his 50s or perhaps even early 60s:

One afternoon, when I was leaving the National Gallery, a bearded man coming up the steps with a camera slung across his shoulder fixed his eyes on mine – a glance so longed for, it plunged me into a kind of anger, so that by the time I got home, and blurted out what had just happened to my landlord, it sounded more like a mugging. But he understood exactly. “What were you supposed to do?’ he said. ‘Stop and turn around and say, ‘Are you in a hotel?’ I don’t think so!”

And at that phrase, “a glance so longed for, it plunged me into a kind of anger,” the hairs stood up on my neck. I wasn’t alone. This wasn’t something that just happened to me, this wasn’t just “my” feeling. Someone had spoken for me, for the first time in fiction in a very long time. I wasn’t the only older gay man with this conflicted sense of desire and futility.

When I was young, and being gay was still “disapproved of” by the overwhelming majority of Americans, my only recourse to Gay Fiction was on our family trips to San Francisco. On which, oddly enough, my parents were content to let a sixteen-year-old boy wander the city for the day, while they did whatever adult things they were going to do (no, not that). Then again, this was 1979, and children had not yet been put on leashes and bubble-wrapped and forbidden to leave the house without an embedded GPS tracker.

The only trouble I got into was (and I gave this experience to Cal in Different People) visiting TRO Harper Books on Powell, where I found the just-released paperback version of Dancer, huge great stacks of the Bantam paperback on a table, the way the latest Patterson would be stacked up today. And of course I snatched up a copy, stashing it once home in a drawer, hidden even deeper than my cigarettes.

There was also a bookstore on Castro, just up from the Sausage Factory. (No, that was a pizza place. Seriously.) That bookstore had about three shelves of “Gay Literature,” which was about all the books about being gay, fiction and nonfiction, in print at the time. I pretty much bought every one of those books, almost all of which were from Avon or some sub-imprint. (I had money as I’d been working since I was 14, having lied about my age to work in, yep, a bookstore. Again, those were the days when 14 year olds could do that kind of thing.)

Those books taught me as a kid what “being gay” was, or was going to be, when, like all the others, I’d made the journey from rural exile to the Safety of The City.

And since then, there have been many “young adult” books that let kids know they’re not alone, that it’s okay. But, until I found Grief, I can’t think of one that’s been written for “old gay adults.” That has an expression of what it’s like for us, those of us who’ve, startlingly for our demographic in the age of AIDS, lived long enough to find ourselves in an emotional donut hole, both alive and alone, most of the people we collected in that key “building lifetime friends” era now long gone to their graves.

When you look at the Gay Fiction section on Amazon, the bestsellers and the new releases aren’t really Gay Fiction, not as gay men have known it for decades. They’re Gay Romances. They’re not really about the lives of gay men, not the way that Dancer or Grief is. There are rarely any signposts in a Gay Romance that show us how to live, how other gay men are living and how we can learn from them.

I wish that some Gay Romances, the ones that are just fantasy, were not also classified as Gay Fiction. Sometimes this happens because the author selects Gay Fiction as a BISAC Code, sometimes because the author puts “gay fiction” in their keywords, and sometimes probably because Amazon just shoves ‘em in there. There’s no fatwa being issued here, just an “I wish,” so don’t get your knickers in a twist. People are going to classify books the way they’re gonna, and it’s too bad.

But the question is, even if we took Gay Romances out of the Gay Fiction category, would it really make a difference? Would there suddenly be an onrush of Gay Fiction getting noticed? Or are they just not being written anymore…and why?

Gay Fiction, fiction not necessarily by, but most definitely about gay men, is a mostly moribund genre. (I’ll leave lesbian fiction for someone else to tackle.) It’s depressing to look at the “Also boughts” for a relatively new title like Grief and see titles like City of Night, Buddies, The Swimming Pool Library, Faggots, Giovanni’s Room… In other words, novels written many decades ago. And to realize, hey, when was the last time a work of Gay Fiction really made a big literary splash?

And why? You can’t blame homophobia, as much as Larry Kramer would like to. Is it because young gay men, at least once they leave the “YA” reading market, have no interest in reading about “being gay”? Is there just not much left to say about it after you’ve achieved independence, that’s much different than life in the big city for anyone else their age? Is it just that (the perennial favorite) “young people don’t read books anymore”?

Mainstream literary fictions like A Little Life feature gay characters, and nobody blinks. Gay characters in movies are no longer destined to die or be killed. In the 70s, Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet had both a Filmography, a list of all movies with gay characters, and a Necrology, a list of all the movies where the gays died. Gay Fiction with a capital G and a capital F was necessary back then, when all gay characters were created from the distorted POV of a straight culture.

So. What kind of Gay Fiction do we need now? Nope, we don’t need any more novels by gay white men about escaping the sticks for the Big City, where they get nice jobs in publishing and summer on Fire Island. We’re full up there.

I think what we need is a novel from a gay person in Uganda, for instance, a story of a gay man or lesbian who sees Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and their “prayer warriors” invade their country, whipping up homicidal hysteria against the “family destroying” gays. How do you live with that, or do you? What kind of “great migration” might there be now, of gay Africans who must escape the tyranny that American Evangelicals have brought there? What is that experience like?

Or more novels like Grief, about getting older in a subculture devoted to youth and beauty. How do you let go, as most characters in that book are unable to do, of the desire for a young, beautiful lover, and find someone to be happy with?

Or novels about what it was like to grow up in an African-American “churchy” household during the 2004 elections, when gay marriage was whipped up into the Great Satan?

There are lives that never have any romance, but they’re still interesting. There’s still resonance in those lives for the rest of us.

Me? I’m guilty of writing Gay Romance. I have two cats to feed. And they’re addicted to crab. Lump crab, the rotten little bastards. I need to make money writing, because I Ain’t Never Goin’ Back to Cubicle City, Mister, and I know where my bread is buttered. I insert my gay experience, the elements of Gay Fiction, into my books, but yeah, they’re Gay Romances. Backstory aside, they are framed by They Meet and They Marry.

Gay Fiction is not a profitable career, nor is it likely to become one. It’s more like being a poet, one best suited to those with day jobs or grants or employed spouses or a willingness to (and the good health to be able to) live on the financial margins.

But we need more of it. And it would be nice if Gay Romance could step aside and let Gay Fiction have its place in the sun.

21 Comments on In the matter of: Gay Fiction v. Gay Romance

  1. I agree with all your points, except for the last one.
    I don’t think Gay Romance could step aside for Gay Fiction, even if it wanted to. Not any more than Horror could step aside for Cozy Mystery, or Historical step aside for General Fiction. It’s not a matter of one replacing or outshining the other. They are two different things, with different audiences, goals, and rules.
    I definitely understand the point, though. To see gay romantic experiences eagerly consumed as entertainment – while the rest of the story, stories about the reality of being gay, are ignored by the majority of readers.
    Hopefully, someday we will see more gay fiction on the bestseller charts.

    • I hope so too 🙂 for me the issue is that horror wouldn’t also show up in cozy mystery, but gay romance dominates the gay fiction chart, leaving little room for fiction that isn’t romance…

      • I know, but I’m not sure why that happens? Do you think the publisher/author uses “gay fiction” as a keyword, or do you think Amazon just adds it based on search criteria?

      • Hard to guess, but I think if enough gay romance authors also add their books to gay fiction, Amazon may well “tag along” the rest… Nobody knows the ways of the Kremlizon 🙂

  2. Harper Miller // January 21, 2016 at 4:15 pm // Reply

    Brad, I love this post so hard. SO HARD. Glad you decided to write it after all.

  3. TwistedWords // January 21, 2016 at 5:21 pm // Reply

    Great read! It really gave me a lot to think about. Of course I can only speak for myself but as a queer/Gay/Bi/Pan (whatever someone wants to label me) woman I tend to not really gravitate towards Gay Fiction (as you defined it) often and I am not sure if I would ever attempt at writing it. My reasons for not reading it is because I live that life every day, and when I read I like to escape all the pain and heartbreak that I’ve experienced. I don’t think I’d ever write it because it would require tapping into the unpleasant things that comes with being that African American with “churchy” relatives and honestly I think I lack the desire/ability to deal with all the internal pain that would cause. Because lets be honest, most people in the LQBT community has had more than their share of struggles. I’ve personally never met anyone who hasn’t had their hearts stomped out just because they are gay. So to write that experience would be to relive an often painful past. So my hats is off to all those brave people who are willing to show and share their most painful truths.

    • Thank you 🙂 yeah tbh I don’t want heavy lifting every time I read, not would I want to write it exclusively. But my hat is off to those who do as well.

  4. Andrea Dalling // January 21, 2016 at 6:32 pm // Reply

    This may change now that authors can categorize their books as Gay Romance on Amazon now. They don’t have to select Fiction > Romance and Fiction > Gay to get there anymore.

  5. Lily Adile Lamb // January 21, 2016 at 8:41 pm // Reply

    Thank you Brad. As a newbie, you helped me to see a bit more. I see where you come from.

  6. And THIS is EXACTLY why I write what I write. And I am writing it – violetquillredux.com is my own story, my own journey (yup right up to the 20 year marriage to a man and the kids and grandkids). But it has all the salacious bits I did in the middle – and I got into a lot of shit. Shit where I had to look up the statutes to make sure when I write it all down at Violet Quill I am not setting myself up.

    I KNOW I won’t be a big seller. My works are DEEPLY rooted in who we are. They are messy, they are cut from our own stories I’ve culled over the years. I don’t give a bloody shit about sales – not really. I am in it solely for the posterity of putting out a set of works that speak to issues queer men face (not just gays, either – across the spectrum of queerdom). I have a real ire for Gay or M/M romance – I personally wish it would fall off into the ether. It won’t, I know that but as a gay man nothing rankles me more. I think you can have Queer Romance which is much closer to what we have as real gay/queer men and it can have those strong romantic tropes BUT, as in life, the HEA or HFN is a moving target – a real honest to god page turner. Gee, ya think? I want Queer Romance to become a thing. It is far more representational of our lives and loves. The HEA can mean – hey, I’ve finally sorted my shit out and actually like who I am – fuck that douche who I was dating that made me feel less so he could feel more. What about that? Self-love and self-respect in a story?

    For me, and I am sure this will not win me any love, the women who read our works love men, period. Which is fine. But they don’t really want to know who we are as a people. That’s my takeaway from numerous conversations. Hot guys are pasted all over the FB pages – cool, I like male eye candy, too. But it only speaks of how it is ALL superficial. That’s why I constantly post about what’s going on in our queer lives. I tweet and bring stories to those out there about what’s going on elsewhere in the world. That shit NEEDS to be out there. So I am adding my voice to the mix. For posterity more than anything else. But I will tell you those people (mostly women) who have read my works are starting to see them for what they really are. I don’t write standard trope fair – I write immersive mental space books with the hope that you walk away with who they really are more than what happens. I break rules all the time – BUT I’M DOING IT ON PURPOSE to drive home where these mental spaces are and why. They are specific for a reason. And the responses I am getting outside of FB posts, in other forms of communications are quite astounding. There is a desire to know what it’s like to actually be on the inside. Does my MC in Angels repeat himself incessantly? You betcha. And as Carole Cummings told me, I completely underscore why that is. Those that want to really get a read on a queer man, they get it. Boy do they get it. I have broken men read Angels and come back to me and say – wow, I see Elliot and man, I get why he’s so afraid in his world. I had a beta read it (who was a queer man) and say: I read the first page and struggled, then turned page and a light bulb went off – oh, this is the way I think. Bingo! Exactly what I was after. So I’ll trade 50 or 50mil 5 star ratings if I get people like them. THEY matter to me. If others find it of interest, cool. But that’s not who i am writing for. I am writing for the broken amongst us, love letters to my fellow brothers (and sisters) saying – yeah, me too. I getcha. I’m right there with ya. Hugs for posting this Brad. I admire the shit out of you. I hope you know that. (((HUGS))) – Baz

    • XO buddy – I know you’re defying the market and going your own way, and I applaud your courage. When I finally get my Guggenheim and my MacArthur and have enough to pay my $12k a year in medical/insurance costs alone, I hope that I haven’t sold so much of my soul that I can’t join you there. I DO think there is good stuff to be mined in romance. I DO think great things can come of romance. I LIKE fucking with tropes, taking popular trends and putting them on their heads. I enjoy what I do. I just wish I could do it without a financial gun to my head, and I’m not willing to get a day job again to make that possible…

      • Thanks for that. I had to make a conscious choice when I started to pen Angels (as you recall – I was actually playing with a Norse inspired Fae story (I had you read the prologue many moons ago)) and then Angles hit me – like a ton of bricks. Everything has been set aside for it. I don’t know why I am so consumed to tell these boys stories but I am. Financial freedom would be a lovely thing but I can’t do commercial stuff. That was a VERY hard thing to realize and embrace. But after I got a couple of men whose lives were derailed (one who hadn’t read a book in over 20 years) read Angels and tell me how I’ve given him hope through those boys in Mercy, a light bulb went off. I found my purpose as a writer. I found my audience. And it’s small. It’s incredibly small. But who else will write for them?

        I will still write my tropey stuff someday – those Norse Fae will have their day in the sun. But even then, I think they will still be headspace works. My hubs is a retired psychiatrist (and quantum mech physicist – I think I told you that once) and he was the one who fingered what I was doing – I didn’t really know what it was to be honest when I finished the first book of Angels. Then my cousin read it who has a gay son – she’d never read anything remotely queer oriented before. She called me after finishing the first book and was in tears because she and her son struggled throughout his teen years to connect. She said I gave her an answer to a question as a mother that she carried (she never wavered in her love and support of her son) because it never occurred to her that while she was struggling with connecting with him and supporting him (he kept saying she didn’t understand his world) that it wasn’t until she read what I put down between Elliot and his mother, Kayla, that her son was struggling, too. As a mother she always assumed it was something she was failing at – it never occurred to her to ask him if he was struggling too. He just finished the book a day or two ago. He was blown away with how much Elliot had represented where he was as a teen (mind you, I knew of their situation but was not actively involved in it over those long years). They’ve had a long conversation about the work because of what I put down there. My hubs told me PFLAG members will probably respond to the work. So again, limited, but necessary, audience is sitting right there. But how do I engage that? So it’s all a struggle. For me, I had to embrace that sales would not be the focus then I would have to rely on my Clark Kent gig to get me through. Another hard realization. I don’t admonish those who do what you’re doing, I get it. Truly. I just don’t see much of what I am doing happening out there. Biography stuff, sure. But not fictional writings steeped in who we are. So, I do what I do. It’s not a whole lot. But it’s something. And those one or two emails that trickle in telling me it matters is what keeps me going. I am TRULY thrilled you wrote this. It warms my heart to know you have these thoughts, too. You’re still King in my book. -Baz

  7. My admiration for you just increased by an order of magnitude. Well said, sir, well said.

  8. Angel Martinez // January 22, 2016 at 12:36 pm // Reply

    Literary fiction has always been a money sinkhole for authors – whether it’s Gay Fiction, Queer Fiction or mainstream. That’s why when we were young, we were told that “author” is not a career. You could be a professor, and maybe write a novel someday, or a journalist, and maybe write a novel someday, but being an “author” was not the responsible thing to do as an adult and was highly discouraged.

    Gay Romance is not to blame for the confusion and conflation, and could not “step out of the way” any more than straight romance can. It is it’s own thing – but you know that. Perhaps what we should be concentrating on is why there aren’t more writers willing to write Gay and Queer Fiction. Education system spiraling down the tubes? Check. Writers see no incentive to write literary fiction where there are no rewards and they will starve? Check. Belief that there will be no interest (even though there’s no way to gauge until you write it?) Check.

    The vast majority of fiction purchased these days is romance. Not that this is a new thing, but in times when people feel the world is a threatening place, they reach for escapism, not something that will make them think.

    Gods, I’m rambling. But here’s where I’m going. When I was young, the general belief was that women didn’t write science fiction. And that science fiction didn’t include queer characters. In my firm and stubborn belief that both of these things are wrong, I began to write the stories I wanted to see.

    There is nothing wrong with genre fiction. A good bit of it is brilliant and even original. And it has a chance to pay the mortgage. And there’s nothing wrong with being subversive about it and writing the genre fiction/ romance that you want to write. But if we want Gay and Queer Fiction, too? More of it? We’re going to have to get off our butts, be brave, and write it.

    • You are correct. The days when you could write “midlist” or “prestige” novels and even afford to live in NYC on the proceeds are long gone. As for SF, I remember as a young kid reading the Dangerous Visions anthology and having my mind absolutely blown – my reading up till then having just graduated to the Dune level from the Perry Rhodan/Gor level. I read Ursula K. LeGuin and Kate Wilhelm in high school and while I didn’t always understand UKL in her non-Earthsea books, I remember knowing that there was *something big going on.* Oh yeah that’s why I write SF as Adam Vance 🙂 that’s my profitless passion project… Also, Connie Willis and Anne Leckie FTW 🙂

  9. Angel Martinez // January 22, 2016 at 1:31 pm // Reply

    Even with Ursula and CJ Cherryh and Kate Wilhelm as examples, we were still subtly told, in so many ways, that girls don’t write that stuff and they don’t really understand it, either. (We’re still being told these things by a certain portion of the population, but a big single digit salute to them.) But this is exactly the point – women were told they can’t. They shouldn’t. No one would read them. No one would care. And yet, we kept writing. Are still writing. Onward. Onward. If we want it to happen, we have to make it happen.

  10. I think one of the problems is one you even mentioned in your post … after AIDS, there just aren’t as many gay men over a certain age as there should be, and only a subset of those actually write about their experiences.

    That’s not to say that women can’t write about the experiences of gay men, or that younger writers can’t write about the experiences of older people, but I think it helps to have a certain threshold of voices taken from first-hand experience to act as a “control”.

  11. based from the post above, i imagine there are loads of books about gay fiction or romance, it is amazing to see there are others in the other side, actually defining about this subject.
    unlike in here, any book relate to gay, usually not display on the store for long.
    the “young people don’t read books anymore” is not totally true, it is just that, not everyone like to read book, some others still do read, whether it is an ebook or paperback, but they do read, not all of them though, and probably on a much smaller percentage of them who still like reading.

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