About Who Writes MM Romance

Posted by July 4th, 2014 24 Comments »

Fellow author Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post on his blog recently, about women writing M/M romance, which you can find —here—. It’s well worth reading and thinking about.

This is an issue that has arisen on discussion loops and author blogs for years, often in some combination of complaint, disrespect, snark and defiance. Recent posts on the topic are less strident, I’m grateful to see.

I really appreciate Jamie’s approach, since it offers real commentary, and avoids the outraged “Women don’t write us right!” or “I write werewolves, does that mean I have to be one to write authentically about them?” arguments, both of which which basically miss the point.

“Who the heck is this ‘us’?” this particular gay man asks. The diversity even just within the European / North American gay male demographic is too fabulously far-ranging to function with an individual spokesman. And with werewolves, an author can make up their behavior to suit any whim. It’s a more complex issue when writing about a gay man, since, you know, we actually exist.

Frankly, I’m relieved we’re getting beyond the “You can’t do it right!” vs. the “Yes I can!” arguments because they’re neither helpful nor relevant.

I don’t think anyone disputes that women can write great romance stories featuring gay male characters. They shouldn’t, anyway, since it’s so very obviously true. So what’s the real issue?

Is it that MM romance stories written by men might be a little different from those written by women? When I read one of our stories, sometimes the gender of the author is obvious to me, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if you paid me a fortune. (And if you offered to pay me a fortune, believe me I’d try. I’m an author, after all, and need the cash.)

Just as there are significant differences between one author and another of the same gender or orientation, so also there are significant differences between female and male authors. Why is that a bad thing? I see that as something to celebrate. It means we each can bring something new to our stories if we take the time and effort to do it.

I accept that Fessenden is right in seeing current MM Romance as an extension of its origins in slashfic, but speaking personally, I want our genre to continue evolving into one offering more satisfying emotional depth than slashfic. The baby is growing up, and the evolution I feel coming will require MM stories written by authors of every gender identity and sexual orientation.

I also agree with Fessenden’s observation that while MM romance might be about gay men, it doesn’t really belong to gay men. In fact, I’ll hike out farther on that limb — the genre doesn’t belong to either women or men, regardless of author or reader demographics. It belongs to whoever has compassion and respect for gay men and how we love.

Stating the obvious, women and men are different from each other — completely different emotional, psychic and psychological creatures. I personally believe those differences are stretched more along a shared continuum than isolated into two separate camps, but using John Gray’s simplistic analogy, some men are from Venus, and some women are from Mars.

Even though it doesn’t tell the whole story, there’s some value to looking at a bell curve. The trouble with focusing on exceptions is the same as the trouble with anecdotal evidence. Whatever general observation might be offered, no matter how rational and relevant it might be, it can be contradicted by recounting a single exception. “Well, I know a woman who…” or “I’ve known a man for years who…” That creates a logical impasse that prevents us from exploring what I see as an important and necessary evolutionary threshold for our genre.

Still, there are some fundamentals that are inescapable. Research indicates that a female’s brain matures faster than a male’s, which takes until about age 25 to get there. One of my criticisms of many current MM stories is that they’re essentially YA or New Adult stories, even if the main characters are over thirty, because they behave with the emotional maturity of a 22 year-old. That makes the story New Adult, as far as I’m concerned. YA and NA stories are an essential part of our genre, but what’s the point of having a New Adult story featuring two 30+ year-old males?

While chronologically mature men sometimes do act in immature ways, painting male characters over 25 as having little more than 20-something communication skills, insecurities, angst, values and behavior pushes me out of the story, becomes boring to me, and maybe to other readers. I’ll go further and say it’s insulting to men in general to portray a thirty-five year old man with the emotional IQ of a twenty year old — unless he’s psychologically puer aeternus and that’s the key to his character arc.

Of course such chronologically mature/emotionally immature men exist, but their frequent appearance in our stories raises a question for me — why would any author repeatedly write such characters? What’s the message in that? Is it a form of sexism, saying that’s what men are like? I hope not.

I suggest mature masculine psychology offers terrific material for MM romances, and is seriously under-represented in our stories. I believe that writing main characters emotionally older than 25 will force us to address the depth and complexity of the mature masculine in our stories. The downside is that an emotionally mature male character might take more work from the author to realize than opting for some familiar character shortcuts to emotional conflict that are plausible for an immature protagonist.

Ultimately, generalities prove insufficient in any real conversation, but there are any number of scientific studies that shed light on important psychological and emotional differences between women and men — the way we process images, grief, anger, forgiveness, sexual energy, relationship. Some differences might be cultural, others intrinsic to our basic sexuality. In some ways it doesn’t matter — they’re all important and wonderful. Diversity is a good thing!

If those differences are real and important and good, why then should the majority of gay protagonists feel the same way about trust issues, monogamy or marriage as the majority of straight women? Why should the familiar tropes of het romance dominate MM romance? Why should the story question, “Does she dare open her heart to love again?” be automatically translated into “Does he dare open his heart to love again?” Why should a gay man’s HEA look like a straight woman’s?

I’m not saying they can’t be the same — they certainly can. But isn’t there also room for more than that? What else might they look like? Let’s get adventurous! Some authors will dismiss these questions with the observation that this is how it always has been, and what “the market” demands. Those voices have every right to be heard in this discussion, but I personally don’t believe those voices are on the side of evolution.

I believe that MM romance is on the wonderful threshold of an evolutionary leap. Evolution is risky, however. The troublesome thing about change is that it brings change. I feel growth coming!

One of the most common impulses in a person who encounters unfamiliar diversity is to look for the common ground. In discussions of gay romance that’s led to remarks like, “gay men are just like other men except that they love men instead of women.” We’re not. Please accept that. Believe me, a man of some race other than Caucasian is NOT interested to hear, “You’re just like a white man except for the color of your skin.” That approach, while probably well-intentioned, is ignorant, and profoundly insults our differences.

In the most useful diversity training I’ve taken, I was instructed to first honor the differences just as they are without trying to smooth them down into comfortable common ground right away. There’s plenty of time later to find the common ground after the differences are acknowledged and at least partially understood.

The practice is first respect for the difference, and second for the gifts that the difference brings. That’s much harder work than the more naive (but usually equally well-intentioned) approach of claiming that we’re all the same. We’re just not.

I attended a writing workshop a few years ago with about ten other authors. During one session, the instructor gave each of us the same group of characters, same character agendas, the same setting, the same external events and conflicts. He had each of us write the scene, and later we read them aloud. Each one was completely different. I mean completely different. It was a revelation. I can’t write the same as my colleagues even if I try, and the same is true for every author.

In his post, Fessenden raises the startling question as to whether men can write MM romance. Of course they can. There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist? It’s time to acknowledge and appreciate the differences for what they are, without bickering over which is “better” or “more real”.

So I’ve referred more than once to some looming evolution in our genre, and I feel obliged to get more specific about that. After all, I see it already occurring in the work of many authors I respect and follow.

I see us moving toward thematically deeper characters and varying-themed stories, moving away from slashfic-like work where a handful of familiar tropes, keywords, gimmicks and memes stapled to a slightly modified plot could pass muster. Every author has done that. Even though I’m still fond of it, I’m grateful my first book (a swords and sorcery effort) is out of print!

I see us expanding the parameters of romance beyond the rules inherited from het romance with its overwhelming emphasis on the story of deliriously happy monogamous dyads fading to black before the arguments about squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle begin. Not abandoning all the ground rules, necessarily, just expanding our scope. This also is already happening, through a healthy variety of authors.

I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

Not every author will write transgressive romance, or even write chronologically mature protagonists. Not every author will write protagonists under 25. Each writer of each gender identity and each orientation brings something of value in her/zir/his best work, and one way or another it contributes to our genre’s evolution.

I believe this respectfully inclusive, “room for everyone” approach will take us forward into a fecund, more emotionally powerful genre than any of us can presently imagine.

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24 Responses to “About Who Writes MM Romance”

  1. July 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm

    Thank you for this, Lloyd – a very thoughtful and even-handed analysis. I hold out more hope for the LGBT romance side of the house being able to write beyond the accepted tropes and definitions, myths and convenient plot devices than I do straight romance. The nature of the authors who are called to write it almost dictates that the genre will evolve. We are, indeed, a diverse bunch.

    I do think when women react badly to being called “different” from men in their writing styles it is, in fact, a reaction stemming from previous experience where “different” means “less.” Less complex, lesser quality, less intelligent. We heard such things from male college professors for years and still hear these comments from some of our male colleagues in certain genres (SF, most notably.)

    Part of our evolution needs to be to reach beyond that stigma. Different is simply different – we all are, and thank goodness for that.

    • July 4, 2014 at 7:50 pm

      Yes, exactly — different is just different. And with all the varieties of non-hetero orientation in the mix, surely LGBT romance should be the pioneer genre for going beyond accepted tropes and plot devices into a celebration of love in all its variety.

  2. July 4, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    A lot of excellent points! The emotional maturity issue is an enormous pet peeve of mine, as well — men who are unable to articulate their feelings, men who can’t commit, men who can’t say “I love you.” I would really like to see more men in stories whose flaws are more realistic and perhaps not quite so melodramatic.

    • July 4, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      Couldn’t agree more. It may be that the stereotypical straight male used to have difficulty articulating feelings or saying I love you, but that’s a straightjacket (pun intended) most gay men won’t wear. It’s depressing to see how persistent that meme is. I would have thought that by now gay men have shown anyone paying attention that we can be tough AND articulate, beyond the 50′s het stereotypes.

  3. amy lane
    July 4, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    Interesting and thoughtful, Lloyd–and, as always, hopeful. I agree– I don’t think the evolution is over yet. I think that this genre has the potential to become something truly spectacular, and spectacularly human.

  4. July 5, 2014 at 1:20 am

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post. I agree that the genre is just developing and there’s so much more available to explore beyond the “two hot straight guys who happen to have sex” approach to MM (which both frustrates me and makes me laugh.)One factor you didn’t mention that can never be ignored is the fact that 90% of the readers of both your books and mine are female. We’re writing about men for women. This carries a lot of responsibility. We are in many ways a go between saying see how wonderful men can be? See how your gay son is a marvelous person who can have a happy life? We slip in under the radar disguised as “just romance” and we teach lessons — don’t listen to the propaganda, don’t assume all men are shallow or unfeeling. We’re sneaky. : )

    • July 5, 2014 at 1:43 am

      I was under the impression that female readership (and authorship) in the genre was 80%, but I’ll take your 90% as accurate. It’s the overwhelming majority, either way.

      You raise an interesting point about our stories being an inspirational agent, maybe even educational, for women who are still unsure about the legitimacy of same-sex attraction. I’ve always assumed that our readership had accepted already accepted that. Something for me to think about.

      But if that’s the case, then we have even more reason to show male protagonists with age-appropriate emotional maturity, grounded, and responsible, don’t you think? I would imagine they’d love a character as tough as a 50′s cowboy AND had no trouble saying, “I love you” to his boyfriend.

  5. July 5, 2014 at 7:45 am

    So many good, thought-provoking, challenging, loving, motivational points are discussed here. Thanks so much for the post, especially:

    I see us accepting that quality of story always trumps convention, and that well written stories with compelling characters will inspire most readers to enjoy the journey into unfamiliar territory. Those that take the chance, anyway.

    I think Angel’s point is interesting, that what’s also in the mix is the reader’s perception, not just the author’s. This makes it all the more difficult to generalise, yet people still do.

    Two things I wonder: do other genres self-explore as much as we do? :) I think and hope it makes us stronger and richer. And I want all readers to enjoy an adventure when they open a book, whether it’s on the page or within themselves.

    I think our genre – as wide as it reaches and will reach – is supporting that.

    Apologies for pontificating :)

    • July 5, 2014 at 12:13 pm

      That hardly qualifies as pontificating, Clare! I think this level of self-examination is unique to our genre. I think there are several contributing reasons authors in our genre are given to this very self-reflection, self-awareness: 1) It’s a very new genre. Although we have precedents going back to the early 20th century, the genre as we know it has blossomed only in the last 10 years, 15 max. Everything is new, and we’re evolving under a lot of attention. 2) We’re writing non-hetero protagonists, and though the cultural attitudes toward same-sex attraction and gender issues is changing rapidly, most of us still carry the influences of earlier repression and defiance. Our stories often focus on some form of reconciliation between society and self. I hope that changes as we go forward. I strongly prefer the stories in which being open about one’s sexuality is a non-issue, because then the issue shifts to what kind of a gay man do I want to be? 3) We inherited a boatload of conventions from het romance, fanfic, and slashfic as we started. As the genre matures, I believe we’ll leave behind some of that inheritance because it doesn’t serve our genre as it evolves into its own. It’s still an emotional child of het romance in ways I’m eager to see change, as I described in my piece.

      In all, I think this self-examination is good for the genre. We can’t figure everything out through self-reflection, but I think it supports an environment of experimentation and adventure.

  6. July 5, 2014 at 8:04 am

    pssst Lloyd, where are your re-blog buttons?! so we can all share this on Facebook and Twitter etc? x

    • July 5, 2014 at 11:46 am

      Erk – yes, gradually getting up to speed on the more sophisticated blog features. Thanks for the nudge!

  7. July 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    With regard to the emotional maturity level question, I would love to see an entire post focused on that. What do you see as changing with that emotional maturity?

    One of the frequent arguments raised about women writing M/M is that we’re really writing women with penises if our male characters express emotions. I twitch like crazy every time I see a class offered on “how to write real men” because I know it’s going to be a load of stereotypes which match none of the men I know (gay or straight). But, thanks to those stereotypes, I suspect many female writers are afraid to contradict them for fear of being panned by reviewers/bloggers.

    • July 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm

      You raise really important points, Kathryn — thank you for joining the conversation! The underlying stereotype (which drives me crazy, too) is that gay men are just like straight men — and that straight men are like 50′s movie tough guys who don’t say much beyond “Yup” and “Nope”.

      The idea that a man can be emotionally articulate runs directly against those tiresome but deeply-entrenched stereotypes and it takes a lot of courage contradict that mindless “how to write real men” noise. I applaud any author who tries.

      Writing emotionally articulate gay men is extra complex. I know I don’t process emotion like either straight men or straight women, and my emotional values/priorities are different, too. We’ve got a huge educational job before us. Fortunately, our stories are our best teaching tool. Writing emotionally mature, emotionally awake gay male characters that don’t fly into plot-convenient melodrama at every opportunity is our challenge. There are, I’m convinced, more satisfying ways of showing character conflict than the over-used shortcuts that often make me put a book down.

  8. Felice Stevens (@FeliceStevens1)
    July 5, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    For what it’s worth I’ll stick my two cents in even though I’m late to the party. When I first started writing, I was slammed in several critique groups about writing me who were too emotional. I was told men don’t express their feelings and I had to change. But I’m not used to that kind of man, as my husband isn’t someone who sits and grunts and watches football all day. He cries in front of me, says I love you easily and loves to talk. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. Why treat all men the same?
    We love male singers to talk about their emotions, why not our male characters in books? I think an emotionally mature man is hard to come by, as is an emotionally mature woman, sometimes. Meaning we can’t be boxed into a neat little package. Tropes are there for a reason, but it doesn’t mean they can’t and shouldn’t be expanded upon.

    • July 5, 2014 at 3:40 pm

      I agree completely, Felice. I think those old beliefs die hard, and maybe won’t go until those who insist on carrying them go, too. But evolution marches on — for our genre, for those of us who write it, and for a deepening understanding of gender. Sadly, I think the USA is the bastion of the old stereotypes of masculinity in the English-speaking and European world. Sad, really.

  9. NL Gassert
    July 5, 2014 at 9:22 pm

    Very insightful take on this. Thank you, Lloyd Meeker. I love writing men who are either on the cusp of this emotional maturity you talk about or newly mature. I love exploring character psychology. But as a writer I find I cannot do that in 30,000 words or less. Does the relative shortness of romantic gay m/m stories rob us of opportunities to include emotional maturity and proper character development? Again, it is difficult to generalize in this genre, but in my experience the majority of novellas simply don’t offer more than a “slice of life” look at certain points in romantic relationships. Do we sacrifice complexity in order to produce more quantity for a market that’s hugely hungry right now?

    Nadja

    • July 5, 2014 at 10:06 pm

      That’s a very good question, Nadja — I don’t know what the answer is for anyone else, but I’ve never tried to write a romance novella. I was thinking 60k and over when I wrote this piece.

  10. July 7, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    Wow. Thank you Lloyd for your insights and for sponsoring this great discussion. Having just signed my first M/M book for publication, this both comforts me that I’ve done a few things right and inspires me to do some things better on the next book. I want to do right by my characters and my readers and be part of the evolution of the genre too. Thanks to you all for sharing your experience with us newbies.

    • July 7, 2014 at 5:39 pm

      Welcome to the community, Sarah! I believe that you become part of the evolution the moment you write a story. I’m glad you found the article useful.

  11. August 11, 2014 at 5:02 am

    Thank you for writing this. I’ll admit, I have struggled with my own questions of identity and “ownership” in writing MM romance. Yours is a welcome perspective, well thought-out and rooted in personal experience, and I definitely agree. I’m eager to see how this genre grows and matures, and comes into its own outside of its origins.

  12. August 18, 2014 at 8:33 am

    “There’s a long list of wonderful male MM romance authors to prove it. Their stories aren’t — and shouldn’t be — the same as romance stories written by women authors. Is it politically incorrect to admit that the differences exist?”

    I wonder to what extent that difference is due to different literary backgrounds? I don’t know your literary background, but I know that a lot of female writers find m/m romance via slash fiction, while many male writers of m/m romance seem to be well versed in gay-male-written fiction and erotica. Which have their own tropes, you know. :)

    Personally, I enjoy both slash tropes and gayfic tropes, and I’d like to see m/m romance have room for both, as well as many other love-story tropes that don’t commonly appear in the romance genre.

    • August 18, 2014 at 11:45 am

      Thanks, Dusk — my hope is that soon it not be the least delicate to acknowledge the differences, and to celebrate all of them with equal enthusiasm and respect. We celebrate differences between two different authors that we enjoy and admire without the slightest thought of making one “less than”. We celebrate authors of different historical periods and different English-speaking cultures the same way. Mark Twain and DH Lawrence, two of my personal all-time favorites, are astonishingly different. What I really hope for is the willingness in readers to appreciate difference without feeling the slightest need to decide which is “better”.

  13. August 23, 2014 at 1:40 am

    “What I really hope for is the willingness in readers to appreciate difference without feeling the slightest need to decide which is ‘better’.”

    Absolutely. I’ve spent time in both predominantly-female-authors gay fiction communities and predominantly-male-author gay fiction communities, and I long ago tired of the stereotypes that abound in both communities concerning the stories written in the other community. I honestly think a lot of this arises from the sort of gender miscommunications that often occur in real life, because men and women tend to be socialized differently.

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