When Queers Write

So I write a lot, and I have for many years, and the fiction of mine that’s available on the internet is only the tiniest tip of an iceberg composed of a million words of ongoing projects, abandoned projects, and middle school drivel that will hopefully never again see the light of day. One thing they all have in common though: they are very, very gay. With a handful of exceptions, I basically stopped writing straight protagonists at thirteen when I discovered Anne Rice and learned that queer was an option.

That said, I wasn’t entirely comfortable whenever I paused to take stock of my oeuvre and noticed that everything I wrote was gay. Not that I would be embarrassed to have my name associated with gay fiction, if/when I got published, but I recoiled at the idea of getting a reputation as someone who wrote nothing but gay fiction. It felt… limited. Like I was being a one-trick pony, regurgitating the same story over and over. That somehow it wasn’t SERIOUS ART because I was just indulging my own pet interests.

Then I got over it.

It’s not retelling the same story; there are as many different ways to be gay as there are to be straight. One of the things that I really enjoy about fantasy is getting to explore is the ways that different (gay) characters respond to different societal attitudes toward homosexuality — and I’ve given myself five different cultures to play with. There’s Keilja who rebels every step of the way against the self-hatred his culture has tried to shove down his throat; there’s Alesi who gets to take it for granted that same-sex relationships are held in equal regard to heterosexual relationships, until he winds up in exile in a country where they’re criminalized; and there are other characters you haven’t even met yet, in societies where same-sex liaisons are the norm for adolescents, but you’re also expected to grow out of them when you grow up and get married; societies where they don’t have to acknowledge that homosexuality even exists, because deviants of all kinds (gender and sexual-orientation among them) get shuffled off into invisibility in the priesthood, but then you have a character whose self-identity is rooted in being part of the warrior caste, who can’t bring himself to give that up and enter the priesthood just because he’d rather stick his dick in dudes. And you have all the other gays from other parts of those societies whose stories I’ll never even have time to tell, and they are not, in any way, all the same story, no more than every book with a straight protagonist is the same story. There is nothing at all limiting about writing queer.

Furthermore, no one else seemed to be writing the kinds of things I wanted to read, so why the fuck shouldn’t I get to do it? Goddamn everyone else was writing straight fiction, why did I need to waste my time adding to the scrap heap of stuff that THEY liked? I am going to write what I want, I decided, I will write what speaks to me, and I utterly refuse to be shamed into thinking that I shouldn’t. The end.

That was a couple years ago. What brings this up now is a post I read the other day on Gemma Files’ blog:

I began writing A Book of Tongues with one very selfish idea in mind: To keep myself occupied and amused while looking after my son, then less than five years old and newly diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, in the wake of recently having lost my job. […] All of which means that from the start, the main audience I was thinking about was composed of me, myself and I. The epic romance of Reverend Rook and Chess Pargeter was an unabashedly fetishistic fantasia spun around things I enjoy, because I enjoy them: Blood, (gay) sex, magic. Bad people behaving badly. Ancient civilizations and not-so-dead mythologies. A vaguely steampunk-y alternate history setting whose twin visual precedents were far too many viewings of James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Which is both an interesting glimpse into the making-of and a pretty good snapshot of what the book is like, but what kept niggling at me after I’d read that was the sense of self-consciousness conveyed by her choice of words. (Chrissakes, the post calls itself “apologia.”) Like she’s been made to feel vaguely ashamed for writing what she wants to write (not ashamed enough to keep her from writing it, woot, but still), like she knows this is what she shouldn’t be writing if she wanted to be taken seriously, or write Excellent Fiction, or make money, or gain a huge following, or all the other things that writers are supposed to want.

Or maybe I’m projecting. I can only speak for myself, of course, but it reminded me of how I used to feel — that writing gay fiction was this massive self-indulgence and any respectable author would be writing about more important things. That even if I produced something brilliant out of it, it was artistically suspect because my motives were impure, because I was just writing my own bedroom kinks.

But you know what? Everyone is writing their kinks. Barring the most crassly commercialistic writers who are like, “So what’s hot right now? YA? And vampires you say? Alright, let’s make some money,” everyone writes what they personally enjoy. And if what you enjoy happens to align with what the mainstream enjoys, well then, welcome to bestseller territory!

I don’t like telling people that I’m A Writer because these days it seems everyone and their grandma is a writer, or wants to be, or is totally convinced that they could be if they tried, etc. Moreover, unless I happen to be talking to another writer, there’s nowhere interesting for that conversation to go. It’s just really awkward for both of us, because they know they’re supposed to be interested, but they’re not (and why should they be? they’ve never read anything I’ve written), so they just say something like, “Ahaha… well I’m sure you’ll be a bestseller someday!”

And it is with no modesty, false or otherwise, that I say, “No, I won’t.”

Because I’ve worked in bookstores. I know what ends up on the bestseller lists. Being a bestselling writer — and I say this with absolutely no hint of sour grapes — is not about being good writer. Which is not to say they can’t be good, but being good isn’t what makes a bestseller. It’s about being good enough for enough people. It’s about your kink being enough other people’s kink too.

I have never once, not in all my born days, heard someone say that Nora Roberts is their FAVORITE writer — what she is is good enough. Competent enough prose, likable enough characters, and enough mastery of plot mechanics to ensure that every reading experience with her is going to be good enough to spend eight bux on. And what she’s writing — heterosexual romance and exciting adventure and happy endings — is what enough people want to read that of course she’s a bestseller.

I am never going to be a bestseller — and I am okay with that. I consider it a choice, because I’m pretty sure that my prose is good enough that if I cynically researched what genres were in vogue and chained myself to the computer for eight hours a day, I could churn out a series that would become bestselling. (And yeah, now that I think about it, it’s kind of fucked up that I’d rather work retail than try to write bestsellers, but such is me.)

There was a sci-fi podcast I listened to, ages ago, that was applying some evolutionary psychology to the existence of writers and pointed out that modern society supports far fewer storytellers-per-capita than societies throughout history have, when humans living in groups of a few dozen had to rely on no more than a few raconteurs for all their entertainment. So while Stephen King might have been the toast of his clan, he wasn’t providing entertainment for every other clan on the continent, leaving a void that other people could step in to fill. Most writers, this podcast suggested, don’t require an audience of millions to fulfill them; instead, they could be quite happy with a very enthusiastic audience of just a few dozen.

I don’t recall if they were specifically talking about fanfiction, but that hypothetical enthusiastic-audience-of-dozens is exactly what exists in small fandoms, and plenty of people get fulfillment out of writing for them. “Pro” writers tend to assume that anyone who could go pro would, and they are continually mystified by the existence of people who are awesomely talented, extremely prolific, and perfectly content to keep writing fanfic forever. And for all that I lean toward original fic, I’m with the fanficcers on this one. Money, fame, name recognition, an audience of millions — that’s not what drives me to write. I just want to tell the stories that I enjoy, and hopefully other people who would enjoy them too will find them.

This came up when I was talking elsewhere about a charge levelled at A Book of Tongues by another amazon.com reviewer, when they dismissed it as “reading like fanfic.” It doesn’t — except inasmuch as it makes no effort to tone down the gay. It’s explicit, yes, but at a level that would be unremarkable in a heterosexual story; the fact that it throws readers for a loop speaks more to how insulated they get to be from gay sexuality than how graphic the book is.

And that’s what I’ve found is the largest difference between fanfiction and published fiction. It’s not quality of prose, or plot, or characterization, because that can be brilliant or shoddy in either — it’s about how comfortable they are with making a gay relationship the centerpiece of the story. In published works, I think a lot of writers are tempted to play it down in deference to what they perceive as their audience’s sensibilities. They’re not convinced that anyone is going to be interested in a gay relationship, even when it’s involving their gay protagonist, so they include it only as much as they can justify with the plot. They dampen the emotional moments, don’t let out all the stops, don’t show the characters’ most intimate encounters, because they’re busy worrying, Is anyone actually going to be interested in a gay relationship? Are they really going to want to read about two men having sex?

Well, anyone who’s been in fandom knows that the answer is a resounding “Hells yes.” There are most definitely people, hordes of them in fact, who are all about an excellent western/sci-fi/mystery/fantasy/thriller/you-name-it featuring a hot-and-heavy gay romance. In fandom you can bang out a queer story as explicit and gay-romance-centric as you like with the complete confidence that your audience is onboard for what you’re doing, and when fandom writers make the transition to published fiction, they tend to take that confidence with them. They know that the audience is out there, and they’re not much fussed by the people who are going to be Seriously Uncomfortable with all the gay sex. Haters gonna hate, but whatever, fandom is going to swoon.

And when you get right down to it, fandom & queers are the readers I would rather have anyway. Mainstream audiences have spent their whole lives being wooed by every new bestseller, they take it for granted that their interests are the ones being catered to. Queer-reading audiences don’t have that luxury, and as a result they are far more enthusiastic and appreciative of the things that do come their way; a book that does everything they want it to do — and does it gay! — is a jewel beyond reckoning, to be treasured, read and reread, and joyfully recommended to all one’s friends.

So you can tone down the gay, and mainstream readers will tolerate you, or you can write it loud and proud, and queer readers will adore you. I know which way I’d rather roll.

8 thoughts on “When Queers Write

  1. Whoa, hey. I’ve spent a few years now feeling guilty and baffled that I go through books like a sandworm, yet don’t find myself that interested in almost any mainstream fiction with queer characters and elements, and this post helped me figure out that it’s exactly that kind of “discretion” that makes the queerness feel stilted and alienates me from getting invested in it. When I was young and the internet was all fields and Geocities and The Persian Boy was a revelation, I obsessively re-read any and all literature with even the scent of gay, because so little gayness was available to me. Now, however, warts, Sturgeon’s Law and all, the fanfic I like most has been a deeply gratifying and engrossing source of nuanced, involved queer relationships and great adventure, and at this point I’m just too used to that kind of colour and nuance to go back to token inclusion. I’d rather spend my money on a Neal Stephenson that blows my socks off in other ways, and get my frankly sexual, riotously engaging gay fiction in fandom.

  2. I really am enjoying your writing about writing. So much of what you say is true … and I did get the Gemma Files book, which I am reading and loving, BTW. I’ve been spending too much time agonizing over writing fanfic, gay fanfic no less, and wondering if I shouldn’t give up. So, thank you. I don’t think I could give up writing. By now it is ingrained in me, but I definitely need to stop over-thinking and analyzing why I enjoy writing and reading gay relationships.

    As for mainstream authors, I love your analysis of Nora Roberts. I do read her, and I like her in the way that I like Hershey’s Kisses. They fill a craving — and are just good enough.

    When I want Godiva, then I’ll go for a book that resonates and makes me think about the characters and their emotions, and the author’s way of writing that makes all my harmonic strings resonate.

  3. I don’t disagree with anything you say here, as I think you probably know. And re me calling it an “apologia”, well…the place where I mean that most is when I’m talking about my research methods, such as they are, and copping to having effed around with the Mexica calendar for my own stylistic pleasure, though I think it began because I am really, really crappy at working out dates, as well as having treated the geography of Arizona and New Mexico as guidelines more than actual rules. But I resigned myself (fairly happily) to writing out of my own kinks a long time ago, and while I have actually lost work doing it here and there, the stakes are overall so low that I just haven’t seen the point in not doing what I want.

    So I think the central undertone you may be hearing here is probably a recognition that as a functionally heterosexual cis woman with wife and mother privilege who happens to have a particular fetish, I need to acknowledge all of the above, just so I don’t misrepresent what’s going on: I’m being appropriative, I may be getting things wrong, I don’t have the right to be defensive. But I do love these characters and this narrative, I do feel a great responsibility towards them, and the one thing I’ll never apologize for is having created them in the first place, let alone pursuing their story all the way through.

    Your last sentence, in particular, strikes a big chord with me. I’m really glad to be hearing more and more from those readers, and most recently you.

  4. Haaah, yeah, I was afraid of coming off like I was trying to psychoanalyze you, when in fact it was just that your post made a bunch of other things that had been percolating in my head crystallize. I got the sense that calling it “apologia” was kind of tongue-in-cheek, it was more your use of the word fetishistic that threw me. Maybe you hadn’t meant it like that, but I’ve heard it referred to as a fetish before this, always with a dismissive attitude, and I was like, Why are the women who write gay stuff made to feel like they’re being obsessive and fetishistic? It’s not like Tom Clancy ever gets called on to justify his ~fetish~ for submarines.

    And yeah, women writing gay men vs gay men writing gay men definitely have to deal with different sets of judgments and expectations. The latter can get accused of writing to a niche, but they’re not likely to get accused of inauthenticity. Regarding appropriation though, I think gay characters are well-represented enough in the media, their own voices adequately heard, that appropriation isn’t so much of a danger these days. (So appropriate with impunity, I beseech you! :D)

    Or maybe I just say that because I personally enjoy how many women, straight or otherwise, choose to write gay male fiction. Crap yaoi and crap fanfic may sometimes write “men” who act like middle school girls, but more often than not, women writing the gay experience nail it far better than straight men do. I suspect it has to do with understanding lack of privilege, of being used to a world not skewed to your gaze, and being able to extend that experience to writing queer.

  5. I think you just identified what makes a book get a throbbing “top pick” button on my booklist — how committed it is to the gay relationship. And I can see why authors do it, courting a mainstream readership vs writing something that could potentially alienate them, but the upshot is that haters are still gonna hate, whether the relationship development is onscreen or off, and readers like you and me are left wanting.

    I get to a point where I just want to ask them, What do you win by writing this way? Maybe, if you keep the gay stuff sufficiently sidelined, the homophobes will be interested enough in your plot to keep reading anyway, but they’re still going to hop on amazon when they’re done and complain about all the ~unnecessary~ gay content. (See: EVERY BOOK I’VE LIKED EVER.) Why even bother trying to court the people who are never going to like it anyway?

  6. These ideas are new to me, and really interesting. How do gay men writing gay men compare to women writing gay men? I’m actually not sure I’ve read enough to know. Do gay men treat their gay characters more superficially, or leave more things tacit or assumed? Do women writing gay characters get things wrong that gay men don’t, and if so, what?

  7. Well, broadly speaking, gay men “tend to” write this genre that’s not explicit enough to be straight up erotica, but with plots so thin they ought to be. (These tend to be small-press/self-published, and trigger my rants about torsos on the covers.) Run “gay fiction” through amazon and you’ll get the idea.

    And since that’s not my genre, and since the people writing “fantasy with gay elements” tend to be women (rather than “gay with fantasy elements” that get self-published), women writers are disproportionately what I read, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to make generalizations about how men write gay vs how women do. (Except straight men. I can generalize that they get it wrong because they have NO FUCKING CLUE.)

    The two gay male authors I can name off the top of my head who did the style of fantasy I like are Jim Grimsley in Kirith Kirin, which is ~amaaazing~, and Douglass Clegg in Mordred, Bastard Son, which is less so, and there’s no real difference in how they treat the subject versus any of the women on my list.

    The only people who really get things wrong are straight guys, because they forget that sexual orientation doesn’t operate in isolation, and they’re not good at convincingly writing attraction to another dude. I talked about it in this post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>