Friday, May 8, 2009

Me, hopping up on my soapbox!

Rant ahead - you've been warned! ;)

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to seeing Kinsey, which stars Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. It's a well-written, directed and acted biopic of the renowned sex researcher, and, considering its subject matter, I should have made an effort to seek it out much sooner. For one thing, I was surprised to discover that Kinsey's first report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, was first published in 1948.

In this report, Dr. Kinsey revealed that nearly 46% of his male subjects had "reacted" sexually to persons of both sexes during their adult lives, and 37% had had at least one homosexual experience. The study also reported that roughly 10% of American men were more or less exclusively gay for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55.

This report came out over sixty years ago, and yet people's brains still explode when they're asked to consider the possibility that human sexuality might not exist in a state of black-and-white absolutes. I blame some of it on the pervasiveness of heteronormative conditioning in modern Western society, but that excuse only goes so far. There comes a time when people need to stop hiding behind willful ignorance and open their eyes to human sexuality as it truly exists - and very few of us are perfect Kinsey zeroes (exclusively het) or sixes (exclusively gay).

I've been writing fiction featuring gay male relationships for well over a decade now, if you count my long stint writing slash fan fiction. In both fanfic and professionally written m/m fiction, we're dealing with a very specific type of fantasy, which focuses on fetishizing male homosexuality for a female audience. I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with that - just don't expect it to be an accurate depiction of the real-life gay and/or bisexual male experience, because it isn't.

Over the past ten-plus years, I've read hundreds of slash stories, as well as dozens of professionally written m/m and menage novels. I also used to gobble up traditional m/f romance novels like jelly beans, until I couldn't stomach the umpteen-hundredth retread of the "secret baby" or "forced marriage" plots. After awhile, all the classic old chestnuts of any particular genre morph into hoary clich├ęs.

Don't get me wrong, it's touching to read about two guys who decide to give up their former sluthood, start picking out curtains and swear to forsake all others forever and ever - the first ten or so times. After about the fiftieth retread, I feel like I need an insulin shot. I know this is romance, and we all want our HEA ending, but could we get a little originality here? Even the big names in the genre are getting stale. It feels like everyone's run out of ideas, so they're just running down the numbers.

And then there are books where two gay guys pull a woman into the relationship to use as a baby machine, then, once she's served her purpose, they kick her to the curb. Readers slurp this crap up with a spoon, but it makes me so angry I could spit.

In fact, I've seen a fair amount of active hostility, even disgust, for the female characters in menage and m/m novels. I find this boggling. The "Ew! Girl cooties!" and other disparaging comments about female genitalia that I've seen thrown around so cavalierly would seem to indicate that many of these readers have serious body-image issues. But instead of taking their neuroses to therapy, they choose to denigrate the work of authors who refuse to buy into this screwed-up mindset, which makes it doubly sad.

I set out to write a series featuring two bisexual male characters and one female character involved in a relationship spanning twenty-plus years. It's received a mixed reception. Readers and reviewers have been programmed to expect that books should contain gay sex or het sex, but not both in the same book. Me, I find it a bit hard to believe that it's even an issue. I write about adult relationships, which necessarily do involve sex, but I'd like to think people read my books for more than just the sex scenes.

From now on, I'm classifying my work as bisexual erotica instead of m/m or menage, because that's actually what it is. Let's see if any of the review sites will touch it now. There's only one I can think of that calls itself a GLBT review site, and actually does review lesbian, bi and trans books. The rest merely pay lip-service to the GLBT label, while at the same time curling that lip against anything but m/m fiction. Not exactly what I'd call truth in advertising!

But there is a silver lining here, in that trends tend to come and go. In a few years I doubt anybody will even lift an eyebrow at books that freely mix gay, bi, menage and heterosexual relationships. Hopefully that will open up the doors for other authors who, like myself, are tired of being marginalized in their own genre.


SL said...

I can see your point, Cat. As an author of the m/m genre, I was wondering the same thing myself. How does it keep from getting old?
I had a female character in my book, and she was a very minor one at that...but there was a child involved, making the man bi.

How do we spice it up in the writing world and reveal how multi-dimensional men are?

Stephanie L. Danielson

Cat Grant said...

I had no idea I was "breaking the rules" when I mixed het and gay sex in my first book. Since it was a m/m/f menage a trois novel, it seemed like the natural thing to do. I was a bit surprised at some of the negative comments I received about it, but by that time I'd already decided to expand it into a five-book series, so I figured I might as well follow the path I'd forged all the way to the end.

As far as keeping it fresh... well, whenever I find myself getting stuck, it's usually because I'm trying to force my characters into a box. I'll admit, I'm not the best at plotting and structure; my forte is dialogue and characterization. When those two things are going well for me, I don't get worried. But when my characters clam up, it's because I'm doing something wrong.

If the emotional connection between your characters isn't there, your readers won't connect either. That's what I strive for in all my books - emotional authenticity. Doesn't matter if your characters are gay, straight or bi - love, hate, envy, jealousy, etc. are all universal.

Bryn Colvin said...

It is weird how many people don't seem able to get their head round Bisexuality, or the whole multiple partners thing. I love exploring the complexities of multi-faceted relationships, and relate very much to what you've said. What I'm interested in is stories about people! is really supportive of bi and poly tales, which is great for me as I'm writing a fair bit of that, and planning more.

Cat Grant said...

Yay! We need more people writing bi and poly books.

Thanks for the tip on I'll definitely check it out.

Are you a member of RWA? Because they've just approved a special-interest chapter for authors of GLBT romances. You can find them here:

Angie said...

I agree that the sharp divide between gay and straight fiction is dismaying. Aside from being very unrealistic so far as it doesn't reflect the real world, it's also frustrating for a writer who wants to show a realistic variety of characters in a book or series.

It's easier on the het side, where you can write an extended series with only het couples and have it feel realistic. Maybe throw in a gay friend or a lesbian sister and that reflects the experience of most straight people; the other GLBT people are there but they're closeted or just being discreet, the way most still are or do in this world. Whether that's a problem with our society is a topic for a different rant, but it's an accurate view of the world as most people see it.

It's harder from the GLBT side, though. I have plans and notes and a couple of story fragments for a lot of development in my SF universe, the one "Joy of Exchanging Gifts" is set in. I'd like to be able to write in that universe for a long time. But after a while it starts looking really skewed if all the major characters are GLBT. And as you've pointed out, even the BT people really aren't represented well in the GLBT writing world. Bi people are shown as being gay with a backstory, and trans people are hardly written about at all.

So what to do? Do I just shoehorn all my characters in this verse into gay or marginally bi sexuality? Throw in a few lesbians around the edges? Ignore everyone else, relegating them to walk-on roles? Sure, I could do that and chances rae most of the readers would never notice, but it's unrealistic and I notice. :/

But if I write a story in that universe about a straight couple, who'll publish it? My current publisher only takes GLBT stories, and I don't imagine another publisher would be eager to take on a few stories from a universe which has been established with a rival. Now what?

And even if I can find a publisher, how will the readers who've been following that universe respond? If you got whining and snarks for making a couple of characters bi, what'll I get for introducing some OMGStraight!! characters? :P

It's impossible right now to write a series of sexually explicit stories showing a wide variety of sexual orientations among the various protagonists. This is completely messed up and I'm with you in hoping the trend moves forward toward a more realistic model.


Cat Grant said...

I'm intrigued by the premise of this series of yours, Angie. I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but now it's definitely on my radar! We pansexual romance authors have to stick together. ;)

As far as the trend against bi and trans romance changing... well, it will probably take a few years, but I think the tide will turn. Just like after gay marriage is finally legal in the country - which I also think will happen within the next few years - people will start wondering what the big fuss was all about.

Angie said...

Thanks. :) Note that it won't be a series the way yours is -- with characters who all know each other having a series of stories about them. I'm thinking more of a coherent future universe with stories happening on various planets or whatever, with a variety of characters. I don't have any particular plans right now to write multiple stories about any one set of characters, although of course that could change if someone starts yammering at me. :) But not having the freedom to write major straight characters skews the whole thing. I want to write a realistic image of the universe, and while that does mean including gay people, it also means including straight people. We shouldn't have to go from one radical extreme to the other in a quest for balance.

I agree about gay marriage too; it's just a matter of time. As more and more states legalize it, though, I feel more and more ashamed to be a Californian. :( We'll get it here too, I know, it's just that we should have been one of the first. :/ [smacks conservative inlanders]


Cat Grant said...

It's going to take a SCOTUS ruling before the gay marriage issue is decided once and for all. I hope it doesn't happen before Obama gets the chance to install at least one new justice on the Court, possibly two. I don't think it would have a ghost of a chance of passing with the Court's current right-leaning panel.