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Friday, July 31, 2015

Romance and Misogyny--Why We Let Ourselves be Shamed

Men read my books.

You heard me. MEN READ MY BOOKS.

"Yes," you might say, "but, you know…"  *whispers*  "they're gay men."

So?  They are men. Some of them are ex-law enforcement, some of them are teachers. Some of them are accountants--but they are men. They enjoy seeing people they can identify with in my stories, and they read them without shame.  To say that gay men reading my books is different than straight men reading my books is to imply that gay men aren't real men and gay people aren't real people, and I think we just fought a bloody civil rights battle to prove that this just ain't fuckin' so.

So, real men read my books.

My books are romance.  Not porn. Not erotica. Romance.

I've written entire articles on why my books aren't porn-- I take exception to that, and not because I frown on porn, (own lots!) but because romance serves an entire other function, and we'll get to that in a moment.  Let's just be clear-- my books are romance, and men read them, and so do women. 

Women are probably 70% of my audience.

They also enjoy seeing people they can identify with in my stories. When Deep of the Sound was released, I got letters from mothers who had to deal with their mentally disabled children, and daughters who watched their parents suffer through Alzheimer's.  I've gotten letters from people who embraced Naef and his deep woundings about his appearance and letters from people who watched Mackey rise from a shitty apartment building and triumphed in ways that they felt all too deeply.

My books are romance books and women and men enjoy them.

I don't write smut, I write character driven stories which also have (often complex)  plots in which the romantic elements are the strongest part of the narrative.  

In some ways I'm lucky.

Maybe it's because I have two men on the cover and men read my books, but I don't have to put up with any of the crap that the M/F romance writers put up with.  Yeah, sure, I lost my job because my DO was made up of homophobic assholes who were so afraid of the gay that they couldn't actually bother to read what they tried to prosecute me for, but, by golly, they took that gay shit seriously, didn't they?

See, when I was just writing "trashy vampire romance" and there was a girl doing most of the narration, that wasn't serious-- that was just, you know, housewife porn. I mean, even I used that term, before I gained a backbone and some self-esteem and started sticking up for the people who read my fiction by sticking up for myself.  But it was laughable, right? I mean the men in my department certainly got a laugh out of it--oh, yeah, I remember that, crystal fucking clear.

So yes-- I have to put up with homophobic bigoted fuckheads doing their homophobic bigoted fuckheaded dumbassery, the kind where they put both thumbs up their sphincters and pretend they don't like that shit, but I knew about that going in. You have to face those morons down or the world won't change, right?

But I had forgotten about the other bigoted fuckheads, the ones I used to put up with in the staff room, the ones who used to seriously make my life hell with their baseless hatred.  I mean, I remember sobbing once, uncontrollably, not able to catch my breath, because I couldn't figure out why they should hate me so badly for having an opinion. I had to leave that job before I realized that yes--it really was because I was female.  I'd managed to consign those bigoted fuckheads to that long ago staffroom, convince myself that they really did just exist right there, in my memories of feeling helpless and angry and sick, right up until the NPR thing happened.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am thrilled to be on that list. I mean, it almost made up for not getting the RITA, because, I mean… *flails*  Have you SEEN that list?

Look at those names?  Look at them!

Those are some awesome kickass writers there, and some awesome kickass women.

And then, down in the comments, there is some awesome, terrifying ignorance about who writes romance and who reads romance, and I have to tell you, I get that same helpless sick rage reading those comments that I felt walking into my staff room when my department head was doing a satiric reading of Wounded in front of twenty people, while the teacher's wife who brought the book sat, tearful and embarrassed, and begging me to forgive her for even bringing the book to show me that she'd read it.

Yes, those men think romance is ridiculous. They think it's sad, for fat housewives, and that if they had intelligence at all these women would read real literature, and wasn't it just like a woman to think books like this were important enough to make a list about when really, we all know why women read romance, it's so they can get off, and Jesus, why should a woman be proud of that.

Immature, emotionally stunted, limp-dicked fuckers.

And also terribly undereducated about the nature of romance.

I mean, hello-- taught English Lit here. Remember? King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table? Gawain and the Green Knight? Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, The Importance of Being Ernest, The Scarlet Letter, The Tempest, The Great Gatsby, Farewell to Arms and holy shit do I really need to go on?

Yes, those books are considered romances.  Well, sometimes they weren't successful romances, but still-- they were genre fiction when they were written.  When Eleanor of Aquitane brought that shit over from France, it was a big furry deal, right? Suddenly Kings weren't just interested in being kings, they also had friends and lovers and flaws and goals and such, right?  I've said multiple times that the thing that differentiated romantic literature from epic literature was the addition of a personal agenda to the hero's repertoire. He went from being "A Hero" with no other personality to "A Hero" and "A Husband" and "A Friend", etc.  As our society got more complex, the romantic hero got more complex, and as our genres got more specialized, well, we started to phase that sad ending right the hell out, but let's not fool ourselves.  Any of those stories in which someone with social heft tried to have a personal life while wielding said heft is a romance.

The genre today has a few more rules to it-- a happy ever after being one--but that doesn't change the fact that a hero and a heroine trying to live an important life and forge a relationship in a chaotic rule is the heart of the story.  And it's a really fucking important heart!  If we're not reading romance, what are we reading? Murder mystery?  Okay then-- who are our victims?  ARen't they people trying to live that core of happiness that you find in a romance novel?  Are we reading fantasy?  Well, without the sexual element, a whole lot of fantasy revolves around the happiness of the people in power, and yes, my friends, that's romance. Are we reading epic science fiction?  Oh, yes, well, then we are reading on a scope too large to give a shit about the tiny little people copulating in the middle of that planet about to be destroyed, except, hey! Wait a minute! Aren't those people the core of the tragedy, even times a billion?  Are we reading political intrigue, upon which the fate of millions of people depends on the love and political maneuverings of fallible human beings?

Are we reading "literary fiction" in which sex and romance play an important part, but hey, we fuck up the ending so we don't have to get grouped into the hated "romance genre"?  And seriously, who are we kidding when we do that? I've written several books with a less than ideal ending, and I'll fight to the death for the right to call those books romance.  Just because the person dies at the end doesn't mean that his romantic adventures, his personal growth, his impact upon the people he loved has no meaning. In fact, a meaningful emotional life is the hallmark of romance. Romance says, "Yes, love is important! Whether it's one love of a million lovers, the love of kings or the love of the peasants that the kings destroy, these emotional dramas matter.  OUR EMOTIONAL DRAMAS MATTER!"

But nobody says that.

Women apologize for reading it.  "Heh heh… just a guilty pleasure.  Uh-huh. You know. Escapism, that's all."

They hide the covers. "You know, so embarrassing, to have human beings looking beautiful and occupied doing something sexual and healthy and hopefully happy. I mean, if there was blood or missing limbs that would be one thing, but no, can't celebrate happy couples in public, that implies I'm weak in the head."

Men sneer at it.  "Housewife porn, heh heh heh, let the little women read it, gets 'em all revved up for us, right?"

Romance is 20% of the publishing industry-- more if you count things like, hey, romantic fantasy and romantic suspense and detective fiction with a romantic subplot.  It is written primarily by women, and the companies that publish it are run primarily by women.  Not entirely-- there are real men out there who are not ashamed, but yes. There are smart, business savvy women out there who love this genre and make a living writing and editing and publishing and promoting it.

We need to stand up for it.

Yeah, sure, I write gay romance, and gay men are my readers and I treasure the holy hell out of them--and they, in turn, stand up for the women who read this genre too.

But het romance was here first, and there are writers out there of poetry and power who celebrate the individual love story with all of the formidable talent and mastery of the language at their disposal.  I remember those sick, hurt, angry moments in my staff room, and wonder if my self-concept would be bigger, or better, if at any time I'd said, "Look, you ignorant bastards, I am writing in a genre that has its roots in every story we teach. Your mockery is no different than the kids' complaint that 'It's too hard to read! It doesn't pertain to me!'-- the fact is, the kids are reluctant to put their minds to anything more involved than comic books because language is not accessible, and you are reluctant to to wrap your teeny tiny pea brains around a world view that doesn't have a penis."

I mean, I remember trying to point that out.

I remember getting laughed down.

Well, my staff room was mostly men--and not all of them were admirable men, and I was one of the few women who hadn't gone running for the other high school just as soon as the spot opened up because I wanted to prove that I was tougher than they were.

I was only one voice in that room.

But I'm not only one voice in this. 20% of the publishing industry-- we have louder, stronger voices together than I did alone.  We need to stand up for one another. Romance writers--male and female-- are poets and visionaries who believe that the human heart is a thing of complexity and beauty.

The people who try to shame us about that need to look at their own hearts, and see why they would hate a thing that celebrates the individual with such passion.

Is it because it's mostly women doing the celebrating?

Hah! These people claim to be smart-- they claim to be intellectuals.

The truth here-- the plain truth-- is that they have never learned to read.

17 comments:

Paul Wright said...

This gay man LOVES your books :) can't wait to see you again to get one of the world's best hugs!!

Matt said...

I LOVE your books. They make me think, entertain the hell outta me, bring emotions to the surface I never knew were there, and help me better understand the complexities and wonders of the man I love and plan to marry next year. :)

Denise Carter said...

So much in this that speaks to me! Great job Amy!

catteibrie said...

People have asked me since I was young how my vocabulary was as expansive as it is and why I didn't have issues with things like vocabulary tests and the verbal portion of tha SAT. My answer- "I read." " What do you read." "Primarily romance novels, along with some mysteries and fantasy." "Romance novels aren't reading.They don't improve your vocabulary." "Then why do I consistently score greater than 10 points higher than you on every vocabulary test?" People can suck it. Not only is romance an enjoyable break from the sometimes hectic or depressing everyday life, there are other benefits. Love your books!

Ro said...

Your words and your passion resound in this piece. Eloquently said, dear wordsmith.

Diana Copland said...

So much ALL OF THIS, Amy Lane. And anyone who would delegate your grasp of the human heart as anything short of literary is a fuckwit.

Rhae Camdyn said...

Love you bundles, Amy, and I believe the points are valid. However, I differ with the final sentence. It's not that they never learned to read....it's that they never learned to make the heart/mind connection required for basic comprehension. The subtle difference between a two-year old banging on a keyboard and an accomplished pianist performing "Claire de Lune."

Beverley said...

This gender fluid author has a family who call her books 'porn' and laugh at her pen name (my MIL's maiden name) Not one member of my family has ever purchased my book, or even taken advantage of a free copy. One of my brothers said I wasn't allowed to give a copy to my 18 year old niece. When I asked how they can judge something they have never attempted to read... 'It's about gay men, it must be porn', 'Romances aren't for men' and...'Few women can write real books' - I try to be proud, but I will never be 'out'. It's hard to write and be proud of your work when you are treated as a figure of fun or disgust by those who approbation you seek the most.

Your books are well written, make me laugh, make me cry, make me think, and make me feel good - these are the criteria to judge work by. Long may you continue (sorry didn't mean to babble)

janet black said...

I have always said I was well read. I don't read literature any more after I finished my schooling requirements. ...I read romance! I have learnt so much it is unbelievable. Still learning. Still reading.

SJ Himes said...

Thank you Amy!!!!! You've given me courage i didn't know I was lacking until now. Thank you.

Tara Lain said...

Hi dear -- I always tell people that romance is extra hard to write. Imagine taking complex lives and humans, watching them grow through trials and angst, and still making it believable that they end up happy. Not a small task. And that's what i tell my male friend who has been writing the same two "literary" books for the last ten years without publishing a word because "serious literature takes time" while my 25 novels read by thousands and thousands of intelligent people don't count because they're "that formula stuff, right?. I mean, you just repeat the same thing over and over, right?" The assholes in your break room were jealous. That simple. They can't create so they try to destroy. Laugh all the way to the bank, darling, and all the way to the grateful and deeply appreciative embrace of your many readers. : )

Bailey said...

You showed 'em all and did it in style. Much love.

ajrosewrites said...

Amy, I have a confession to make.

I've been saying how much it annoys me that because my characters happen to be men in relationships, that I'm relegated to romance instead of something more mainstream. My latest release is about the people in an apocalypse scenario, and yes, there are romantic storylines, though they're not entirely to focus and if they are, they won't remain the entire focus for the whole series, but it burned me that just because my guys happen to be boyfriends instead of friends or m/f, they are pretty much relegated to romance, when it's dystopian at heart. But that's wrong. It's people at heart, as I hope all my future stories will be.

I absolutely hate being labeled and told to stay in certain boxes because the market dictates where what I write belongs, and I think those boxes keep us down. I want our characters considered mainstream regardless of the fact that the relationship is same sex. I want a shot at bigger things because romance gets dismissed so much as housewife porn without any value. And I want people not to say, "That's mislabeled," if I put a m/m book in a mainstream category.

Your post, what you say here, has given me pause. The question shouldn't be why we're relegated to romance, but why romance is a bad thing. Or why a thriller with a m/f love story isn't also romance (The Firm was huge when it came out, but will forever be a legal thriller despite part of the story being Mitch and Abby McDeere's struggle to keep their marriage intact after Mitch cheated). Take any other medium, songs, movies, they can come in all forms, all labels, so my question has always been why can't ours?

I didn't realize I was acting ashamed of it, too, making excuses, apologizing for writing it, too. Wanting to break free of it to be classified as a more "legitimate" genre. But this post, your words and your examples (oh, all those classics I read in high school and loved), have made me stop. I have more thinking to do on this, but perhaps I shouldn't be wondering how to break a LGBT book out of romance and into "mainstream" instead of trying to find a way to make romance something people quit scoffing at. It's a disservice to our readers, and that is the last thing I want to do. You're right about all of this. And for that, I want to thank you for, as you put it on facebook, blowing a gasket. The problem isn't that we're labeled romance, it's that we're told romance is a lesser label.

Wendy Clements said...

Thank you for your beautiful post. I found m/m romance at a very difficult time in my life--I was being mobbed at work and didn't feel like I fit in anywhere. I was an educational assistant in a special education classroom and I loved the children I worked with, just not the adults, and the adults were making my life literally unbearable. I didn't fit in, and I felt completely lost. The stories, the heart, the characters, in the books I found, by so many good authors I'm afraid to start naming them for fear I'll leave someone out who has made such an impact on me--I'm a straight female, but I could _relate_ to the emotions, to the worry of not belonging, and I felt hope as characters found their places, even if maybe they were just temporary until the next book. I finally quit after being told my work was unacceptable and I needed to be put on a "behavior plan." I asked if that included a new brain before I told them I quit, effective that day. There wasn't one single person in the organization I trusted anymore. I emphathize with your pain at your job. But you and other authors in the genre have done so much, for me, personally, and for everyone else who reads your work. You gave me a place that felt like home, that felt safe (I know that sounds weird). Not some "housewife porn." Believable worlds with believable people with believable problems. (I write too, I'm just very slow about it--the tagline on my web page is "trying to keep my imaginary friends imaginary" lol).

So thank you. I am so glad that you didn't give up, and you are the writer you are, and that you defend that so vehemently. Because m/m romance is legitimate, a genre that really deserves to be recognized as important. I majored in English, with an emphasis in Gothic Fiction, another "dubious" (at the time) category of fiction. Which I suppose is what drew me to it. Sometimes more things can be examined in genres that aren't taken so "seriously." But I think m/m romance has gone beyond that now. You've made it to an NPR list! Congratulations. :-)

Cherie Noel said...

Writing great romance is like delivering a great comedic performance in a movie, or dancing Ginger Rogers part in a Fred Astaire film...it takes a helluva lot of work, the timing has to be impeccable, and you've gotta do it backwards and in high heels. Anyone who can't see the sheer artistry and staggering fortitude it takes to write well in this genre simply isn't looking. Not with their eyes, hearts, and souls.

Mark Wills said...

This "gay" man who is also an English Teacher, but as you said just a man! I love and adore your books for all the reasons you have stated here in this article. Your stories are heart felt, with real characters, emotions and situations! Only the most emotionally stunted person would fail at being moved by your books. You are an extremely talented writer Amy. Through your voice, stories and many other authors I'm sure it has been this that has made the world a better place, forced the hand of The Supreme Court and have shown hundreds of people that Love is Love and that deserves respect.

Yuni said...

How wounderful, Amy :) As a (German) writer of gay romance novels, I know the feeling so well. I also work in education and do not out my writing at work. Well, not yet;) And yes! I do not wirte porn! Even if I wirte explicit content every now and then, well life is explicit every now and then.
Never considered your wounderful romance books a guilty pleasure! I love your work:)