Women write gay male romance novels for women
The romance novel, a static and predictable genre, is undergoing an evolution of sorts: storylines written by straight women for straight women . . . about gay men. Gay men are allowed to read them, of course--there's no gender ID check. But the authors want the books shelved with romance novels, not gay literature, and they are straight women writing the stories that they would want to read. Alex Beecroft, the author of False Colors, an "m/m romance" set in the mid-18th century British navy, doesn't see what the big deal is. "Whether your romance is m/f or m/m, love is the same," she writes in an e-mail from her home in England, "two people, heart and soul, fighting for something beautiful, something worth fighting for." Yes, but is it really a romance novel if there's not a heaving bosom?
The movie version of Brokeback Mountain is credited with ushering in this twist. Beecroft's publisher, Running Press, wrote in the book's publicity material, "The success of 2005's Brokeback Mountain demonstrated the lure of the subject for a female audience." Or maybe it demonstrated the lure of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Informal polls of straight women in the Baltimore/Washington area--i.e. conversations at parties attended by this writer--revealed that they loved the movie, but didn't feel aroused by it. Watching seemed to engage less of their imagination and stoke more sympathy than empathy. But reading requires imagination, which brings the reader's personal experience to bear, and this may provide False Colors with the opportunity to connect and arouse in a way that Brokeback Mountain didn't.
Beecroft's False Colors has many of the standard romance novel elements. Sexual tension is established in the first few pages. There are some bad double entendres: "his body seemed to pull towards the other man's as one pole of a magnet to the other." And when the boys finally get together, John is faux-resistant ("it would be terrible"), while Alfie is bound and determined ("He let go reluctantly, and only so he could peel off the rest of his clothes").
However, the pivotal points in the story are markedly different from an m/f romance. First, Alfie admits his attraction to John, who hasn't yet faced his own orientation, and John is embarrassed and demonstrably repulsed. Fifty pages later, John has his first homosexual experience; it is anonymous and disturbing for John, more realistic than romantic. As the climax of the book builds, John is asked to choose between his career and Alfie. It's 1762, and John can either become the captain of his own ship or he can risk the gallows by unsuccessfully defending Alfie against sodomy charges (John's ass is not in question here). This cynical reader rooted for him to take the promotion--it was just too hard to envision a happy ending. But of course John chooses love, and the resolution of the story does not disappoint.
It seems strange on the surface--gay male romance novels for straight women--but maybe this is just the latest iteration of the age-old against-the-odds, forbidden fruit love story. Whether it's the Capulet who can't be with the Montague, the princess who can't be with the stable boy, the beauty who can't be with the beast, the countless Hollywood leading couples who can't be together because someone is getting ready to marry another, or the two Georgian naval officers who will be hanged if they are discovered, isn't it the same basic story inspiring the romantic imaginations of women through the ages? They can't be together, so they must.
Another thing that seems strange is a straight woman writer who would leave her sex out of her love stories. Who is this woman with the gender-neutral name? Beecroft is a married mother of two. It was her idea, not some editor's or publisher's, to write these kind of stories. "I find it curious that people are surprised that a straight woman would want to write m/m romance, because for me it's such a natural thing," she writes. "It wasn't suggested to me by anyone. In fact, I started imagining stories in which the two heroes would get together pretty much as soon as I hit puberty."
Beecroft also sees her stories as opportunities for her to play with and transcend traditional gender roles. "M/M romance can be used to examine relationships which don't suffer from the same sort of built in power imbalances and gender role constraints that make m/f romance such a minefield," she writes. "And of course, unlike f/f which has the same advantage of equality, m/m allows the writer to use characters who are not mired in feminine gender roles either. So it has a big element of escapism to it, plus the advantage of two gorgeous heroes for the price of one."
So if the story is just a twist on forbidden fruit, and the author simply likes male characters and to be free of rigid male/female roles when writing romantic storylines, who is the audience for books like False Colors? In other words, who is brave enough to sell, purchase, read in a coffee shop, and discuss a romance novel with two brooding uniformed men on the cover? Running Press is advertising the book in romance-reader periodicals like Romantic Times and Affair de Coeur (these are actual magazines). Romantic Times claims to review every book that pays to advertise, but so far they have not reviewed False Colors. "That's not unusual," Beecroft writes." In fact that's RT's standard practice with m/m romance."
Originally, Borders and Barnes & Noble agreed to shelve False Colors with their other romantic fiction, but that hasn't worked out either. According to Beecroft, both booksellers immediately re-shelved the book in the much smaller GLBT section. But just as False Colors seemed to be facing market obscurity and the bookstore ghetto, Amazon gave it some free publicity.
In mid-April, as False Colors was being released and beginning to cross over to Amazon's historical romance bestseller list, Amazon dropped the ranking of tens of thousands of books, mostly with gay themes. According to the Wall Street Journal, books by E.M. Forster and Gore Vidal, along with Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain and False Colors were suddenly literary eunuchs. The public's response to what was dubbed "Amazonfail" was swift and Amazon quickly cried innocent mistake. Meanwhile, the cover of False Colors was splashed all over the reports, most significantly on Twitter, and the word was out. "The Amazonfail thing may, ironically enough, have been the best thing that could have happened to the book," Beecroft writes.
So the evolution is underway, complete with all the false starts and dead ends change brings. But the change is deceptively superficial. Whether m/m or m/f or f/f, the prosaic romance novel is still about escaping with characters who are, above all, true to themselves. Whether they have heaving bosoms or straining packages is of less consequence than whether they are heaving and straining against an oppressive society that would keep them apart. And if their equipment matches, the oppression multiplies, and the romantic-at-heart just might root for them even more.
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