Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Writing What You Know: Authorial Experience in Romance

I stumbled across a debate the other day that brought a lot of vague thoughts I've had into sharp relief: namely, the reaction of readers to m/m romance written by women.
As a gay man interested in reading works by gay men and having been lumbered with books in the past misrepresenting as such, I am entitled to research [if a particular author is male or female]...Fortunately, there are many others emailing me with the same views and discussing ways to network regarding this situation.

That's from a customer discussion on Amazon about a well-known m/m author who writes under a male pen name. As his fans were quick to point out, what kind of proof would be considered acceptable? Would a photo do? No, it could have come from anywhere. Would a live chat do? No, it could be one of the author's friends. Ditto a face-to-face meet. Ultimately we either accept the reality with which we are presented, or we don't.

Never mind the fact that reader's own argument is defeated by his inability to 'tell' if said author was male or female from his writing (when he claimed that he has been "lumbered" with books by female authors that he clearly finds somehow lacking) - what does it matter? Is love not universal? Is there something so unique about (queer) male experience that it can only be accurately represented by queer men?

It's something I thought about when it came time for me to publish my own books - what name do I use? Do I go with my real (obviously-female) name; do I go with K. Aaron (or similar) or do I use a male pen name? I ultimately decided to use my real name because (1) I'm just that vain, I wanted to see my name on the cover of my books, and (2) if people are going to investigate, they're only going to get pissed off if they think I've somehow 'cheated' them. Don't like my books because a woman wrote them, don't read 'em.

Despite this, however, despite using an obviously female name and even my photo, my own gender has been called into question on more than one occasion. Here's part of a review of What He Wants on Amazon:

And if the writer is really a woman than I tip my hat in front of you for all the believable and juicy details of man-to-man sex scenes :-)

 I loved that - if the writer is really a woman. Like I'd have gone out of my way to use a female pen name and matching image if that wasn't really me. But that reviewer isn't alone, here's one from Danny's Boy on Goodreads:

 I cannot believe that a woman had written such eloquent and exquisite lines...

So clearly to some people authorial experience does matter. Not enough, in the cases of those reviewers, for them to refuse point-blank to read my books because they've been written by a woman (phew!), but these men (and they are both gay men) clearly notice a difference between male representations of male experience and female representations.

But is it that clear-cut? I'm gay, and I do think that makes a big difference. I don't need empathy to understand queer experience because I know it first-hand. When I write my characters, I'm drawing on my own real-life thoughts, feelings and experiences, as well as those of my friends. The fact that the majority of my friends are gay men no doubt also helps, as does the fact that we all went through the 'coming out' process together when we were teenagers. Is it really my men that are so realistic; or my gay men that strike a chord?

Romance is, of course, the only genre in which this really matters. No-one says that a thriller author can't write a convincing serial killer. You don't have to murder someone to represent the mind of someone who does. Or perhaps there just aren't enough real-life serial killers critiquing the thriller market. Maybe if they did, they'd be rolling in the aisles at the clumsy representations of others of their ilk. Who knows?

Certainly, I'd argue that my own experience proves that women can write gay men. Whether straight women can...well, that's something that only gay men can answer. For my part, I think the answer is yes. Not all the time, maybe not even most of the time, but I think sometimes, definitely, it's possible. In fact, some of my favourite representations of queer experience - male and female - have been written by straight women. (Indeed, I read a book recently - by a straight woman - that so accurately portrayed my experiences and my life that I actually felt very uncomfortable reading it. It was like looking into a mirror). 

Providing an author is prepared to do their research, to understand their characters, to get into their heads and roll around in there for a bit, I think anyone can write anything. This is fiction, it's fantasy; it's not an autobiography. 

As one respondent noted in the discussion that sparked this blog post:

 I have read really awful misrepresentations by "bona fide" gay men and outstanding ones by women, so it depends on the talent of the writer and not the gender. And given the number of gay men who appreciate -----'s writing -- I think he/she must be getting it right. If you have an agenda to read only novels written by gay men...good luck -- there's good stuff and also a lot of crap out there written by bona fides.

What that reader is saying is that, ultimately, good writing comes down to talent. If an author can make someone forget the real world, lose themselves in a book and believe in the characters, then they've done their job. 

There is, of course, the flip side of that:

I'm a man and I sincerely doubt that many women wouldn't challenge my veracity if I said I know exactly what women are thinking or feeling about their own sex lives. I'm certain that there are plenty women that will assert quite positively that men do not know or understand female sexuality from a physical perspective. I've had many female friends make comments to the effect of "how would he even know? he's a guy." when speaking about orgasms. I think there's simply a double standard in this discussion.
Gay men do, quite often have their own perspectives on sex and relationships and I don't think it's unfair to ask about gender. Would anyone today be so polictically [sic] naive to assert that if a white man writes as a black man or woman he wouldn't be questioned or called on it? 

I like that - politically naive - because that's what we're talking here, the politics of gender, of identity and of sexuality. As long as those factors in our lives remain political, we'll always find ourselves having this debate. What I fear some readers are doing, however, is cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Yes, some women write horrible, gay-lite m/f romances posing as m/m by changing a character's name from Alice to Alan. No, they have no understanding whatever of the experience of coming out, of being discriminated against, of walking into a gay bar and feeling truly at home for the first time because for once in your life you don't stick out like a sore thumb. Some authors neither know, nor care to know, what queer experience is really like.

Equally, some gay male authors lack the ability to represent that experience on paper. I have read some absolute dross in this genre, written by men and women alike. But I've also read some wonderful, moving, heart-wrenching stories by both male and female authors - and authors whose gender I neither know, nor care to know. The 'conspiracy', if there is one, is between the militant men who refuse point-blank to read anything written by a women. That is their choice, and their loss. I can name many, many superb female writers of queer experience - male and female - and I'm not necessarily talking the 'big names' either. Some of the most popular books and authors in this genre are the ones I am (in private, no gossip here chickees!) the most critical of.

Finding a good book has become easier than ever these days. No-longer do readers have to rely on a blurb and cover to decide if they want to read a book or not. If you've got an e-reader, start reading the samples. My kindle is chock-full of samples I've sent to myself as I've heard a book mentioned. I can read them in my own time and decide for myself if the book is something I want to take a chance on. And not once, not ever, was I put off by the author's gender.

But here's some recommendations, from me to you, of female authors who I think nailed it; who represented (queer) male experience in a way I know to be true. You might love them all, you might hate them all, but give them a chance before you write them off. You might just find a new favourite among them.

Something Different & Protection- SA Reid
The Boy I Love Trilogy (The Boy I Love; All The Beauty of the Sun, and Paper Moon) - Marion Husband
Inertia - Amelia C Gormley
Junction X - Erastes
The Charioteer - Mary Renault
Hamelin's Child - DJ Bennett
Roses in the Devil's Garden - Charlie Cochet

Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
Find all her books on AmazonAReB&N,  iTunesSWSony & Kobo


  1. Great post. I don't judge a book by the gender of the author in any genre I read. You really can't trust the name because so many authors use pen names, especially in the m/m genre. I either enjoy the story or not and the sex of the author never hits my radar :)

    1. I either enjoy the story or not

      I absolutely think that's the key, and it's certainly the way I think about the books that I read. If the sex of the author made a difference then you'd never have any man write any woman (or vice versa).

  2. Thank you, Kate. This was a wonderful post and I agree, the issue of female writers of gay romance can be a plaguing one.

    On one hand, as a woman, I respect and appreciate the need for cloistered "safe spaces" where people can escape from the omnipresent spectre of white, straight, abled cis male privilege. I understand why women need women-only spaces (trans* and cis issues within that concept are another matter, though they shouldn't be; I don't believe a transwoman should be excluded from women-only safe spaces) and why ethnic minorities need safe-spaces and why all walks of people under the rainbow need their safe space from the hetero-dominant paradigm.

    I try to be sensitive of this, even if I am sometimes unintentionally ignorant. When I entered the genre, I didn't understand the differentiation between "lgbtq fiction" and "m/m romance," the former being fiction by queerfolk for queerfolk about the queer experience, and the latter being a genre frequently populated by straight cis women and writing for an audience consisting largely of straight cis women.

    I would consider the "lgbtq fiction" tag to be a queer "safe space" and try to avoid applying it to my writing now that I understand the difference. Sometimes that stings the ego a bit, because I want to think that my writing would appeal to queerfolk as well as the straight-cis-female audience and I'd like to be able to market there, but no. I'm going to respect that distinction and not go "but but but my book is DIFFERENT!" to the queerfolk who want to stick to books tagged "lgbtq fiction" rather than "m/m romance." They may be depriving themselves of something my might enjoy, but that is their choice and they have reasons for making it.

    I admit, I'm firmly against female writers passing themselves off as gay men to pad their cred with the gay male audience. That strikes me as an assertion of unchecked privilege and no less crass or wrong than any other form of cultural appropriation. Is it also crass and wrong that a female writer might be prejudiced against in this genre? Yes, it is, and I can definitely understand the URGE to try to offset that. But appropriating a minority identity is not the way.

    On the other hand, Leta Blake has a wonderful pair of posts on her blog about the prejudice against women's voices in literature:

    Part One
    Part Two

    These posts deal with a lot of things, but one thing she addresses is the sexism inherent in derision toward a woman writing ANYTHING. This is something that gay men should be above. They should know better that to go "Ew, woman, icky!" As victims of oppression themselves, they should know better than to try to silence anyone's voice.

    1. Thanks Amelia, for a fascinating and beautifully crafted response! (You've put my original post to shame...).

  3. This is a conflicting issue for me (I'm more than just a bundle of conflict and drama. Really!). On one hand, I'm very pro do-whatever-satisfies- your-muse when it comes to the act of artistic creaton. So women writing m/m fiction? As long as it's good, I'm there. That being said, when I started reading m/m fiction, most of it was pretty game in trying to reach that understanding that gay men aren't simply women with male equipment.

    It seems like somewhere along the way the bar has been lowered, and some writers aren't so much concerned with an 'reasonably' authentic gay perspective. That's okay if that's what they want to write, BUT... they should have the courage of their convictions to not hide behind an androgynous psuedonym.

    I don't discount female writers. My first 'discovery' of the m/m genre was from a female writer and I was shocked to find this genre existed, and that it wasn't just really long slash fic. That being said, I'd feel better going into a story with a feeling that the author and I are starting out with some degree of parity in who we are. I'm there to read thier work (male or female, because something in the blurb interested me) and they trust that I'm there to read said work for what it is. Identity is really important to lgbt folk, is it so much to ask that an author be authentic in there own?

    Safe spqce or no, I think gay men want to know that the connection the feel to an experience is genuine (much like everyone else). I don't think it's the feminine that causes bitterness, but the dishonesty ,perceived' in an author trying to hide who they really are.

    1. I don't think it's the feminine that causes bitterness, but the dishonesty ,perceived' in an author trying to hide who they really are.

      I absolutely agree there, Chase. I don't think that authors necessarily have to live their lives in public in order to be considered 'authentic' (as I wrote in the post, there is no equivalent demand for authenticity in genres outside of romance), however I think that it's important that when an author does go public with some detail, that it be genuine.

      I've had exactly the same kind of conversation with authors about padding word counts, calling short stories 'novellettes' to make them appear longer (and yes I know it's a legitimate term, but not one that your average lay reader uses) etc etc: what it all boils down to is a form of dishonesty; or less-than-honesty, shall we say.

      The crazy thing is that the people who do attempt to shield their own gender and/or orientation in order to seem more 'qualified' to write in this genre are actually establishing their total lack of comprehension: the implication of the thought process that goes "if I say I'm a gay man then people will buy my books because they'll think I understand their lives" is that there is only one queer experience, that all gay men lead the same lives and think and feel the same thing, when of course the queer community is spectacularly diverse. There is no single 'gay' experience - for men or for women - ergo some of the writings by queer authors will be rejected by some queer readers because they don't fit their own experiences.

  4. I disagree in part, if not wholly right there.

    Writing as Anonymous or with an opposite gender pen name is as old as literature. There are bestselling and much-read men posing as women in Romance, with publishers twisting their authors' arms into using female pen names. Just as at least 50% if not far more 'Agony Aunts' out there, advising often enough female teens or women on sexual or relationship matters, are actually male--because a female name sells better, is more accepted by the populace for such a purpose. So do damn well stay the high horses right there, please! That little bit of info really is all that is needed to correctly field the whole discussion.

    While I will agree that a particular kind of deception, namely of a straight woman or a straight man (!) posing as a queer man or queer woman in matters which relate to actual experiences, for example in a non-fiction book about aspects of being queer, and would consider such posing as not truly ethical, I cannot agree that it matters anywhere else.

    Fiction is--well--fiction. You'll have to live with that, whether it comes from a woman or a man, straight, queer or bi. Some authors write under a different gender pen name not to sell better, instead they do so, because they identify more with that gender than with what bit parts they have or don't have between their legs. You don't even have to be transsexual for that, as I know myself only too well. All my adult life I felt more comfortable male-identified than female-identified whilst taking no exception to my actual genitals. I won't have that reviled, just because some people seem to get their knickers in a wad over what is truly not their business in the first place.

    If some gay men want to be so parochial as to read only books written by other gay men, they're quite welcome to do so. That's their choice. I guess those are the same guys who have trouble accepting there are asexual or bisexual people out there, yes, men as well, which was very obvious in that Amazon discussion. There are enough gay male authors out there whose sex and sexual orientation has been attested to so they can do that without problems.

    But that doesn't mean they have any right at all demanding of authors that they write or publish under an officially verified gender, and I can't even remotely condone or agree with attempts to "out" the bit parts of authors not willing to clarify or writing as the opposite gender.

    Where are we suddenly? Back to pigeonholing people and telling them that some are better or more equal than others? Assigning gender and sexuality by a close look at genitals? Hello? HELLO?

    If acceptance and tolerance towards people of all kinds of sexes, genders and orientations means that we have to swallow the toad of a few profiteers then be it so. That always was and always will be the price and it's a very small one.

    1. To be clear, I'm not talking particularly about authors using pen names (which I know is a practice as old as time in every genre). Authorship is essentially anonymous - until, that is - the author creates an entire persona that is false. My point is more that a false persona, if discovered, just creates ill will between the reader and the author, and ultimately I think it's unnecessary because I think any author can write about any experience, providing they do their research.

      That's a separate argument to trans narratives or wider debates regarding identity and identification, and I absolutely believe that readers ultimately must accept the reality with which they're presented: I don't agree for a second with attempts to investigate or 'out' authors for the way they present themselves.

      I don't even think it's particularly as a result of profiteering that people create false identities under which to publish in certain genres, but more because the likes of those that do investigate an author's background (or attempt to), while being firmly in a minority, are pretty vocal and give the unwary the perception that authors from certain backgrounds will be actively discriminated against by a much larger demographic than I have found to be true. Ironically, it is the behaviour of those that refuse to read anything unless they consider it 'authentic' that encourage new authors to go underground and employ pen-names that are deliberately misleading.

      What such arguments about 'authentic' narratives demonstrate most clearly is that discrimination is active in this genre: against female authors and against all those who don't fit a very narrow definition of what constitutes a "gay man" - which includes trans, bi, asexual and every element that makes up the Q of our community. As I said before, there is no single 'gay' experience. I've read books written by gay women that bear no similarity whatever to my own life or experiences - does that make them invalid? Or does the fact that they come from an 'authentic' source make them more valid? If so then what does that say about my experience - do they invalidate what I know to be true because they know something else?

      Of course not. We accept the diversity of our own community (inasmuch as we accept that one gay man or woman can have a life experience that is the total opposite of another's) but not - apparently - when it comes from outside of our own very narrow understanding of How Things Are. I've always been outspoken about one minority kicking discrimination down the line to another one, and that's essentially what we're seeing with this phenomena.

      Ultimately I think that the crowd involved in the particular discussion I referenced in the post defeated their own argument when they admitted at the offset that they couldn't tell from that author's writing if he really was male or not. My original premise (which I know has been somewhat convoluted by the ongoing debate in the comments) was that a fictional narrative does not need an authentic source in order to get it right, and this is a misconception common particular to romance.

  5. I was trying to reply to Chase and your comment of his comment, but the whole thing seems to have moved out of the thread.

    In my opinion it is ultimately the author who gets to decide who and what they are, no one else. Whatever the author presents to the public is as "honest" as may be demanded.

    Whether a simple marketing issue or expression of a physiological or psychological deviance--and I am using the term very much on purpose here!--from the norm (which clearly is straight male/female) cannot be of any import.

    I mainly take exception with statements like these--

    " Identity is really important to lgbt folk, is it so much to ask that an author be authentic in there own?"

    "...however I think that it's important that when an author does go public with some detail, that it be genuine."

    --with it being 'understood' that anyone who writes as the opposite gender and affirms being of the opposite gender has to be dishonest (taking transpeople out of the equation, at times). That's quite simply not an even marginally correct assumption, the variance of human gender expression, gender perception and sexual orientations being far too complex for such an amount of simplification.

    The suicide of James Tiptree Jr., who succumbed to severe depression after her pseudonym was uncovered, ought to be considered as noteworthy in this whole debate on whether or not readers 'have a right' towards defining 'honesty' in this respect. Tiptree would argue against, so would I.

    1. Blame blogger's spamguard for moving the posts! It was a bit over-enthusiastic...

      In general I have no objection to cross-gender pen-names; I know many authors who write under both male and female names. What I dislike - and I accept that it is a purely personal opinion/reaction - is authors offering up an entire persona to accompany the pen-name; offering a reality to the readers that isn't of itself real. (And we're talking deliberate deception here, not the intricacies of a trans or identification debate).

      Authorship is essentially anonymous, as I said before. I could write under the name Kate Aaron or Karl Aaron or Ashley Aaron or AN Aaron (i.e. female/male/androgynous/anonymous), the point is that while it's true a reader can draw some perceptions from the name, any name is essentially meaningless.

      My own thinking - personally - is that presenting a fictional persona as real in order to bolster your 'credentials' to write in a specific genre is both dishonest and ultimately redundant, because I don't believe that you need to speak from personal experience every time - or any time - you write a piece of fiction.


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