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 Amazon, ARe, B&N, iTunes, SW, Sony & Kobo