Words Mean Things: Romance
If you’ve been around me very long, you probably know I have a fairly difficult time with categorizations. While some of this is simple unfamiliarity with all the nuance of genre (and the reader expectations that go along with them), the other side of the coin is the nuances themselves.
Genre is a big, complicated subject. Very rarely does anyone write something that can be categorized in one way and one way alone. A work might have a “predominate” category, but it’s likely bleeding into a number of different genres, touching on and drawing from different literary traditions.
I’m not one to try and shove my literature in a box, although I understand how and why we do. As human beings, we inherently like order. We like being able to put things in neat little boxes and use those boxes to conceptualize what this or that is like because of it. I mean, just look at arguments about where bisexuals “fit” when they’re performing queerness or heteronormativity in their relationships, or arguments about how and where people expressing any number of different gender identities “fit” into our overall conceptions. We keep creating new words and terminology to describe these different identities. We acknowledge identities are inherently messy, shifting, spilling over categories through time.
And that’s okay. In fact, that’s a pretty wonderful thing, because it means we can grow and change, and that our understanding of ourselves and others can expand.
Genre, in literature, functions much the same way: It’s inherently messy, constantly shifting as our notions and understandings change. We invent new terminology to describe new genres, the intersection of old genres.
But What Do I Want to Read?
Well, it’s a wonderful thing except for when it comes to actually deciding on what to read. In a crowded book market, readers rely heavily on genre and category labels to help them find the things they want to read. In an inherently messy categorization system, adding more categories to your book isn’t a terrible move—except that it can feel desperate and overwhelming to the reader.
We tend to try to condense what a book is about to three main categories, even if elements of other genres are present. I usually pick mm (gay) romance, mm (gay) erotica, and LGBTQ+ fiction, because I write about dudes boning dudes.
In theory, this helps readers both find my work and steer clear of it. A reader who isn’t interested in LGBTQ+ fiction can steer clear. A reader who is might be intrigued. Another reader won’t bother with my book because they’re not interested in “G” part of the acronym.
Some people argue that, if your book contains only male (gay) characters, focusing solely on the G portion of the acronym, you shouldn’t adopt LGBTQ+ as the category; instead, you should focus it on “mm” or “gay.” Gay is also a charged category designation: Some people want to reserve LGBTQ+ and gay for own voices, leaving authors (like myself) who write gay couples in the literary traditions of yaoi and slash to use the designation mm or ff. Yet others who read LGBTQ+ see no reason to draw lines in the sand like this; they’re just as happy to read mm or ff as they are to read “gay” or “lesbian” fiction, seeing them as one in the same.
Erotica and Romance
Even designating your work as erotica or romance is charged. Precisely because readers use these categories to discover what they want to read, they form certain expectations for how something labeled “erotica” should unfold versus how something labeled as “romance” should unfold.
There’s a problem, which I acknowledge I’ve taken part in to a certain extent, of considering anything with graphic sex scenes as “erotica.” This happens even when the sex scenes are integral to the plot, but take a backseat to the emotional and romantic lives of the characters.
“Erotica” should focus solely on sex in some people’s opinion. The story can (and should) still be plot-driven; a story featuring graphic sex without much plot is probably better labeled “pornography.” So erotica still has to have some narrative arc that drives the characters forward. Perhaps it’s a journey of sexual discovery or of finding the right partner. Maybe it’s a tale of losing an old partner. The focus, however, is on the sexual aspect of the character’s lives.
For others, however, erotica is anything that features graphic sex scenes, even if the primary focus is on romance. This is where things begin to get a little sticky. Romance can involve sex, sometimes graphic sex scenes, and erotica can involve some romance (sex is often inherently tied to the emotional lives of the characters). Here we find what some call “erotic romance” or “romantic erotica,” or even where we start getting into the “heat” ratings for romance.
For most readers, romance novels have happily ever afters or happily enough for nows. If a character dies, your book likely isn’t romance. There’s probably a niche audience for romantic novels wherein one of the leads actually kicks the bucket. Such a book would horrify or disappoint many romance readers because it violates the HEA principle.
We also love these sorts of stories. A Fault in Our Stars features one of the main characters dying. It’s tragic, it’s romantic. It’s still, at its heart, a love story. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most classic case. Most people cite “Romeo and Juliet” as a love story before they cite it as a tragedy.
Our notions of what is romantic tend to spill into other genres. People call lovers Romeo and Juliet; the names are shorthand for a sweeping, epic love story! But it’s a goddamn tragedy.
This is probably one of the reasons I have trouble slotting my books into a particular category. Since my books tend to be focused on the emotional relationships (or “love stories,” if you will) of my characters, I gravitate to billing them as romances, even if they contain facets of other genres. In fact, given the soap opera-esque nature of something like Slapshot!, we could probably categorize my work as drama or melodrama just as easily.
Some readers no doubt disagree my work falls into the romance category. If you can think of a better categorization, I’m all ears. Nonetheless, I use “romance” because I think it does, to a certain extent, convey what the story’s about … and it gives access to the kind of reader who is likely going to want to read this story.
The Issue of Sex
There’s another issue when we talk about romance novels, particularly mm novels, and that’s sex. One argument is all mm novels must contain sex if they’re to be billed as mm. This seems to be a notion held by the arts community at large: If it’s gay, it needs to focus on gay sex.
The argument for this is without the characters engaging in sex, we can’t truly be sure if they’re gay or not. It’s the act of sex that renders them gay. Until that point, we can read their attraction as homosociality or mere curiosity; once they have sex, however, it becomes both romantic and gay.
This is about as stupid an argument I’ve ever read in my life. The same rule does not apply to heteronormative narratives. If a girl and a boy hang out together, share a kiss, blush at each other, share shy looks, and so on and so forth, we’re going to assume they’re both straight and in love.
Why do we assume that’s not the case when both partners are coded as male? Or even as female? Queer sex is not the defining feature of mm, ff, LGBTQ+, or any other narrative.
While there’s certainly a portion of the audience that reads mm solely for erotic purposes, this idea that mm romance must feature sex in order to qualify as gay or mm is a manifestation of the heteronormative lens. When subjected to the heteronormative gaze, LGBTQ+ persons become a form of entertainment, a curiosity. Gay sex is difficult to code as anything but gay, so the heteronormative gaze accepts it as the ultimate—and often only—performance of queerness.
Also bound up in this are notions of masculinity. There’s an implicit idea that men are always hot to trot, that they’re ready to go at any point. They’re insatiable horndogs who will have sex at every and any opportunity. The audience thus demands that gay men perform sex and perform it frequently, so as to continue expressing their masculinity, in addition to their queer identity. The message here is, “I’m gay, but I’m still a man!”
Lesbians, by turn, are “deviant,” and thus they eschew traditional femininity. In this vein, they lose all modesty and become insatiable nymphomaniacs. This happens to all female bodies that don’t conform to cisgender, heteronormative ideas about masculinity and femininity. Black women are almost always depicted as overtly sexual and oversexed, a holdover from imperialist racism. Take a look at almost any movie featuring a Black woman and note how her sexuality is emphasized, especially compared to any white women appearing alongside.
The Problem of Romance and Erotica
When we do put sex into these narratives, we begin to cross between “romance” and “erotica.”
Since all mm romance must contain sex, it’s implicit all mm romance is actually erotica as well. This is notable for two reasons. Erotica is generally seen as being for the pleasure of the (primarily female) reader. Erotica is usually seen as less literary value than even romance novels. It’s dirty, deviant, and obscene.
We end up in a space where all mm stories are also coded as erotica. They become coded as dirty, deviant, and obscene, produced primarily as titillation for curious female readers. The retention of traditional notions of masculinity thus makes more sense; we’re still coding for female sensibilities, not necessarily for gay male or LGBTQ+ or other conceptualizations of gender.
Pushing back against these notions is important. Romance isn’t necessarily erotica, and vice-versa. MM romance isn’t necessarily erotica, nor does it need to contain sex in order to qualify. Opening up the spaces in between these understandings of genre and genre expectations is important. It allows us to more fully represent and explore the wide breadth of LGBTQ+ experiences.
Square Pegs, Round Holes
Shoving our work into certain categories can promote or hide it. Moving a work like “Romeo and Juliet” from “romance” to “tragedy” would obscure the story from more readers—even though it’s more accurate and technically correct.
Genre is a messy thing, and we should embrace that, even if it does make it more difficult as readers.