mm_blueI originally wrote this article on m/m romance for Forbidden Fruit Zine, (a web magazine that was taken over and later changed its name), although it’s been altered in content since to update it.

So why do you write this magical stuff?

The question deserved an answer though what caught my attention was the person asking was female and had used the word magical. Alas, my reply lacked an impetus. I had stumbled into writing gay romance mostly by accident instead of intent. However, one thing stood out in my mind. Writing my book had been fun. Hard work, yes, but fun. I had fallen in love with the world and characters I had created, and it had nothing to do with sexuality. From reader response, I could surmise this applied to a large portion of my audience as well.

So how did my first gay romance book come into being? I had an idea that turned out to be one of those many writers consider a blessing. An idea that taps you on the shoulder when you’re not looking, that stays with you, bugs you, whispers in your ear, and then starts howling when you try to ignore it. I had discovered erotic romances for women were selling, and that many of these publishers allowed their authors to let their imagination take them where it wanted to fly. I loved the concept and wanted to join them. My idea had found its perfect mate in the perfect market.

So what makes an erotic romance as opposed to a romance that just has sex in it? Authors and readers debate this constantly. It’s the age-old question: art versus porn and in many instances, you will know it when you see it. Drawings, paintings, and sculpture we generally see as artistic, but this can apply equally to photographs. It is in the pose, the intent, and the skill of the artist. The same applies to the written word. I can only say what the definition of an erotic romance means to me. The sex has to be essential to the story. It has to move the plot, integrated, progressive. It doesn’t matter if the story is a sweet tale of two people meeting or a high adventure. If you can remove the sex from the story and still have a story then the sex didn’t belong there to begin with. Even worse, if your readers aren’t interested in the story and skip lines to get to the ‘good bits’ then you have done both yourself and them a disservice.

That still leaves the question of why my first erotic romance was largely a same sex story.

In my mind, there was no uncertainty. I envisioned a race that freely took lovers of either sex. This also gave the story an additional concept. If I had made the love-interest female, a similar story could have applied, but it would have contained less conflict, less tension, less story. That was not only somewhat boring it wouldn’t have opened up the pathways I explored in subsequent instalments.

Why though would I consider writing more stories along these lines? When your publisher expresses an interest, you don’t turn your back. When readers add their voice to the clamour you greet them with a smile and count your blessings. Yes, m/m (male/male) romances do well! Strange then that not so long ago many shook their heads in refusal or disbelief because, they said, “There’s no market for this sort of work.” All this may sound as if I am trying to fashion an excuse. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I offer no excuses, no apologies.

More recently, female writers of the genre have captured media interest, but alas have, on occasion, been treated with a tongue-in-cheek approach that leaves many quietly grinding their teeth, convinced interviewers have listened to what the authors had to say while not believing a word of it. The invisible smirks aren’t so imperceptible. Alas, the ‘lustful women’ viewpoint is understandable. Publishers are constantly calling for more sex because sex always sells no matter the genre, but there are plenty of readers out there happy to accept more subtle eroticism, just as there are readers who want plenty of sex but not without a good story. The pressure by some publishers to have sex put in an appearance ‘no later than page three’ does the genre a disservice, a thing hetero markets are equally guilty of with well-known mainstream romance publishers dictating on what page the first kiss should occur.  Sex truly isn’t the reason (or only reason) many women read or write m/m, but for so long the joke has been that many men find lesbian sex arousing that the assumption applies.

Writers are pleased that m/m romance is finally making headlines, but the mistakes inherent in the ‘discovery’ are painful to read. Slash has been around for a considerable time, possibly decades, and the only ‘new’ angle is the subject has finally wandered into the public interest. Until recently, it’s been quietly subsisting where women who found they were interested were often isolated in their feelings and in their beliefs that no other women felt the same way. Even so, indicators began to appear in more mainstream markets.

As a writer, the subject has opened up a wealth of ideas. As a reader, I have read and enjoyed stories with this theme for years. Consider writers such as Anne Rice, Laurell K Hamilton, and even Carol Berg. Whether she intended it or not, Carol Berg’s book Transformation is a story of a master and his slave and yet the underlying possibility for a relationship is there even if she chose not to follow it. That is not my opinion but that of her audience. I decided to explore this more fully.

The simple question of why straight women write or read this type of literature brought forth some answers (from readers and writers), most of which were completely unexpected. Some women could only reply that they found it arousing. That may be true, but it begs the question of why. Some women regularly read these works without finding it stirring. Others say it stirs their emotions only.

Most apparent is that if there are any women out there feeling awkward regarding their choice, they can rest assured they are not alone in their appreciation. I had already noted that most of these books had men who might well share intimacy with other men (sexual or otherwise), but they can be as soft or butch as the writer dictates and the reader desires. They could be gentle souls, gazing out a cruel world, or have an in your face and don’t mess with me or someone I love or you’ll be sorry attitude. So why do women read this ‘magical’ stuff?

The answers came swiftly. Some women felt drawn to it from watching series such as Queer as Folk. In this, they often celebrated the skill of the writer. The drama drew them in as well as the characters, and the obvious display of men letting go when it came to sex. Some had a favourite film star growing up who had come out of the proverbial closet later in life. Some had seen a film with a scene that affected them. Antonio Banderas seems to have something to answer for, for his Pedro Almodovar films and Interview with a Vampire. Yet could one think of a more confident, secure image of a man? Male/male FanFic, slash art, and yaoi all have their influence.

Still the reasons kept coming. Angst-ridden males seem to do well in female fiction. Although readers and writers like a happy conclusion, they don’t mind seeing their heroes suffer to get there. Some writers like to put their male characters into as sticky a situation as possible and watch them squirm, and their readers roll over in ecstasy with them. For some women, they are simply eliminating the sex that doesn’t interest them (although lesbians also read and write m/m books). Equally, they may enjoy male/female stories. Primarily, though, they want to think about ‘men’ and it seems peculiar that in an age where men often watch ‘girl-on-girl’ action and find that perfectly acceptable, they can act so negatively to the idea of males. Even if uninterested, why does it bother some people? In this, some women write or leave these books lying around just to ‘get their own back’ on the straight guys out there. Some have gay family members or friends; they began in this line because they wanted to write something for them.

The genre allows writers to go where they might not otherwise be able to, whether that is a character’s psyche or a representation of a physical hereto male-dominated arena. They can also explore what some would consider to be tasteless subjects if applied to female characters. One writer even told me that she dislikes the labels used for the female body, and in that, I concur. Gay romance also creates a new dynamic. Some see the latest female warrior type portrayed as asexual. She has to be tough and unfeeling to compete with the men. Women can be tough and still feel. There are writers who wish to equalise the playing field and create men who get as emotional and as hot and bothered as they do.

There are women who have experienced negative relationships with a male member of the family. Possibly, they had a stern, unapproachable father, or one that couldn’t be present enough. In a world where women can be more openly caring — and I don’t mean lesbians but women generally will freely kiss and hug each other hello and goodbye — to see one man caring for another can have a deep emotional effect, particularly if the man is straight because that shows he’s secure enough not to care what others are thinking.

Some believe that if one man is good, two are better. They see it as an opportunity to envision men doing what they do best! They want men raw, hot, sweaty, sexy, capable of tears and able to bestow tender kisses. I can hear some men crying out such men don’t exist and women are asking too much. Maybe that’s why they are inventing them.

Ultimately, though, writers and readers seem to agree that they want great plots, engrossing characters, and good writing. As for the m/m genre, I’ve concluded that all attempts to ‘explain’ why many women like gay romance are in danger of being narrow-minded. There are too many reasons and variables. Ask ten women the same question, and you’ll likely receive ten different answers. It’s dismaying that the sexual arousal viewpoint is the most focused on aspect. Many female gay romance writers will say that they view m/m on a more intellectual level rather than purely physical — it would be interesting to hear if any men feel the same way when it comes to f/f.

As for what I intend to write in future, I will write as I always have, bridging genres, wherever my imagination takes me and my readers wish me to go. Just remember, whatever you’re writing, create your characters with care, and with regards to your hero, make him suffer, make him hurt, then pick him up and cuddle him.

© Sharon Maria Bidwell, all rights reserved.