Prism Book Alliance would like to welcome back special guest columnist Alexis J Hall for Tea Time with Alexis J Hall & Friends. We would like to extend a special welcome to today’s roundtable guests: Julio Alexi Genao, Vanessa North and Beverley Jansen
Everything including Sex
JAG: my body is ready.
AJH: I hear that about you.
JAG: yeah, see—the person who told you that? their body was ready also.
AJH: Shh! Be quiet—they’re here.
Um, hello, and happy holidays, Teatimers.
Today I’m joined by Prism’s own BJ, Teatime regular Julio Alexi Genao, and romance author Vanessa North, and we’re going to be talking about … [glances left and right, warily] … sex.
I have no idea what made me think this would be a good idea.
JAG: um… because most of us had sex sixteen times today already?
AJH: Gosh, it’s a wonder you have any bed posts left with all those notches on ‘em.
JAG: like piles of kindling. maybe it’s a dominican thing. aaanyhoo—
AJH: —I thought we could talk a bit about sex in romance, sex in m/m, the intersection of the romantic and the erotic, what works for us, and what doesn’t. The, ah, narrative dimension, Julio.
JAG: [slides velvet-lined chest of accoutrement back under bed] …oh. well, that’s… that’s quite as nice, surely?
AJH: I think there’s a general perception that m/m is more sex-based or more sex-dominated than het. I think this might partially be connected to the fact that m/m is about the WHO rather than the WHAT, whereas het quite explicitly differentiates between romance and erotica, but I suspect it’s more complicated than merely lack of genre classification. The fact remains: in m/m the lines between romantic and erotica are – to an extent – blurred.
JAG: blurred? obliterated, more like.
BJ: I totally agree with J. When I told my family I was writing m/m romance they said, you mean gay porn?…and it’s a family joke now!
AJH: Although – isn’t romance generally characterised (by the ignorant, I mean) as porn for women? Regardless of level of erotic content?
BJ: I don’t think it is always thought of as porn, but erotica for housewives, yes.
JAG: …suuuuuch a gross term. sexist as fuck.
VN: the concept of romance as “porn for women” has been around for a while–long enough that there are several blog posts about it–so it’s not a foreign concept in het, but I think het writers have taken a hard-line stance on that going back years, whereas m/m writers tend to laugh it off.
AJH: While I think dismissing any genre except porn as being porn is … y’know … offensive, my perception as a reader is that m/m does tend to carry a greater expectation of erotic content than het.
JAG: [flatly, into teacup] i haven’t the faintest idea why.
VN: yes, I think so as well, and specific erotic content–there is an expectation that sex in m/m deliver frequent sex content, erotic sex content, and penetrative sex.
BJ: There is always going to be that perception when book sites sell romance based on a ‘heat’ index.
AJH: I joked on Twitter the other day that I needed to stop seeing the ‘heat level’ at Riptide Press as a score – but actually I think that’s just about supporting reader choice, which I’m massively in favour of. I don’t really see it as connected to why m/m is expected to be or seen to be more erotically focused than het. It’s not like you can’t get some very, ah, steamy het.
VN: My transition from writing het to writing m/m involved, for a while, a ramping-up of the eroticism of my work (which was pretty high on the heat index already) because I felt that was expected. Then I just wrote the story, and now I feel more comfortable with heat ratings.
JAG: you know what my biggest issue with these heat ratings is? i don’t think they are granular enough. like—what the hell is the difference between three chiles, and four? is there a set number of blowjobs one must include before it kicks up into the next category? how about double penetration? can we agree that double penetration is—
AJH: —Too spicy for my blood.
JAG: see, you say that now, but enrique from the bodega down the block swears he saw you change your grindr profile last wee—
BJ: —Who is the arbiter of heat?
VN: DP is a regular in het menage–it pretty much scores in the 4-5 range.
JAG: this is why vanessa north is here. vanessa north knows everything. admire the vanessa north.
VN: no, Vanessa North reads everything. 😉 there’s a difference.
AJH: Yes but obviously heat level is to a degree subjective. I mean, there’s a scene in Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, where the hero removes the heroine’s glove and I nearly imploded it was so sexy. Like 85 gazillion chilis. And I’ve read, y’know, hardcore BDSM fisting scenes that made me yawn.
VN: that Lord of Scoundrels scene was ridiculously hot. Implicitly sexy rather than explicitly so, and exactly the kind of sexy I like to read.
AJH: Yes, why does only het get the sexy glove removal? And m/m gets enemas. How is that fair or right or reasonable?
JAG: it’s an OUTRAGE!!!
BJ: I think m/m tends to veer away from sexual subtlety still, maybe because it is a younger ‘genre’.
VN: [plans glove-removal scene just for AJH]
AJH: Hehe, thank you. Well, m/m does have roots in fanfic and erotica – and there’s an extent to which both those genres are about pushing boundaries and subverting, uh, stuff, in a way that doesn’t necessarily … lead easily towards telling more romantic stories. Not that you can’t fist someone romantically. It’s just … flowers first, y’know?
BJ: Romantic fisting. That’s staying with me ‘til 2015!
AJH: Any act can be romantic. (I seem to recall there’s a romantic fisting in Vanessa’s The Dark Collector). It’s not about acts. It’s about context. Emotion. Subtlety.
JAG: [sips tea placidly] mmm, yes. subtlety. but yeah—that scene was delicious. about the only fisting scene i’ve read that made my toes curl.
BJ: See, that’s what I was trying to say: we have less subtlety in m/m romance, at the moment.
VN: language is a tool–and the sex in stories should use language to move the story, and shape the characters. It can be filthy, raunchy, come-eating sex and still be a metaphor for something bigger and more ground-shaking to the characters. If sex is the point, there isn’t any subtlety. If sex is the tool… that’s different.
AJH: I think – for me – I kind of agree with Beej that perhaps where a lot of m/m romance isn’t quite there, yet? The acts themselves are still meant to stand alone as indicators of intimacy / emotion. Like, being penetrated means This Is Totally Real.
JAG: welp, i for one feel you guys might give MM too much credit. i don’t think many of these books you’re referring to display any evidence at all of being the product of that kind of nuanced thinking. i don’t think, in other words, that many of these smutty—and don’t get me wrong, i lurve me some smut—
AJH: Dude, you gave 5 stars to purple demon cock—
JAG: [clears throat delicately] …exigent circumstances, my dear boy. as i was saying: while i love me some… purple-demon-cocked smut, i don’t think it was the product of an author going “gee, i would like to paint these male-male relationships with aaaaaall the colors of the wind—but let me use this ruby-tipped butt-plug as a kind of shorthand!” no. i think it’s more often something like: “you know what would be hot? male pregnancy.”
VN: I think there is some of that, for sure. But then I read stories like Jordan Castillo Price’s Meatworks, where the intimacy is so fraught with tension over the acts themselves, and these men’s concerns about their bodies and what certain acts might mean to them–it really shows a deeper understanding of how our self-awareness tends to disappear in moments of real intimacy. It was erotic, and it was romantic, and it was metaphorical.
AJH: Aaaand on my to-be-read list as of right the fuck now.
JAG: that book was terrific. i heartily recommend it, as much for castillo price’s handling of what vanessa mentioned above as for her sense of place. don’t miss the afterword—it’s outstanding. but can we get back to the double penetration, or what?
BJ: I think the answer to that is ‘what’.
VN: Well, I think we might be a little unfair to describe this as something that affects m/m exclusively–there is a lot of het romance in which the sex is the point as well.
AJH: Well, yes, and that’s absolutely not to diminish books that are mostly about sex – but that kind of book is called erotica. And, of course, I know I’m generalising because I’ve read some very romantic m/m and some very sexual het. But, while there are exceptions, I tend to find m/m broadly swings towards sex and away from intimacy in ways that don’t work for me as romantic stories.
VN: Oddly enough, I feel the same about a lot of lesbian fiction. I find the more erotic stories to be more blatantly sexual than sensual, and the emotional arc often isn’t there. When the emotional arc is there, the sexual content is hidden in euphemism. I find it very difficult to find well-written lesbian fiction that provides both. [please provide recs in comments, friends!]
JAG: maybe it’s that thing—that, um, genre life cycle. where a new type of fiction develops nascently, and at first the only requirement is that it be about what’s novel about it—male pregnancy, demon orgies, uh… healthy, sane, consensual gay sex—but then, eventually, both the audience and the writers mature in their tastes, and want more from their stories—want more universally human interactions, universally relatable conflicts. and so over time the stories get better. the characters get better. and in that way we go from cardboard cutouts to… more complete and emotionally satisfying arcs.
AJH: This is why I feel queer genre fiction is so important, and why it profoundly pisses me off that you’re only allowed to sell contemporary m/m … but that’s a rant for another time.
VN: I hate to say it, but sci fi and fantasy have been writing great lesbian and gay sex since at least the 70s…
JAG: well, that’s me looking a right numpty—because i totally knew that already. i had me my heinlein and my mccaffrey with me mother’s milk—er, baby formula. whatever. but yeah. fair point; well made.
VN: queer genre fiction is how I discovered that women are sexy to me, too.
BJ: I have to step in now with my review blogger’s hat on and say that readers and certainly reviewers are getting fed up with the all sex and no plotline or nuanced emotions in m/m romance. We have all been calling for more plot in our reviews, but feel no one is listening. It is generally thought that the genre is run by successful authors who have found a niche, which their publishers think sell well, and they stick to the formula ad nauseum.
VN: BJ, I think you’re right–there is quite a bit of it. Commercially successful stories in a niche will always be a solid bet for publishers. But those stories allow the smaller, weirder, quirkier stories that don’t move as many copies to be sold.
AJH: Also it’s not what the publisher THINKS will sell. It’s what DOES sell. Sorry, but as I wrote about last time, it’s an insoluble problem. Numbers are numbers. But, back on track, I think there’s a broader point here about what audience is being served. The strength, and (ironically) the limitation, of lesbian fiction (and romance) is that it’s presumed to be written largely by and for queer women. Radclyffe wrote about this a bit on her Queer Romance Month post. I know you’re a queer woman, V, so if lesbian fiction isn’t serving you, that’s obviously an issue, but since the presumed audience of lesbian fiction is queer women, I kind of feel that in its current form it must be serving someone. Whereas there’s massive amount of debate about who m/m is supposed to serve.
VN: well, I am one of those really picky readers–I can be turned off by a POV choice or a weird sentence–so I hope most genre fiction isn’t written to serve me, because there would be a lot fewer books. 😉 I think the perception that M/M is for women is a problem, as it pushes men out of the genre–the men it is ostensibly for/about.
AJH: And thus we come back to the sex/intimacy issue, in that what seems to be written about is a particular perception of gay sex that feeds into certain fantasies or ideas that may themselves be profoundly unhelpful.
VN: well, fantasy is…personal. When we commercialize it–when we publish it, are we looking for the lowest common denominator? a cock in a hole? I mean, is that all sexual fantasy comes down to? for some people, the answer may very well be yes. there’s no inherent problem with the fantasy, but maybe the assumption everyone shares it in exactly the same way.
JAG: [guiltily stops looking for a cock in a hole]
AJH: Personal fantasy is, y’know, sacrosanct. But nevertheless that leaves us books that are packaged as or subsumed within romance that are heavily sex-focused, and focused on particular ideas about sex, and particular types of sex. Like, if I had a quid for every m/m romance I’ve read that just veers into BDSM at the halfway point, almost in this kind of default way, as if the author can’t conceive of two men shagging in a manner that doesn’t inherently include a power dynamic…
BJ: [pops up] Wondering why we didn’t define the difference between sex and romance? or do we need to?
JAG: i think that was AJH’s earlier point—for much of MM, there really is no distinction.
VN: I suppose it’s a simple question here, but are we selling the sex, or are we selling the happy ever after? which is the fantasy?
AJH: For it to be a genre romance (emphasis on genre), obviously the Happy Ever After/Happy For Now is the key, here. But since every genre romance essentially offers that guarantee (which I am fine with, though I understand it’s a complicated issue and not one I necessarily we think want to get into right now), how you GET there is important. And so, for me, emotional trajectory and intimacy are necessary parts of that journey. And while the amount and type of sex may not be relevant to that … I feel if the emotional journey is about appendages and orifices (for romance, not erotica), I don’t feel served – or, ahem, satisfied.
VN: and I think this goes back to intent: is the intent to write about sex, or is the intent to write about the HEA? Is the HEA a frame to hang the sex on, or is the sex a part of the journey to get there? I don’t know if those are questions that can be answered without examining individual works, and etc. Can someone make me a scholarship so I can go back to school and study this?
JAG: i think that’s one for beej. what are some examples, beverley, of books that are both sexual and romantic in the way you and your readers have been calling out for?
JAG: so where’s that leave us?
AJH: Well, it leaves us with us each being able to individually find books we like.
VN: well, that’s a good thing, right?
AJH: Yes, of course – but I largely read het.
BJ: Surely, that puts you in a good position to define what m/m romance needs…
JAG: …it does?
AJH: I don’t feel any individual is in any place to define what a large and varied group of other people need 🙂 I can define what I need, but what I need is rarely served by m/m.
BJ: If no individual can define what a group needs, or a genre should be about, then why are we concerned about the amount or type of sex in m/m at all? If some are being served because there will be some who just want sex regardless of plot or story or nuanced subtlety…should we care that some aren’t served by the genre?
AJH: Well, that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? Because, uh, one of the substantial bummers about belonging to a marginalised group is that you aren’t served by very much.
JAG: okay. from another angle, then: where does that leave us as writers? what can we do to address the issue?
AJH: But aren’t we essentially suggesting that as long as we can all name a handful of books we like, that serve and satisfy us, the ‘issue’ (if we agree there is an issue) is basically irrelevant?
JAG: …why should everyone being able to find the books they like be an issue? my issue is that i can’t find the books i like. and the books i like are books about gay dudes who don’t make me feel like they were written by people who appear to imagine i don’t get to have a happily ever after until i’ve been sexually abused by an uncle and then forced into BDSM servitude on a pleasure yacht orbiting the seventh moon of grabdicknix IV.
BJ: I do feel there is an issue, but AJH said one person shouldn’t define what is needed.
VN: sure, there’s an issue–but it’s not exclusive to m/m or even to romance. What I feel we can do as readers is spread word of mouth about the books we love (hey, Meatworks) and the ones we think embody the best of the genre, and continue to support the authors we feel do it right. As writers, we keep telling the stories we want to tell, in the way that suits our voice and our motivations.
AJH: Yes, but the fact that one man in the corner views something as ‘an issue’ doesn’t really mean there IS an issue. M/M exists the way it does – and has the priorities is does – for a reason.
JAG: right—beggin’ yer pardon, gubnor: but i thought we—all four of us here—had an issue with this?
VN: I think there are issues anytime you write about relationships and sexuality–for some people, there is always going to be a push for a bigger, more unusual kink. For others there is going to be a pull back toward more euphemistic, behind closed doors sex. there are different priorities.
AJH: It’s not that; it’s when kinks or extremes become the default, or become seen as inherent or inevitable.
VN: this is a trend–it passes. A few years from now, we’ll be splashing our tea at each other and reminiscing about that time in M/M when fisting was all the rage.
AJH: But for now everyone is pissing on each other in proof of their twu wuv?
VN: piss–I mean, pessimist.
JAG: …omg i totally got that joke.
AJH: I get that these things are hopefully passing and, as Beej suggested earlier, symptoms of a newish genre finding its feet. But I’m kind of depressed that ‘it gets better’ is apparently relevant to fiction as well as life.
JAG: don’t get me wrong—it really does seem like there can’t be an MM story anymore that is not defined by which extremity is used to characterize a gay man, and not whether any should.
AJH: Exactly. It’s like being gay just wasn’t subversive enough any more. So now you have to be gay with a sock fetish.
VN: Okay, maybe I have no place to say this but–the fact that gayness is not considered subversive should be good, right? I mean? I think maybe this parallels some of the extreme trends in het–where the genre started embracing werewolves and breeding programs and some really kinky stories as part of erotic romance because it was new and different. And now those stories are a dime a dozen.
JAG: [silently mouthing the words breeding programs in bemusement]
AJH: God yes. I’m hugely in favour of queer not being considered subversive, but I think the fact m/m has roots in fanfic and erotica (and I have a problem with neither) both of which — to a degree — are all about subversion (“hey, these two straight people are fucking – I am subverting both a text, and a social norm!” “hey, this book is about sex, and sex isn’t supposed to be something nice people talk about!”) means that queerness gets unhelpfully thrown into the mix. Which means that when queerness starts to become normalised (a good thing!) people start anxiously looking around for ways to making it challenging/subversive/edgy again. So essentially you do all this work to normalise something that is, let’s face it, entirely normal) (some of us are queer, big whoop) and then immediately start othering it all over again.
JAG: v, the thing is—it’s not just that the message we’re presumably to understand is that ‘queerness is okay because there are loads of queer books now.’ i think it’s that… somehow, it’s got so you can’t have queer books without having fucked-up queer books. in 2013, of the some two-hundred-and-change mm books i read, i could swear at least half of them appeared to posit that every gay man liked to be whipped when he was feeling a little down in the mouth, and that all of us have a fuckdungeon to retire to when we’re fighting with our boyfriends. who are always either billionaires or firemen.
AJH: Wait, you don’t? But .. this morning—
JAG: —i thought we agreed not to speak of that again.
BJ: Where the fuck are you getting these books? And don’t you read the blurb?
JAG: [meekly] …sometimes i don’t, no. my bad.
BJ: [Taps foot and points to back of book]
AJH: That’s the thing, if these were called Harold and the Fuckdungeon of Destiny, I’d be less bothered. But it’s like – one minute you’re reading a nice story about a small-town boy getting back with his his high school ex, and the next minute they’re into pony play. And, look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with books that explore … uh … any of those things. I’m not judging either the behaviour nor the fantasy. It just feels, rightly or wrongly, that they … they’re almost normalised? And, God, that sounds bad. Like, of course, whatever sex you enjoy is normal. But the point is that it’s not the same as being queer.
JAG: someone. anyone. everyone. please write Harold and the Fuckdungeon of Destiny at once.
AJH: I vote for V. It will be very romantic. And I might cry at the end.
VN: I think it should be a choose-your-own-adventure story.
BJ: It’s a group project. but the blurb will be about all-American boys.
JAG: all-american white boys. [grumbles]
VN: in college. who strip for book money.
BJ: And have never even thought about boys…that way. until now.
JAG: …and then KADEN finds out he’s pregnant.
AJH: Guys, we are going to hit the bigtime with this one. Lemme pitch it to my publisher. They’d love this shit.
JAG: …dude, what the hell is in this tea?
AJH: … leaves …
BJ: I started the good stuff ages ago…
AJH: —So, um … as to the thing we were talking about … it seems like the problem is J and I are reading the wrong books?
JAG: you know that thing we’re not talking about right now? the thing wot happened that is not being mentioned bcuz DIGNITY? well, in a comment about it somewhere, you said ‘JAG obviously reads a lot of bad books.’ and i do. but the issue is not that i choose to read a lot of bad books—it’s that i have to read a fuckton of bad books to get to the one really awesome one.
VN: broken record voice: not exclusive to m/m…
BJ: I was just going to say that Vanessa…
AJH: Sorry, V. I think, perhaps, it’s a … a distance thing? Like I think maybe I notice the weird shit in m/m because it feels personal. Whereas I just skim over the weird shit in het because it doesn’t. But, on the other hand, het is a very large genre and better articulated (in that it has subgenres, rather than being a melting pot), so it feels easier to me to find the sort of books I like reading, and avoid the ones I don’t.
VN: and yet, a lot of women say they started reading M/M because het romance wasn’t serving their needs anymore–the power dynamics were too rapey, etc. So, you may be on to something, with this distance thing.
BJ: I finally agree with AJH. I gave up reading het fiction because I found the women in them stereotypical and sometimes downright offensive representations. I want to write to try to do justice to my characters and address things I hated in het and /or m/m fiction. Isn’t that one reason we all write?
AJH: See, this where I wonder what het you guys have been reading. But … okay … this is going to sound bad. But I always feel slightly dubious about people fleeing het for m/m. I mean, I totally understand why, and I’m not actually saying it’s bad or wrong … but because I feel m/m’s issues more strongly (because, as I said above, it’s personal), it feels like … it feels like: if you look in your back garden and see a tonne of rubbish, and then you fling it in my back garden to get rid of it, the rubbish has still gone somewhere? Does that makes sense? Like it’s nice that my problems give you a holiday from yours but … that doesn’t mean all the problems aren’t still there. But then I use het exactly the same way. So pass the Hypocrite Hat.
VN: I haven’t finished knitting the hypocrite hat yet. You’ll have to wait.
JAG: it’s a problem with more than one mechanism. the, um, het refugees aren’t necessarily the ones bringing rapey cooties with them.
AJH: It’s not just that. It’s just … if you think queer men don’t have power dynamics to deal with, you’re, uh, being naive. They just don’t have heterosexual power dynamics. and by power dynamics, I don’t mean stuff you can work out in a fuckdungeon.
JAG: i hear you, dude. it’s just—it’s complicated. there’s more than one thing going on than people leaving one genre for another and bringing their rubbish with them. obviously, that happens also—like when readers don’t notice that they still like the same tropey heroes and heroines, but dressed-up in queer clothes. but the problem of distance—of being alienated by what you’re reading—that happens more than one way. and i know exactly how you feel. because i want to kick people in the neck every time i come across some piece of shit story about a twink massage therapist who, say, cannot bear to be touched himself on account of being sexually abused in his youth. to pull a completely and totally made-up example from the air at random.
BJ: AJH, I feel that you are lumping all readers of m/m into one bunch of women who left het to drool over gay men—and those are dangerous waters, my man!
AJH: Woah, Beej, I didn’t remotely say that. I said that moving from het to m/m isn’t a simple journey from a Power Dynamic Dystopia to the Free Land of Unicorns and Rainbows. In fact, one of the broader problems of trying to talk about m/m is that the instant you point out it’s the site of some pretty complicated intersectionality issues, people get defensive and say you’re attacking them.
JAG: [mutters, darkly] free land of unicorns and rainbows and fuckdungeons…
BJ: It is very difficult to say what you wish without upsetting someone, which is why I think a discussion like this is such a good idea. Because arguments and thoughts develop naturally and opinions can be changed and aligned. Oh yes, don’t forget fuckdungeons.
AJH: [squeezes Beej] I’m really sorry if I attacked anybody. I honestly don’t care who reads or writes m/m, or why: I’d just like us to look at it occasionally without assuming hostility on either side.
VN: I don’t think there is anything hostile in examining why we like the things we like–or why other people like the things they like. I personally loathe virginity narratives, but I know other readers who eat them up like candy. I see a social problem in valuing virginity, but that doesn’t keep it from being a compelling narrative with an attraction to a lot of readers. And it’s a narrative that both M/M and het share.
JAG: …speaking for myself, i have long since ceased to examine my affinity for purple demon cock.
BJ: I have likes for tentacles. [shame face]
AJH: That’s the thing – likes are likes, and they’re fine, but ‘likes’ aren’t hermetically sealed from reality, unfortunately. And, actually, I can see why m/m readers (and writers) ARE hostile because they’re constantly being asked to not only assess their likes but to defend them. And that’s not okay. But the virginity thing is an interesting example actually, because it’s much more harmful in het. While it can be compelling and exciting as story – you can very easily support harmful ideas about women’s sexual behaviour.
VN: but enjoying the story doesn’t necessarily imply support of slut shaming.
AJH: Nope but a high proportion of contemporary het novels have heroines who are virgins or who have only had one (unsatisfying) sexual partner. And while that may reflect some women’s experience, it might not reflect others (again, anecdotally, but most the women I know – although they’ve differ quite substantially in amount and type of sexual experience, very few of them have only had 1-2 sexual partners over the course of thirty-to-fifty years of being alive). And if all the books you read that are supposed to be about and for you suggest you “should” have had limited sexual experience – that could get pretty depressing.
VN: that’s it, exactly, for me. And I think that’s the kind of thing that het refugees come to m/m to escape, only to discover that there are equally socially-fraught narratives in m/m.
AJH: Or NOT discover. I think the freedom of it not being personal allows you to, ah, ignore socially fraught narratives that don’t directly affect you. The point is that it becomes a CHOICE for some readers, not others (and I make the choice for myself in het – so again, you need to finish that hat for me, but I guess the best I can do is be aware how much it’s a choice?)
VN: [knits faster]
JAG: [huffs a laugh at v’s knitting] …but, okay, so… i generally try not to discuss this too often, because it is too easy for my thoughts to veer into territory that insults… that insults… well… everyone. but you guys have read my reviews of certain fictions which have offended me so deeply my only response was to rant and rave for hundreds upon hundreds of words about the sheer dafuqery inherent in stories that are ostensibly about me, but are neither written for me nor by people even like me. and so it is common knowledge, i reckon, that this aspect of what we’re talking about pisses me the holy fuck off. because it’s in the territory of what AJH was talking about earlier—being too close—being aware of all the little things that are just …not right. not about you. not for you. not what you want, or need, or can even understand why anyone in their right bloody mind would try to—
AJH: More tea, dear?
JAG: [mouth clicks shut] …why, yes. yes, that would be lovely.
AJH: I, uh, I’m looking at V to say something tactful and optimistic. But I guess we’re into intersectionality again: that such things are serving an audience which also deserves to be served, an audience which is also marginalised, just along different axes, except that in serving this one audience you potentially alienate another.
VN: why can’t we all get along? [clears throat] As a writer, I feel it’s in my best interest to serve both audiences as much as possible, which means listening to the gay men in my life when they say “fuck that shit, it’s offensive.”
JAG: [slurps tea aggressively]
BJ: Hey I can be ….optimistic!
AJH: I think it is definitely, hugely possible to serve both audiences. And also it’s not like gay men are a monolith either – write something that really speaks to one member of any marginalised group, and you’re likely to have deeply, deeply offended another.
VN: so serve the story first. If the story is worth telling, it’s going to move somebody, right?
AJH: I would like that. But I’m sure the people who wrote the kind of books that just now moved J to apoplexy believed they were serving the story. Just because you personally don’t like a thing, doesn’t mean it wasn’t written with genuine conviction. It’s all so subjective and complicated. I might just … cry.
JAG: i am not apoplectic. i am serene. i am the green leaf on the still pond. i am the fucking essence of motherfucking calm, ok?
AJH: I think that’s where it all falls down, honestly. The capacity of books to hurt and alienate in a real way. Like I say, I can cheerfully romp through a het book that strikes me as all kinds of problematic and think “gosh, I’d be upset if I was a woman, right now” … but while, of course, it matters because I’m not a sociopath, it doesn’t affect me.
JAG: [tired sigh] that’s the thing. the meat of it. i know a lot of people have trouble understanding why i get so upset about stuff like that, but it’s… it’s … okay. see, for lonely gay boys who’ve got no… who don’t know where to go for representation? for identification? MM makes promises. MM is this great big pool of yaaaaaaaay. here, at last, here are the books for you. the characters for you. the stories you’ve been craving your whole life. and then you read them, and you find out… otherwise. you find out you’ve apparently been an Incorrect Gay the entire time. that you need to invest in a leather fucksling. and/or be a cowboy. and/or caucazoid.
AJH: To be fair, it’s not like actual gays are much better. Racist. Transphobic. Internalisededly homophobic. Trying to turn what you do in the sack into a goddamn identity. And then devalue it. Sorry, that’s the worst … consolation I’ve ever offered.
JAG: rubbish. rubbish consolation. get in the fucksling. it is time for your daily castigation. for ‘internalisededly,’ if for nothing else.
BJ: I don’t think many find themselves or validation in fiction. It can never be an accurate representation for all. I’m quite happy to put you both in the Fuckdungeon of Destiny for a while tho 😉
AJH: Don’t forget the sequel, Harold and the Enchanted Fucksling of Nazradhan.
JAG: [cries brokenly]
AJH: Before we commit group suicide, I think this comes back to what Vanessa was saying earlier about the individual dimension l. Books have the power to hurt us because they have the power to really speak to us. To remind us that we’re not alone. We get so fucking pissed off and broken about stories, because stories really matter.
JAG: …is my thinking as well, sorry bev. which is why the sex in these books—the sex, recall, that every one of us engages in as often as we can—unless you’re an asexual, of course (high-fives for all my asexual peeps everywhere, hollaaaaaa!!!)—which is also tied up in how we identify, and in how other people identify us—that’s why it’s important. why the way it’s defined in the romances we read is important.
VN: we can’t seem to talk about the sex without talking about identity, which seems like a very odd thing.
JAG: as AJH pointed out above… it’s… a particular concern for gay people. speaking as a gay male—a gay ethnic male—my people have this whole byzantine strata of rationalization for when and how sex between boys is okay. like: you’re not really gay if you don’t suck dick. or get fucked. or: you’re a better gay if nobody can tell you’re gay—unlike mister Swishy McSassypants over there, whom everyone knows likes it up the butt. for many, many gays—gosh, almost all, maybe?—the how and the with whom of sex matter a great deal indeed.
BJ: It seems that whatever group we associate ourselves with, there are new ways to be prejudiced. Isn’t it a responsibility when writing, in a genre not directly connected to the author that the sex and relationships are written with as much understanding and respect as the author can muster.
AJH: I’m kind of taking a weird amount of hope from V’s point actually: we tried to talk about sex but ended up talking about everything. So, there’s an extent to which the WHAT is always less important than WHAT IT MEANS.
JAG: …gosh. i think we’re out of tea.
AJH: Also biscuits.
Our dear readers, please feel free to join us for more discussion below. Is there a greater preoccupation with sex in m/m than in het? What do you think of the way sex is portrayed in m/m in general? Narratively speaking, how do you feel the lines of romance and erotica are navigated, if at all? Tell us what you think—we’d love to hear from you.
AJH: Meanwhile, massive thanks to Vanessa, J and Beej for this epic teatime.
JAG: thanks for having me. a pleasure, as always.
BJ: Thanks all [slopes away exhausted]
VN: Thanks for having me 🙂 [kisses]
About Alexis J Hall
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
About our Guests
JULIO ALEXI GENAO lives in New York City with three cats and a preoccupation with post-mortem predation.
Author of over a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories, Vanessa North delights in giving happy-ever-afters to characters who don’t think they deserve them. Relentless curiosity led her to take up knitting and run a few marathons “just to see if she could.” She started writing for the same reason. Her very patient husband pretends not to notice when her hobbies take over the house. Living and writing in Northwest Georgia, she finds her attempts to keep a quiet home are frequently thwarted by twin boy-children and a very, very large dog.
Beverley Jansen reviews with Prism Book Alliance, and as her alter ego Izzy van Swelm is releasing her first novel, Soul Mate for SIN, through Wilde City Press on 21st January 2015 .
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.
Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,
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