Do I Really Belong in the M/M Genre?
At thirty-five I’d completed my first novel, which I printed out on plain copy paper and stored in a three-ring binder. Other than me, the only people to read it were three of my closest friends. Knowing they’d done so made the hundreds of hours I’d poured into the project worth every second. I didn’t think at the time the story would ever be published, but it didn’t matter. I hadn’t written Dumb Jock with the intention of being published.
I spent most of my twenties the same way a lot of young gay people did—flailing and confused. Growing up, I was deeply religious. All through elementary and high school, I planned to become a Baptist minister. In my junior year of Bible college, I faced a major crisis when I admitted for the first time that I was gay. I was in my dorm room lying on my bunk staring up at the mattress above me as the tears uncontrollably streamed down my cheeks. I am gay. I whispered those three words, then couldn’t stop crying for the next several hours.
Coincidentally, my roommate that year was also gay. He’d confided his truth in one of the campus resident assistants who had then reported him to the school authorities. Randy was immediately expelled, and in the process an assembly was called at which the entire student body was informed of Randy’s dismissal. His parents and church were also called, and Randy was involuntarily outed.
Not only was I devastated, but also plagued with intense guilt. Randy had been my friend. He’d told me he looked up to me as a role model. He’d said he could see Jesus in my heart, the way I loved everyone and treated them all with kindness and compassion. But I was a hypocrite. It wasn’t Jesus who controlled my heart. It was Satan. I constantly battled evil, homosexual desires, just like Randy. I was just better at concealing it. He’d been kicked out for something I too was guilty of.
So I quit. I went back home, only a year shy of my degree, and worked in my home town grocery store. Eventually I became a manager at that store and moved on to a much bigger, busier store in a neighboring city. I came all the way out of the closet and embraced who I am, met my partner, bought a house, got a cat and a dog, joined PFLAG and the local gay/lesbian community organization. I volunteered for Wellness, the local HIV/AIDS outreach and became a member of their board. By the age of twenty-six it seemed like I had everything sorted out.
Then my mom and grandma took sick. Mom suffered a very debilitating stroke, and we took her and Gram in to care for them. For three years, Mom’s recovery became my focus, but she eventually had another stroke and died. Then Gram developed Alzheimer’s. She passed three years later. My father died the year before my Gram. And finally, the very first person I ever came out to, a lady named Diane who was like a second mom to me, also died unexpectedly of a heart attack. This all happened as my relationship with my partner was crumbling. Then the company for which I’d worked all those years went out of business. I was facing bankruptcy.
A dear friend of mine named Les came over to my house. We had coffee together, and I told him about the novel I had just completed. I told him about how I was writing another story and posting it on a free website called Nifty. It was called Puppy Love. He confided in me how depressed he was. His long-time boyfriend had just dumped him. Les invited me to go with him to the bar that night. I was too depressed myself, and I just wanted to stay home and write. He went to the bar alone, after which he committed suicide.
When I got the foreclosure notice on my house, that was the last straw. All the deaths. My job. Everything I’d worked for. I took a bottle of pills and tried to kill myself with carbon monoxide poisoning, just like Les. But I didn’t die.
One of the cool things about writing for the Nifty Archive is that each author has the option of leaving contact information about themselves. Readers are free to email the author with feedback. The week I began posting Puppy Love I received over a thousand of those feedback emails. With the exception of one or two, they were all positive. I met a lot of people who eventually became close friends. One of them was Jason.
Jason lived in Tennessee, and when he learned of my suicide attempt, he flew up to Michigan to meet me in person. We spent a weekend together during which time he convinced me to make a bucket list. He had me compose a list of things I wanted to accomplish before I died—a list of reasons to live. I included things like, “publish a novel”, and “complete my degree”. I also wanted to learn a foreign language and travel to Europe and Asia, ride a motorcycle, and get on the Price Is Right.
I learned Spanish, at least well enough to be conversational with my customers at the store I managed. I got my degree online by taking classes part-time. It took me six years to complete two years of classes, but I did it. And I published Dumb Jock. Unfortunately, Jason passed away before I had achieved any of those accomplishments. He died only three months after receiving his cancer diagnosis.
When Dumb Jock was published, I ordered twenty-five print paperback copies and two hardcover copies which were delivered to my home via UPS. I held the book in my hands and cried. The moment was surreal. It wasn’t just about me. It was about my mom and gram. It was about my partner Dan I’d lost. It was about Les and Jason. Dumb Jock was a story that contained every major experience of my life, fictionalized, of course. And it was the fulfillment of my dream, my ultimate goal. It didn’t matter if one person or a million bought it. It didn’t matter what kind of reviews the story received. It didn’t matter if it ever earned an award. And at the time, I had no lofty ambitions of publishing more novels.
At that time, I had never heard of the M/M genre, but one of my readers from Nifty had. I was surprised to learn that a female reader enjoyed my BDSM erotic story, Puppy Love. She informed me that a lot of women liked to read gay erotica. She said that since Dumb Jock was a gay love story, I should submit it to some of the male-male review sites. I asked what that even meant. What is male-male, and how is that different from gay fiction?
Male-male is a sub-genre of romance that features only male protagonists. The romance is between two men rather than a man and woman like traditional romance. It’s a genre written primarily to appeal to a female audience, mostly romance readers who want stronger, bolder main characters—two heroes instead of one. M/M follows a formula that depicts two powerful main characters vying for dominance. Usually they deny or resist their attraction to each other but eventually succumb. They fall in love, perhaps reluctantly at first, but then passionately. They go on to face an obstacle or a series of obstacles, thus amping up the level of angst. The plot culminates in a resolution of the conflict and they ultimately live happily ever after. In other words, it is a classic romance literary structure featuring typical archetype characters and always ending happily. It’s essentially the formula used in heterosexual romance except the romantic pairing is replaced with a gay couple.
Dumb Jock is not an m/m story. Not even close. It doesn’t feature two heroes. If anything, it is more like yaoi. The protagonist is a shy, reserved, self-effacing gay teenager. He’s a nerd and a social outcast, and he falls in love with the jock hero he is tutoring. The main character does not ever vie for dominance. He’s a wimp, but his character arcs. He becomes stronger and learns to love himself. In the end, he stands up proudly for who he is, and it’s the hero who realizes the error of his ways. In many ways it is the antithesis of an m/m romance story.
Nevertheless, I took my friend’s advice. I submitted the story to a couple review sites. My first review was five stars. This review was followed by a second, four-star review on the then-popular Jesse Wave Reviews site. I was then contacted by Elisa Rolle who offered to feature the story on her Live Journal blog. The book took off and sold a couple thousand copies right off the bat. Suddenly I became a part of the m/m community.
I went on to write some more stories. I submitted these stories to many m/m publishers, and most of them were rejected. In spite of the huge success of Puppy Love on Nifty, no one wanted to publish it. It contained taboo fetish, including watersports. Female readers hated that stuff, but I refused to delete it or change it. I wanted my story to be authentic. I wanted it to depict the Dom/sub relationship as it actually existed in real life, not mold it into something palatable for a romance audience. Finally, one small publisher in Seattle called Fanny Press embraced Puppy Love as it was written. To my surprise, the reviewer on Jesse Wave loved it and gave all three books four and five-star reviews. That series went on to sell thousands of copies, one of my best-selling stories.
I then got contracts with Extasy Books and Dreamspinner Press. Neither of those stories were typical m/m romances. The Landlord presented a scenario where a submissive gay young man fell in love with his cocky, straight (turns out to be bi) landlord. Trust Me is about a shy, religious gay teen who falls for the local bad boy. Nothing in these stories resembles anything typically m/m. They came from a completely different place. They came from my fantasies as a closeted, sensitive gay kid growing up repressed and oppressed. They were my dreams, the outcomes I envisioned in my make-believe utopia world. They were the same sort of stories I shared on Nifty, and they were written for me and shared with other gay guys who might possibly share my experience. I never wrote a single word of any of those stories with the intention of appealing to straight women. If readers of any gender or sexual orientation enjoyed and appreciated my work, I was happy, but I did not craft my books to appeal to any targeted demographic. And I never expected straight people to understand or relate to my fantasies. If they did, that was cool. If not, oh well.
A lot of readers hated Puppy Love. Even today, some fifteen thousand plus copies later, you can go onto Good Reads and find very mixed reviews. Some readers panned the first book, rated it one star and said it was the worst piece of trash they’d ever read. But I don’t regret my insistence to keep the story authentic. I don’t for a second wish I’d have written Petey as a stronger, more dominant character. I don’t wish I’d portrayed Matt as being less selfish and more romantic. I didn’t write the stories hoping that readers would find the characters likable. I wrote them as I saw them, as I heard them in my head and heart.
We Danced was the very first story I intentionally wrote as an m/m novel. My Full Nelson series is also m/m. The Tidal Crest series is m/m. Baggage, the Escort, and my soon-to-release story Slim Chance are also m/m romances. But most of my published work is not. Bullied, Left-hand Path, the Dumb Jock series, the Puppy Love series, the Landlord, Trust Me, all my young adult books, Final Destiny, the Forever Vampire series—all are atypical. None of them fit the mold of male-male romance.
From time to time in this genre someone brings up the issue of appropriation and gender. I’ve always argued that gender doesn’t matter. Many of my favorite authors are female m/m writers. And for logical reasons, females within the m/m community have had far more sustained success than their gay male counterparts. I can count on one hand with fingers left over the number of gay male authors who have sold enough copies to support themselves exclusively as full-time authors, yet dozens of female writers are auto-buy bestsellers with every book they publish. You can visit any m/m publisher or bestseller list and count the number of female versus male authors, and there is no comparison. One only needs to look at the number of Good Read’s ratings to see that female authors have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of ratings compared to hundreds for male authors.
This is because the male-male genre was started by female authors and written for female readers. It was only reluctantly that gay male authors were allowed to even participate. Most of my books were repeatedly rejected by several of the m/m publishers when I first submitted them. I was told they contained too much fetish, not enough angst and romance. I was told my characters were not likable enough. Every time, these critiques were leveled against me by female managing editors and proofreaders.
I think the only reason I became moderately successful was because my following has been more of a hybrid audience. I had already established a following of gay erotica, BDSM, and gay fiction fans through the Nifty archive before I was ever published. The feedback I received came less from the m/m female readers than from the young gay men who were struggling to come out or the older, retired gay men who related to my experiences as gay men. Certainly the exposure I received through the m/m publishers and the m/m review sites and blogs helped me expand my audience, but I never became the auto-buy mega-star in the m/m community that many of the female authors were.
And yes, there are a handful of male success stories in the genre. But they have tailored their stories to appeal specifically to the female audience, and in some cases their readers wondered if maybe they were not actually female authors who used a pseudonym. In some cases, they turned out to be exactly that.
A couple years ago when the gender issue again reared its ugly head, one female author posted a blog comment where she said that the men within the genre were guests. We needed to sit down and shut up because the m/m genre was created by and for women. If we wanted to continue to participate we needed to quit bitching about how the characters were portrayed unrealistically and stick to the formula or just get the fuck out and start our own genre.
Now recently another famous megastar female author has said something similar. She has said publicly that she identifies as a gay man. She thinks because she writes m/m stories that she has actually become a gay man herself. Hundreds of her “fans” have chimed in, echoing the sentiment. They say they feel the exact same way. They think because they read m/m that they know more about what it means to be a gay man than real-life gay men.
Over on Good Reads I pretty much dropped out of participating in all the groups and chat threads. A few years ago there was a specific list started of “gay romances written by gay men”. Several of the authors on the list were females who used male pseudonyms (James Buchanan, Josh Lanyon, etc). The list had nothing to do with them personally. It was their readers who had added their names, thinking they were really gay men. But it sparked a controversy, which led to several vitriolic comments. One was by an avid reader of m/m who came right out said she only reads books written by female authors because she had yet to find ANY gay man who could write the type of romantic stories that she liked to read. Dozens of people “liked” her comment, and I pretty much quit Good Reads.
I started out writing stories as a form of therapy. It was my catharsis, my coping mechanism for processing my grief. I wrote from my core, from my very soul. It was never about appealing to the right demographic in order to sell a lot of copies. I had some success, and I even quit my day job. I then realized I had to alter my writing style and appeal more to the m/m audience that wanted formula and happy ever afters with only likable characters. I wrote a few books like that, and then I hit a wall.
I’ve decided I can’t do it anymore. And last week when that author, Kindle Alexander, posted that awful comment on Facebook, I did not have the guts to call her out by name. I made a general comment on my own page and vehemently denied it had anything to do with her. But I was wrong. And she was wrong. And the people who say they are remaining neutral are wrong.
It's a big deal. It’s a very big, fucking deal, and not because I was personally hurt by what she said. Personally, I don’t give a shit. I’m beyond that. I’ve had my head flushed in the toilet, been gut punched, called names, been excommunicated, been jeered at, mocked and ridiculed publicly. I KNOW the price of being an out and proud gay man and have every right to identify as one whether or not I write fictionalized stories of made-up, barely recognizable pseudo-gay characters that appeal to women. What Kindle Alexander, who is actually just a pseudonym for two distinct female authors, has done is appropriation. She (they) has created fantasy gay characters written to fit within a formula and thousands of female readers have loved them and have now rallied around her in support. They say she has been attacked and laud her as an ally. They say they’d love to gather up all the real gay men who were offended and ship them to the Australian outback where they can kill each other off, and this comment made Kindle “smile”.
No, I probably don’t belong in the m/m genre. I love and appreciate all the readers who’ve supported me over the years, male and female. I hope they continue to enjoy my books, and I’m going to keep writing them, but I’m done worrying about whether or not m/m publishers will accept my stories. I’m done worrying so much about offending potential readers that I’m too afraid to speak up for what is right.
I am a gay man, and I write gay fiction.
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