Tag Archives: sex

Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Review: The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

This short story introduces both Claire (who has recently discovered she is part-succubus, which explains a lot but is basically Bad News for her), and Lucas, who is an alpha werewolf (Bad News for other people).

Being a succubus means that there’s a risk that you may flip out and cause an orgy by pumping pheromones into the air around you. Being a werewolf means you can flip out and rip people into little pieces.

Pay attention, because these people are going to reappear in later books, I think.

What I Liked

Claire. I liked Claire immediately; her life has just been turned upside down by the news that she’s now classified as Supernatural, and Kovak gets a nice balance between too much complaining about the unfairness of it all (whiny and annoying) and too brave and calm (not believable). She comes off as real, and someone that I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life.

Lucas. Now, this came as a real shock. Generally, I hate alpha male characters because they tend to be a) interchangeable and b) a$$holes who need to die. Lucas actually has a personality, and his role in the story is more than just object-of-heroine’s-lust. Kovak has put in some other things that made him different from the usual run of interchangeable alphas, which you will discover when you read the story.

The situation. Honestly, I don’t think that the blurb does this justice, because the blurb implies that we’re going to get a sort of standard unpopular-girl-does-something-embarrassing-in-class situation, and the alpha will feel sorry for her, mop up her tears, and they’ll get together…. Not happening. This is not one of those nasty, preachy books where the author tries to beat you over the head with Issues – but, really, people, the potential to accidentally cause a pheromone-induced orgy amongst a bunch of people who might be strangers (or, worse, family!) isn’t amusing. Who is to blame when people end up having sex with people they wouldn’t normally choose to? What might the consequences of removing everybody’s inhibitions be? Kovak has thought through the implications for the people involved; it’s not played for laughs, and we end up with a far more satisfying read for it.

The background world. This is a short story; we don’t find out much about the background because there just isn’t the space, but Kovak has set up something interesting. Reminds of me of some parallels in American history, which you will discover when you read the story.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, there wasn’t anything, and I can usually find something to bitch about.

Conclusion

  • The characters are young-adult, but the “feel” is more mature, so don’t be put off by that.
  • The sex is part of the plot, thanks for that, Kovak. Also, not overdone.
  • Thoroughly recommended; I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest. Kovak’s got a fan here, I think. 🙂

Review: The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate

The Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern PotentateThe Lustful Turk: Or Scenes In The Harem Of An Eastern Potentate by Anonymous

The Review

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was first published in 1828, but only became popular when it was republished in 1893.

Emily, who is in love with Henry (Sylvia’s brother), gets sent off to India for reasons that are never made clear, and don’t matter because she never arrives. Instead, she and her maid, Eliza, end up getting kidnapped by pirates and sold as harem slaves. Emily ends up with the Dey of Algiers, and Eliza with the Dey of Tunis. Since this is erotica, what happens next is entirely predictable. Emily is raped by the Dey, but pretty soon realises that (after the whole messy, painful deflowering is over) sex is great, and the Dey is really good at it, so she’s entirely happy with the situation.

Emily gets to hear the stories of two other harem slaves – an Italian woman and a Greek girl. The Italian woman was captured on the way to Corsica with her new husband (she is so modest that she is still a virgin); the Greek girl is sold by a corrupt official after her father and fiancé are murdered. The story is pretty much the same in all cases, with only the names changed. Additionally, there is a sideways move into the adventures of a pair of Catholic priests, who have a similar line in forcing young women to have sex with them, then selling them to the Turks – including a young novice nun who is faced with being buried alive after trying to escape her convent (after her brothers refused to testify that they forced her to enter it in the first place).

Meanwhile, Emily has been describing her new life as a harem slave in her letters to Sylvia, who is shocked and rather insulting about the Dey when she writes back. Since has been reading the letters, the Dey determines to kidnap Sylvia to punish her – as you do. He manages this, and embarks on a complex charade involving himself pretending to be a French physician and a fake marriage conducted by an English Jew pretending to be a priest. Sylvia, of course, also follows the pattern and becomes quite happy in her new life.

So far, so unoriginal, so distasteful. However, before we mount our 21st century politically-correct high horse and ride madly off in all directions, we should consider that “woman who gets blackmailed/threatened/bribed into a relationship with the hero” is still a staple plot device – in women’s fiction, written by women, for women. Whilst this does not make rape any more acceptable, it does mean that we should consider that it isn’t limited to nineteenth-century erotica written by men [although, see below for a further thought on this]. It’s alive and well and living in formula romances written by 21st-century women, although in slightly less blatant form. Likewise, the enduring popularity of “the sheikh”, “the Greek”, “the Italian” and more recently “the Russian mafia boss” in women’s fiction: are we talking racism and stereotype, or are we talking “exciting and exotic”? Whichever it is – and it could be both – modern romances, written by women for women, have the same issues as The Lustful Turk, and you can’t logically censure the one without applying the same standards to the other.

Anyway, moving back to the adventures of the Lustful Turk, all of this bedroom activity is brought to a sudden end by a new slave, who cuts off the Dey’s penis. The Dey then orders his physician to also cut off his testicles, since without the penis they are useless, and has the amputated parts preserved in jars of spirits of wine – one of which he gives to Emily, and the other to Sylvia. After which, the two girls are sent back to England.

Once back in England, the last letter discloses that the jars of wine spirits (and contents) have been donated to Sylvia’s friend who runs an expensive girls’ school; Sylvia’s friend shows them to her students, as a reward for good behaviour. Furthermore, Sylvia has married (a baronet, who has apparently not noticed that she is not the virgin he expected), but Emily is determined not to do so until she can find a man who is sufficiently charming and skilled to replace the Dey in her affections and her bed. She has a “young willing maid” who “auditions” all of her suitors – of whom seven out of ten have been found wanting. Emily discloses that she has hopes that the current one, an Irish earl, will pass the test.

This conclusion to the tale is somewhat unexpected. The “bad guys” – the Turks and the Catholic priests – are portrayed as lovers with great skill as well as stamina and charm (we don’t know about the Jew), able to secure any woman’s love and devotion. Whereas of the “good guys”, Henry is portrayed as a wet blanket who goes into a decline when Emily leaves for India and thereafter does nothing; the Italian woman’s husband is so unmanly that a month after the wedding he still hasn’t consummated the marriage; the Greek girl’s fiance gets stupidly and uselessly murdered (though it’s in her defence, and it’s notable that she’s the only one who doesn’t completely fall for the Dey’s charms); the Italian novice nun’s brothers would rather leave her to be buried alive than admit that they forced her into the convent in the first place; Sylvia’s baronet husband is too stupid to notice he hasn’t married a virgin; and as for seven out of ten of Emily’s suitors – they’re just not worthy of her consideration.

Furthermore, the story ends not with the Dey going merrily on with his career of lasciviousness, but instead unable to have sex with anyone – a sort of enforced faithfulness to Emily and Sylvia. Meanwhile, far from being fallen women whose marriage prospects have been destroyed and now face a lifetime of misery and shame, Sylvia has married up (she is now a baronet’s wife) and Emily is determined not to marry at all until she can find a man who meets her high standards – hence the maid (not Emily!) auditioning the candidates. The current candidate is an earl, representing a huge leap in social status for Emily if she deems him worthy of her.

In short, the “foreigners” are consistently portrayed as more “manly” than the women’s male relatives and conventional lovers/husbands, and the two girls – far from being ruined by their experiences – return to England to social success. And the Dey’s parts have been handed off to Sylvia’s friend, not even kept as mementos – and how’s that for crushing to a man’s ego: you give a girl your genitals and she hands them off (like an unwanted birthday present) to be displayed to schoolgirls as a reward for learning their French verbs properly!

The book ends not with, as might be assumed, the men in control but with the various men dead, mutilated, deceived, or discarded, and Emily and Sylvia in control.

Commentary

This book was far more interesting than I expected – although the interest lay mostly in how it ends. One might have expected the girls to stay in the harem as happy slaves, or, if they returned to England, to be either disgraced (morality tale) or indiscriminately exercising their new skills with anyone and everyone (erotica). As it is, they “get away with it” – their families pretend that they’ve been away at boarding school the whole time, and all is as it was, except that they now have higher standards in men. It’s explicit that Emily isn’t going to marry until she can find a man who meets her requirements, but I detected an implication that Sylvia was quite satisfied to have a husband who was rather stupid – presumably stupid enough to let her run her life the way she wanted.

This reminded me, a little, of Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre we also have a relatively defenceless woman (economically this time) in the power of a man, or men; yet Jane eventually comes out on top. At the end of the book, Jane says, of Rochester, “Reader, I married him.” She marries him – not the other way around. Throughout the book, Rochester is portrayed as morally weak (thinking he can buy Jane’s affection with gifts, and attempting to commit bigamy) despite his appearance of power; at the end, he is physically broken too. Jane, on the other hand, has inherited a fortune and has decided, after all, to marry him – even though she is now a woman of independent means who could walk away if she wanted to.

This similarity – of women who appear to be be weak but actually come out on top – makes me wonder whether The Lustful Turk was actually written by a woman. I find it difficult to believe that a man, writing for men, would cut off the Dey’s penis (the correct functioning of which many men feel is inextricably linked to their own self-worth) and have Sylvia’s husband deceived and Emily rejecting seven out of ten suitors for not being good enough in bed to satisfy her maid. Emily doesn’t even conduct the auditions herself: the men are treated like domestic servants being interviewed by the housekeeper before the mistress selects the best of the short-list.

It’s also noteworthy that although the women are raped, the men who do it are not only skilled lovers but also personally charming, and find it easy to win the women’s devotion. Society expects women to be chaste, and to refuse sex when it’s offered: to say yes immediately marks you as a slut. So in the nineteenth century, and although this attitude is supposed to be gone, it’s not, and it’s perpetuated by women:  you can see it in the plots of contemporary romances. Why does the heroine have to be bribed, tricked, threatened or blackmailed into a relationship with a hero who has all the hallmarks of (according to the author) a desirable partner?  Because nice girls don’t say yes. In The Lustful Turk, the rape is a necessary device to allow the girls to have sex without being married, and while still keeping their character as “nice girls”; it’s glossed over very quickly and the description passes on to how great the sex is. Much of the description is, of course, from the girls’ point of view (though Sylvia’s tale is told from the Dey’s point of view), and one does wonder whether this also signals that it was written by a woman, possibly for a female audience. We should not forget that women read erotica – they just don’t talk about it as much as men do, and I should think that held true in the nineteenth century just as much as the twenty-first.

In some ways, I feel mean giving this only two stars. Nearly 2000 words of review should signal something a bit better than two-out-of-five. However, most of the book is pretty standard stuff – it’s only the last few pages, where the Dey’s bits get cut off and we find out what happens to Emily and Sylvia, that the whole book suddenly looks different, as if a different set of lights have been switched on. And the writing just isn’t good enough to lift it above two stars.

But this is a two-star book that anyone who’s interested in nineteenth century erotica, or women’s writing, might well want to give a try. It might not hit the spot as erotica, as such, but that twist at the end makes it a thought-provoking read.

View all my reviews

#ThisGirlCan?

I’ve made the decision to get fitter, lose weight, and so on.

This means running.

Running’s pretty easy; you don’t have to go anywhere special to do it. You don’t need expensive equipment. You just put on your trainers and some sloppy clothes and hit the streets.

Except, it’s not that simple, is it?

You see women running, and they’re all skinny and fit, jogging easily with their bright-coloured Lycra and their purpose-made water-bottles and their headphones.

They are not like me. They do not puff and gasp, red in the face, hair everywhere. I don’t have all the right gear; my tracksuit bottoms don’t quite reach my ankles because either they’ve shrunk since I got them, or I’ve grown. It could be either, because I had them when I was at school, and, not making any specific statements about age… but I do have grey hairs.

In short, my whole appearance just screams “I’m not good at this.” I am neither efficient nor decorative. And, really, one is expected to be one or the other. If you’re whizzing past lesser mortals, you can be forgiven for crappy clothes. If you’re decorative enough, nobody cares how fast or how far you run.

So, my strategy? Run at night, when nobody can see. Only, of course, running alone as a woman may not be the smartest idea, so my husband has to come with me. He’s pretty nice about the fact that I slow him down.

So, #ThisGirlCan? It’s a media campaign by Sport England, intended to encourage women to do more exercise, and more sport. Research has, apparently, shown that what holds women back from physical activity is the fear of being ‘judged’.

When I first saw an advert, it pissed me off. Yet again, I thought, we have a bunch of people who think women need help and guidance. Of course women can. They don’t need to be told that. If women want to jog or cycle, or do karate or rock climbing, they can. They don’t need to be reassured that it’s still OK to be seen in public looking less than sexy and gorgeous.

Then I took a step back, and thought, “You who dare to run in broad daylight in your grotty old jogging bottoms, gasping and wheezing, may cast the first stone.”

Even though I’m generally pretty uninterested in what other people think (you only have to look at my wardrobe choices), I still don’t like running where people can see how unfit I am. And women-only gyms, or sessions, are not the answer.

In my experience, other women are usually much nastier than men. Men might call out a comment, but then they get on with their day; it’s just a joke that they probably don’t even understand is quite as confidence-sapping as it is (plus, you can put it down to male chauvinism and ignore it). Women, on the other hand, are spiteful. They’re not just making a joke; they deliberately set out to hurt, to destroy confidence, and to position themselves in a superior position in the pecking order to you.

So yes, #ThisGirlCan has a point. At the very least, putting pictures of women who aren’t skinny and fit, and who do their thing – whatever it is – without being prevented by the fear of what other people will think, might give some women the confidence to get out there and do what they want to do, regardless. Sometimes, that’s all it takes – the knowledge that you’re not the only one who wheezes and jiggles and looks as if she’s about to either melt or have a heart attack.

 

Who has the right to write?

Just lately, I’ve been thinking about gay romances.

I read them. I also read heterosexual romances.

The reason I read the romances I do, and the reason I like reading them, is because both characters are intelligent, sensible human beings. None of this crap about the whole storyline basically being the result of one of them not telling the other one something important. No wilting. No getting pregnant by accident on a one-night stand. (Yes, I know it still happens despite the availability of contraception since the 1960s, but really do you expect me to respect a heroine who has sex with a stranger without using protection?)

Strangely, this pretty much limits my MF romances to historicals – most of the contemporary heroines seem to be wilting violets who run away a lot, or get themselves into stupid situations that require them to be rescued. By a man. It’s the historical heroines who do interesting things, who stand up for themselves or someone else, who won’t be pushed around.

On the other hand, in M/M romances, I don’t have to cope with one of the two protagonists being someone I want to slap some sense into. I like some vulnerability, but M/M romances tend to be a lot better at avoiding wimpy.

So, a story with two guys in it is a lot more likely to have two characters who are my kind of person.

And, a lot of M/M romances are written by women.

But if you look about on the internet a bit, you find that there’s quite a bit of debate about whether women have the right to write M/M romances.

This sounds awfully familiar. Nobody is saying “gay writers have no right to write about straight women”, but, hey presto, we’ve got a bunch of people trying to limit what women are allowed to do… again.

This isn’t universal; gay male opinion seems to be pretty much divided between “Women – get thee to the kitchen/get thee to Mills & Boon” and “I don’t care who is writing romances about gay couples as long as someone is; let’s have some books about gay characters who don’t die in the end.”

Because, let’s face it, until recently, writing realistic fiction about gay couples, whether male or female, probably wasn’t going to be very cheerful – but particularly for men. Not only was there AIDS to contend with, but society has always been much harsher on male homosexuality than female (usually because female homosexuality just gets ignored). But everyone needs some feel-good fiction at some point, and I’ve read several posts from gay men, basically saying that M/M romance may not be incredibly true to life, but they wanted a happy ending. Which gay fiction written by gay men wasn’t providing, being – as far as I can tell – the equivalent of literary fiction, which is not known for being bright and upbeat.

I wonder whether gay men, being men, have the same hang-up about reading romances as straight men? As in, real men just don’t . So although 16% of romances are bought by men (according to Romance Writers of America), gay men were – once again – deprived of something that straight men had. Not only the opportunity to openly have a relationship with the partner of their choice, but also to read about romantic happy endings that featured people like them.

OK, so a lot of M/M romance is read by heterosexual women. Why is that a bad thing? Gay men read about straight couples. Why shouldn’t everyone read what they want? Reading about people who are different from you is supposed to broaden the mind, isn’t it?

Then, of course, there is the politicisation of writing. That straight women shouldn’t be allowed to write about gay men, because it’s not their story.

So how come Oscar Wilde was allowed to write The Importance of Being Earnest? Which, as I recall, was all about straight couples. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander – unless we’re trying to say that gay men can write what they like, but straight women have to do what they’re told? (Again.)

Of course, set against this, we have the calls for ‘diverse books’.

So, on one hand, straight female authors are being told that they should restrict their writing to straight characters; on the other hand, they are being told that the world needs more ‘diverse’ characters, i.e., gay and ethnic minorities (bearing in mind that everyone is an ethnic majority somewhere).

Both cannot be true.

We cannot say, on the one hand, that a straight white author is only allowed to write straight white characters (because anything else is not their story), and on the other, lambast that author for not writing gay or ethnic minority characters.

What is wrong with an author simply writing the story they have in their head? If a character in your head is gay, then they’re gay. You can’t suddenly swap their gender or sexual orientation – it just doesn’t work like that. Why should I have to censor my writing because I’m not gay? And why should I be made to feel guilty on the one hand for including gay character, and on the other hand for not including them?

The “you shouldn’t write about that because it’s not your story” idea, though, is worse than just making writers feel guilty for writing. It means that it limits who is allowed to write about what – it’s censorship under the guise of ‘respect’ and ‘political correctness’. And what happens, when only gay people are allowed to write about gay characters? Well, since gay people are a minority, how many books with gay characters do you think we’re going to get if we rely on gay people to write them all? An awful lot of gay people would have to give up their day jobs in order to write the requisite number of books.

Or, maybe, we should just let people who already want to write get on and write them. Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t worry about political correctness, and whether the author is male or female, straight or gay, human or robot or dancing bear. Maybe we should just think about the quality of the writing. Maybe we should just be happy that somebody is including gay characters. Yes, m/m romances are cheesy a lot of the time – but then so is pretty much every m/f romance! The whole point of the romance genre is that it’s boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl, or whatever), boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, happy ever after. It’s a fun read. It makes you think that there is happiness and love in the world, and that sometimes, love does conquer all.

It’s not meant to be politically correct, it’s not meant to send any kind of message other than ooh, that’s so lovely, and it’s meant to be fun.

Remember fun? That thing you had before you had political correctness? Before you had to worry about diversity and who had the right to write exactly what storylines?

And, to be topical, why, why, why are we praising Charlie Hebdo for publishing nasty, racist, disrespectful cartoons which mock a minority’s culture and religion and calling it “freedom of speech” when at the same time people are trying to argue that women should not be writing books that portray a minority in a generally positive (even if not exactly realistic) light?

I think I’ll let them all go to Hull and I’ll write whatever I like.

Gay fiction vs m/m romance

Today, I came across a blog post written by a gay male author, bemoaning the proliferation of ‘m/m romance’ (which is, apparently, a very different thing to ‘gay romance’). The reason for this is because he considered that ‘m/m romance’ was written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women, and was totally unrealistic. Furthermore, Real Men Don’t Read Romance.

I wrote a very long reply, which I then decided not to post. Firstly, because the original post was written in 2011, and secondly because contradicting someone’s cherished opinions is never a particularly good idea, unless you enjoy arguments.

However, the very long reply did contain some things I didn’t want to lose, so I thought I’d put them here. The coward’s way out – stick your contradiction somewhere else!

I found it interesting because the whole tone of the blog post was that women had no business writing gay male characters (or possibly male characters at all) because they were crap at it. And women certainly shouldn’t be writing about gay male couples for a female heterosexual audience.

I’m old enough to know that being a member of an oppressed group does not make you sympathetic to other oppressed groups. In fact, it often makes you oppress other people all the more because at least it means that you’re not at the bottom of the pile. It’s a very human, although not very praiseworthy, trait.

Likewise, there is the tendency to think that if you are a member of an oppressed group, every other member of that group should toe the line you set, or they’re doing it wrong, just as feminists have a history of insisting that women should do things their way – instead of women being allowed to make their own choices.

There were several distinct points, which made for interesting thinking:

  1. Heterosexual women are invading gay men’s literary territory.
  2. It’s not OK to write about gay characters if you’re heterosexual.
  3. The characters in ‘m/m romances’ are not realistic gay men.
  4. M/M romances (written by and for heterosexual women) are taking over and squeezing out real ‘gay fiction’.

So, taking it from the top, there is a – natural – tendency for minorities to build a wall around what they perceive to be “theirs” and attempt to keep everyone else out. So it’s not OK for a heterosexual woman to write fiction with two same-sex protagonists, because, hey, you’ve got the whole rest of the bookshop, why are you invading our section too? Where do you get off writing about things you’ve never experienced? (Especially when the experience has been acquired at such a cost for so many of the people who have it.)

In doing this, we forget that if we demanded personal experience before novel-writing was allowed, Tolstoy wouldn’t have been able to write Anna Karenina (on account of not only not being female, but also having not thrown himself under a train).

There is also the problem of expectation and familiarity. You complain that m/m romances are unrealistic? Do you think heterosexual genre romances are true to life?

Looking at the blurbs for a lot of heterosexual romances, several thoughts come to mind:

  1. If any real woman acted like heroines in many romances, she would never have reached adulthood. She would have died of terminal stupidity by the age of eleven.
  2. If any real man acted like that, the woman wouldn’t go all gooey over him: she’d slap his face and stalk out. Or at least, she’d dump him. Or run away to a shelter. (Alpha males, like alien invasions, are cool on the page but less attractive in real life. In real life, we call them assholes, because they’re dictatorial, inconsiderate and controlling.)
  3. Possibly, the alpha male wouldn’t get the chance to be dumped, because by the time he was old enough to have a girlfriend, his little playground friends would have beaten the snot out of him for being such an insufferably arrogant little… something.
  4. From my own observation, love-at-first-sight where two people know they’re going to get married/spend the rest of their lives together from practically the moment they meet, and are sickeningly lovestruck from then on, does exist. But it’s not very common. But going by romance novels, you’d think there was an epidemic of it.

You think gay men are written unrealistically? Have you read any of the many, many romances starring ‘desert sheikhs’ lately? (And let’s not get into the little details of massive historical inaccuracy and general implausibility of plots.)

Having read heterosexual romances and m/m romances, the male characters in both seem to be at about the same level of realism. That is, they’re idealised rather than realistic. The gay guys in the m/m romances weren’t much like any of the gay guys I’ve met in real life – but the same applies to the straight guys. Yes, any young gay person picking up an m/m romance isn’t likely to get a very accurate idea of what a gay relationship is like. But the same is true of a young heterosexual person picking up the average Mills & Boon romance. At least we have equal-opportunity inaccuracy.

Romances are not meant to be realistic. If they were, there would be a lot less soulful gazing into each other’s eyes, and a lot more about whether leaving your underwear on the bedroom floor is more, or less, disgusting than forgetting to remove the pantyliner from your knickers before putting them in the laundry bin. Even the relationships themselves are unrealistic. There is almost always a large ‘power gap’ between the protagonists: billionaire/secretary, lord/poor girl. It’s nice to be able to imagine being swept away to a life of pampered ease – less nice to think that you’d spend the rest of your life being called ‘gold-digger’ behind your back and having your husband remind you what a favour he did you by marrying you. Even the romances with a less-obvious power gap often have the man coming to the woman’s rescue in some way.

Yet we don’t question this, because that’s the way romances just are. Alternatively, maybe we don’t question it because we really believe that all women are silly creatures who can’t cope on their own and really need a man to take care of them. Surely not.

Romances are the ultimate in escapism, because – like the lottery – it could be you. Probably it won’t be, but for the span of a few hours, you can pretend that a desert sheikh will sweep you off your feet and whisk you away to his seraglio where you will not have to do any ironing or washing up or attempting to reason with your appalling boss. You don’t need to think about the implications of such a life (or even the fact that the word ‘seraglio’ is actually Italian), such as the lack of personal freedom.

And a romance, by definition, has at its centre two (or however many) people who end up in a committed relationship. Furthermore, what makes a book a romance isn’t just the getting-together, it’s how they get there. If it’s dealt with in a serious way, it tends to get filed as ‘literary fiction’ (or ‘gay fiction’ if the characters are both the same gender). If there isn’t much mushy stuff but there are spies and murders, then it’s a thriller. ‘Romance’ is what it gets called when the mushy stuff takes priority over everything else.

Alternatively, I’ve heard it described as, if it’s aimed at women, it’s a romance – if it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller/mystery/etc. The example I read was the Bourne Identity. Because it’s aimed at men, it’s a thriller. If it was aimed at women, it would be marketed as ‘romantic suspense’.

If we are talking about reader expectations, then the problem is not that a bunch of heterosexual women are horning in on gay men’s literary territory (and really, given that men who write romances tend to do so under female pseudonyms, this is not an entirely safe assertion to make), and nor is it that there’s a difference between the ‘real’ gay fiction written by real gay men and the dodgy fake stuff written by heterosexual women – it’s bad blurbs and covers.

Bad blurbs is not a problem confined to the non-heterosexual book market. If you pick up a romance expecting a thriller, or a literary novel, then of course you feel disappointed, regardless of whether or not you are gay. Likewise, if you’re after a romance and you end up with Great Expectations you are justified in feeling peeved. But is that because the romance novel or the literary novel is inherently bad? No – they just haven’t been marketed to the audience that wants to read them.

By the ‘audience’, I do not mean people being classified by their sexuality, or even by their gender. Why should a gay man not want to read a romance (according Romance Writers of America, 16% of romance-buyers are men)? Why should a straight woman not want to read a thriller? Why, in fact, should a person be put in a box dictated by who they have sex with?

It is also a mistake to use classifications in mainstream media and databases that are only accessible to the ‘in-crowd’, or mean one thing to the ‘in-crowd’ and another to everyone else. If ‘m/m fiction’ means ‘trashy romances written by heterosexual women for other heterosexual women’, and ‘gay fiction’ means ‘proper books written by gay men about and for gay men’, this may be a distinction that is plain to the gay community, but if it’s not plain to everyone else, there is going to be confusion. Confusion is not good when constructing databases.

It may now be time to recognise that there are enough books about non-heterosexual characters that ‘gay fiction’ just isn’t specific enough to contain them all – just like ‘heterosexual fiction’ isn’t. And why should it be? I came across in a tweet from a gay man the other day, regarding ‘gay marriage’, or, as he calls it, ‘marriage’. Because he doesn’t have ‘gay lunch’ or ‘gay park’ his ‘gay car’. Maybe he doesn’t read ‘gay fiction’, just fiction that might include gay characters.

That is the thing about being socially acceptable. You start becoming part of the mainstream, rather than a segregated minority. Losing the in-crowd, exclusive-club feel is the price of not being excluded. You can’t exclude everyone else while expecting to be included yourself. If being gay is OK, then people who aren’t gay start writing about gay characters. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad (a bit like heterosexual characters). And, shock horror, people who aren’t gay start reading about gay characters.

I think the thing to do, when classifying a book, is to think: Where would I file it if the characters were heterosexual? And file it there – with an extra tick-box for straight/gay/whatever. Anything that is about the trials and tribulations of being gay can therefore be left in ‘gay fiction’ which becomes a specific home for that kind of thing, like ‘feminist fiction’. It may make it hard, initially, to find ‘books with gay characters’ in bricks-and-mortar bookshops where a book can only be filed in one place, but it’s easy enough online.

Personally, I see it as a sign of hope that non-heterosexual characters are increasing in frequency. The more variety we have, the more minorities we include in books – in roles other than cartoon villains (like the Jews in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction) – the more chance we have of beating prejudice and ignorance. Yes, reading m/m romances might not give you a very accurate idea of a gay male relationship (particularly not if it includes werewolves, which I’m pretty sure that most gay male relationships don’t), but at least if people are used to thinking gay = fun/sexy/decent, they aren’t thinking gay = lock up your sons.

You don’t increase your visibility in society by preventing people from including you in the narrative.

Review: Revenant

Revenant
Revenant by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this – thus, four stars out of five (but a strong four).

The action happens mostly in and around Lisbon (Portugal), where Carlos is from. Carlos is a major character in this book as the plot is mainly based on necromancy, and his old enemies – now working with Quinton’s father.

I’ve always liked the way Richardson portrayed the vampires in this series – they are reliable allies as well as enemies, and not always enmeshed in the kind of petty, pointless point-scoring that vampires are in many books. Here, Harper is working with Carlos directly, instead of just going to him for advice when she needs it, and we get to see a bit of more him. I have to admit, I do like ambiguous characters – I find those who are wholly good or wholly evil to be dull. So Carlos is one of my favourites: the man who makes his own choices, good or evil, and lives by the results. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, and he doesn’t repent. I like that.

Quinton and Harper work together well and without silly pissing-contests – though not without disagreement. Quinton is also a pleasant change from the usual fare. He’s not some gorgeous alpha-male hunk (or, worse, he’s not two of them). He and Harper have a relationship that’s based on love and friendship, not just sex and lust.

But the one thing I liked best about this book was the end. This is the last of the Greywalker books – as I suspected it might be, because there’s only so long that the situation with Quinton’s father could be made to last. While we could be pretty sure that Good Would Triumph in the end, as it does in the majority of fantasy series, in this case, the end was not without cost. Often, the reader gets the impression that having Saved The World, the heroes go home for tea and medals, and back to ordinary life. No muss, no fuss. In this book, Good might well Triumph, but not without cost. Harper will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

The book ends suddenly, and without all the loose ends tied up. But I like that. The heroes have to go home, but now they have a life to build. Their own life, free to make of it what they will, with gains having been made as well as losses suffered.

We don’t know what Harper, Quinton, et al will make of it, but whatever it is, they will probably be doing it off-page. I hope they will, because if there is anything worthy of writing a book about, it won’t be the happy life they deserve!

I shall certain look out for what Richardson writes next.

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We Need Diverse Books…

I came across the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign recently. Two thoughts sprang to mind:

  1. I really hate this use of the word “diverse”. Hate it hate it hate it.
  2. This is not as simple as people who start campaigns think it is.

The word “diverse” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “showing a great deal of variety, very different.” We already have diverse books. There are books on quantum physics, geology, embroidery, vampires, sailors, aliens… how much more diversity do you want?

Of course, the campaign for Diverse Books doesn’t use the word “diverse” in that way. They have limited the definition of “diverse” (stripping it of most of its diversity!) to mean only racial, sexual or disability diversity. This annoys me because it seems to imply that the only diversity that counts is racial, sexual or disability. And, following from that, that a book character’s race, sexuality or ability status are the only important things about them – and hence, about real people. Whatever happened to the concept of concentrating on a person’s character rather than their race?

It seems to me that by saying “we need more black characters so that black people will identify with them”, we are one step short of saying “black people only identify with black characters”, which is one step short of saying “black people aren’t like everyone else”, which is one step short of saying “segregation is better because then people will spend time with people who they feel comfortable with” and then just “segregation is better”. (Insert whatever “group” you like.)

It’s worrying to think that we are being encouraged to concentrate on differences rather than similarities, and to think that differences overpower similarities.

On the other hand, books are an important way of introducing people to things they haven’t encountered before. And since a book allows you to look into a character’s mind, you can find out things about being someone else that you could never learn by  talking to a real person (because there are some things you don’t ask even if you know a person very well!).

Which brings me to the second point.

It’s not as easy as the people running this campaign seem to think.

Taking race as an easy example, you can’t just take a character in your story and decide “OK, I need a black character… I’ll make her black.” If you make a character black, then you are not just changing hair, eye and skin colour: you are changing her family background, her culture, and probably her outlook on life as well. And what will that do to how she relates to the other characters and how she acts within the plot? If you change a character’s race, you could end up wrecking your whole storyline (and the same applies to any other characteristic with a major impact on a person’s life). For instance, if your main character is a wizard, then your character’s cutural baggage will become very important. A white person from the fairly secular UK would react differently from a white American from the Bible Belt, or from a Catholic Nigerian or a West Indian Episcopalian or an Asian Muslim. Even if a person does not practise the dominant religion of their culture, the cultural baggage will still inform their reactions.

Then, of course, there’s the avoidance of stereotypes. If you’re writing fantasy, you have an easy ride here, because culture is what you make it. If you’re writing in this world, you need to get it right. The more important your character is, the more detail you will have to give on their background and worldview – and the more chance you’ll get it wrong if that character has a background you’re not familiar with, or that you’ll end up writing a cringeworthy stereotype. And if you get it wrong, even slightly, you will not be given the credit for trying – you’ll be savaged. You will not get “Thanks to the author for attempting this” – you will get “This is patronising/insulting/demeaning”.

I’m relatively lucky in that regard; in one of my jobs at the moment, I’m the token white girl in the office so I’m exposed to Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, and Kurdish culture, plus a range of takes on Islam. In a previous job, one of my colleagues was an African nun (Catholic). But even so, I’d hesitate to write a main character who was black or Asian, because I just don’t know enough to be sure I’d get it right. I’d have to do an awful lot more research, and it would be the sort of thing that reference books wouldn’t tell me – the day to day detail of life.

Then, of course, there’s the story-believability of adding in characters of multiple races. If your book is set in a contemporary rural English community, a non-white character becomes less believable. Not only is 90% of the population of the UK white, but the non-white 10% is mostly concentrated in the cities. That’s not to say you couldn’t have a non-white character in a little English village – but you’d need a better back-story to explain it than you’d need for the same character in London.

If you’re writing medievalesque fantasy, the problem is different again: you’re writing about a period when travel is difficult. Immigration is likely to be rare, so your communities are going to be racially homogenous – unless there’s a very good explanation why not.

Even writing historical fiction, you have to be careful; if you are writing a character who is not native to the setting, where would your immigrant have come from, and why? And what opportunities would be open to that character, as an immigrant, in that time and place?

Moving on from race, there is the problem of sexuality. I tend to take the view that a person’s sexuality is only important if you actually want to have sex with them. Otherwise, it’s irrelevant. Likewise, in books, the author knows which way a character swings – probably – but a lot of the time it just isn’t relevant to the story, so why include it? In real life, you don’t know the sexuality of everyone you meet. Taking a real-life example, I’m doing a univerity course; I’m in the second year now. Only this year have I discovered that the guy who runs the coffee shop and (I think) one of the lecturers are gay. Not because they “look gay”, or because they said “by the way, I’m gay”, but because – in conversation – both mentioned their “partner” and used a male pronoun. And I’m not sure about the lecturer because he could have meant “partner” in a business sense.

We tend to make assumptions about people – usually that they are like us. I’ve had someone assume that I was male, for instance, because I was using a non-gendered internet handle and talking about swordplay to a guy. Alternatively, we assume someone conforms to the majority unless proven otherwise. However, we should bear in mind that assumptions are not reality. If a character’s sexual orientation isn’t specified, then why assume they are heterosexual? In fact, in the author’s mind, that character might be gay.

And there are problems with revealing a character’s sexuality. Whatever you do, whenever you do it, people are going to complain. If you make it known in the book that the character is gay, then it’s accusations of putting in the “token gay”. If you only reveal it later (should you be so lucky as to get a media interview) you are accused of keeping it secret to protect sales, or, conversely, revealing it – or making it up – to increase sales. If none of your characters are revealed as gay, then your book is not “diverse” enough.

Moving on to disability, this can be even more problematic than sexuality. In some ways, a disability acts like Chekhov’s gun – if it isn’t important to the story, why include it? And if you do because you want to be “diverse”, then you get accused of being patronising by including the “token disability”.

However, if you’ve decided your character has some kind of disability, this means more research if you are going to do it right. How do blind people make coffee? How do deaf people know when the postman is at the door? Then there’s the logistics of being wheelchair-bound – when travelling, do you ring the train station in advance so they’ll know to have one of those ramps ready? Or do you just buttonhole someone when you get there? How does it feel to self-propel a wheelchair, and how difficult is it to learn to do it?

The invisible disabilities are even more difficult, because they’re usually not something you could experiment with. It’s one thing to try to make coffee wearing a blindfold, but how can you really understand depression unless you’ve experienced it – or had a very detailed discussion with someone who has? How do you understand way someone with Asperger’s Syndrome sees the world?

Then, of course, there’s the difficulty of emphasis. Are you writing about a guy who saves the world (who just happens to have a disability), or are you writing about the disability? If you’re not careful, your story ends up like one of those awful Improving Books that adults give to children, to teach them what adults want them to know about death and divorce, and why Drugs Are Bad – all preaching and no entertainment.

But, of course, in the final analysis, none of this is as important as the fact that a story come from the writer’s imagination. If in the writer’s mind the character is white and male and heterosexual, making that character black and female and gay is unlikely to improve the story. In fact, forcing the character into a shape that doesn’t fit the author’s vision is likely to damage the story because that character will no longer be “natural”, and it will pull the whole story out of shape. I’ve experienced this myself: I had one character that I simply couldn’t make come out right. She always seemed to be slightly out-of-focus, and she didn’t fit into the character’s assigned place in the plot. Then I reimagined her as black – and suddenly, she fit perfectly. Not only did she come into focus, but her entire family did too, and so did her timeline going forward. That character is black not because I wanted to include a black character, but because it was right for that story.

So, in conclusion, “diversity” is all very well and good, but it’s not as easy as “just add some black/gay/disabled characters”. Characters are part of the story, and the nature of the character affects the nature of the story. Every author has a right to tell their own stories as they see them – however they see them.

Yes, “diversity” can help people to understand other people’s lives and experiences. But we also need to take care that the emphasis on “diversity” does not become an emphasis on “difference”, and then an assumption that the colour of a person’s skin is a measure of their worth as a person, or that the gender of a person’s life partner is more important than whether or not the relationship is a loving one.