I think a lot about stories. And telling them and reading them and how to tell them so that different people will read them. The words we use. The words we don’t use.
A lot of people sneer at romance. I’ve got friends who have asked me when I was going to write a real book, or why I was “wasting” myself with romance. I’ve had people at bookstores—national chain and independent alike—who’ve been happy to help an author sign stock until I said I wrote romance.
There are the numerous backhanded comments about “beach reads” or “bodice rippers” and “for a romance novel” this was good.
I’m pretty thick skinned about it at this point, but as I read a lot of romance I was thinking about how really, romance tells a lot of stories the books those people who sneer at romance don’t tell. And how those stories get read by a lot more people than the other types of books that tackle those stories as “heavy” and “important” instead of simply another romance to read.
I find so much value, and frankly, a lot to be proud of in that.
Important books are needed. I don’t sneer at literary fiction at all. Some of the books that have shifted my world on its axis have been important books. That’s what they’re supposed to do. (I’m thinking about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which shredded me, Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, George Orwell’s 1984, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, pretty much every book Edith Wharton ever wrote because her voice is magnificent but The Age of Innocence is a good one to use as an example, EM Forrester’s Room With a View and now I will stop because I have SO MANY)
But there’s also a lot to be said about things being written about by a multitude of voices about a multitude of characters told to a far larger audience on a regular basis.
Here’s a thing – romance dominates the book market. People can sneer, but a whole lot of romance novels are sold and read, more than any other type. So.
What gets undervalued and overlooked – because who cares about things women like? Let’s make fun because women and their voices don’t matter, what they like is obviously silly and fluffy and while killing and maiming is important, love, well that’s just stupid.
Except when it isn’t. Like every day. Like throughout history. Between people of every class, religion, geographic region, race, gender, age. LOVE IS A CONSTANT.
LOVE IS IMPORTANT.
Okay so if you’ve stuck with me this far – I’m finally at the major point which is that romance tells lots of stories about lots of people in a way that filters through popular culture in ways that shape it more than important books can/do.
Because what humanizes people more than love?
If you hear stories from people who are not like you, your heart is open as well as your mind.
I think romance is often at the front of trends when it comes to telling non-traditional stories. Telling them often, blazing new trails and opening doors and minds to the people whose stories are on the page.
I think a really good example of this is male/male romance.
Emma Holly’s Menage was the first book I ever read with male/male sexual contact in it that was also a romance. I remember getting to that first scene with Joe and Sean and it was like, wow!
But it was more than that because they weren’t just stand ins for the sex act, they had a story. And Holly told that story and I wanted to know more. Back at that point it was pretty much only the Black Lace books and the gay presses with very small print runs who were telling those stories.
Now? Go to Amazon and see the huge depth and breadth of GBLT romance. The best indicator as to how much more mainstream these stories are is the level of really bad writing also available, LOL. It’s like if there’s a lot of crap it means a lot of people are jumping in to tell stories (see also paranormal and erotic romance in general).
So here we are with the biggest money making genre, romance, telling stories from voices that haven’t always been part of the conversation. That’s important. It’s important because despite the huge variety of voices and stories, it’s an established presence and voice in that genre.
And so what happens then, when we see two guys like Ty and Zane from the fantastic and (deservedly) popular Cut and Run series find their HEA, or at the very least, work really hard for it over a series of books, is that we, as readers, invest in these characters not because they are issues books, but because love is universal. (or Prophet and Tom from SE Jakes’ Hell or High Water series that I absolutely adore). It creates ties between reader and story/character because the thing we focus on are the people on that page involved in that struggle.
When I wrote Captivated, which was the first m/m/f ménage where I had the male characters not only involved first, but in love before the heroine even entered the story, I didn’t even think about it as a big deal. It was just the story I wanted to tell. And my editor never made a deal of it either way. I do hear from time to time from readers who are upset by male/male content, but it’s like 100/1 positive to negative and those odds make me happy. Because those odds say readers fall in love with those characters and their story
It can feel like a small thing, and certainly when I think about a book like Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, which tackles sexual identity in such a painful/beautiful/articulate literary way, it is, on one level, smaller. But in reality, it’s that new voices are being heard because of this thing that opens doors and hearts to stories told by different voices.
This does not mean there aren’t still struggles. Or that the ways these stories are told aren’t sometimes problematic in other ways. It means that the conversation can actually happen. And it does happen. We move forward. Not as fast as we should. Not without bumps and screw ups and exclusion. But we move forward. Because a multitude of voices heard by a multitude of people saying the same things you say around the breakfast table, or to your best friend, or under your breath while you’re in line to get your license renewed has a way of opening hearts like nothing else.
Next time I’m gonna blather on about feminism in romance….
Here are some of my favorite male/male or mmf books – feel free to add your own!
- SE Jakes – To Catch a Ghost, Long Time Gone ( also loved Free Falling, which comes before To Catch a Ghost)
- The Cut and Run series by Abigail Roux (and Madeline Urban for the first several books) These books feature Ty and Zane – they’re not precisely romance, but the romantic element grows over the course of the series. There have been times over the series that I wanted to punch Ty in the throat, but he’s a great character, I promise, as is Zane.
- LB Gregg’s books in general. Love them. Love the humor and the characters and the sexytimes. Catch Me If you Can was my first one of hers, but I love her Men of Smithfield series and I just grabbed How I Met Your Father this week and I am sure it’ll be fantastic
- Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English books – LOVE these.
- KA Mitchell’s Bad in Baltimore series
- JL Langley’s My Fair Captain
- Vivian Arend’s recently released Rocky Mountain Freedom