Branding or Catfishing?

Writing is hard. It’s really hard. Especially if you have the crazy idea that you’d like to make a living as a writer. A friend recently sent me a link to a study from Author’s Guild that states the average full-time fiction writers’ yearly income is $17,500. To put that into perspective, you can expect to make around that working the same amount of hours at McDonald’s flipping burgers. Ouch. I’m having a good year and will end a bit below the average. I told the friend who sent me the link, “Oh my God, I’m really successful, and really broke.”

Every writer trying to make a living, or even just trying to maintain the paltry living we make, is constantly trying to cage the system. We’re always doing promotions, begging for reviews, chasing trends, writing short when that pays more, writing long when that pays more, doing whatever we can think of to present our works, and ourselves in a way that will make readers hit that buy button.

Sometimes I like to write mainstream (read not-queer) stories and books. Certainly, mainstream is a much larger market so the potential to make a living is greater. In the past, I published my mainstream writing as Marshall Thornton. In fact those were my first forays into self-publishing. I actually did pretty well for a while, then I began to establish myself as a gay writer and the sales on my mainstream work evaporated. My longtime editor suggested that I put out a mainstream book I had lying around under a different name. At first, the idea of doing this felt like going back into the closet. After all, the point would be to hide that I’m a gay writer. But then I thought, why should some else’s homophobia cost me money?

Eventually I did decide to publish my latest book, Death Comes to Happy Acres under the name JT Moss (which is both of my parents’ names; Marshall Thornton, which I’ve been writing under since 1992, is part of my grandfather’s name) with the caveat that I would be open to my existing fans. And for that matter any new ones I make as JT Moss.

As I’m launching my new book this week, Josh Lanyon finally came out as a woman. This has been a longtime rumor, which was confirmed for me more than a year ago by someone I trusted to actually know. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever truly believed she was a man. In the broadest sense, Josh Lanyon is a brand just as Marshall Thornton is a brand and JT Moss is a brand. And I don’t have a problem with that and don’t think anyone else should either.

On the other hand, a great deal of this business is very personal and when you pose as a different gender both publicly and privately then you are skating dangerously close to catfishing. There have been instances where female writers have deliberately catfished gay male writers in order to pump them on how they “really” feel about straight women writing gay fiction. To my knowledge this is not something Josh ever did, and I’m not suggesting that.

However, everything Josh has said about straight women writing about gay men does now needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve seen several comments about instances where she used her authority as a “gay man” to tell people how they should be writing about gay men, in fact I’d say she does that a lot in her book, Man, Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Cash & Kinks.

In a 2010 article at by Dick Smart at Lambda Literary Josh is quoted as saying “There’s a great deal to appeal to gay male readers in M/M fiction.” That statement has weight coming from a gay male writer, from a gay man it means “hey you should try these books, I like them, you might too.” From a straight female writer, even though it may be a sincerely held opinion, the subtext becomes “buy my books.”

I want to stop for a moment and say that Josh has always been nice to me. She has gone so far as to recommend my books to her readers, mentioning me on her boards, on twitter, and in her newsletter. Writers don’t have to do things like that, especially successful ones, and I appreciate the support. I’m not writing this to suggest that she be punished or penalized for what she’s done. If you thought she was a man and you like her books you should keep on reading them. That said, I do think there needs to be some examination of when branding goes too far.

I also have few issues with her “coming out” blog, well, many issues. To me it feels like she’s trying to paint herself as some kind of victim. She writes “This is the blog post I kind of hoped I’d never have to write…” Really? I was told she was coming out last year. That means she’s been thinking about this post for at least a year. Did she think she could pretend/not pretend wink-wink to be a gay man forever?

“…I really did believe in my heart that the M/M genre had surely moved past this kind of nonsense.” You know, I think they have. Lots of women use male pen names. They do it transparently. They don’t create “open secrets,” they don’t spend fifteen years clouding the issue. And they answer the gender question when it’s asked. But it’s usually not asked because they show up at events and use actual author photos.

In the blog, she references a dust-up at DearAuthor.com and takes the position that refusing to state her gender is somehow admitting she was a woman. Certainly, she’s right that it increases suspicion (just as it does when an actor refuses to state a sexuality, and we’ve seen that a lot) but I fail to see how refusing to answer a question, over time, becomes honesty. It’s not.

And, that dust-up took place in 2008, yet in 2010 she’s described in an Out Magazine article as “one of the M/M genre’s few male authors…” I have no idea if Josh herself provided this info to the reporter, but somehow among all the male-named authors in M/M the reporter decided Josh was actually male. As nearly as I can tell, Josh did nothing to correct this very public mistake. Certainly, there was no blog about it. To me, whether actively or passively allowing the gay press to identify you as a gay male qualifies as catfishing.

To turn this around a bit if, in my new JT Moss brand, I allowed a publication to refer to me as a heterosexual and I didn’t correct it, that would be catfishing. Yes, casual readers will assume I’m straight, just as casual readers of any m/m male-named author might assume they’re reading gay men. But, the minute a reader takes the time to ask a question I think they deserve an honest answer.

And, if you’re an author who really wants to remain anonymous then don’t have an online presence. Don’t Facebook, don’t blog, don’t send out newsletters. The only thing you really have to do to be an author is write books. Yes, if you don’t do the rest of it, if you don’t actively create a brand, then you may not, in fact probably won’t, sell a lot of books. But that’s a choice freely made. There are downsides to being successful and if you don’t want to experience them, then don’t try to be a success.

I appreciate that in the year 2000 when Josh began publishing it may have seemed like a good idea to create a gay male persona as a brand. And during the ensuing fifteen years she did a lot, either actively or passively, to create that gay male persona. The problem – for Josh – is that in 2015, creating a false gay male persona is a really, really bad idea. And it has been for quite a while. This is why she’s been playing “open secret” for several years.

Had she “come out” with a blog that said, “this is what happened, this is why it happened, and this is how times have changed” I think there would have been a lot less hullabaloo about the whole thing. Certainly, I would have respected her more. Choosing to paint yourself as the victim of a brand you yourself created. Not cool. Not cool at all.

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9 responses to “Branding or Catfishing?

  1. Thank you for this post – it helped make everything click for me. And since I actually met you at GRL a few years ago, I know you are who you say you are. Which is reassuring right about now. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m really enjoying the calm and collected discussions I’m seeing on the topic (which isn’t to say I’m not also seeing the flaming torches discussions, too, but I’m really enjoying the calm ones). Well worded, well thought, and well presented, mister.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve been actively avoiding the drama while supporting those who are discussing the issue reasonably. So many have said what I’ve been thinking more eloquently than I could and I thank them for that. Your post boils it down to the part that bothers me the most. Failing to own her actions, whatever her motivation was. Very well said. It also occurred to me, while reading your post, that every single one that I supported was written by gay men. I’ve also discovered a few new authors to check out. Bonus! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Stumbling Over Chaos :: Linkity returns!

  5. I’m so happy I stumbled across this post. I’ve been feeling really awful for how bad I felt after JL’s coming out post, like I should be ashamed for having any kind of negative reaction and for not instantly being 100% understanding and supportive of her. And as a female reader/writer, I’ve been wondering if maybe I SHOULD have been instantly supportive and empathetic. This post makes me feel so much better, so relieved, and you wrote in such a calm way that I actually feel good about feeling good. Thanks so much for sharing your opinion and for writing so clearly, thoughtfully, and respectfully.

    Liked by 1 person

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