Writing Satire in the Age of Trump

Back in 2010, I published The Perils of Praline, or the Amorous Adventures of a Southern Gentleman in Hollywood, which was basically the silliest, sexiest book I could think up. It also included a hefty dose of satire, both political and cultural. Over the years fans have asked if I was going to write a sequel. For a long time, I answered maybe. I had originally planned to write two more of the books, the second set in Las Vegas for which I had notes, and the third to be set in Washington. Other projects kept taking precedence and eventually I began answering the question of a sequel with no. Then last summer, I was asked the question again and I said, “No” but then reflected and added, “Unless, of course, Trump wins. Then I may have to.” Of course, I thought this was incredibly unlikely and forgot all about it.

Then, the election happened. Like a lot of the country I was truly shocked and in the subsequent weeks depressed. In fact, I had trouble writing anything since I was so focused on the disaster that had just happened. Until, I remembered that conversation and thought, “Why not? Why not write another Praline book?” and so I began working on Praline Goes to Washington, or the Erotic Misdeeds of a Newly Native Californian in our Nation’s Capitol.

Satire is the art of making comedy by heightening reality to the level of absurdity, in the process exposing the hypocrisy and imagined intentions of individuals or types of individuals. That’s my definition. Miriam Webster’s definition is simpler and, at the same time, less clear: “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” What I found interesting about writing a satire contemporaneously to the events I was satirizing is that, in this case, Trump and his new administration would either match or exceed the over-the-top heightened reality I was creating. A couple of times, after I’d written something I thought completely absurd it would appear on the news.

In the new book, instead of getting into the whole Russia thing I brought back the tiny (and fictional) principality of Malvania. Helmut Dump’s wife, Melanoma, is Malvanian and so Malvania spreads a lot of fake news to help his campaign. When I wrote that, I knew that Russia has likely involved in the hacking of the DNC and the subsequent distribution to Wikileaks. That they were also involved in spreading fake news stories did not come to light (or at least to my attention) until well after I had had Malvania do exactly that.

Another weird and incredibly disturbing coincidence is that in my book, Helmut Dump is quoted as saying, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean.” Later, Dump’s assistant Keely Angst in an interview says, “You shouldn’t listen to what Mr. Dump says. You should listen to what I say he says. And I’m telling you the president-elect did not say any of the things you heard him say.” Both of these moments are eerily similar to something Kellyanne Conway said when she accused the media, “You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”

Some of my friends have worried that I might face legal action over the book. Satire is protected speech under the first amendment. No president in our history has gone un-satirized. It comes with the territory. There is a libel case that the Trumps are pursuing, but it’s in England where the libel laws are looser (and more to Trump’s liking) and the case is about the reporting of events that may or may not have happened as true. Satire is not journalism. None of what I’ve written is true or presented as true. I don’t have any information that we’re not all reading in the news every day.

And speaking of the news, oh-my-God. Every day it becomes more and more bizarre. I have to say it’s a challenge to write satire when those you’re satirizing keep becoming increasingly over-the-top themselves. Suddenly, the most absurd things I could think of are part of the news cycle. And every day it becomes more and more apparent that the people leading our country are more dangerous than any caricature I, or anyone else, could write. I wish that none of this was true. I wish they we still lived in a time when Chevy Chase’s big joke about Gerald Ford was that he was clumsy, or when we joked about Jimmy Carter’s Southern accent and what he might be lusting about in his heart. Gradually, we’ve moved into a time when we have to joke about politicians who are mean, corrupt, ill-prepared, traitorous and dangerously erratic. That can be a hard thing to make jokes about. But I think we have to. No matter how bad things get, laughter will lighten our load.

And finally, I know that some people might say that satire doesn’t serve a purpose, that it’s nothing more than preaching to the choir. It’s true that I don’t expect a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump to pick up my book and miraculously change their minds. But the thing is, I think the choir does need to be preached to, at least occasionally, if only to remember why they’re singing.

Originally published at Lambda Literary

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How Far Will I Go?

One of the questions I get a lot about the Boystown series is, “How many books will there be?” Of course, since the question is about the future the most honest answer is, “I don’t know.” But at the same time, how many books to write and where to leave Nick Nowak is something I think about and obviously something that interests my readers so I thought I’d put down a few thoughts…

Typically, as I finish one book I get ideas about the next one. Boystown 8: The Lies That Bind came out a few days ago and I already have about fifteen percent of Boystown 9: Lucky Days written in the form of notes and first draft scenes. This is important as I have to keep track of the mystery arc in books 7-9 about Jimmy English, and of course the ongoing lives of the recurring characters. I imagine if I finish one of the books and have no ideas, or very few ideas, about the next book I’ll know that the end has arrived.

The first eight books cover the period from January 1981 through August 1984. I definitely want to do two more books set in 1984 and have one in mind for 1985. That would bring me up to eleven—Joseph Hansen, one of my idols, did twelve in his series. I hope that I’ll write more than eleven. I wouldn’t mind getting all the way to nineteen or twenty like Michael Connelly, another of my idols. It would be nice to take the books all the way to the first glimmers of hope in the AIDS epidemic, but that wasn’t until the mid-nineties, which right now is a long way off.

As a gay man who lived through the eighties there are so many stories from that period I feel I can tell. So many stories I think are still important. One of the most satisfying aspects of writing this series has been collecting the little bits of real life that I remember from that period and weaving them into the mysteries. Quite a few of the characters and situations I’ve touched on in the stories come from people I knew during the period, in many cases people who can no longer speak for themselves. Collecting those stories matters to me a great deal on a very personal level.

There are many ways to classify the Boystown series. I think it would be fair to include it as AIDS literature. Most of AIDS literature took place in the eighties and nineties, and most of it was a cry for help, a warning bell rung as loudly as possible. Writing about AIDS from this vantage point is a very different experience. I’m able to focus on the way very real people reacted to the crisis. Knowing that things improve, allows me to focus on the ways in which individuals reacted, sometimes heroically, sometimes not. Of course, AIDS is still an issue. It hasn’t gone away. Reminding people of how it began and how we got to where we are is something I find to be vital.

I think if the Boystown series were a romance series with mystery elements—as opposed to being the opposite of that—I would have would have stopped at two or three books as I find manufacturing “conflict” in a happy couple uninteresting. Some writers do it well; I don’t think I’m one of them. Several of the Boystown books have ended in a happy-for-now kind of way, but if Nick ever finds a truly happy ending it will likely mean the end of the series.

An important indicator of whether a writer should keep writing a series is sales. Not for financial reasons—certainly many writers do well writing multiple series of three or four books—but because each sale represents one or more readers. The last year has been very positive for the Boystown series. Boystown 7: Bloodlines opened better than any of the previous books, and even though it’s only been a few days it looks as though this year’s book is on tract to exceed that. Equally important is that last year the first book in the series actually sold more copies than it had since it was published five years before. The audience is finding the books and I’m so happy about that. With all of that said, I’d like to send out a big thank you to all who’ve bought and supported the series over the years. It means a lot.

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.