M/M Romance and Gay Fiction Duke It Out

Recently Ann Somerville at Outlaw Reviews said of my book Boystown: Three Nick Nowak Mysteries “this is not m/m…it’s not even romance…it’s gay fiction, with male readers in mind” (see review here) and I have to say, I agree with her. I do write gay fiction. With a romantic, sexy edge certainly. And I do write for men, or rather, I don’t make any allowances for, or cater to, a female audience. I’m happy to have female readers, but I think my readers are looking for a window into a gay man’s world rather than an idealized gay romance. At least, the ones who like my work.

I imagine Ann’s opinion may confuse a lot of people writing and reading m/m today. Many of them are using the terms m/m and gay fiction synonymously. I’ve seen a number of m/m writers call themselves gay fiction writers. And, I’ve seen readers say things on boards and blogs like “Maurice by E.M. Forester was the first m/m novel I’ve ever read an I just love it!” and “My first m/m book was Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner.” While both books are romantic, that’s true, neither is m/m romance. The genre didn’t exist when they were written, each has structural differences, and neither were claimed by the romance community until now.

To be fair, it’s important to note that on Amazon, the go-to spot for books, the categories for books with gay content are limited – there is no category for m/m romance or even gay romance. There is also no category for m/m or gay romance under romance. And, when you get to the Kindle side things get worse – everything there is lumped under the all inclusive title of Gay & Lesbian. It’s easy to see how someone younger or new to either genre, would have no clue that m/m romance and gay fiction are not the same thing.

So, what are they? And how are they different? There are very few absolutes to hold onto and a lot of “I know it when I see it.” Certainly publication date is one of the few absolutes. Since m/m sprang out of slash fiction, an Internet phenomenon, any work written before the advent of the Internet is almost certainly gay fiction. If a book is written with a gay male audience in mind, it is gay fiction. Especially, if it lacks a strong element of romance and ignores the rules of the romance genre entirely. If a book is written with a heterosexual female audience in mind and adheres to the rules of the romance genre it is m/m romance.

Gay fiction at its core is about the formation of an individual identity (the basic coming out story) or the formation of a chosen-family focused on adults (Tales of the City). M/M at its core is about the formation of a committed relationship (Suzanne Brockmann’s series is a good example) or the formation of a family focused on child rearing, and the children are often already related (see the current top-selling Bear, Otter and the Kid).

Another determiner of genre would be the sexual behavior of the characters. Typically, gay men have the ability to separate love and sex. They can pursue both at the same time and in completely different directions. Typically, straight women view sex and love as intermingled. Gross generalizations, I know, but they do explain the preferences of the bulk of readers. I’m a fan of James Lear’s books. Though his books contain many of the elements you’d find in an m/m novel, he definitely falls on the gay fiction side of the fence (sub genre erotica, certainly), since his characters typically have a ton of sex as they pursue a romantic ideal, or at least acknowledge they have those feelings. Romance readers have a distinct preference for two men developing a relationship through sex. These books often only feature the protagonists having sex, many times certainly, but just the two men. (The Tin Star by J.L. Langley is a good example of this.)

Theoretically, you could write a book that is both gay fiction and still follows the rules of the romance genre. A cross-genre novel, as it were. And, I’d guess that a lot of writers are attempting to stand on this tiny scrape of real estate. In my opinion, the act of bending gay characters to the romance genre makes it a nearly impossible task to write much of anything with the authenticity necessary to gay fiction.

You’ll note I don’t mention the sex of the author anywhere. While it’s true that gay fiction is largely written by men and m/m romance is largely written by women, there are a significant number of exceptions — enough exceptions to make the sex of the author a poor determiner of genre.

Now, you could argue that anything with gay content should be labeled Gay & Lesbian and we’ll just let the readers sort it out. And I imagine this would be Amazon’s defense if they were called out on the lack of detailed categories. You could also say this discussion is little more than an academic exercise. I don’t believe that it is, though. I believe the distinction between gay fiction and m/m is vitally important.

Why do I think that? Because readers don’t sort it out. A hardcore romance junkie gets her hands on a piece of gay fiction and she’s angry and often very vocal. She gets on Goodreads or Amazon and she bashes the book strictly on the basis that it was an m/m romance. It doesn’t help the author, it doesn’t help the publisher and it doesn’t help other readers who might not pick up on why the book is being bashed and just think it’s bad. (To be fair, this reader may have gotten a gay fiction book from an m/m publisher. These publishers are, commendably I think, putting out a small amount of gay fiction. Typically, though, they’re not distinguishing it well from their other product.)

On the other end of the spectrum you have your gay fiction reader who goes to Amazon looking for something to read and finds that most of the top twenty books are romance novels. Now, the bulk of gay readers do not like romance novels – yes, I know there are exceptions and you may be one – but seriously, as a rule, gay men do not read romance novels. So, when that’s all they see they just think ‘Wow, gay fiction must have died” and go off to buy the latest mainstream bestseller. And then they don’t look again for a very long time. Of course, if a gay fiction reader actually gets a hold of an m/m novel there’s a lot of cussing and writing of catty comments in the margins.

Notably, well known gay fiction writer Alan Hollinghurst has a book coming out soon, The Stranger’s Child. From the synopsis it’s obvious the book is gay fiction, just like his other work, but his publisher will only list the book as historical and literary. Now, did they do this because they wanted to get a more mainstream heterosexual audience? Or, did they just not want to associate the book with the romance novels that rule the gay fiction category? Either way, I find it concerning to see gay fiction not labeled as such.

I’ve been reading gay fiction since I was a teenager in the seventies. At first, there was very little I could get my hands on, but then, as time went on I found more and more on the shelves. Over time the genre has grown, and contracted, stumbled and gotten up again. And through all that it has shaped and informed the lives of gay men. The romance genre has an enormous readership and the speed with which readers and writers have rushed into m/m is a demonstration of its power. It’s great that m/m writers are making money and making readers happy. It’s also terrific that these writers and their audience are such staunch supporters of the gay community. It would be terrible though to watch m/m romance choke off the growth of gay fiction

So, what to do about all this? Obviously, it’s not going to sort itself out overnight. But, I think if writers and publishers become aware of the problem and begin to correctly identify themselves and their product things will slowly improve. In the past, I’ve called myself an m/m romance writer. I’m really not. And this is definitely my first step in removing that label. Hopefully, at least some, m/m romance writers will follow my lead and stop calling themselves gay fiction writers when they’re clearly not. Ultimately, I think it’s beneficial for everyone.

9 responses to “M/M Romance and Gay Fiction Duke It Out

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful essay explaining the difference between gay fiction and m/m romance. I’ve been enjoying reading both types of fiction over the past year. I’m glad there are so many books to choose from. You’re right that it would be great if these books were more clearly defined by publishers and book sellers. (It would certainly make it easier to search on Amazon!)

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  2. Thank you Marshall Thornton for a well written article that gets your point across really well. May I add that I am a female reader who has deliberately sought out male gay writers in the hope that it would be more authentic or as you put it ” ‘ ” “looking for a window into a gay man’s world “. So please don’t ever cater for a female audience with idealised gay romance or this reader will be disappointed.Keep up the good work : )

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  3. Being home with pneumonia was great incentive to read all of your Boystown books in one week. Let me just say being a woman of “an age” I can recall these times vividly and you brought them to life.
    I actually love that they were not m/m romance. I love me a good mystery no matter who solves it. I have been reading some of your essays and have thoroughly enjoyed them, this one especially.
    Take care, and I look forward to many more hours enjoying your work

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  4. started your mysteries because they were mysteries, but (don’t hate me) I was born in 1981 and it sort of blows me away how quickly the world changed in just a few years. By the time I reached high school I had two gay friends – out – in small town usa, and several others across the country on the internet. 15 years. Now I’m reading your books on a device I use to call people too, as well as use the internet – that’s more powerful than my Toshiba in 1996 was. My boss at work – a security company – is my age and never hidden the fact he’s gay, or felt the need to. Not saying there’s not still a struggle now, but the differences are remarkable, anyway.
    I don’t really know if this comment had much of a point. Just some observations from my wondering, wandering mind. Thanks for your work.

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