Love is not a subgenre by KJ Charles

The thing about romance is, it’s a huge genre. 17% of the US publishing market is romance. And, being huge, it’s naturally divided into subgenres. There’s all sorts. Historical romance, paranormal romance, SFF romance, inspirational, erotic romance, romantic suspense, queer romance—

/screeching needle-on-record sound effect/

Just think about what it means to say that queer romance is a subgenre of romance. Think how that defines the terms. ‘Romance is a heterosexual thing, and then there’s also the gay stuff.’

Women are not a subgenre of men, and queer is not a subgenre of straight, and multicultural romance is not a subgenre of romance about white people.

Of course we have to put metadata on the books, to sort and label and classify, or nobody could ever find anything. But why is it that my queer books are Romance > Gay > Historical but my het book is Romance > Contemporary > Romantic Suspense? Where’s the > Het > in that tagging? Why is there a default?

When I was a stroppy schoolgirl, I wrote an essay using ‘she’ for the generic pronoun. (‘If the worker wishes to throw off her shackles, she must first control the means of production.’) My teacher said this was wrong and that I should use ‘he’. I asked why, given that I’m a she, and my teacher responded with a smirk, ‘The masculine embraces the feminine.’

No. It doesn’t. Women are not a subgenre of men, and queer is not a subgenre of straight, and multicultural romance is not a subgenre of romance about white people.

Historically, the romance genre has mostly featured straight white characters, of course. But we’re not living in history. We live in now, and the way we define our terms matters. Just like it matters that the default protagonist in a movie or show is a straight white male, and that people talk about ‘tokenism’ as soon as a leading role is given to anyone else, character or actor.

‘Let’s make that [race] not a factor, because we’re trying to deal with everyman’.
—The writer of the film Noah, explaining why all of the cast were white.

It shouldn’t be ‘making it a factor’ to have other characters taking centre stage. It should just be a reflection of our world, where actually lots of people are gay or female or Asian or trans* or mixed race or bi or asexual or or or.

This isn’t trivial. What people see affects how we think. When more than one in six books bought in the US is a romance, that’s a lot of opportunity for people to encounter different stories. Exposure matters, marginalisation matters, and telling people they’re a subgenre that’s separate from and different to the ‘real’ stuff matters a lot.

I have been told straight by TV bookers, when giving my availability to appear on something: “We already have a woman for the 19th…could you do the 26th?”

—Victoria Coren

Frankly, I’m tired of seeing a little bit of space allotted to a whole lot of people, while the default gets the majority of the attention. I have nothing against white heterosexuals. I am a white heterosexual. But if I want to see myself reflected relentlessly back at me, there’s a perfectly good mirror in my bathroom. I don’t need all of popular culture too.

Therefore, I’m thrilled to be part of the first Queer Romance Month, which will run throughout in October. In this (which is open to authors of het romance too—love is love) we’re putting queer romance front and centre, not because it’s different, but because it doesn’t have to be the sidebar. There will be a vast range of amazing authors, allies and supporters contributing posts and flash fiction, and tons of recommendations for awesome books.

Because queer romance is romance, people are people, love is love, and we can all use another good book.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi KJ, this is so good! And this made me laugh “if I want to see myself reflected relentlessly back at me, there’s a perfectly good mirror in my bathroom.” Yeah, well, that would be a scary proposition for *me*, for more reasons than one! Thanks!

  • Wonderful post, KJ :)

    When it comes to labelling, I feel like the order in which the labels are applied is suprisingly important. I’d have much less of a problem with:

    Romance –> Historical –> Gay


    Romance –> Gay –> Historical

    If you put historical first, then – by default – anyone look for historical romance will find a mixture of gay and het titles. If you put it second, then you will only find ANY queer romance if you’re looking for completely unfiltered romance or queer romance specifically.

    I can definitely see there is a value, particularly on the internet where it costs nothing, in labelling gay stories so that people who are interested in them can find and so that people who want to avoid them, well, do that. But, by making the sexuality label supercede the subgenre label, it means you’re assuming that anyone looking for a particular type of romance wants to avoid queer romance by default.

    • Yes! That! It’s so simple but that’s the sort of thinking that could actually make a significant difference to exposure and acknowledgement.

  • Yes. If we could all stop being so scared of seeing ourselves as individuals instead of one of the crowd/group/tribe/herd we’d probably all be a lot more appreciative of other people’s differences instead of seeing them as a threat.

    We’re all different. We all have things in common. One of them is the need to share our lives with some other living being. Great post, thank you.

  • You know, you’re perfectly correct. I’ve never been happy with how I’ve classified my books in my Collectorz database or my BookLikes shelves… now I know why, I think. :) And I have a new project. *LOL*

  • I loved this line, “But if I want to see myself relentlessly reflected back at me, there’s a perfectly good mirror in the bathroom.” In fact, isn’t the purpose of literature and film and art at large precisely to open all of us to things we haven’t experienced or thought about? To see life in its many variegations, with new lenses? The downside of “discoverability” is, as you say, the need to niche books. To “type” them, but by default that forces the marginalizing of the LGBT genres, or really, any genre of fiction. It becomes about the very thing we all want to defrock: labeling.

    Then the marketer in me still knows, we all have to find our audiences and readership, or none of it matters anyway. We can have all the heartfelt conviction in the world, but if only five people read our books, nobody new has been challenged to think or expand their horizons. One of the best things that can happen is when someone who didn’t expect to love an LGBT-themed book, who perhaps has a totally different readership, creates word of mouth among their own fanbase.

    Just random, rambling thoughts. But it was a great post and thanks for sharing!

  • Good article! I had that same struggle when doing my tagging as well and settled for something that was quite clear on the relationship in the story but didn’t focus on specific sexual orientation labeling (because sometimes gay is bisexual).

    Romance -> M/M
    Romance -> F/F
    Romance -> F/M

  • I don’t know… maybe queer romance should be its own generic category, not a sub-genre at all. Not because queer romance is so strange and way out there, but because, for me, it’s a game changer. If we took a close look, how many aspects of the genre have changed while others have stayed the same?

    How you imagine a relationship and the way you need to imagine the characters to make that relationship work on the page, and how that affects how you imagine the society and friends and families around it, and how that ties into gender politics — all of that is part of genre. Traditional f/m romance is generic not just because boy meets girl and then they have to get together and have a HAE, but because women (and men) have to be imagined in a certain way to make that structure work. Can’t be more specific about that last thought — just feeling my way here.

  • Read Alexis Hill’s post on inclusion. I have my own (you might say weird) theories, but I’m new to this discussion and it’s clearly time to sit back and listen.

  • I agree completely. We should stop labelling things and just enjoy whatever we read/live. Just as you said: “romance is romance, people are people, love is love”. Well said 😉

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