Outside In by Lilia Ford

 To treat queer romance as a subgenre … makes the sexuality of the protagonist not merely a salient feature of the story but the defining one. (Alexis Hall)

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. (KJ Charles)

Ouch. So I have to plead guilty to that. For the past year, I’ve been blogging about “emerging genres” and I have a dangerous tendency to throw in M/M titles whenever I need an example, usually with a blithe, “M/M is a subgenre of romance” or even more ridiculously, “M/M is a subgenre of erotica” to justify its presence in my argument.

My excuse is that it’s the only genre I read these days, but as the opening posts for the QRM event remind us, although there are many ways to think about “genre,” among the most important will always be how our definitions of particular stories can also define actual people and real-world relationships, influencing how they are perceived and valued by both the larger mainstream and, in this case, by the LGBTQ community itself.

But my broader reasoning grew out of something quite different than a glib indifference to tokenism, and not, I think, from any sense that M/M is “sub” in the sense of “subordinate” to romance, but to the topic that I was attempting to explore, that of “emerging genres.” In this context, it makes sense to group M/M and erotica—and distinguish them quite firmly from “romance”—since M/M and erotica are, relatively speaking, upstarts that owe their existence to the advent of digital publishing while “romance” is a half-century old, $1 billion dollar behemoth, with a vast apparatus of marketing and distribution backing it.

My interest in the “emerging” aspect of M/M grew out of my academic work on the English novel. During the early eighteenth century, a combination of innovations in bookselling and increased literacy opened up authorship to people who would never have been published under the old system, namely women and others who lacked elite educational credentials. With little stake in establishment culture, these new authors found themselves free to tell new kinds of stories designed to appeal to newly empowered (mostly female) readers, who were suddenly in a position to demand books that catered to their taste. The result was the fictional form we call the novel.

The parallels between then and now should be fairly obvious. In the age of self-publishing, there are no barriers to publication for would-be authors, and the result has been an explosion of new fiction, plenty of it godawful. The good news is that the current system has rendered irrelevant the old rules forbidding depictions of explicit sex and kink, gay or straight. It’s not too much to say that genres like M/M and erotica have arisen to take advantage of the new freedom.

The process through which these new genres emerge is, to put it mildly, disruptive. Thanks to digital publishing, virtually every component of traditional book-selling from the stores, to the agents, to the “Big Five” publishers themselves, is in a deep fiscal crisis. More radically, the current literary climate is characterized by the total absence of gatekeepers, established standards, professional reviewing, or authority figures of any kind. As in the eighteenth century, guardians of the more prestigious corners of culture have reacted with condescension, outrage and even apocalyptic fulmination about the “mountains of trash” being published.

Personally, I can’t help finding something deliciously transgressive in the way a lot of these books either deliberately or unconsciously subvert established notions of what makes a “good,” “moral,” “tasteful,” or “well-written” book. Far more genuinely subversive, though, is the way these emerging genres serve as vehicles of fantasy. Again, this has been a feature of the novel from its earliest days, one the wider culture has consistently found deeply threatening. Surveying mainstream film, television, or music even in 2014, it is extremely hard to find reflections of the sexual desires of anyone but straight white men, and when those “alternative” desires somehow burst onto the wider consciousness, for example with the publicity surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey, they arouse bizarre amounts of outrage and handwringing. Independent publishing has enabled those of us who don’t get off ogling Megan Fox to explore, depict, invent, celebrate our own fantasy life in all its sweet, romantic, filthy, wholesome, sleazy, moral, disreputable, and messy glory.

This is not to say there aren’t real disadvantages to standing outside the mainstream. The Queer Romance Month event itself in part grew out of frustration at the unwillingness of romance industry groups to give any recognition to our writers. Equal treatment by the romance establishment could enable at least the most successful M/M writers to reach vastly larger audiences, with all the prestige and money that comes from being a bestseller.

While I personally relish the freedom that exists outside the publishing mainstream both as a reader and to a far lesser degree as a writer, as a “straight,” white woman, I am not faced with the same burden of having been discriminated against because of my sexuality. For those who have, those margins may very well feel like a prison or second class cabin rather than a free space. And we shouldn’t forget that members of the LBGTQ community differ sharply on their perception of the advantages or desirability of being assimilated into the mainstream.

But to return to my historical argument, no matter how we feel about M/M’s outside status, there is a strong chance it will not last much longer. In this age of knighthoods for Elton John and Institutes at Harvard for the study of Hip-Hop (or seven-figure contracts with Random House for Twilight fan fiction), the overwhelming pattern is one of comfortable assimilation of even the most controversial “sub” cultures into the mainstream. I have no doubt whatsoever that M/M will have our bestsellers and breakout hits and eventually our major motion pictures. I dearly hope it’s from one of the authors participating in this event, and when it happens I promise to cheer and blog as loudly as anyone.

But I can’t help thinking that the great M/M breakout bestseller will probably not be on my all-time favorites list. I cherish the space this revolution has given for the edgy, disreputable, dark, crazy books that have meant the most to me. Not being accountable to the New York publishing establishment has been a gift—a gift for those wishing to explore alternative ideas of sexuality, experiment formally, invent new universes where the sexual rules and prejudices that restrict our lives don’t apply, and rework genre after genre, from space opera to Regency historical, to create a new space for LGBTQ characters who are no longer tokens or sidekicks or sassy friends, where their concerns are front and center, where their voices, their priorities, their struggles, and their passions are the main story.

It’s incredible—and achingly beautiful to watch.

 About Lilia Ford

Lilia Ford, Ph. D. and recovering academic, is an incessant reader, erratic blogger, and occasional author of M/M. Her most recent novel is the hopelessly disreputable Pet to the Tentacle Monsters!

About Pet to the Tentacle Monstersford

It’s been more than twelve years since the alien invasion wiped out much of the human population and forced those who were left into Refugee Communes. As far as Benji Tucker is concerned, a life devoted to bare survival is boring as hell. But when a stupid prank threatens to bring disaster down on the entire commune, the Galactic Enforcers show up and announce Benji is now eligible for adoption—by the invaders!

He wakes in a plain white cell to find three very different monsters determined to make him their pet.

Warning: Adult Readers Only. Contains plenty of hot, non-consensual tentacle action, including but not limited to tentacle spanking, tentacle gagging, and tentacle-sex. Quite separately, it also contains an adorable pink-rainbow-sparkle tentacle monster. Those who dislike adorable pink rainbow sparkles or hot tentacle action should definitely not read this book.

Grab a copy on Amazon USOr Amazon UK

9 CommentsLeave a comment

  • “But I can’t help thinking that the great M/M breakout bestseller will probably not be on my all-time favorites list.”

    i think you’re right. we will have our own ‘fifty shades of shite.’

    progress, amirite?

    • It’s a conundrum, though I admit to indulging fantasies (late at night, after a few drinks) that certain of my most beloved authors will break out into mass stardom–I’ll leave you to fill in the names of who that might be. My gut tells me this is coming–also my tumblr feed and the thousand reposts of certain scenes from “How to get away with Murder.”

  • Thank you so much for this post! I’m going to go back and memorize bits of it to add to my soapbox speech about feminism and romance and publishing, which has expanded in the past couple of years to include queer romance also. I do literally “study up” and prepare myself for the (mostly) well-meaning but nonetheless perplexed questions from family and friends as to why I started writing romance, and then queer romance, and now erotica too. They are supportive but confused as to how I got here from my nice degree in English literature. But I agree with you. :) Although there may indeed be “mountains of trash”, there are also explorers venturing far afield from the traditional definition of “what one writes about.” I admit that I still have blind spots myself. I used to giggle at the idea of tentacle sex books, for example! And then I read Lyn Gala’s Claimings, Tails & Other Alien Artifacts. (Okay, it’s tails, not tentacles, but I maintain that it still counts!) and discovered amazing world-building and brilliant characterization. So I am humbled yet again to be reminded that a terrific writer’s imagination knows no bounds. *runs to Amazon to check out your book* Thank you!

    • Thank you so much. For years I read nothing but so called “great books” that I was teaching and academic texts. During most of that time I was a complete snob about “books worth reading” vs. stupid trash, which was anything that was popular or low-brow, including pretty much all genre fiction. It’s hard to think back on that period without feeling mortified–I just have to chalk it up to my sad, misspent youth. These days, I’m in awe of the sheer craziness and variety of what’s out there, some truly brilliant and unforgettable, plenty of it ridiculous and disposable. It’s an amazing time to be a reader–so much experimentation and pushing at boundaries–and we get to watch it unfold.

  • I’m late to your post I know, but I loved it!
    Alexis Hall praised your post during our weekly discussion about QRM (Sunday Spotlight on Prism Book Alliance) and I promised to come back and read it in total. I’m a lot like you in that reading m/m was my breakout of academia after going through to my PhD in English Studies. The idea of being deliciously subversive is very appealing hopefully combined with some of my favourite authors getting the recognition and money they deserve. I am downloading ‘Pet to the Tentacle Monsters’ today #glee#

    • Thank you so much–I just went and checked out the post on Prism. I’m so thrilled and really interested in the discussions going on about the different posts, yours included. It’s a lot to take in. I’m a big believer in debate itself, especially when it can be conducted in a spirit of goodwill which sparks the sharing of ideas instead of shutting down voices. I’ve argued before that thoughtful criticism and debate are crucial to our (or any) genre’s healthy development, and I take it as an excellent sign that we’re taking a hard look at the conventions, criticism, terminology, personal stakes, political stakes, aesthetics–all of it–and finding so damn much to talk about. In that way, QRM is a strong marker of the genre’s maturing. I almost want to say it’s like the greatest academic conference ever–interesting and fun and not afraid to reference the personal. Or mention tentacle sex, always a plus in my book.

  • I’ve been thinking a lot about this post recently. So first off I would like to say thank you for writing a post that has stuck with me for so long :)

    I think what you say is really true, there is a lot of freedom in being outside the mainstream. I remember Neil Gaiman talking about why he got into comics and how part of the appeal for him about writing comics, back in his early twenties, was that comics weren’t taken seriously. For me part of the attraction to the romance genre is very much the same. There is something liberating in writing what most of the world thinks of as trash. There is something liberating about already being in the literary gutter. Obviously that’s not the main reason I write romance but it plays a part.

    Further I do think queer romance’s outsider status within romance as a genre can and should be liberating. Yes I chaff at the attitude that sometimes arises where mainstream romance looks at queer romance takes a kind of you can only play in your club house if you mind your manners and don’t break anything attitude. I don’t love how much homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism still exists in romance, as it does in society as a whole. It makes me want to push to be part of the mainstream so I can help change things (and also so I can reach a wider audience and make more money, I’m not going to lie living off my writing is still the dream.)

    There is a kind of liberation in coming into a genre/subgenre that is so new though. It gives me a sense of freedom, a sense that I can reimagine the rules.

    I write trans romance for lots and lots of reasons but one of the best outcomes of writing it is how few other people are writing it, how knew it is. I am much more likely to write a fat main character, a disabled main character, a main character who is not white or not young in a trans romance because I don’t feel there is the same kind of genre expectations for it yet. I can write whatever kind of sex scenes I want or no sex scenes at all and don’t have to worry about if I am doing it ‘right’, or if I am bucking a trend. The audience for trans romance is still so small and made up of people who are already willing to step out of their comfort zone or trying something new. I don’t need to have an alpha hero in my books or make sure my sex scenes include penetration.

    Right now I make the rules and there is something very special about that.

    • Wow, I love your comment. You are so right about getting to make up the rules, explore, invent, take risks especially with trans romance–it feels very uncharted right now, and I agree that the readership is not looking to have the usual safe, mainstream fodder fed back at them. At times it feels like we’re past that in M/M; it’s grown so big, so many books, international conferences, entire presses. In comparison it can feel almost establishment, and there are definitely conventions authors violate at their peril–age of the characters (under 32 roughly) and the happy ever after being two. Edmond Manning’s post talked about the latter of those. Still, I have yet to meet a person in my RL existence who has ever heard of M/M until I explained it existed, so I guess we’ve got a little more time in our cool semi-secret clubhouse. I think my tentacle story was a bit of a jump off the literary cliff for me, about as far as I could get from my old life trying to write academic essays on the narrative techniques of Jane Austen and George Eliot. I can definitely attest that there is something really liberating, and just plain fun, about trying to craft a story in a genre that can generously be labelled wackadoodle.

      • I totally agree with you, m/m often feels like in many ways the genre’s already been locked it. There is a definitely sense that there is a right way and a wrong way to write in this genre. To the point where I’ve had questions about how tropes are constructed or why we do certain things brushed off with a shrug and “that’s what the market wants” or “that’s what is expected.” There is a sense of a known audience (straight, cisgender women) that lots of presses and authors market specifically to. I’ve had authors tell me “I want to write x but I know that’s not what my readers want.” We have a strong sense that Y sells and X doesn’t.

        At the same time the genre is very new. Most people don’t know m/m exists, no one is getting rich off writing it, and there is no m/m on the New York Times best sellers list. So I hold out hope that flexibility and change is still possible. I think there are a lot of amazing things about m/m, and a lot of amazing people writing it.

        I know when I got into the genre maybe four years ago things felt a lot MORE locked down than they do know. I think part of that is the way the genre is changing but most of it is my perspective. I think its easy to look at this community and see a united front, visit Goodreads and think all m/m readers want X and all m/m writers are Y. But I think its still a little more wild west out here than we let on.

        I just hope that when that when m/m in particularly and queer romance in general does truly go mainstream we do it on our terms and don’t simply conform to that mainstream culture would rather we be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: