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!
- Web site: http://liliafordromance.com/
- Blog: http://liliafordromance.blogspot.com/
- Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6469805.Lilia_Ford
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.