(c) Lee Rowan, 2010
Hi. Interesting questions--there probably is no one answer, but they're certainly thought-provoking.
I do wish you'd verified Ms Brownworth's statement before reproducing it as fact, because much of what she set forth as gospel was anything but. Her assertion about rape in m/m was largely inaccurate--certainly not the case in any gay romance I've read. Yes, there have been stories where a character was raped--but not by his lover. Most of the rapists in books I've read (and one I wrote) ended up dead or in jail. And in my book, Ransom, the point was that with love as his motivation, the hero was able to face and overcome the damage of past abuse and triumph over a present enemy. The inspiration was, in part, a young man who was a client in my massage therapy practice. He'd been sexually abused for years and along with psychological counseling he was reclaiming his physical self starting with non-sexual contact from a female therapist. I drew also on things I learned from others, male and female, who had been abused and survived. Some healed and found love, others are still struggling.
Did I write the book they might have written? Of course not. That's for them to do if they choose. But I could adapt what I learned from them to make an attempt to show both the pain--the reality that rape is not sexy, it is destructive--and the courage it took to overcome it. Thousands of young people of all genders and sexual identites are abused every day. I think they could use some encouragement.
Is that exploitation? Is it hurtful to anyone to write a story that suggests that trauma can be overcome?
If Brownworth had bothered to check the submission requirements at most of the small presses publishing m/m (or gay romance, I use the short version solely to distinguish from conventional m/f) she'd have found that nearly all of them ban rape-as-titillation. Brownworth is judging the gay romances of 2010 by the 1970 standards for het romance, where 'good girls didn't' want sex and had to be 'forced' to accept sensuality. Which is a crock--and the reason so many women veered away from the genre; we didn't want rape disguised as controlling love. Brownworth set up a straw tiger that may exist in a few m/m books but is hardly representative of the genre as a whole.
Can anybody truly write from inside another's skin? What can we do but try? As you point out, fiction can create empathy. The world could use a little more of that, I think. Of course all writers put themselves into their characters--but we are also people-watchers; I like trying to figure out what's going on in someone else's head and putting these new ideas into stories. How boring would it be if no one ever attempted to write characters that were different from themselves? Who would read such tripe?
The notion of people switching identities... Until I was in my late 20's I assumed I was heterosexual, as most people do who are raised in an atmosphere that permits no other option. I'm happy for glbt kids growing up today, even as polarized as society is, because at least they know something else is out there. Was Oscar Wilde to be excoriated for marrying and begetting when he had no idea he had a choice?
I think that writing same-sex fiction can be--CAN be, as one possibility of many--a way of exploring one's own feelings about same-sex attraction. I've referred to myself as both bisexual and lesbian because I've had agreeable relationships with men but am married to a woman now, till death do us part. It took me half my life to get to that point. Coming out is a journey for many of us; who has the right to freeze anyone at any point and say "This is who you are!" That has a smell of right-wing fundamentalism to it, I think. As this artist suggests, who says that's a good thing--or even valid?
(thanks for the link, Erastes!)
It seems to me that anyone outside my skin attempting to define my sexual identity is committing a serious imposition.
The m/m series... Honestly, people--does anyone take a jacket blurb seriously? My "Tangled Web" cover text had several errors of fact--'pistols at dawn,' for heaven's sake. Some publicist thought all Regencies had to have them, so s/he slapped it on the cover over my protests. Publishers say what they think will sell the book; writers have no control over such things, and any writer who's ever tried to get an accurate cover knows that. Every single one of us told Running Press that we were not "Straight Women writing for Straight Women (tm)." We asked them to drop that silly tag line because it was only going to create problems. There's no way anyone is likely to mistake Don Hardy for a straight woman, but for some reason nobody's screaming about that. Nor should they--Lovers' Knot is a superb book and I think it probably will be regarded as literature... by posterity.
There's the rub for any writer. Literature is what endures, and even the most Serious Auteur of 'literary fiction' doesn't have that guarantee, no matter how many Serious Reviewers state that a work is an Important Book. Only time will tell.
I know and admire the work of several other m/m writers, and they are not writing rape, mayhem, or objectification for kicks. Neither am I. When it comes to fact-check on what I don't know, I ask for a critique (before submission) from a long-time gay friend because I don't have the physical experience and I don't want to make silly mistakes. If I have a book set in England, I ask friends in the UK to fact-check because I don't have a lot of experience there, either. If you don't have all the facts, you ask someone who does--preferably several someones, because no two individual members of a community will necessarily have the same opinions. It's called research. A writer has to gather data, then synthesize. No writer is going to produce a perfect story because no human being is perfect.
Writing people of color? That's a catch-22. Some people would attack me if I were to dare to write a character with a skin a different color than the one I wear, some no doubt think less of me for not (yet) attempting it. Someday I may have a story idea that compels me to make the attempt, and if so I will do my best to write a complete human being who comes from a place other than the one I occupy, and I'll ask friends of color to read it first to avoid unintentional insult.
What more can any writer do? What is our choice--write imperfectly, as we all must, or avoid any risk at all? There has to be risk. Writing is an adventure or it is nothing.
As for identity--I don't honestly believe "the community" can put an identity on me that necessarily bears any relation to who I am. And... which 'community?' The internet has created a plethora of them, most of them entirely superficial. My real community, the one whose opinion truly matters, consists of a relatively small number of people who actually know me on a personal basis. Some of them are people I have never met in person, but they are all people with whom I've spent enough time to have the sense that they don't just see me as a name on a book. No one who actually knows me would recognize the demonized harpy that Brownworth has mocked-up to prove... whatever it is she's trying to prove. If she's got flying monkeys buzzing her, they must be her own, not mine, and the choice of projection is rather telling.
"Who writes the label" is the crucial question, isn't it? There are so many "communities" out there... which one gets to define a writer, or anyone else? Is President Obama the standard-bearer of a better future, the hope of a fairer society that progressives would like to believe? The Islamic Manchurian candidate of teabagger paranoia? Or, like most of us, something in between the extremes of perception? Is a woman who has an abortion making a responsible decision based on her ability to raise a child, or is she the fundamentalist's demonized monster? Are GLBT folk a perfectly normal variation of the human genome, or spawn of the devil? "Tag That Writer" might be a good game show, but I don't believe it works on a large scale in such a diverse society. And the tag often says more about the person who wrote it than the person who's had it slapped on without consent.
Never mind "the community," if it comes to that. Communities are not homogenous blobs or hive-minds. Which member of a community writes the label? I don't for a moment believe Brownworth speaks for "the GLBT community," even though she has tried to seize that podium. The most a community can do is decide, collectively, how it wants to regard an individual--but no one is compelled to accept that label.
Bottom line: I am a living human being writing about fictional human beings. As the Dalai Lama has said, at some level, no matter what our differences, there are some things we have in common: we want to be safe, fed, we want a sense of worth, we want to be loved. I know, from what gay men have told me, that many gay men (like many lesbians, bi, trans, and the most vanilla het folks) would like to find a life-partner. My beta-buddy has been with his partner for nearly a quarter of a century. They don't want or intend to marry--but that doesn't mean they oppose the right to marriage equality for those who do. The enthusiastic response to calls for submission to the I Do anthologies--a charity project in support of that equality--demonstrated that many glbt writers believe in the hope of a happy ending. Is that 'heteronormative,' or just a basic human desire for love? Romances are not necessarily meant to be stark, bleak, gritty, or any of the other terms often used in praise of 'literary' fiction. We all live in a reality that's painful much of the time, however you define reality. Romance is escapist. And I'm not going to apologize for that. "Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind," Ruby Tuesday. We all need escape. We all need dreams.
I don't even try to write "literature." I write stories--the stories I want to read. And I wish that people who attack gay romance as though it's a monolithic entity would back up and get specific, because while I strive to write good fiction and I think most of my colleagues do, there are indeed books that perpetuate obnoxious, inaccurate stereotypes. Neither a good book nor a bad is an accurate represention of the whole genre.
I'll venture a generalization of my own: Nobody will ever write any book that achieves universal approval from everyone. And if any writer were required to meet all the expectations of every single reader who will ever pick up his or her book, or any 'community' who finds it convenient to pigeonhole and judge ... there'd be damned few books written.
Would that be better, do you think?
Lee Rowan is a writer of M/M romance novels, both historical and contemporary. In 2007, her novel Ransom was an Eppie winner (for Outstanding Achievement in E-Publishing.) Lee lives in Ontario, Canada.