Who Speaks For Who?

There was commotion on the Lambda Literary comments page this past week. Mainly Lizzy Shramko's "Can M/M Romance Challenge the Definition of LGBT Lit?" and  Victoria Brownworth's "The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality."

In Shramko's essay, she argues that since M/M romance is written extensively by straight women, the idea of LGBT literature (and identity in general) is challenged because here we have straight women inhabiting the voices of gay men. Identity then is fluid, through writing this happens.

In response, Brownworth points to the history of queer pulps (I love queer pulps, I'm saving money to get my hands on Marion Zimmer Bradley's pulps), and the fetishizing of lesbian sex from the straight male gaze. She goes on to explore how M/M romance dehumanizes gay male relationships through a heterosexual framework.

Paul Bens, author of Kelland, was one of the first to comment on Brownworth's post. Bens agreed with Brownworth's attacks on the entire idea of heterosexual women who write M/M romance, mainly because of the pseudonym and identity conundrum. As Bens writes:

While that has lessened, it is still happening and numerous m/m writers have their gender and/or orientation shift with whatever market is looking for fiction. The gay man of one minute is a bi woman the next, but when a big publisher decides to market m/m for straight women by straight women, lo and behold, that same writer is suddenly a straight woman.

In part, it is the idea of straight women writers committing (sociology term!) epistemological violence on gay men. As Brownworth writes, M/M romance and the relationships within them are heterosexualized:

In the M/M stories–a majority of which are historical romances in which class and age inequities prevail–there is a “male” man and a “female” man. As in lesbian pulps written by men, class and power inequities force the younger, “female” partner into situations that would be untenable in a real queer relationship.

A feature of M/M novels is often rape. A stronger man rapes a younger, more feminine man. This was often a feature of lesbian pulps and lesbian porn written by men. The “male” lesbian raped the “female” lesbian, making it easier for her to desert the lesbian for a “real” man because there was suddenly no difference between a lesbian and a “real” man.

In actual gay male relationships, men don’t rape each other. That breaks the bond–just as it would in a heterosexual relationship. That these women writers don’t know that is part of the fetishizing of the gay male bond.

Overall, Brownworth aruges that the framework from which these straight women write is from a heterosexual notion of relationships--which is purely based on the male/female binary, something not seen in same-sex relationships.

Enter M/M superstar Erastes, who had already been attacked for changing identity: ze has apparently identified as trans, but also intersex. Erastes ends by asking "Why does it matter?" Indeed, the other question is why does it matter what's in the author's pants, we should be paying attention to what is in between the covers.

I think this idea of representation will always be there as long as there is identity. For example, if we do solve this problem between hetero and queer representations, there will also be, as a commenter noted, representions of race:

This might be an assy question, but are… um, any of you m/m writers people of color? I wonder if it’s just because y’all don’t know what it feels like to see a majority culture ape (badly) our cultures and spaces. Like, I hate a lot of “Asian” fiction written by white writers–it might be “good writing” by a technical standard but the characters are very much the Other for a white audience, and it’s often really dehumanizing.

, not to mention class, disability, etc. The conversation is perhaps something that is evident in all identity-based literature: who speaks for who? Can a writer write as someone else that is not their identity, and can the writer do so authentically? Does matter at all how the writer identify if s/he does it authentically? Can we blame a writer for not authentically portraying something when s/he were never given any other gaze? Also: who is it to say that an author is not a specific kind of identity: is identity something that a community puts onto you, or do you have choice of how you identify?

If you speak for yourself, it kinda okay, but in fiction, you don't speak about yourself: you speak for other people, including those within your community (individuals within communities differ too). The writer's gaze effects how everything ends up. In such a point of view, you can never successfully speak as others. I have always believe that fiction writers write about themselves.

Yet I really do believe in the power of literature as a tool to transform us into other people's lives, for both reader and writer. Nicola Griffith posted something on her blog once about how it was scientifically proven that fiction creates empathy. In literature, we have the tool to inhabit other lives. The only problem is that you--as a writer--have to do it right. But can you ever do it right? This is part of the problem I have while writing outside of a gay male character. Do I have the right to speak as a straight man, or a straight woman, or a lesbian, or a trans person?

Because of identity, everyone's gaze is flawed. But I think--again, I go back to the power of literature--if you put all the fragments together, you might find something almost like a whole: think of a mirror, every written piece is a fragment; yet put it all together, we might have something that is almost like a mirror. But then again: we still have to filter out what literature is made to hurt (through stereotypes) and what is a authentic piece of said "mirror" of reality and society. But the question becomes: can literature truly reflect society? I mean, really? Even fantasies like M/M romance, can these be and are these remnants of our social thoughts?

Don't get me started on reality.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Eric! Thanks for an interesting article. I particularly like seeing Erastes referred to as a superstar :)

    Lee Rowan has written a lot more in response to your article, particularly to correct some of the things which Victoria Brownworth said, which are opinions rather than facts. But unfortunately she can't get it to post, so I'm including a link to her response here:

    which is a lot more eloquent than anything I could come up with here.