Not That Kind of Sub

There are a couple of parallel discussions going on right now that have Venn-diagrammed their way into my feeds, and last night’s #RWChat cemented something I’ve been feeling vaguely “off” about for a while.

I’m not a sub-genre.

Let me explain.

Sub-Genres of Romance

There are a couple of places you can go to get different lists of sub-genres for Romance. Obviously, the RWA has a list: Contemporary, Erotic, Historical, Paranormal, Religious/Spiritual, Suspense, and YA. Wikipedia adds a couple: breaking down part of what the RWA calls Paranormal into Science Fiction and Time-Travel, and adding Multicultural (more on that in a bit).

That was the stage set, so to speak, for the discussion on #RWChat about sub-genres in romance, and one of the questions was “should there be new sub-genres?” and, of course, queer came up as a suggestion.

And that’s where I started to flinch.

Queer as a Sub-Genre?

Now, before I start, I do want to point out where the notion comes from in the minds of most, and that it’s from a good place. Let’s be honest, queer characters don’t get the recognition in romance that their allocishet counterpart characters do. That’s just the current reality.

To ground this in my own experience, I’ve been waffling over joining the local chapter of the RWA. I got invited to a lunch, I already know a few of the authors though awesome events like Romancing the Capital, and my romance output is rising, so it seemed like something worth exploring. Shortly into the dinner, one of the authors announced that they didn’t believe men could be bisexual.

So. I had a choice. I could make a bit of a scene and speak out, or I could wait and see what happened. I chose the latter (I regret that) and nothing happened. I think I managed a weak “I’m not sure you get to decide that,” a few moments later than would be effective.

I haven’t joined the RWA. Maybe another year.

So, when I see organizations like the RWA and their awards go (almost exclusively) to allocishet characters, I’m totally not surprised. And I get why it seems like making a sub-genre just for queer characters is a great idea. I can even see how there’s some merit to it.

Yes, Queer is a Sub-Genre!

For one? There’d be a queer winner of a RITA every year, right? There’d have to be, if there was a sub-genre just for queer characters in romance, rather than the occasional one here and there, and some years not at all.

For another? Visibility. Those titles short-listed would be a quick, easy, one-stop shop to show people some queer characters in romance.

Even more? Legitimacy. If someone like the RWA (okay, maybe not my local chapter) was loud about saying “Queer Characters are Welcome in Romance!” that’s a big deal. Their history with that isn’t so great, and it would go a long way.

So why don’t I like it?

No, Queer isn’t a Sub-Genre!

Honestly? It’s the flip side of the positives I listed above.

For one? There’d be only one winner of a RITA every year with a queer character, because any book with a queer character would be shunted into the queer character box. Never mind if there was a contemporary romance with queer characters that was far and away better than the allocishet character contemporaries on the short list, and also a YA romance with amazing trans characters that blew the allocishet character YA romance shortlist out of the water: only one of them could win. Because they’re queer, and they get one award, competing against each other, even though they’re vastly different sub-genres with only their queerness in common.

For another? The rest of the awards become a queer-free zone by default, and the notion of allocishet characters as “normal” or “default” is increased. Because if there’s one queer romance sub-genre, but thirteen other genres that aren’t, how is that not the message? Books with allocishet characters would get to be considered in groupings of their plots, tropes, and against similar titles. But queer would judged for being queer.

Last? From a publishing point of view, it can actively delegitimize. “We have a sub-genre for queer stories” sounds solid until that becomes a limitation. Think about what women of colour face in the romance world (and, thereby, their characters). “No, we have the four titles we’re publishing for our black-women line this month.” “Oh, but my book is a romantic suspense with a black lead, you publish eight romantic suspenses a month, so…” “No. It’s a black-woman, so it only goes here. Four titles a month. Period.” This is why I get twitchy about “Multicultural” as a sub-genre, too.

Not to mention queer people of colour exist. Where do they go? The multicultural romance, or the queer romance? Which one trumps the other? This is why “people as a sub-genre” gets messy. People are messy. We don’t fit one box.

Oh, yeah, and what happens when that line gets canceled?

Okay, Smart-Guy, Solutions?

Yeah, I didn’t say I had a solution.

Well, no, I do: judge romances with queer characters alongside those with allocishet romances and do so on a level playing field with judges capable of reading them without bias but ha ha ha, yeah. I could barely finish that with a straight face. After all, men can’t be bisexual, right?

Heavy sigh.

The good news is I’ve heard from other readers that romances with queer characters are making strides. Radclyffe, who writes lesbian romances across many romance sub-genres, has been a finalist in many RWA chapter contests in the correct sub-genre category for her books (thanks for that info, Ruth!). That’s progress.

I also totally respect the opposing opinion here. I’m just as tired as anyone else of queer characters barely making it to the foreground of awards and recognition and bestseller lists, and I can empathize with “I don’t care if it means there’s just one winner every year and one short list. At least it would exist and shows we exist.” Like I said above, that’s a fair freaking point.

And maybe it has to go through that step first in places like the RWA, with the ultimate goal of later disentangling it into the sub-genre awards? I don’t know. But I think things like the Rainbow Awards, the Publishing Triangle Awards, and the Lambda Literary Awards (and other queer awards) fill a niche of queer-character writing awards, and they have genre breakdowns built-in. It’s still about the genres there.

I want places like the RWA and Goodreads to step up, not pen us in.

So, I guess, that’s my solution. Not that the RWA and Goodreads will do it, but that we need to make them do it. Groups like Women of Color in Romance (if you don’t follow them, go follow them, right now) do fantastic work to make noise and highlight the incredibly talented women of color writing romance out there who already exist but don’t get the same massive attention the white authors do because publishing is so very, very white.

Publishing is also so very, very allocishet.

I want more noise. Noise about all the #ownvoice writers and characters that exist in romance—queers included—and maybe that’s what it will take to get those books on the shortlists in the sub-genre categories where they belong.

Wait, Goodreads?

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Handmade Holidays is a contemporary romance. It has gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans people in it. It’s still a contemporary romance.

Yeah, that was the other circle on the Venn Diagram, and I don’t want to say it all again, but once again the Goodreads Choice Awards are up, and soon it’ll be time to vote and there’s a petition going around to create an LGBTQ+ category to vote in.

And all those same reasons for it to be good—and bad—apply. Because I think back to 2014, and Two Boys Kissing deserved to be the winner in YA, not LGBTQ+. Ditto They Both Die at the End this year.

But there were next to no books with queer characters on the initial list of titles. And that’s not a surprise. Because while queer people are expected to read allocishet books and be satisfied, the opposite isn’t true. And no one can force someone to read a book they don’t want to read. We’re outnumbered, and will always be so.

So, no. I’ve got no happy solution. But I did write-in a book with queer-characters into every slot where I thought that book was the best book I’d read this year. That’s what I can do with the system the way it is, and so I do. And sometimes I didn’t add a book with queer-characters (I voted for The Hate U Give in YA, even though there’s zero queer content, because that book was amazeballs and freaking important and I want it to win all the prizes and I hope They Both Die at the End wins all the Lammies and PTAs and Rainbows and that’s why I love that there are queer-character awards, too).

I’m not a Sub-Genre.

My final thoughts on this snarl are exactly that: just mine. I’m not speaking for all of queer kind here. I can’t. I’m only queer in my own way.

As a reader, I want to see queer reality in all the genres. In science fiction, in mystery, in literature, in romance, in YA, in all the categories. All of them. Even horror, which I barely read. Readers deserve to see themselves. The magic of digital tagging means readers can drill down to find those titles, too.

But I—again, just me, speaking for me—don’t want it to be “Queer,” with a sub-category of “Romance” if that means when I click “Romance” there will be no queer. Queer belongs in romance. Period. I want to click “Romance,” and then “Contemporary” and then be able to find the queer titles. And I want to see shortlists for awards where “Contemporary Short-form Romance” includes a novella with trans characters.

If that means places like the RWA have to learn men can be bisexuals first? Well. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and get back to teaching instead of waiting to hear what they currently say.

 

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It’s not a witch-hunt to discuss a blurb.

Quite a few people are in an uproar about something happening in the m/m writing world over the past little while.

Must be Monday.

Gay for You? AGAIN?

I know, right?

Now, honestly, on the topic of Gay for You stories—and my general loathing thereof—I’ve really already said my piece. (For those of you playing the home game, it’s here.) But something I said a little there I’m going to say a bit more clearly now, and expand upon it a bit.

When the first reaction to criticism is “I don’t see that,” it seems to me the first question on the part of the author (or disagreeing reader) should be “Why don’t I see that?”

I’m willing to bet that very often the answer is “I haven’t lived that.”

Rather than a declaration of opposition to the criticism, and dismissing it out of hand, it’s worth parsing. Every writer has gotten edits or criticism they’ve chosen to ignore. But a good writer knows even those ignored edits or criticism have value, and might point out something worth clarifying or exploring more. If an author didn’t intend harm, but harm is perceived, there’s likely an opportunity to clarify the message to reduce that accidental harm.

Now, there’s some confusion I’m seeing between criticism and someone telling an author what they can and cannot write, and I think there’s an inversion here at play in the way criticism is being perceived.

If a reader says, ‘You’ve written a character portraying a harmful stereotype,’ or ‘You’ve really misrepresented a culture here,’ or the like, they’re not saying, ‘You shouldn’t write this.’ They’re saying, ‘You didn’t do a good job writing this.’

See the difference?

Once You Know It? You Know It.

Now, to quote myself again (I know, I know, so gauche):

[W]hen those who belong to the group you’re writing about tell you in no uncertain terms that they feel harm by a message you’ve delivered, you can’t unknow that. If you keep doing it, you’ve chosen to do so. This works inclusively and exclusively. If you never have a character who isn’t white, or all the trans characters you write are always killed, or the person who uses a wheelchair is a prop to remind your main character her life could be worse, you’re propagating a problem. And you know it. And you’re choosing to do so.

And that’s totally within your right to do so as an author. No one will deny that. I certainly won’t. And I’ve heard authors bemoan that they’re just trying to write fun sexy romantic stories for their readers, and that we queer folk shouldn’t ruin their fun. But if an author chooses to put their reader’s fun over active harm their portrayal of queer characters does, then they’re going to get called out on it.

Don’t be surprised if people point it out, and don’t feel slighted if others don’t suggest your work because of it, or let others know the content included should be avoided by those who aren’t looking for one more reminder of how they’re not worth inclusion.

There’s the rub. Once the discussion has been had, if an author thereafter becomes a repeat offender, well… they’re a repeat offender. There’s no limitation on the number of times someone gets to say ‘This person’s representation in their fiction is kind of awful and harmful.’ There’s no, ‘Well, they’ve already been told once, so I should let it pass from now on.’

In fact, that’s the opposite of what’ll happen.

So, y’know, don’t be surprised, maybe?

Blurbs. They’re for Judging.

The third thing—and this one maybe surprises me a little less, but still—is the notion that you can’t judge a book by its blurb, and you shouldn’t judge the book by its blurb because it’s unfair and you haven’t read the story.

Okay. So. How can I put this?

That’s literally what the blurb is for.

I’m serious. Let’s draw a different parallel. I’m not at all a fan of gore. Like, I’m the anti-fan of gore. And I am so not down with zombies. In visual form, in written form, in audio form, doesn’t matter. No gore. No zombies. No gory zombies. There’s a reason I’m not often a reader of horror. It squicks me out, gets in my head, and I end up having bad dreams for days. (Yes, I just admitted that horror gives me nightmares, but whatever, I’m a grown adult and I can own my permeable subconscious.)

Recently, I listened to the audiobook of Leviathan Wakes. The blurb is this:

Humanity has colonized the solar system – Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond – but the stars are still out of our reach.

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, the Scopuli, they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for – and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to the Scopuli and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations – and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

This hit all the right notes for me, we bought the audiobook, started listening, and then, about thirty chapters in or so? Total gorefest. Like, (mild spoiler here), vomit-zombie gore. Nowhere in that description did I get the slightest notion that I’d be in for a gooey, gory, vomit-zombie story. Luckily, it didn’t last long, and we finished the book. I’m still not sure how I felt about the book as a whole thanks to that, but I’d definitely warn other weak-stomached low-threshold-for-zombie folk I know about the book.

Here’s the thing: if the review had made mention of the gorefest, or even mentioned the word zombie? I would have chosen not to read it. That’s just as much a function of a blurb as the stuff that made me want to try it out: to let me know if a book isn’t something I’ll enjoy.

The blurb is one way a reader chooses to read—or not read—a book.

So, when I hear ‘you’re judging a book by the blurb!’ as though it’s a bad thing, that’s why I scratch my head. Of course readers are. That’s the whole point. The judgement of whether or not a reader wants to read the book can come very much from a blurb. Or reviews. Or discussions of the book.

And if the blurb makes it clear the story is a Gay-for-you plot—something a reader already knows they dislike, something they’ve already made very clear isn’t just something they dislike but something they actively believe can and does do damage via bi-erasure when handled in particular ways—then it’s perfectly cool for a reader to say, ‘No. This book? I do not want to read this book. Another book that erases bisexual and pansexual identities is so not going to get my time.’

They’re allowed to say that out loud. They’re allowed to share that opinion. They’re allowed to point it out to other readers who might not realize the undertones, damage, erasure or what-have-you will likely be in play in said book.

The author? The author can write whatever they want. And readers? The readers can read whatever they want—and they can not read what they don’t want to read. Readers—especially readers who are members of a living, breathing culture the writer is representing—get to speak about what the portrayal does, how it affects them, and if it is damaging. The author doesn’t get to say they’re wrong. Other readers can say it doesn’t bother them, but, like I mentioned above, those other readers can’t un-know the effect this writing can have.

Rachael wrote a great post on this subject, frankly: How to be a fan of problematic things.

So, just to be clear, this is a perfectly valid series of events:

  1. Author writes a gay-for-you book that erases bi and pan folk.
  2. Readers, including queer folk and especially bi and pan folk, point out how that erases them, and the damage done with portrayals in gay-for-you stories.
  3. Author responds to accusations. Poorly, or well; with an apology, or not. Or, doesn’t respond, or rails against the criticism. Either way, it’s fairly certain the criticism has been heard.
  4. Another book comes out. The blurb makes it clear this is a gay-for-you story, and refers to characters in gay-for-you terms, and describes the book as more of the same.
  5. Readers, including queer folk and especially bi and pan folk, choose not to read the book, and are loud about how yet again they’ve been erased.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

At no point there does the author have to stop writing books that erase bi folk. At no point there does the reader have to back off.

But the author? They sure as hell don’t have the moral high ground. A group of living, breathing people has said, ‘Hey, this does harm.’ Maybe the author didn’t mean to. But if we’re hitting the next book, and the next book, and the next book?

It’s a choice.

Choices have consequences.

These discussions?

They’re consequences.