I have a request.
An author friend of mine posted recently about some frustrations he was having with the book world, and I found myself wanting to reach through the screen and offer up a hug. A lot of what he was describing sounded very, very familiar, and I wished I had some sort of advice to offer.
But honestly? I don’t have any.
I feel like I need to caveat a lot of what I’m about to say with a clear, focused statement, so I’m going to do so: I love romance. I love writing romance. I will likely always continue to write romances, especially in shorter formats like novellas and short fiction.
Please re-read that a bunch of times if at any point this post feels like maybe I’m saying something otherwise. Because I’m not.
As a queer author who writes queer (and most often specifically gay male) fictions, there’s a thing that happens quite a bit to me in the reader/reviewer world: assumed romance.
Now, romance—like all the genres—is very much like a contract with the reader. If you pick up a romance, you are completely within your rights to assume there will be a happy-ever-after (or at least, a happy-for-now) by the time the narrative wraps up, despite whatever angst, worry, conflict, miscommunication, random chance, or crazy antics are tossed in the way of the characters. It’s a romance. That’s not up for negotiation, it’s part of the deal the author makes with the reader when they label their book a romance.
The romance world is an awesome one, and the readership is vast and honestly keeps the vast majority of the book industry going. Romance matters. It’s important. I will defend romance against all those book snobs who reduce it to snide remarks or create hierarchies of what’s a “real” book versus what isn’t.
M/M romance readers in particular are a force of nature, and good lord I love the energy in the room at Romancing the Capital when I get to talk with m/m readers. Happy endings are oxygen, and as a queer author who sometimes writes gay romances, I love that my gay romance writing means my readership venn diagram can cross over with the m/m readership.
But. (And you knew there was a but, right?)
But the flip-side to that passionate readership of romance can create real frustration for queer authors like me. Before I get there, though, I need to explain a bit about why—and what—I write.
Ask a million authors why they write, and you’ll probably get a billion answers, but the most central reason I write is to put characters I never saw into the world. I write for representation of queer folk like me, which young queer me never saw. I love that my readership is larger than queer folk, and I also recognize there’s a responsibility there to represent very, very well, as part of my writing does cross over into education, and I do my damnedest to write some queers who could be living, breathing folk who walk a day to day life here in Canada. That matters a huge deal to me.
That young queer me, who never saw himself anywhere in fiction (or the media, frankly), didn’t just read romance, though. He read science fiction. He read mystery. He read thrillers. He didn’t read much horror (neither does his grown-up counterpart, for the record), and he never liked anything gory (ditto!), but my point here is this: queerfolk deserve their happy endings in romance, absolutely, and they also deserve to exist in the mysteries, the thrillers, the science fictions, the horrors, and every other genre and sub-genre, too.
And sometimes, I write those. In fact, my two novels thus far—Light and Triad Blood—were both science fiction books. Contemporary, yes. And Light definitely had itself a romantic sub-plot. But they were both science fiction nonetheless. My third novel, Triad Soul, comes out next month and it, too, is a science fiction book. My novel after that? Young adult (although, again, there’s going to be a romantic sub-plot).
Gay romance novella. Oh, and wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.
My novella, In Memoriam (which, as of this morning was still free on Kindle, by the way) is a romance. So, if you read that, despite the blurb, and despite what looks like a potentially depressing topic, you know one thing for sure: happy ending. I have other novellas in the pipeline, too, and they’re all romances. Again, happy endings.
So why am I over-stressing this point?
Because far more often than you’d think, reviews of books with gay characters rate, rank, and describe the book on a romance scale when they’re not romances. This happens to me every time, and it happened to my friend who inspired this post, and it happens to so many queer authors I know.
“For a romance, this was really fade-to-black.”
“I never got the sense that they loved each other—they seemed more like friends and companions than lovers.”
“The romance plot was barely even there.”
When a book isn’t a romance, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
Now, I’m not putting all the blame on the reader, either. As an author there are definitely things to do to ensure the perception of a reader is on-target. The most basic is the cover. One of my erotica shorts, Three, is an example, I think, of a cover that pretty much tells you exactly what’s going on:
That’s Luc. He’s a French Canadian vampire, and he seems to have lost his shirt. That’s okay, though, because frankly a good portion of the short story involves him not wearing one. This is romance, and, in fact, erotica. The hunky shirtless guy on the cover helps make that clear. Now, there are also words on the cover, but let’s be honest, reading those will come second to that view of Luc. Ah, Luc. You can be so prim and proper and a little bit casually pragmatic, but when I see you without your shirt? It’s forgiven.
Sorry, where was I? Right! The words on the cover. If you look at the top there, it says “Erotic short story prequel to Triad Blood.” It’s safe to say there will be sex in this story. It’s also safe to say the story will be short. And hey! If you like the characters, there’s apparently more to read with them.
Reviews of this short story have included:
“This novel was really, really short. It was more like a short story.”
“Woah. The sex was really explicit.”
You see where I’m going with this, I imagine.
I try really, really hard to be clear with the book cover, blurbs, categorization, and discussions of my novels and novellas. There are no shirtless men on the covers of the Triad books, or Light. There will be no shirtless young man on the cover of my YA novel. They will be categorized correctly, and I’m still 100% sure that reviews of the book will contain “heat ratings,” discussions of the romance content, and at least one that will say, at some point, “for an m/m romance, I found this to be…”
So. Deep breath. What else do I do?
Nothing. There’s nothing else I can do. Except maybe this post, which it occurred to me to write after seeing my author friend’s post lamenting similar issues.
So, here’s my request. And before I make it, I just want to say, one more time: I love romance. I love writing romance. I will likely always continue to write romances, especially in shorter formats like novellas and short fiction.
But my request is this: before you review a queer book (especially a queer book by a queer author), please ask yourself: is it a romance?
The answer to that is easy to find. Look at the book’s listing on the publisher website or the e-tailer or the bookshelf in the brick-and-mortar store. If that book’s listing says “romance,” then by all means, judge the book accordingly (and yes, if there’s no happy ending, the author really, really messed up). But if the book is a science fiction, or a thriller, or a mystery, and you’re judging and reviewing it on the basis of the romantic content? It’s going to fail.
And, more, there’s a disservice happening to the reader and the author. Especially when we’re talking about queer folk. We’re more than our romantic entanglements. I’m still queer if I’m single. After I’ve fallen in love, gotten married? Still queer. Stories set both before and after the falling in love are still stories that queer folk need to see, need to have represented. Heck, part of the queer family also includes aromantic queers, which get completely tossed to the wayside when the conceptualization and reviewing of queer books is all done through a romantic lens.
We’re allowed these other genres. We’re allowed to be in the future on star ships, and the wizard behind the power on the throne. We’re allowed to be running for our lives from the undead, and hunting down a serial killer with our non-romantic FBI partners. We’re allowed all those stories, and all those stories aren’t romances.
Imagine how foolish it would seem if someone reviewed every cisgender, heterosexual main character in urban fantasy on how good a romance it was. It doesn’t happen. But throw queer characters into the mix, and there’s such a heavy prejudgement that of course queer means sex (or romance).
So please, please stop assuming that queer means romance. It can. It often will.
It doesn’t have to.