lesley_hastings: The words "Lesley Hastings" on a parchment background (Default)
[personal profile] lesley_hastings
I am once again revising "The Demon Catcher", adding more detail (world building, characterisation, plot developments) in the hope of bringing it up to novella length. I'm also thinking a lot about how the political ramifications of my desire to write m/m romance -- and my actual writing of it.

There has, of course, been a lot of discussion about the ways in which m/m romance, particularly m/m romance written by straight women* (and I do identify as straight), appropriates and fetishises gay/bi/queer male experiences in a way that is not actually positive for gay men. This is an important discussion to have, and I do think that I need to remain open to any criticisms of my own work in this regard.

But what does being open to criticism actually mean? Certainly, it means not reacting in anger when someone (especially a gay/bi/queer man) speaks up with objections regarding m/m romance written by women (especially straight women). It means not saying "OMG, YOU'RE TRYING TO CENSOR ME AND SILENCE WOMEN'S VOICES", whenever an objection of this kind is raised. It means not claiming a subject position, that, as a straight women, I cannot inhabit -- that is, I cannot speak FOR gay/bi/queer men.

So, I have a list of things NOT to do -- that's the easy part. What about what I SHOULD do? Now, there are a few things that tend to come up on this list -- do your research, treat your characters as well-rounded people, etc, but in general, I think the list of "shoulds" is far more difficult simply because there is no one perfect way to write fiction; there is no such thing as an unproblematic text. Something I write might be construed positively by one person, and negatively by another -- and NEITHER of those people will necessarily be wrong. But when you're writing about a marginalised group of people -- particularly a marginalised group of which you are not a part -- any negative effect can be amplified simply by the cultural structures of privilege that already exist. It doesn't matter if I personally intended the story to be read that way -- because we inhabit a culture where negative readings of narratives that deal with LGBTQI characters abound.

At the same time, however, I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to structure my writing around what are, potentially, the most negative readings possible (even if I acknowledge that those readings will occur), because I do feel that this runs the risk of treating gay/bi/queer men as a homogenous group. There is no one single way in which GBQ men will respond to my work, and given that I do have these characters living in my head, revealing more of themselves to me every day -- I think the best thing that I can do is put those characters on the page, to make them as real as possible.

I've been trying to read up, as much as possible, on discussions about m/m romance, and I have seen some pretty faily statements made from many different perspectives. For instance, Victoria Bronworth's Lambda opinion piece, The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality, makes a number of sweeping generalisations about m/m fiction, such as that the majority of it is historical romance, and that it often features a stronger "masculine" man raping a "feminine" man -- while I have no doubt that this does happen in some m/m fiction (certainly, I've seen it in slash, although I wouldn't say that such tropes dominate the genre in any way) -- it is certainly NOT typical of the m/m romance that I have read.

Nonetheless, while Bronworth is clearly wrong in the way she characterises m/m romance, it doesn't mean that she is wrong to feel fetishised by m/m romance, or to speak out about it. And I DO think it is wrong that some people have responded with comments to the effect of "It's just FANTASY. It's not REAL." Because while fiction may detail events that never happened in the world of consensus reality, the story itself, as a literary artefact, IS A REAL THING. The story itself exists in the real world, and it affects people. If one writes a story that one hoped would be a positive thing, but someone responds to it in a negative way, they have the right to speak out about that, and the fact that the story is fiction doesn't change that.

Another piece that I've read while thinking about all this is [livejournal.com profile] sparkindarkness's Some More Poking of the M/M Genre. Spark is highly critical of the m/m genre, but I find that his criticisms are more nuanced, and more in line with what the genre is actually like than Bronworth's. On thing Spark says in particular gave me pause:


And this is especially the case when a book is primarily about sex or strongly sex driven (the “add 4 more sex scenes” school of m/m fiction). Because here we have gay men being used as sex toys. They may be well written sex toys, they may be non-stereotypical sex toys, they may even have been written to try to make them respectable - but they’re still sex toys, they’re still being used for others to get their rocks off. Sure, a non-stereotypical, attempted-to-be respectful sex toy is infinitely preferably to the stereotypical, disrespectful and plain awful sex toy. But it’s still a sex toy.


My story is not all about sex, but there are two fairly explicit sex scenes in my story, and I DID write them to be sexy -- I WANT my readers to become aroused while reading them. The sex scenes also have a larger purpose in the story, in terms of character and plot development, but that doesn't cancel out the fact that they are written as porn -- nor would I WANT that fact to be cancelled out.

So, where does this leave me? At the moment, I'm simply going on the way that I feel about representations of women in pornography. There is a lot of porn out there that I feel objectifies women in really negative ways -- but there is also porn out there that does NOT objectify women, and the difference, I find, for me, is I'm less likely to feel objectified the more that the audience is encouraged to emotionally identify with female protagonists. I realise that my experience as a straight women =/= the experiences of gay/bi/queer men. But I know that there is porn out there that includes women and, I think, presents women as people who are sexy rather than as sex toys, so I think that the same is probably true for m/m romance -- and that is what I will strive for, to write about men who are sexy, rather than sex toys who are ostensibly gay/bi/queer men.

But I might not always succeed at that. And I need to be aware of that. To that end, I'm going to list a few things I've been wondering about with regard to my own stories. I might frame them as questions, but I do want to make it clear that I don't think anyone is obliged to answer them. If anyone does want to contribute, that's great, but I'm not trying to imply that anyone should be coming in to educate me here.

So, here are things I'm worrying/thinking about:


  • My psuedonym: There seems to be a problem in terms of women choosing male or gender ambiguous pseudonyms for m/m romance, in order to imply that they are gay men and are capable of speaking for gay men. Is my pseudonym playing into this? That certainly wasn't what was on my mind when I chose it -- I chose it because "Lesley" is my middle name. I THINK that they "ey" spelling does indicate that I identify as a woman, and actually, I think it's a lot LESS ambiguous than my real first name (which is not an Anglo name, and doesn't have any clear gender markers to Anglo readers -- I have frequently been mistaken for male when using my real name online). Nonetheless, "Lesley/Leslie" IS a name that is used for both men and women, and given that masculine/gender-ambiguous names have this history in m/m romance -- should I adopt a different pseudonym before I have anything published?

  • Sex in my story: I DO think that the way I write sex in my story is a little bit idealised. I don't think I made it COMPLETELY unrealistic, but it's certainly not hyper-realistic either. Part of this is a genre thing -- it IS a romance, and I want it to be a happy romance, and that includes my protagonists enjoying sex. I also fear that the first time they have penetrative sex is a little heteronormative, insofar as it involves a sort of "missionary" position, and the bottom does experience a bit of pain at first. As far as the position is concerned, I wanted it that way because I want them to be able to see each other, while I felt it would be unrealistic for an inexperienced bottom to feel no pain at all (I know that it can happen, but I think if I did that I really would slip into over-idealisation).

  • The whole fantasy setting thing: As I mentioned above, I don't think that "but it's just FANTASY" is an excuse for objectification. At the same time, however, the concerns of a gay character living in a fantasy world (in my case, homophobia does exist in this fantasy world) are going to be different from a gay man living in a 21st century Western country. At the moment, I'm sort of working instinctively, but I'm aware that instinct can lead one to fail. I'm trying to figure out what's important here, what DO I need to research to make sure I'm doing this properly?


Anyway, that's what's on my mind. As I said above, I didn't pose these questions because I think anyone has an obligation to answer them, but having said that, I'm open to any comments that anyone might have.

*Obviously many LGBTQI women write m/m romance too, and I don't want to make that invisible, but I'm talking predominantly about straight women writing m/m here, because there's that extra layer of privilege involved.

Date: 2010-09-23 03:29 am (UTC)
ineptshieldmaid: Language is my playground (Default)
From: [personal profile] ineptshieldmaid
Fascinating essay - thank you.

Insofar as the pseud goes: if you're strongly attached to this one, I think you have every reason to keep it (after all, no one would expect you to change your *real* name, and this one incorporates part of your full name): but perhaps you may need to pay attention to (and, if published, ask your publishers/editors/cover designers to pay attention to) giving clear markers of your gender - in about-the-author blurbs, on this blog, etc.

Date: 2010-09-23 04:02 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] aelathem
An intriguing and well thought out essay. I've also subscribed to your journal here. I hope you don't mind.

I can't say a word about your pseudonym. This is my pseudonym. Like an author friend of mine who, very luckily, is extremely popular with both gay men and straight women, I wanted a neutral pseudonym. I'm not hiding the fact that I'm a married woman from anyone, in fact I mention it in my biography I plan on using when I do get published, but I'm also not going out of my way to advertise my gender or sexuality. I don't think it has any bearing on how well I tell the stories I write.

When it comes to m/m romance, gay romance or slash, there is no way to please everyone nor do I think the authors should attempt to do so. Accept criticism, learn from it or discard it, but don't linger on the objectification and fetishization arguments. You linger on it too long and you'll never write as you'll allow worry over pleasing and/or not offending the readers paralyze your writing. I did that to myself for more than a eight years... so I know what I'm talking about there.

I apologize for rambling and hope I didn't offend. This is just my opinion.

Date: 2010-09-24 11:05 am (UTC)
verasteine: Steve ((gen) sock)
From: [personal profile] verasteine
You know, this is a tough one, because I am, after all, a woman, and a straight one at that. I'm more likely to be asking the questions you're asking rather than answering them. Point that came to mind for me though, and don't take this the wrong way, but in the end, fetishising is what m/m romance written by straight women is about, in the simplest sense. You said it yourself; you aim to tittilate with the sex scene. Nothing wrong with that, since when I read a well written f/m novel, the author probably had the same in mind, and was likely straight (it's a fair assumption, though not necessarily true.) Of course I agree that respect, well rounded characters, and awareness of the issues that come up when you appropriate someone or something that is not your own are very, very important. (And my god, can I rant for ages about heteronormative m/m romance, be it published or transformative or a bit of both!) "Solving" this problem is a tougher one, though, although I should imagine awareness is a good start.

Re. the pseudonym -- the name you choose for yourself is your own. I realise what you mean about your given name (although I recognise it as female, but that's a culture/language thing), but in the end of the day, these ambiguous pseudonyms often have to do with selling ability as well. Women don't sell well, that's why we have J.K. Rowling and not Joanne. So use the name that represents you, and leave the implications of that aside, because that is a feminist issue as well as, in this scenario, a queer one.

Date: 2010-09-24 02:30 pm (UTC)
alba17: (coffee)
From: [personal profile] alba17
Very interesting discussion. I have nothing to add, really, as you all are much more thoughtful and analytical about this than me. But I enjoy reading everyone else's thoughts.

I have the same middle name, spelled Leslie. :) I always thought if I took a pseudonym, I might use it as a first name. Or my first two initials.

Date: 2010-09-25 12:58 am (UTC)
citrinesunset: (Default)
From: [personal profile] citrinesunset
I don't think there's anything wrong with your pseudonym, personally. While it can be a male of female name, in my culture at least, I think it's generally seen as female. And regardless, you certainly don't seem to be trying to make yourself seem like someone you aren't. Plus, it's your name. It's not like you chose it out of nowhere.

On a personal level, the pseudonym thing has been giving me trouble lately, though. I understand that they're referring to cis women when they're talking about that, and not trans men or genderqueer people so much, but, well, I guess it raises some of insecurities. I kind of feel like I'm misrepresenting myself to someone no matter what I do. I'm considering submitting a short story, and what's really holding me up is trying to figure out a pseudonym to use.

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