Thursday, April 30, 2015

M/M Romance: The Next Big Thing?

Last Tuesday, the US Supreme Court heard arguments on a case that could allow same-sex marriages in all 50 States. I truly hope common sense prevails and that soon every American will have the right to marry, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

And ten years ago, we weren't even having this conversation.

Something happened last month that reflects a similar shift, but on the micro level (meaning, not nearly as important as the Supreme Court, but still telling). Three M/M romances were nominated for RITA awards. They were Fever Pitch by Heidi Cullinan, Bonds of Denial by Lynda Aicher, and The Bells of Times Square by Amy Lane. (The only one I've read - and reviewed - is Fever Pitch. Great book!) Before these nominations, there'd been only one LGBT story nominated for a RITA, Melt Into You, a F/M/M story by Roni Loren.

And ten years ago, M/M romance existed almost exclusively as fanfic or slash fiction. These stories were mostly written by women, for women readers, and most of them described the hypothetical exploits (sexploits?) of known movie, television, or literary characters.

Like, what was the REAL relationship between Harry Potter and Snape?

Yeah, I don't actually want to think about that one too hard. At some point between about the year 2000 and 2010, publishers caught on that the popularity of M/M fanfic meant there was a market for these stories, and authors started creating and publishing original works of fiction featuring gay men. (M/M is a shorthand for man-on-man, or thereabouts - jump HERE to read more about the evolution of the subgenre.)

Right here I need to make a short apology, both for using M/M in the title of this post, and for my focus on it as a subgenre. It's possible to find lesbian romance, and stories featuring trans and other LGBTQ characters. There's also a subgenre referred to as gay fiction, whose authors don't rely on romance tropes and endeavor to create stories set in more realistic, contemporary worlds dealing with the day-tot-day issues faced by people of a variety of orientations. (Jump HERE for a great post comparing M/M romance & gay fiction.) I don't mean to ignore anyone's preference or orientation or kink, but honestly, M/M is the big bear among LGBTQ romance fiction.
So how popular is M/M romance? While I'm pretty handy with a google search, I could't find any sales figures. However, in addition to the three RITA nominations,..

  • The Goodreads M/M Romance group has 17,468 members (and growing!), which puts it in the top four genre groups. That's right. Over 17,000 fans are part of this very active, engaging Goodreads group.

  • New groups like work to promote M/M and other subgenres of queer romance, along with a variety of LGBTQ fiction. New publishers like BrainMill Press are taking calls for a variety of gay fiction and romance, building on the foundation laid by Dreamspinner Press, Riptide Publishing, MLR Press, and other publishers of M/M. Perhaps even more significant, major publishers like Harlequin, Kensington, and Loveswept are seeking out and signing M/M authors.

  • This might be totally subjective, but I've seen a trend toward M/F romance authors slipping M/M books into their series. The Understatement of the Year is Book 3 of Sarina Bowen's Ivy Leagues series, is M/M while the other three feature heterosexual couples. Amy Jo Cousins did the reverse - the first two books in her Bend Or Break series are M/M, while the upcoming The Girl Next Door tells the story of a het couple Cash & Steph (though it does include a menage scene that just about blew my mind). And just this week, Christina Lee released There You Stand, the third book in her Between Breaths series, and the only one (so far) that's M/M. My view might be skewed by the corner of the internet I'm hanging out in, but I have to think these authors wouldn't be crossing subgenres if they weren't selling books.

One thing you might have noticed is that so far in this post, all the authors I've cited are women. While men do write M/M romance - Josh Lanyon, Damon Suede, Brad Vance, and Alexis Hall are well-known and fantastic at what they do - the majority of M/M romance writers are women, as are the majority of the genre's readers.

And isn't that a little weird?

Maybe yes; maybe no. I mean, the majority of romance readers are women, so it makes sense that they'd be attracted to stories that follow standard genre tropes, regardless of what was happening below the characters' belts. Women might like to read about men who are connected with their emotional side, but are some of the characters in these stories just "women with dicks"? Do they fetishize gay men, or even exploit gay sex?

Yep, some of them do. Some of these stories are the equivalent of the kind of lesbian porn that's aimed at sexually stimulating straight men.

But a lot more of them - and most of what I read - make an honest attempt to explore the love relationships between two characters who happen to be gay men. And some of that is erotic, and when it's done well, it's pretty exciting.

A few years ago, M/M author Alex Beecroft wrote this amazing post Why Do Women Write M/M Fiction - Answers for the Men. Among other things, she addresses the issue of whether M/M is exploitive, and if you've got a moment, her post is well worth reading (and so are her books, for that matter. My current fave is Blue-Eyed Stranger).

One of the most critical questions Ms. Beecroft asks is why it's considered bad form for women to get turned on by gay sex. (I'm going to quote her here, because she's so amazingly eloquent.)

Are straight women not allowed to have sexuality?

Or is it just that women are supposed to have such tight control over our sexual fantasy life that we can decide not to find something sexy even though by nature we do?  Are we, in short, supposed to stifle our sexuality because it makes men uncomfortable?

Hm.  That sounds like a very old form of oppression.  Men have put women in chastity belts and insane asylums in the past because they were uncomfortable with the fact that we too are sexual beings.  Stifling our writing is likely to be taken as one more attempt along the same lines.

Because shut up and stick to your heteronormative reality is kind of a harsh message, don't you think?

The other day, I got into it with my teenage daughter. She'd brought home a stack of books about different aspects of Native American life, "even though they were written by white people". In her view, only Native people could accurately capture the reality of their lives. I asked her what she thought about middle-aged white women writing M/M romance.

She didn't think much of that, either.

Taken to an extreme, her logic would say that only vampires can write paranormal romance. Which is kind of silly and reductionist, I'll admit, but I don't think you can put limits on what an artist chooses to create. If a writer has a story to tell, and makes an honest attempt at capturing the truth of that story, I don't think their plumbing should matter very much...although I acknowledge that there's been reams of blogspace taken up in debating this issue, in attacks and counterattacks and criticism of women who write M/M. I hope that won't happen here.

In a perfect world, readers will move on from M/M to F/F to trans to whatever else is out there. And in a perfect world, all these differing orientations will change from OTHER to just another way of being.

One final thought...the other day someone posted a query on the M/M Romance Reviews Facebook page, asking whether the people who follow the page get grief from their significant others for their reading/writing choices. The vast majority of the responses were along the lines of "my husband rolls his eyes, but is generally supportive", which is great. The query did make me think, though, because while my husband falls into the eye-rolling crowd, I haven't been real specific with my mother about the subject of my M/M romance Aqua Follies.

I mean, I'll tell her. Eventually.

In the meantime, I'll do my little bit toward bringing us all closer to the day when it won't matter who you read, and it won't matter who you love.

Because love is love.


If you've got a fave M/M book or author, or you want a recommendation for something to read, leave me a comment.


  1. Great post, although I believe that M/M romance is already a very large market. There's all flavours of m/m books, from mills-and-boon type romance to gritty thrillers to classic fantasy (funnily enough, some of THIS particular section is very much mainstream - Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series, for example). I've read quite a few, and I'm not sure why I like them but I do. Who knows, maybe I'll write one at some point?

    1. I hope you do, Tessa! Let me know if you need a beta reader...
      Also, I don't mean to imply that M/M started in the last couple years. People have been writing gay fiction about as long as people have been publishing. I see the books like the Nightrunner series as the precursors - sort of like Barbra Hambly's vampire books were a little ahead of the curve that exploded with Sookie Stackhouse, Anita Blake, and others. I think M/M hasn't had their Twilight yet, but I think it's coming.

    2. Well I think Anne Rice did a pretty good job by introducing, shall we say, fluid sexuality (of which there is plenty in the Anita Blake books, too, of course...)? Fantasy is an easy sector to start 'mainstreaming' LGBTQ storylines, I think, because you go into the story with the expectation that the world is probably not going to be exactly like our own? And there's lots of vampire m/m stories out there, of course, but none that made it 'across the border' out of the 'm/m' section.

  2. You're my fav m/m romance author Liv!! Oh and Restless Spirits by Jordan Hawks, at your recommendation. I prefer paranormal romance no matter who is wooing who ;) Great post.

    1. Aw, thanks Deb! I love all Jordan Hawk's books. She rocks!

  3. SO well done! Just another example of how "write what you know" doesn't apply! Loved the vampire example, too!

    1. Thanks my dear....because if only vampires could write paranormal, we'd pretty much be limited to Lestat & Louise...I'm pretty sure Ann Rice is a vampire, don't you think?

    2. LOL I would so not be surprised...

  4. Current m/m read: John Wiltshire's More Heat than the Sun series (spy/thriller). Took me a while to get into, but I'm on book two right now and it's rather engrossing. I'm also a big fan of Abigail Roux's Cut & Run series, and for the supernatural side, Charlie Cochet's Thirds books. And yes, I seem to be on a run with the police/spy/military type books.

    1. I haven't read any of the books you mention, Tessa!
      *runs off to Amazon*
      My weakness runs more toward the historical - KJ Charles, Joanna Chambers, Jordan Hawk, Bonie Dee & Summer Devon, Kiera much good stuff...

  5. Great, well-thought out article, Liv. In my case, I've found reading m/m romance has really opened up my awareness of the gay community -- whether or not the books themselves can be considered to be realistic. (I did find that post comparing gay fiction and m/m romance rather condescending towards the latter!) For that alone, I think it's a really important genre.

    But I think I love it because I do enjoy reading about men connecting with their emotions... and I love the different dynamic between two men, which is so less fixed than in het couples, where the role within a relationship is usually fixed by gender.

    1. I think the gender-role thing is a huge part of the appeal of m/m for me, Ellen. If I'm going to read about an alpha male hero, I'd much rather see him face off with someone who's just as tall and strong and nasty. I get sooooo tired of spunky heroines and the inherently uneven playing field with m/f romance.