Monday 16 July 2012

The genetics of our writing

Once upon a time, it was received wisdom that, as a young writer starting out, you should use a gender-neutral or male pseudonym (I'll talk about pseudonyms later). Some female authors even invented the rest of it - the whole gay identity (fuelled, in part, by the desire of readers to "know about us" - in some small way, we're public people, we need to blog, and we need to talk about us, because to some degree, being a writer is almost as much about "being cool/interesting" than it is about writing half-way readable stuff).

Thankfully, that's a discussion that appears to be over. While there are gay biologically-male authors (the ones born with a penis) that have a celebrity status largely because they have a functioning penis and balls that they've been born with (and some know that and are a bit embarrassed that that seems to be a huge factor) - no longer is being female and/or using a female pseudonym an impediment to large sales.

For every reader who chooses to read "from bio males only" (assuming greater "authenticity", which is a fallacy), there is at least one who will avoid it because "gay porn" has a slightly different "flavour" than explicit m/m romance.

The "flavour" of the author's writing is, in my theory, dictated by whatever writing tradition s/he belongs to.  It's the beauty of our genre that there's a great deal of influence from gay/queer fiction, slash fiction, and het romance, and hence we have a huge range of flavours and traditions and attitudes to choose from.

To explain: People who read a lot of gay porn (male-written for male-reading) will use the terms and phrases and traditions of that. I used to joke that if you learn the exact number of inches and circumference in play in the first paragraph or, at the very least, on the first page, it's written by a biological gay male (that's the tradition as far as I'm aware of it). There are simply things in gay porn that are very rarely picked up in explicit m/m stuff (like underwear-sniffing and watching a man piss as a voyeuristic pleasure). That said, I know that non-genetic males have picked up on those traditions and crotch-sniff and pee-watch with the best of them, so take anything I say here with a grain of salt.

Other traditions are from het romance. My favourite? What I call "The Bruising Touch" - you've all read it - it goes like this: "he gripped her so hard she'd be bruised in the morning".

That's a "tell" (as in Poker) that either, the author is biologically female and speaks from experience (because women on average bruise much easier - the connective tissue is simply not as strong. OR, the author comes from the het romance tradition, where this kind of bruising is very romantic, somewhere between a hickey and overall soreness "to remember him by". The alpha male is so strong he can't control his strength, but she *loves* it.

These are just a couple examples of traditions. "Cool stuff" we catch in what we're reading ("Oh, wow, he's got 1111!!!!eleven inches! Need to put that into my next story!" or "God, that brusing thing - SO HOT!"). We're learning how to write sex and intimacy from the material we read. Few of us make notes while getting down and dirty with our partners, because ideally, we're too busy to notice exactly how his balls draw up or that even a firm grip doesn't have to lead to brusing. Also, there's the stereotypical gay porn dialogue: "Are you ready for me, baby?" - "Yes! Give me!" - "Ungk!" - "Groan!" - "Are you all right?" - "Yes, I need more!", which by now makes me laugh. Seen it too much, read it too often, it's been done so much for me it's absolutely dead and boring.

What we read and how we read defines who we are as authors and how we handle our material - FAR more than the biological gender or even our pseudonyms. The biggest sellers in our genre are women. There's no difference in talent - or emotional content. I think some of the cruellest, psychologically most fiendish authors are biological women (Manna Francis, I adore you!) and some of the sappiest, saccharine, "he kissed me and I asked him to marry me and adopt three orphan children!" books were written by biological males.

On a personal note - the reason why I'm sometimes accused of "not really" being a romance writer (I can disprove this with a rock-solid argument drawing on my literature degree) - I haven't actually read much het romance - hence I don't have that "flavour". I don't know how it's done, the traditions of "what to do/not to do" was never absorbed into my creative DNA. (One of the reasons why I read "Dear Author" religiously? Filling in that gap in my education.) I was never aware that you get bruises during sex, for example.And I can say I've never read enough slash fanfiction - beyond what my friends wrote and the few stories that were recommended to me - to know those rules and tropes. Essentially, I wrote fantasy and sci-fi (and horror) and mainstream fiction that happened to be about characters who happened to be gay or bisexual and happened to have a love interest that they pursued. The only difference in what I'm doing now to what I used to do? Look more at the relationship (far more), have more happy endings, and put the sex on the page.


  1. "What we read and how we read defines who we are as authors and how we handle our material - FAR more than the biological gender or even our pseudonyms."

    The paragraph that begins with this sentence pretty much says it all, Aleks. I'd also add personal temperament to the list of determining factors -- and that's a product of nature (genetics) as much as nurture (upbringing and life experience).

    By the way, that bruising trope is news to me, and I have written het romance! It strikes me as more weird than erotic or romantic, at least in a non-BDSM context. o_O

  2. Oh belss you, you made me laugh!!!
    Sadly soo many of what you say are true. The cliches that go around out there are so dead boring that are making it hard for us (readers) to enjoy the genre. Men are being falsly portrayed and most novels tend to focus on sex too much rather than having it be a part of the story. Like another author (Ryan Field) mentioned on one of his blog-threads, there must be a book left even if you remove the sex from the novel. Hard to find i the majority of published books out there.
    As for bruises, hahaha, yeah, I've been bruised once, but that was not from firm grips, rather from being piss drunk and having slipped off the bed, hitting my body on the nightstand. True, women bruise easier due to our soft tissues, but is unlikely to happen from passionate, firm gropping aye?
    Anyway, great post, truly enjoyed it.

  3. I've come across the bruising-thing a few times and it always stuck me as weird (unless we're talking BDSM or one character being significantly stronger than the other). Personal experience probably because I don't bruise that easily.

    While I've read some het-romances and a lot of m/m-romances and probably even more slash I'm not always too fond of the tropes and stereotypes found in them, yet I'm aware that readers maybe expect them. But maybe they are like me and don't want them. For example, I'm still looking for a BDSM-het-romance that has a dominant female.

    Like you I come more from the SF/F-books with gay characters in them direction. Right now I'm rereading Tanya Huff and I'm sure books like that influenced and still influence me a lot more than most (het)-romances do. But I'm pretty sure I was equally as strongly influenced by all the slash I've been reading.

    One difference between gay porn and m/m (or slash) that I noticed, is also word-choices. Like cock versus dick. Or words like chute. From what I've read the language in gay porn (het porn too btw) is a lot more direct and to the point. Het romances used to be very good at being descriptive and avoiding direct terminology. It's gotten better, but occasionally one still stumbles across the 'spears of pleasure' and 'grottos of lust' :-D. I once even read the spears thing in a gay romance about Greek soldiers. It just cracked me up and I couldn't finish the book because I just couldn't take it seriously.

    For me as a writer it also depends in what language I'm writing in. In German I write differently than in English.

    I think culture and the cultural definition of gender also influences a writer more strongly than the actual biological gender. In addition to the things we read which at least at an early age and all the way through school are again defined by the culture we grow up in and by what's available. Things are changing now thanks to the internet and the broadening of our horizons.

  4. This made me laugh...
    Few days ago, I tried to explain friend why I didn't like one m/m romance that is favorite and it's #1. You said it so much better. I want to read romance between two guys, not m/f romance in disguise. Don't emasculate men in m/m romances, please...Guys just don't do certain things. Like think about bruising, for example. Over description of feelings or overthinking in arousing state is another favorite of mine. Guys think like guys and sometimes there isn't much going through their head in sexy moments or they have thoughts that won't endear them to female readers always. They are guys, not girls with penises. But I don't blame it on sex or genetics,it depends on writer: like YA writer who gave his 15 year old character thoughts of 35 year old woman.
    Kudos to Mana Francis from me, too, her Val Toreth is one of my favorite character.