Twenty years ago I started writing seriously again after taking a long hiatus due to a pesky thing called adulthood, which involved gainful employment, getting married, moving across the Pacific Ocean and back, and struggling to stay married (glad I did). In 1993, approximately three seconds after I suggested that we take a motorcycle safety course together, the Man I Married bought a motorcycle. On our first road trip, on the back of that motorcycle, my imagination knocked around in that full-face helmet and demanded to be let out again. What else was I going to do on the back of a motorcycle other than daydream and admire MIM’s fine fanny?
Before MIM had unloaded the saddlebags (other than the ones on my thighs) when we returned home, I’d bounded inside, called my sister-in-law, and demanded the immediate return of the electric typewriter she’d borrowed. Within an hour, I was writing again, and I’ve never stopped since.
My first project was a contemporary romance. But the strangest thing happened while writing: my straight male hero walked into a gay bar and slept with the gay male bartender. Hey, I shouted at him, what about Jane, you Jezebel? But his fly was unzipped and there was no going back. He was off blowing kegs with a hairy, barrel-chested opera-lover. Well, I never! Dude, you are so fired.
Aw, what the hell, I then thought, and I went with it. I gave my hero, with a different name, his own story. That story was eventually published in a gay erotica anthology. I went through a phase where I churned out more of this type of stuff and published a few more such stories in anthologies with highbrow literary titles like “Friction.”
But all of this Dirty McMansmut business was leading me nowhere (other than making the Man I Married very happy every afternoon when I took a break; perhaps for this reason, letting a series of fictional men into my head and bed didn’t bother him). An editor loved my story when he read it in an anthology; he contacted me, wanting to reprint it in a Best Of gay erotic writing anthology, but he asked me to first identify my gender (he was asking this of all of the chosen authors). I tossed that question around for a while. Surely that information was neither here nor there. If he, a gay man, liked my story and found that its verisimilitude passed, what did the author’s gender matter? Plus, wasn’t that, like, um, discrimination?
Still, I’d felt like something of a charlatan all along; that story didn’t exactly go over well in my noncredit Literary Fiction class, and I also wasn’t out to infiltrate a club that’s taken hard knocks for almost all of human history, and that has had to fight for basic human rights and fight to even survive the devastation of a disease that disproportionately affected their ranks. My soapbox would be made from tissue and my high horse would be a Shetland pony. I didn’t want my attitude as a straight woman, and a white one at that, to smack of entitlement; if he cared, then I would honor that. After careful thought, I responded honestly to him that I identified as straight female. I had never set out to fool anybody about that and had not used a male pseudonym. I used the same initials I often go by in my everyday life and that I’d published other straight stories under (though my parents can take full credit, I take pride that I share them both with Salinger and Jack Daniels). I simply wanted to write what I wanted to write, even if that meant flying my freak flag in a feeble wind (yes, my mother read my stories, and obviously MIM knew what I was up to).
The editor replied “no thanks, then” to the story he loved. I have no ill will about his requirement that the author be a gay man. I’ve never run the risk of being beaten up or killed or imprisoned because of my sexuality (but substitute “raped” for “imprisoned” and my gender puts me at frighteningly high risk for all of these, so I know all too well what it is to walk in fear). I believe that the technical term for my response was: whatever. I had other sandboxes I could play in without stepping on toes. Not because of that editor, but around that time, I moved on to higher-minded pursuits, like “literary erotic fiction” (straight smut). The Man I Married was still happy with afternoon breaks.
But last month at the Romance Writers of America conference I learned how to format an ebook. Wanting to experiment with my own project to see if I could produce an ebook from start to finish, I pulled those four published Dirty McMansmut stories from the drawer and folded them into a little anthology. When I got to the step of uploading the ebook to the Amazon site, imagine my surprise upon discovering that women writing male/male “romance” for women is a huge subgenre of the Romance category now. (I put “romance” in quotes because, based on the ones I’ve read, there’s very little romance between sex acts, which are graphically recounted, with body parts named appealing euphemisms like “meat canal.”)
According to Josh Lanyon in Man, Oh, Man: Writing Quality M/M Fiction (yes! there is a book now!), “…hundreds of new M/M titles [are] published each and every week.” Hundreds!
Further: “According to Aleksandr Voinov, Riptide Publishing: ‘Looking at pure sales data, contemporary M/M books outsell everything else.’” OUTSELL EVERYTHING ELSE. I don’t know exactly what that means. Outsells everything else at his publishing house, or on the planet? What I do know is this: SHIT! I was piloting the effing freighter and I got off and started paddling a leaky literary canoe. Actually, Anne Rice was piloting that freighter (with Interview with the Vampire, Cry to Heaven, and the Sleeping Beauty books, all of which featured m/m romance, whether veiled or graphic), but at least I was onboard, chopping broccoli in the galley. (A handful of other women at that time were also manning the ship. I remember a profile of a Canadian housewife in pearls who was penning gay man stuff that made “raunchy” seem like Henry Fielding in comparison; the housewife in pearls I could handle, but Canadian? Shocking. These women were few, were not publishing under a woman’s name, and Elliott Bay Bookstore was not exactly stocking these underground paperbacks. One book in particular left me never able to think of a salad shooter the same way again [don’t ask; you really, really don’t want to know]. But some of these books felt more like man hating than man loving, such was the level of degradation experienced by the characters. Not that I read them or anything.)
But times have changed, and it’s a strange business now. Authors of m/m romances are clearly identified as female, both by author name and in their bio. Not only that, but one m/m romance author bio reads: “As well as M/M romance, she writes M/M/F romance and M/F/M romance.” So it not only matters who’s under the sheets, but who’s the bologna in the sandwich?
It’s gotten so weird that two friends of mine have a mutual friend who is a gay man writing m/m romance but publishing it under a woman’s name. The guy is paying his rent on his book sales. Lanyon says, in regards to women writing m/m romance: “You do not need to be a thing to write about a thing. You just need to do your homework.” But how odd is it to be a thing but pretend you’re not that thing in order to better sell that thing? Kinda reminds me of white actors in blackface. Or would it be black actors in whiteface? Market forces are building some strange closets.
I’d love to write a PhD dissertation on why women, now in droves, want to write and read about two men getting it on. But here’s the thing: nobody questions the stereotypical straight man’s fantasy of watching two women getting it on. And I for one am sick of the old trope that men are visually stimulated but women are not. Poppycock. Women have simply not been given much worthwhile to visually stimulate them. Thus the Darcy-in-wet-knickers scene in Pride and Prejudice lives on in many a female fantasy, because we’ve been given precious little else to supplement it with. Hello, Magic Mike.
Not unrelated: According to BookBub, the trends for book cover images that sell the most books are: puppies, cute kids, beach scenes, and SHIRTLESS MEN. And we all know the statistic that it’s women who are buying books. In a Romance Writers Conference workshop on shooting cover photography for romance books, Jenn LeBlanc mentioned that male nipples are pretty much a requirement (whereas female nipples on covers are of course not allowed). I quote the Kevin Costner movie Field of Steams: “If you build visuals, they will come.”
Though I hadn’t heard about the BookBub cover study before I produced my book, you betcha the cover features a shirtless man and the emphatic punctuation of his nipple.
You can bet the next cover will be of a shirtless man holding a puppy on a beach.
Josh Lanyon’s book on writing m/m fiction is now in its second edition. In this edition, he says that he has no longer included the section on “…why women read gay or male/male fiction. Partly, that section is missing because the question can be answered in a single sentence: There are as many and varied reasons women enjoy male/male fiction as there are types of women. The other reason it is missing is that I’ve come to find the question tiresome in its implication that there is something peculiar, something requiring explanation, in a woman choosing to read about gay characters. Should women only read stories about women? Should white people only read stories about white people? Should gays only read stories about gays?”
Was I ahead of my time? Maybe. I’m sure ebooks and the rise of Amazon had a lot to do with the current m/m romance for women trend, since it made the books easy and anonymous to publish and acquire. Did I chicken out by turning to other subject matter? No. I never wrote anything I didn’t feel passionately about. I never wrote what I felt I ought to write. I wrote what I wrote when I wrote it, and I like to think I wrote it well and wrote with compassion, humanity, and depth, no matter who was bent over the barstool. And like my other work, my m/m stories were often written with humor, which for me is part of the landscape of the erotic: an expression of love, joy, and companionship.
I’ve got lots more of this stuff in my drawer(s), and, baby, it’s all coming out. I might not pay my rent with it, but perhaps I could at least pay for a printer cartridge or two. It’s easier to write straight romance, though. Try penning a sex scene with “he and he” instead of “he and she.” It’s tough to beat those pronouns into submission.
What have I learned from this experiment? Only one thing for sure by watching my Amazon sales page: readers of m/m romance buy their ebooks at night. Go figure.
The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories by Jennifer D. Munro
Kindle Edition at Amazon
12.5 humorous stories about sex and the sexes. These sensual yet comic stories offer a fresh take on literary erotic fiction, as if Anaïs Nin and Erma Bombeck met at the library to spin tales of laughter and the libido. Collected from the pages of Best American Erotica, Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica, Best of Literary Mama, Clean Sheets, Zyzzyva, and others.