Sunday, September 18, 2011

M/M Romance or Gay Literature: What's the Big Deal?

What's the big deal any way? They are just two different names for the same thing, aren't they?

A resounding "No!" will be your response from the readers of gay fiction. While readers and authors of m/m romances often mistakenly use the terms interchangeably. Only the gay lit reader or author seems to know there is a difference.

And this is where the trouble begins. Gay literature enthusiasts are looking for a specific genre. They aren't interested in sweet little HEA stories. They want something that reflects the reality of their lives and don't care to read something they feel is an artificial construct catering to the sensibilities of a female audience. These readers can be very vocal in their criticism of m/m romance. Not to be outdone, m/m readers can likewise be critical of a perceived romance that isn't very romantic.

Gay literature is rarely romantic. It tends to be edgier, raw. The protagonists are men looking for a hook up. Sometimes it turns into more, but that is not a prerequisite. Sex does not equal love in this genre. Word choices are also very different. Words and phrases get used that would never find their way into m/m fiction.

It all comes down to expectations. The reader was expecting one genre and got the other. The gay lit reader knows what he wants, but a m/m story has been incorrectly labeled as a gay romance or thriller, etc. The m/m reader thinks gay lit is just another term for m/m romance.

And the flame war is on. Women are ruining gay lit. Men think they are the only ones who should write anything m/m. Why are are things drawn along gender lines? Because each gender has different expectations, wants and needs. That is not to say that members from each group can't cross the line in the sand or on the paper.

I know men who read and write m/m fiction. I know women who prefer to read gay lit, but can rarely write it themselves. I know authors whose pen names are different genders depending on what they are writing. It's all in the perception.

Readers and writers alike would be happier, if everyone understood the difference in the genres. Just a look at some of the reviews on Goodreads should convince people of this. Reviewers who say, "I would have given this a higher rating, but..." Either the story was an unrealistic portrayal of men, or it was just sex without any redeeming qualities, ie romance.

I am an author of m/m fiction. I will likely never be in a position where I can claim to be an author of gay lit. So you gentleman who like a nice romance are more than welcome to read my stories. For the men who prefer gay lit, I welcome your input, but I won't be offended if you don't care for my fluffy sweet little bit of fantasy. I am capable of writing edgier stories, but my female audience wanted more dialog and felt that I was being crude. One of my male readers asked if I had been a man in a previous life.

However you will never find the shy blushing virgin in any of my stories and no one ruins the afterglow by going to get a wet washcloth only to lob it back to the bathroom where it makes an unglamorous splat. I don't know any men who do that in real life. Roll over and go to sleep? Decide they must eat something right this second? Yes, but none of them were ever the fastidious type. So ladies, don't expect the men in m/m to act in a fashion that your own man won't.

It's all in the perceptions and expectations of your audience. We as writers should remember this and not confuse the reader with the incorrect label for our works.


  1. Great post. To most people who do not read the genre, I’m sure that there is little difference between gay literature and m/m romance. I guess what can be confusing is that the term ‘literature’ which at one time meant only a written work, has come to mean a specific type of genre.

    Sometimes seems like those in the gay literature camps are appalled by m/m romance. That they think the m/m romance genre is the new kid on the block and it is debasing the validity of gay literature. I’m sure that is not quite true and I am grossly misrepresenting that statement. (Besides, I am in no way claiming that is what I think as I am a big fan of m/m romance.)

    Too bad there is not a standardization of labeling. Then readers will know exactly what they are getting into. For me it is not a big deal since I read a wide range of works.

  2. Okay... my take? (which I think mirrors NYC publishing)

    Romance= a story about two people falling in love. The plot of the story is predominantly about how the couple works thru the issues to get there HEA. There are lots of other issues but the meat of the story is the romance

    Literature/fiction: a made up story about anything

    Um, DUH! readers!!! It doesnt matter if its m/m romance...paranormal romance....regency romance.....its a romance!! If you don't like readung romance dont read it!!!!

    M/m romance should use its hetero counterparts as an example. Nora Roberts, Sherilyn Kenyon, etc. You know what you are getting.
    Its a romance!!

    Gay lit or gay fiction should be compared to books in the straight world like The Help or the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo..... they can be anything but obviously with gay protagonists.

  3. Sorry, to rant a bit, Kayla....but i get defensive when folks rip on the romance genre, whether m/m or straight.
    Its not the same thing as traditional fiction, and that's what we readers love about it!

    WOuld Richard Gere REALLY marry the happy hooker? that's wh\y we read/watch romance. We want a happy escape with good writing! :)

    Great blog, sista!!!

  4. I think you focused on the wrong word here. Romance is not the controversial word. The problem is when readers and some writers equate m/m with gay.

    There is such a thing as gay romance, but gay romance does NOT equal m/m romance. Gay romance is written primarily by men for men. M/M romance is written primarily by women for women. Men and women don't mean the same thing when they say romance.

    M/M Romance:
    Women want a story about hot stud A falling in love with equally hot stud B. They need to date and meet each others expectations and heaven forbid one of them does hot stud C! I've seen the reviews for stories where that happens.

    Gay Romance:
    Men want manly hairy real man A to get it on with real man B. Do they end up together? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe twink C gets one or the other man and sometimes both men. Do they get a house together or do they have their own places and get together when they are looking for some action?

    Now not every man or every woman falls into these generalizations. Some men prefer m/m romance, some women prefer gay romance, some people like both. But make no mistake - the genres and their readers have different expectations.

    Not all romance is the same: het, f/f, m/m, gay and lesbian all have their own tenets.

    It may all be escapism, but I have no intention of reading horror and would be highly incensed if something were incorrectly labeled and I ended up purchasing it based on that. So all your authors out there, don't call your m/m fiction gay fiction and don't call gay fiction m/m fiction. Everyone will be happier.

  5. I've written my comment several times, trying to not sound snarky and every time I end up sounding snarky. There's more than one thing I take issue with here, but I'll stick to the writing aspects, and here's my basic point:

    From Wikipedia: "Literature" is sometimes differentiated from popular and ephemeral classes of writing. Terms such as "literary fiction" and "literary merit" are used to distinguish individual works as art-literature rather than vernacular writing, and some critics exclude works from being "literary", for example, on grounds of weak or faulty style, use of slang, poor characterization and shallow or contrived construction. Others exclude all genres such as romance, crime and mystery, science fiction, horror and fantasy. Pop lyrics, which are not technically a written medium at all, have also been drawn into this controversy.

    Literature = things like "1984", "Gone With the Wind," "Stone Butch Blues" - things with meat and substance. With a point to make.

    Person A falling IN LOVE with Person B - regardless of gender - with love being the overriding theme/point - is ROMANCE.

    Person A having sex with Person B (and/or Persons C, D, & E, etc.)- regardless of gender - with no love required or implied or expected is STROKE FICTION.

    All have their audience. All have their merits. All should be labeled correctly.

    Otherwise, what is between a person's legs has nothing to do with what they like or want to read. "Gender" is nothing but a word. Period.

  6. I think my problem is with the word "romance". I'd rather read a story about the love rather than the romance. Especially as the definition of the latter is so narrow (and I'm not even including whether or not sex or explicit sex is involved).

    The unfortunate truth of the matter is that I know of a few gay guys who are writing the sorts of books that they want to read about the relationships they dream about, but because the story doesn't fit m/m romance expectations, they can't get published in an industry where, incidentally, the majority of publishers are female.

    Romance is a genre that females like because it gives them what they* want: a safe, secure environment in which to raise children. The "romance" is the wish/the dream of how this may happen not the endpoint.

    M/m romance offers a freedom of situations but more and more it is still tied to this ring, wedding and lately even baby concept.

    Where is the equivalent for gay guys whose "endpoint" is different?. Especially if they don't want the picket fence and kids. Are they to be denied the chance to read about finding any form of love for however fleeting a time? Aren't they allowed to have their own versions of this "dream"?

    Perhaps the genre should split into m/m romance and gay love, given that "romance" carries so much baggage.

    * I am speaking in terms of generalisations here. There are always exceptions.

  7. I think we are all saying variations on the same theme. There are two different genres. Each genre has readers with different expectations. If there is a way to see that every story is correctly labeled, then both the reader and author will benefit.

  8. Excellent post. I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  9. Look I just like to read a great book. I'm glad I have so many authors to choose from. I'll let you authors hash this out, lol Great post though.

  10. Thank you, Marshall and LeeLee!

    I just get tired of listening to people dis something because they don't realize that there are two different genres. I enjoy both genres, but others don't always realize they are different things. Don't judge and publish a book review based on another genre. Even Stephen King would do poorly judged on his merits as a children's story author.

  11. You're welcome and you're so right!

  12. “I just get tired of listening to people dis something because they don't realize that there are two different genres.”


    I’ve been discussing this subject with others recently. There are a lot of m/m writers who don’t realized they are not writing gay fiction. Readers, even publishers are often similarly confused. Unfortunately, when you point it out to m/m writers the frequent knee-jerk reaction is to get defensive. Not that they don’t have a reason to be prickly. There are the random diatribes against women writing from a male POV, and of course the romance genre in general is a popular target. However my take is: if you don’t like what I’m writing, too frakkin’ bad. Don’t read it.

    Clarifying the differences and boundaries between the genres will keep readers unwittingly stumbling into genres that are not to their tastes. It will save a lot of aggravation to them and the authors as well.

    I disagree with you on one point: what you describe as “gay romance” is not. It’s gay erotica – if it’s hot. Otherwise, it’s gay fiction. James Lear – gay erotica. Allan Hollinghurst – gay fiction. To my opinion – and you’re welcome to disagree - gay romance is technically the same as m/m, but just to un-complicate things, I wouldn’t use the term “gay romance” all.

    Let me explain. The way I see it, the key word is “romance.” M/m is a subgenre of romance, and as such it has its genre conventions that effect narrative and character. In m/m behave in ways that are not entirely realistic to real life gay men. This is not a value judgment. I doubt that men and women in het romances behave with any more realism. I know I write a form of fantasy (not to be confused with the genre of sf/f), and I have no problem with that. Everyone knows little old ladies don’t stumble into and solve murders, yet it hasn’t hurt Agatha Christie one bit.

    I’m all for clearing up the genre confusion.

  13. Literature and romance are genres, and very different genres at that. "MM" and "gay," in terms of writing, are labels, just as "MF" and "het" are labels. Labels and genre are not interchangeable, not synonymous. In writing, genre identifies a story type, labels identify a stereotype.

  14. See? This is why new authors like me have to learn from the seasoned ones ^.^ I've been calling myself gay lit writer (now author) from the start, but the main focus of my books is the love factor. There isn't much fluff in it (I try to take it all out because I tend to wretch if there's too much) and I believe that my men are pretty realistic (with hair and all), but yeah, they do all have happy endings after solving the problems standing in their ways.

    Differentiating between romance and literature is fine. I don't, however, see that there has to be a difference between "m/m romance" and "gay romance" since it's both romance between two men. In other words: separating those is going unnecessarily too far, imo.

  15. Perhaps part of the difference is also romance vs. erotica: erotica can be edgier and with no mushy feelings involved, while romance must involve... well, romance!

  16. Now I might say Romeo and Juliet is 'literature' - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is 'Romance'...

    Labels are slippery things and depend so much on perception.

    I suppose questions of genre come down to marketing labels - but there's more to fiction that what is written on the tin as a list of ingredients...

    Is the Iliad epic poetry - literature - romance? Hector gets dragged ten times round the walls of Troy because he killed Achilles' boyfriend - when Achilles was sulking in his tent because the king took his girl - and the whole thing kicks off because young Paris couldn't keep it in his trousers and runs off with his host's wife...

    There are very few works of literature where Cupid doesn't get to shoot a few arrows.

  17. argh. Just lost an enormous comment.

    I don't think that the lines are easily definable. Nor should they be, as they aren't in het romance either.

    I consider myself to be a writer of gay fiction. Up to know I have, admittedly mostly been concentrating on romance because that was an easier sell, but am pushing the boundaries as I go and hope that my books will eventually be gay fiction and looked at like that.

    Sadly, the term literature has been hijacked somewhere along the way by people who Must Put Everything Into A Box to mean (amongst other things) wordy, a little incomprehensible, WORTHY, likely to win an award, stream of consciousness, etc etc. But not all books are like this. Pride and Prejudice, The Charioteer, Maurice. All Romances. All literature. But do they gain their literature status because they were written more than 100 years ago? Literature means all writing—let’s be honest, if we are going to use correct terms. But I would not class “literature” as a genre. Literary fiction, yes. If I was pitching my novel to an editor or agent, I’d call it that—if it were—rather than saying “my work is a piece of literature” because... snarf.

    I may (will) be argued with but I seriously think that there are people writing gay literature today--even (horrors!) inside the gay romance genre. Writers such as Hayden Thorne, Donald L Hardy or Alex Beecroft and Lucius Parhelion (and many others) are writing romances, certainly—but clever, literary romances with weight, merit and a point to be made.
    I dislike the term m/m actually—I wish it hadn’t been adopted by whoever thought it was a good term—because it gives the hostile reader a good label to use when they label gay romance “oh, I’d never read m/m, it’s all rubbish” in the same way some might say the same of romance in general.
    Although there are sex scenes in my books, I would not consider them to be put on the “gay erotica” shelf—that might have been true at one point in history (and yes, I have written deliberate erotica for one handed mags and magazines) but now it’s purely a reflection of our times—most Mills and Boons these days contain explicit sex scenes, whereas once upon a time it would be veiled or the bedroom door would firmly close. Readers expect their romance to contain erotic scenes. The line between romance and erotic romance are rather blurry for me.
    But it’s all blurry. You can’t always say “this book is xxx” and “this is xxx” because thank goodness, we aren’t creating pre-fabricated houses.

  18. Thank you all for your insightful comments. There are obviously quite a few aspects to this topic, some of which I did not consider when I wrote the post.

    I must admit to some surprise over the volume of interest this post has garnered. I'm only a fledgling author with no real following and did not expect to see well known individuals here.

    Maybe the labels need to be changed, although I suspect it is too late for that, but something needs to be done to help readers find the type of story they want. Because when they pay for the wrong genre, they feel they now have a right to rake it over the coals instead of judging the piece on its merits as a [insert genre here].

    As a side note, I believe the term "m/m" originated with the slash fanfiction that is at the roots of the genre.

    Thanks once again to everyone who stopped by to comment. My horizons have been broadened.

  19. I find I like the romance of m/m better than the darkness of gay literature. I only have a problem with it when the characters do or say things that a "real" guy wouldn't.

  20. I hear you on that. The first time I read about the top going to get a wet cloth to clean the bottom up I was totally startled. Huh? Who does that? I've never been with a guy who does that and quite frankly I don't WANT a guy to do that. Just kind of freaks me out.

    There is a discussion going on over on Marshall Thornton's blog about the difference in genres that has branched into a discussion of about gay fiction with a man's view of romance. There does seem to be an interest in true gay love stories that are not m/m romance.

  21. I'd like to point out that romance and romantic fiction are not the same either.

  22. This discussion has popped up some interesting comments along the way, Kayla. As has Marshall's.

    One of the problems for me is that a lot of readers criticise m/m stories stories because of their realism. Often (but not always) these are stories written by gay males who know that other gay males will identify with this reality.

    Yet many readers don't want reality they want romance.

    I prefer to read about love and don't mind the odd touch of realism (the lusting after guy C even though you're in love with guy B). The need to prepare before sex. Sex without love.

    Another common complaint is the lack of emotional reaction as the plot unfolds because this doesn't meet the readers "needs". However, not all readers feel this way, others may like the fact that the protagonists don't do deep and meaningfuls at the drop of the hat as again that is probably realistic.

    So I suppose, at the end of the day, I agree with you:

    "Maybe the labels need to be changed."

    I think they do, but I struggle with the term gay romance because of the connotations of the word "romance", however if someone identified their story as such, at least I'd assume it would be more gritty and realistic than a m/m romance.

    But it's not an ideal label. Gay fiction with romantic themes????

    If appropriate labelling isn't found, I fear that people who write stories for the audience they want to write for, however small will be criticised for not meeting expectations and hence feel impelled to write to please the majority.

  23. Gavin Atlas had some comments that were too big to post here, so we have posted them as a new blog post. I hope you enjoy his insight as much as I do.