“Why do you write about two guys having sex when you’re a straight woman?” Guest Post by Sarah Madison

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 Guest Post by Sarah Madison, Author of The Boys of Summer

“Why do you write about two guys having sex when you’re a straight woman?”

I get that a lot.

BoysSummerCoverIt’s a good question. I wonder about it myself, to be honest. Why is it that my heart lies with M/M romance rather than the traditional heterosexual stories? Why do I write M/M romance when clearly the money lies in het stories? Even my boyfriend, who is incredibly supportive of what I do, wonders why I don’t write stories that would appeal to a wider audience. Sure, M/M romance is growing in popularity, but it is still a niche market. Why do I persist in spinning tales about two hot guys falling in love instead of telling stories closer to home, stories in which my own experience as a woman can have a greater role?

There’s been endless discussion about what attracts women to M/M romance—as well as how we distinguish this genre from, say, ‘gay romance’ or ‘erotica’. I’m sure there are some psychologists out there having a field day with all the potential theories as to why so many women are attracted to M/M romance. I’ve heard readers and writers alike speak on the subject. I can’t answer for everyone else, but I can tell you what attracted me to the genre.

I wasn’t a romance reader until I discovered M/M romance. Oh sure, I might read the odd Kathleen Woodiwiss story here or there, but for the most part, I read science fiction or murder mysteries. I eschewed what I called ‘bodice rippers’ and longed for a protagonist who didn’t become too stupid to live as soon as she fell in love. I preferred my stories to have a plot outside mere romance, but if romance was present in the novel, I considered it an added bonus.  A ‘detective story with romantic interruptions’, that’s how I preferred my storytelling.

Until, that is, I discovered slash fan-fiction. Now, finally, I had stories that I could identify with.

I’m not a ‘girly girl.’ I like dressing up and sexy shoes as much as the next woman, but for the most part, I’m about practical clothing. Something that will repel dog hair and not show the mud. Jewelry that makes a statement without risking injury on the job. Clothing that will keep me warm in the winter and cool in the summer and yet I can still walk the German Shepherd without having to change outfits first.  When I discovered slash online, I felt as though I’d found adult romantic fiction for the first time. Fiction geared toward me, where the main characters met as equals, and there were no hearts and flowers. The protagonists were real. I could identify with their failings, as well as their desires. They took turns being the hero, as well as being rescued.

I devoured it. I read everything I could get my hands on in my fandom and then tentatively, I began to write my own stories.  From there, it was only a short step to writing original stories peopled with the characters that I saw in my head.  Writing M/M romance has broadened my horizons in so many ways. I have become a big supporter of GLBTQ rights because when it comes to civil rights, if enough minorities get together to fight for the rights of everyone, we become a majority. Truthfully, I’ve not met anyone who was homophobic that wasn’t also misogynistic and racist too. And because I believe that love should have no legal boundaries.

Writing M/M romance has taught me much about the craft of storytelling as well, to the point that now, if I wanted to tell a traditional male/female romance, I think it would be possible for me to create a heroine I wouldn’t want to bitch-slap twenty pages into the story. Someone I could respect. When I was growing up, I always wanted to play the male characters in any television show or movie that my friends and I acted out. Clearly, the men got the best roles, the best lines. Someone less than perfect, who still loves and fights and makes mistakes but finds true love in the end.

Some might find this genre a roundabout way to come into writing traditional romance stories, but the bottom line is that I believe love is love. And love stories are best served with a frisson of danger and a soupçon of adventure. Anything else is not exciting enough for me.

I find it interesting that writing about men falling in love could teach me more about a man and a woman falling in love than all the romance novels out there, but that’s what it has come down to for me. Writing from the male POV allows me to explore aspects of my personality without falling into the trap of creating Mary Sues to serve as my avatars in my stories.  Writing in the male POV forced me to stay true to my characters and to work harder as a writer to create original characters separate from me that still contained elements of me within them. I love the challenge of writing in the male POV.  I know that some people accuse women of fetishizing the gay man when writing M/M romances. I can see where the accusers might have some validity in their statements. However, I see writing from the male POV as a means of expressing that part of me that identifies as male instead of female.

I rarely hear male authors being criticized over their female protagonists. Yet I routinely hear women novelists being taken to task over writing from the male POV.  I’m not sure why this is so, unless it has something to do with the way women in general seem to bear the brunt of swimming against the tide.  All I know is that writing about two men falling in love has made me a better writer—and for that I am eternally grateful.

About Sarah Madison

Like most writers, Sarah Madison was a story-teller as a child. She couldn’t help herself! She carried a grubby spiral notebook with her everywhere she went, filling it with stories about dogs and horses. When she reached the end of high school, however, she packed up all her creativity in a box and placed it on a shelf, to be stored with other childhood memories. She worked hard at her job and thought that being passionless was just what growing up was all about.

One day she woke up. She opened the box on her shelf and discovered much to her surprise, her passion was there, just waiting to be claimed again.

Now, writing sometimes takes precedence over everything else. In fact, when she is in the middle of a chapter, she usually relies on the smoke detector to tell her when dinner is ready.

Her latest novel, The Boys of Summer, is reviewed here on Evolvedworld.com.

  • http://ychi.wordpress.com/ Yahong Chi

    While I like what you’re advocating in this piece–love is love, and people related to different things–and I have absolutely nothing against women writing M/M romance (or men writing F/F romance!), I do find it kind of ironic that you say “women in general seem to bear the brunt of swimming against the tide” but you also say “…a heroine I wouldn’t want to bitch-slap twenty pages into the story”. I believe the double standard regarding gender & literature can be found at both levels (in reading as well as writing) and that one perpetuates the other. You seem to generalize the idea of traditional M/F romance in this article (“…a protagonist who didn’t become too stupid to live as soon as she fell in love”), and while I understand that you are describing how you personally related to hetero romances, I think it’s rather dangerous to apply blanket statements like the aforementioned (“…Mary Sues to serve as my avatars in my stories”).

    Stereotypes are part of what perpetuate a societal structure where women are constantly undermined. Basically, you don’t like your leading ladies in fiction (romance), but you also wonder why ladies are discriminated against in real life. You even show some semblance of consciousness of this: “Clearly, the men got the best roles, the best lines.” This is because fiction is a reflection of real life. If you avoid writing women because you find other fictional women lacking, this only perpetuates the cycle.

    • Sarah Madison

      It’s a tough call for me, Yahong. I understand what you are saying–I’m frustrated by the double standard myself. In the end, I can only answer for me, which is that when I read the traditional romance with a traditional heroine, I don’t meet a woman I can relate to. And when I have sat down to write my own heroines, I’ve been shocked to discover that I tend to depict them in *exactly the same manner*. That is to say, the same stereotypes that I grew up reading permeate my writing when I attempt to write a M/F romance. Obviously, this is my problem–but that’s what I mean when I say that I have to work hard to create a female character that I don’t want to bitch-slap. Someone I can respect.

      • http://ychi.wordpress.com/ Yahong Chi

        Hi Sarah! Thanks for this thoughtful response. I’ll try to do it justice. I’m really happy to hear that you’re working on writing characters that seem true to you. Your first two pargraphs I’m mostly in agreement with.

        However, you have preconceived notions of how traditional romance heroines are and are viewed (as you state in your second paragraph: “…it was far less likely that my preconceived ideas of what ‘heroines’ should be would creep into the story”). You say that they have “bodice-ripper standards of enforced helplessness so she can be rescued by the male lead.” Perhaps we have different definitions of helplessness, but in all of the past historical M/F romances I’ve read this past year, none of the heroines could be classified as helpless. And these were all traditionally published romances by Big Six houses (e.g. Avon Books/HarperCollins, Harlequin). So I’m not sure why you think there are these standards that a heroine “falls in love and becomes incapable of crossing the street unassisted after that” (to quote from your above response). Have you just taken them for granted? I can even recommend you the last five romances I’ve read where the heroine is truly strong (in my perspective), to provide you with some examples.

        I agree with this sentence: “I think we’re often harder on female characters than male ones.” But you don’t seem to recognize this in yourself: you’re being hard on all those female characters who you consider “Barbie cut-outs”. I think a sweeping generalization like that reflects more on you than an industry, especially since searching “romance genre strong heroines” in Google will bring you to some posts featuring tips on how to write strong heroines (thus proving your preconceived notion rather wrong). So rather than say all female leads are the same, perhaps more research would uncover female leads who you can relate to, if you don’t jump to the conclusion that all traditional female characters are the same.

        I can’t respond to the fact that you’ve been told by other people not to write sex-positive female characters (“…I’ve been told if I write my heroines the way I write my heroes, they will be seen as sluts–not women who are confident in their sexuality.”), but I have read many, many books where women are confident in their sexuality. That isn’t to say that I haven’t read books where the female protagonist is terribly annoying and weak and hapless, because I have — but it seems disingenuous for you to advocate for better female characters while still remaining under the assumption that all the *other* female characters out there are “Barbie cut-outs”.

        Like you, I think fanfiction definitely can show a greater degree of diversity in fiction, especially with people with disabilities, but I don’t believe that we are lacking in diversity of strong female characters in traditional publishing. If you’re willing, we can exchange book titles–you can list me some books which you thought featured weak female characters, & I can list you some books which I thought featured assertive female characters.

        I’m glad we can have this conversation in the first place! I think it’s a pretty important one to have regarding the romance genre. :)

        • Sarah Madison

          Yahong: I guess I should preface my response with saying that I have not readily found strong female heroines in the romance genre in particular (as opposed to fiction overall)–and I’ll be the first to agree that this may very well be a generational or personal issue on my part. As such, I tend to reach for a science fiction or mystery novel before the traditional romance. I’m reading a series by a friend of mine at the moment, and one of the things I love about the universe that she’s created is that strong characters simply are: be they male or female. No one’s competency or functionality is questioned as a result of gender. (Interestingly enough, sexuality is also rather fluid in her universe, though I’m not sure if that has any bearing on her characterizations. I doubt it) In many ways, I find this the ideal to strive for–much as I wish we could do away with labels altogether because every time we make the distinction of ‘black president’ or ‘female CEO’ we are still making a big deal of that fact, if you see what I mean.

          I seem to be less likely to find this sort of non-distinction in romance novels. I should point out that I rarely am impressed by the male characters in these stories either. Apparently male corollary of the Heroine that is Too Stupid To Live is the hero that is a Big Fat Jerk but for some reason, we are supposed to think he is wonderful. However, you are probably right in that I may well not have read the right novels. I have never been a big reader of romances in the past, and my current research into what seems popular has only reinforced that previous opinion.

          I would very much like to hear what books you like and why you like them! I’m afraid it would be difficult for me to carry on an open discussion of some of the book titles I’ve found not to be my taste, however–at least, not in a public forum such as this. But email me–I’d like to continue the conversation. :-)

  • Phoenix Emrys

    Great post. Your story – and the way you became an m/m writer – rather mirrors my own. But I love the way you put it!

    • Sarah Madison

      *grins* I suspect a lot of us ‘tomboys’ are still looking waiting for the perfect heroine to show up. And more of us should be out there creating her ourselves. But the guys are so much fun!

  • defacebook

    As a straight male who has no qualms about gays or gay fiction I read this article with curiosity, because I’m still grappling with why straight women choose to write M/M romance when they could just as easily write F/M romance, and make more $ doing it.

    Wanting to be like the male hero in the stories (decisive, fearless, etc.) explains the motivation, I suppose, but why not write a hetero romance in which the woman is just as strong/cool as the man? A marriage of equals is the modern ideal, right? I mean, a hetero romance doesn’t have to resort to bodice-ripped damsels in distress. So, why not present a female protagonist who is willing and able to challenge men in work and play, and have her fall in love with a man who respects and loves her for being as strong/fearless as he is? Hell, you can even pit the two of them against a common enemy, and still have an adventure/mystery with romantic interruptions. Sounds like blockbuster stuff.

    Regardless of what straight women choose to write, what do straight women really want to read when it comes to romance? Gays getting it on (for lack of strong female characters in romance fiction)? Bodice-ripped damsels in distress (because that’s what society has taught them to want)? Or truly modern hetero romance as proposed above? I guess there’s an audience for all of it.

    • Sarah Madison

      So, why not present a female protagonist who is willing and able to
      challenge men in work and play, and have her fall in love with a man who
      respects and loves her for being as strong/fearless as he is? Hell, you
      can even pit the two of them against a common enemy, and still have an
      adventure/mystery with romantic interruptions. Sounds like blockbuster

      You can, you should, and I eat it up with a spoon when I find it. But more often than not, we’re usually presented with a heroine who has all these features on paper but we’re never allowed to actually see them in play because as soon as we meet her, she falls in love and becomes incapable of crossing the street unassisted after that. I know I’m being hard on the genre in general, but I’ve read a lot of romances over the years and most of them make me want to scream at the book and shake it.

      As for the reading–romance readers are voracious. After reading the same-old same-old pirate/sheik/billionaire playboy stories where the lovely but poor secretary gets swept off her feet and is cared for the rest of her life, something different like 50 Shades came along and shocked the average reader with its toe-dip into BDSM waters. Sales skyrocketed, not because it was great literature, but because it was new and different. So I think for many straight women, they are looking for something new and interesting on the standard take of the romance story as created by Jane Austen. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Austen–but a lot of us are looking for something different on a given day. :-)

      • http://ychi.wordpress.com/ Yahong Chi

        I would like to point out that 50 Shades is not “different” in the way you use the word in this contexxt; the BDSM sub-genre existed well before it. 50 Shades merely moved the BDSM sub-genre into the spotlight.

        • Sarah Madison

          Ah, the problems with attempting to respond to comments while at work and not able to give the process the full attention it deserved. :-) I didn’t mean to imply that 50 Shades was the first ever BDSM story–gracious no! What I meant is that for many romance readers, it was their first exposure to this sub-genre–and they responded to it with enthusiasm. It was different to *them* and it got them talking about it, and soon everyone was talking about it, and the next thing you know, you have people who don’t normally read romances at all checking it out to see what all the fuss was about.

          But that’s what I get for trying to answer a comment while on hold for a work-related call!

    • Tony Conrad

      F/m romance would be much more readable to me so long as the male wasn’t submissive in the wrong way.

  • Sarah Madison

    Aw, thank you, Rose! I really appreciate it! And I’m glad you understand where I am coming from. I guess my hope is that as we all have our awareness raised to some degree, we’ll find more and more role models we can identify with–even if we end up creating them ourselves. :-)

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