Friday, March 16, 2018

M/M Books: Four Types (and Why Gender Matters)

Meadow Run: It's a trope!
Mostly women read romance novels--of all varieties: 84% of romance readers are women, according to Romance Writers of America.

Consequently, some male and female critics have argued, among other things, that romance novels are a matter of wish-fulfillment (see my response here); that all romance novels, including gay ones, include a female protagonist despite the pronouns. You think both characters are male but...

In my M/M reading, I've reached  the conclusion that this "criticism" (Is it really a criticism? What's wrong with wish-fulfillment? Why can't people write and read and get whatever they want to out of fiction?) is true in some cases, but not in all. 

Type 1: One of the men could be a woman . . . you wouldn't even need to change the dialog.

This type of M/M has more to do with poor plotting than with character development.

Check out this website for more tropes.
It isn't so much that one of the characters could be a woman. It is that both of the characters could be...anything or anyone. Cats. Puppies. Mice that talk. The plot is a compilation of romance tropes, not of character development.

I read a recent example in which the plot supposedly had to do with spies. Well . . . sort of. The older male character was a spy, and the first (best) third of the novel dealt with a spy operation. After that it was (Trope 1) jealousy towards a possible third party; (Trope 2) wealthy lover gifting poor lover with clothing and stuff; (Trope 3) poor lover blaming itself for ruining wealthy lover's life and running off; (Trope 4) lovers missing each other so much, they reunite; (Trope 5) lover threatened with violence and needing to be rescued; (Trope 6) someone giving up everything for love.

Don't get me wrong. These tropes in and of themselves can be satisfying. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that even poorly rendered myths still grab us because we love the underlying classic tropes.

However, it isn't the sort of thing I usually reread; after all, I can read it again in a different book. It doesn't matter much who the characters are because I'm not reading about the characters.

I would love to say that compilation-trope-plots are rare in M/M--and about three months ago, I could have maintained that illusion (as with yaoi, I was lucky to find good authors in M/M almost immediately). Truth: man, is there a lot of this stuff out there!

Type 2: The plot could be translated into a male/female plot--with effort. 

The characters are definitely male and could not be changed without violence to their dialog and occupations.
Keep in mind: these men may be friends, not lovers. Open
male affection is less acceptable now, oddly enough, than
in the past. I'm using them to represent my favorite
M/M couple, Dom and Silas.*

They could be changed--but there would be  ripples. As I mention elsewhere, occupation makes a difference. Some of KJ Charles's excellent books, including Dom's and Silas's, fall into this category (can a male bureaucrat and a male reformer in the 1800s be anything else but male?). Perhaps one male character could be a female in disguise. But it would entail some major shifts in plotting.

The pull of M/M is not just the elicit nature of the romance but the personal negotiations required to keep the relationship going. That is, the thrill isn't merely the forbidden Romeo and Juliet implications--we can't date because your father hates my father!--but the need to decide what form the relationship will take.

To return to the spy theme (KJ Charles' Think of England, for example), a romantic relationship would be assumed between two agents if one of the men was a woman; because he isn't, the relationship becomes more layered. The men are protecting themselves as lovers as well as spies and protecting themselves from more than one antagonist: the enemy in the guise of Britain's domestic traitors; their enemies in the guise of social disapproval/jail.

However, an unmarried male/female spy team in 1904 would also need to protect itself socially, so the change is possible except . . .

A possible cover of Daniel de Silva from
Goodreads. I like it better than the actual cover.


Type 3: The plot cannot be translated into a male/female plot since either history doesn't allow for it or or because the identity of the males as males is essential to the theme.

KJ Charles' Think of England comes to mind again. Although it could be changed to M/F (what is commonly called "traditional romance"), a great deal would be lost, not least the defensiveness of the one male character over being, to use the historical terminology, an "invert." 

He's a good spy. The Home Office uses him despite knowing his nature. Other more "upright" agents have found him difficult to handle due to his prickly nature, caustic tongue, and his refusal to be cowed by their disgust at his propensities. Until an bluff, straightforward ex-soldier comes along who is entirely capable of handling him.

Get rid of either character's maleness and that entire background has to be rewritten. M/M becomes a thematic necessity.

Alex Beecroft's nineteenth century sail stories belong to historical necessity. Her characters are sailors, and there is almost no way--without massive historical inaccuracies--that one of them could be made female (as teens, yes, but rarely as post-adolescents). I love a good disguise story as much as the next person, but truth, even Deborah Sampson was eventually discovered.

Alex Beecroft leads me to . . .

Type 4: The plot and characterizations are so entirely wrapped up in a particular male world, there are no substitutes.

Another interesting aspect of Alex Beecroft's ship yarns is that the men do in fact inhabit a very male world. They like being sailors. They love the adrenaline rush. Under fire, they turn into George Mallory who climbed Everest "because it was there." There's no suggestion at the end that they will give up their passion for sailing dinky boats from the Arctic to the Bahamas (don't ask me; I don't get it). Any future relationship will take place on and around the high seas, not in spite of it. The characters will die, when they do die, in the boat equivalent of "the saddle."

Characters who keep doing what they love always relieve me. I'm wary when a book ends with one romantic lead giving up a job/career/hobby for the sake of the other. This happens in the spy book referenced first, and I simply didn't believe it. Either the one character wanted to be a spy or he didn't.

The author allowed for the interesting possibility that while undercover, he puts together a business deal; when the business deal has to be completed, he ends up doing that rather than spy stuff. I found this utterly amusing. So I rewrote the story in my head so the spy already wanted to give up spying but was being forced to stay "for the good of your country". His romantic interest enables him to get out from under the thumb of his spymasters.

It isn't so much that male characters can't have a preference for a quieter life (or that supposedly masculine interests and lifestyles are exclusive to biological men*). Rather, when designated male characters' wants are linked entirely to their gendered maleness, making one of those characters female or third-gendered entails a different type of book. (Despite 1950s cliches, gay men aren't androgynous or any other third-gendered identity; they are men who are gay.) 

Charlie Cochrane's amusing Cambridge Fellowship Series, for instance, would never work with a M/F combination. It isn't simply the jobs--two male professors at Cambridge in the early 1900s--it is also their language and attitudes. They are a cross between Holmes & Watson/Jeeves & Wooster, and Cochrane deliberately uses the cadence and verbiage of upperclass men of that era to convey their relationship. It is deliberate (her modern mysteries don't use it) and could not, without incredible damage to the series, be altered.

Wrap-up

Nurture proponents may like to argue that gender is a matter of training and can be undone. But in reality, when conveyed properly, gender is so tied into culture and work and history (and biology), only ignoring those things entirely (relying on tropes) allows the characters to be interchangeably male and female. Otherwise, gender matters.

It is the nature of that culture and work and history as well as the individual within the relationship that can make M/M so fascinating. And, moreover, give insight into more traditional romances.

*I've never read or seen 50 Shades of Gray and have zero interest. I have no problems, however, with the S&M component of Dom and Silas's relationship. The comparison does raise an issue. M/M books often assume that a M/M relationship can be more aggressive sexually than a traditional M/F relationship. I'm not sure that this is true in real life (in real life, I think every couple is different). It is definitely true in fiction. Literary M/M couples are allowed to be more assertive, aggressive, playful, vigorous, and energetic than M/F couples (so long as it is mutual--after all, Dom has a safe word) . This may be another reason female writers and readers enjoy M/M romances.