Gender of Novelists in Gay Fiction: Does It Matter?

Throughout time, artists have inverted themselves in any number of gender permutations in order to both enlighten and educate. This may have occurred due to an era’s artistic conventions, or, in other cases, of assuming different gender roles in order to comment on the broader human condition. Authors, correspondingly, have done the same, using pseudonyms either to conceal identity or in order to write in genres not specifically associated with their own gender. For example, men have long used gender neutral or female pseudonyms when writing romance, whereas women have used gender neutral or male pseudonyms to write “male genres,” such as detective or action. But with the explosion of the male/male romance genre (m/m for short), I’m seeing more and more authors not only using pseudonyms, but actually trying to pass themselves off as gay men in their media interviews and online marketing efforts. Which begs the question, “Does the gender of a novelist matter?” or, better yet, “Does the truth matter when writing fiction?”

Gay fiction, while certainly a genre, has most often been a means of self-expression, within which gay men have written tales of their search for identity and community. The sharing of such stories, both fictional and not, have helped countless others discover more about the gay community and their prospective place within it. When I think of gay literature, classic authors such as Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Michael Cunningham, Stephen McCauley, Felice Picano, Paul Monette, and John Rechy, among others, come to mind. With each, being gay was integral to both their identities and their art, helping to shape the stories they chose to tell and the characters they created.

Directly informed by their personal experiences, their novels delved into the very heart of what it means to be gay: how our familial relationships may change as a result of living authentically, how the disapproval from society can shape self-esteem, how the gay male’s search for love and sex may differ from others, and how the AIDS epidemic altered the framework and communities many of us live within. These gay authors, self-identifying and using literature as their platform, encapsulate what gay fiction has largely been known for, until now. (To note, there have certainly been well-known female gay fiction authors, most prominently Patricia Nell Warren (The Front Runner) and Mary Renault (The Persian Boy). Both women are/were lesbian, and it could be assumed that they wrote gay male fiction as a way to write of same-gender affection in a way which allowed them to still remain disassociated; neither, however, cloaked their identity by pretending to be gay men.)

While a well-told story is just that, and the gender of the author typically shouldn’t matter, does it, indeed, make a difference with gay fiction? The bigger question, of course, is, “What is gay fiction?” Is it simply a matter of the lead character’s sexual orientation? Is it the sexual orientation of the author? Is it a gay author specifically telling a story with gay characters? Or is there something else, not entirely tangible, which a gay author may bring to a story that a straight author cannot? Many of the authors mentioned prior wrote in the earlier days of gay liberation. They were simply writing what they knew and what they’d experienced, without necessarily thinking of their stories as a specific genre. But, in the years since, gay fiction has splintered, with genre within sub-genre, blurring the lines, and making the categorization of “gay fiction” difficult, at best.

Like my forbearers, I am a gay male author who writes stories based on my personal experiences. Today, though, the options for exposure for me and other like-minded gay authors have dramatically changed. The loss of indie gay bookstores and the shuttering of many gay media outlets have led us to turn to online website as a way to both get reviewed and promoted. However, many websites which review gay fiction are now strictly focused on the m/m romance genre, which limits the type of stories they will either review or rate favorably. In m/m fiction, while the lead characters may be gay men, the emphasis is on the romantic element, first and foremost. The characters can be challenging, but should ultimately be likeable. They may have doubts or issues, but nothing insurmountable. In this genre, love wins out, eventually, providing the necessary “Happily Ever After.” However, in this arena, the gritty and authentic elements appearing in much of classic gay literature would be inappropriate and unwelcome. While the m/m readership is wide-ranging, a majority of its audience is straight women. They’ve turned to m/m for a variety of reasons, and while such exposure to LGBT issues may lead to increased empathy, the books they are reading are not largely representative of actual LGBT lives.

This element of authenticity is, to me, the biggest difference between traditional gay fiction and today’s m/m genre fiction. Traditional gay male literature has focused on gay men attempting to find their own truth, charting both struggle and success in living out and open lives. There is no preconceived formula, resulting in stories which often mirror the life experiences of both writer and readers. With genre material, however, form and formula is paramount, leading to stories which fulfill necessary requirements, authenticity be damned.

So if this matter of authenticity is the defining factor between the two genres, what is to be made of authors writing gay fiction under pseudonyms, and marketing themselves as gay men? Is the author simply hoping to connect with a gay male audience? Or are they angling for the larger m/m audience, by crafting a persona which fits that romantic formula?

In the end, does the gender of the author matter, if the story works?

It used to be that a pseudonym was just that–a false name, used on book jackets or marketing materials. But in today’s world, we not only want to see the author’s name on a book, we want to engage with them. We want a dialogue with the person, and want to know all about them. We Google them, read their bios and interviews, and follow them via Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. And on these sites, we ask authors questions, and read their tweets, and get glimpses into their world. Or at least, the one they’ve created for us.

All authors who are active in social media lie. It is part of what we do; we tell you the story we want to tell. I won’t share with you my bad reviews, or that I did something regrettable in my past; like the best of politicians, I’ll spin for you the tale that I want you to read, highlighting the high, and soft-pedaling my very worst.

Still, I would like to believe that authors, as human beings, need to offer some degree of truth, and am thus continually surprised by the lengths some writers have gone in crafting their online personae. One author, of whom no photos can be found, has told tales of a tragic fire, which burned all known images. Now, if an author can be on Twitter 24/7, surely they know someone who owns a digital camera, right? Personally, I would rather know that the person who wrote the amazing gay book I just read is a straight woman living in Liverpool, rather than be duped and find out the truth later. Is there a point where a pseudonym causes more harm than good?

To me, an obvious parallel in the LGBT world is the women’s music scene. In these gatherings, traditionally, the artists themselves are female, singing songs which speak exclusively to the female experience. Imagine though if, mid-song, the audience were to discover that the performer onstage, singing this personal and heartfelt song, was not actually female. While the song itself may have resonated deeply, the fact that the singer had misrepresented themselves would feel an awful lot like betrayal.

Just like the women’s music scene is to those within it, for many of us, gay fiction is sacred space. I came of age in an indie bookstore in Long Beach, CA, thanks to their “Gay Studies” section. In it, at age 15, I found that I wasn’t alone. There, I discovered books by Larry Kramer, Andrew Holleran, and James Baldwin, among others. Through reading their novels, their personal tales, spun out as fiction, I came to realize that I had finally found my tribe. That experience gave me a footing from which to launch myself out into the world, and given that importance, I don’t take lightly to being used solely as a marketing tool.

A good book is a good book, regardless of who wrote it. But in gay fiction, if you’re calling yourself a gay man, you really should be a gay man. Gender does matter.

But, then again, I’m just a writer.

What do you think?

Cross-posted on Huffington Post and Bilerico Project.

22 Responses

  1. bookluver

    I just have to say that to me I don’t care what gender the author is about and I am always willing to read a good book whether it contains gay or straight characters- as long as the book is written tastefully. For instance, I am a straight woman and absolutely loved Luana Reach Torres’s latest novel, “I Heard the Pastor’s Daughter Is Gay.” It was a very well written novel!

    http://www.luanareachtorres.com/

    October 13, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    • Thanks for the note! Hope you understand that I too support authors writing whatever they like. My issue is in the marketing of the book. It is one thing to use a pseudonym when writing traditional gay lit, and another to create an entirely different persona and to interact with the public as if one is a gay man.

      October 14, 2012 at 8:54 am

  2. Thank you Kergan…

    I agree with most everthing you have said.

    I will just add a few quick thoughts….

    If the gender of the author did not matter then there would be no reason to create a ficticious persona to promote one’s books.

    I am both a gay author and reader and all I can say is that it matters to me. That should be enough for female authors who use male pen names. When a gay man tells you it matters, stop arguing… to argue the point after that tells me that you really dont care what the truth is!

    And in truth, I would say that more of my favorite books have been written by women than men. Some of my absoulte favorites have gay themes are were written by women (Last of the Wine for example.)

    However, as a gay man when i choose to purchase a book, and the topic matter is gay related, the author’s gender and sexual orientation makes a difference to me. I deserve the right to make an informed decision. Why is this a complicated concept for people?

    You can say that it shouldn’t and that the story is all that matters but I respond by saying that it does and that you have no right to tell me how I should feel about the books i read.

    It can be an intimate thing to let an author into your head while you assimilate his/her thoughts. Some of these images may stay with you for quite some time. I choose to be selective about who I let in my bed as well as who I let in my head.

    If a story is written by a woman who is pretending to be a man I would feel and have felt violated. You do not have to agree, but you cannot dismiss my feelings as irrelvent or foolish. I am the gay guy… I get to decide… you can script the gay guys in your books and make them behave and feel however you like… but guess what??? I am not one of your characters!

    I know…. Quality of the story… I have heard that over and over again. To hell with that mantra. How about a little honesty and integrity? Are authors going to refund my money of I find the quality of the story lacking… and moreover will they pay me for my time, effort, etc.?

    One might say that the quaility of a sex is all that matters as well…but i tell you that if i was deceived into sex with a woman pretending to be a man I would not be amused.

    I believe that any reasonable person would admit that a gay man some expertise at developing a gay character or theme (by definition for god’s sake). What this means to me is that when a non-gay person claims or leads me to believe that they are gay man that they are willfully committing fraud.

    I would not be surprised if this sort of activty is actionable in a court of law (no matter the country). Who knows perhaps it will happen to me one more time and I will hire a team of lawyers to find out.

    While common descency should be enough for people to avoid such duplicity… perhaps a class action suit would help resolve the matter once and for all???????

    All we need are 3 gay men who were tricked into buying a book for each publisher who publishes gay themed books written by women using male names and we have a beautifully colorable lawsuit. Or perhaps a single lawsuit against Amazon would get everyone’s attention.

    In terms of the sexual fluidity mantra and mandates that came up in the comments… well this is another bag a birds… bottom line… sorry it is not my religion.

    It is also not my responsibilty as a gay man to embrace or champion any and all forms of sexual/affectional/gender non-conformaties. I happen to embrace/support/champion many but that also is by choice and done on a case by case basis.

    This social movement whereby gay men are made to feel that they rightfully exist only as part of a “sexual minority collective” is total crap in my opinion.

    I am a gay guy who writes and reads gay fiction… I am lots of other things as well… but I really take offense when every lgbtq2z issue under the moon sun and stars is assumed to inextricably woven into the fabric of what it means to be a gay man… to be everything is to be nothing. I think many would have gay male issues diluted to the point that we are assilimated and no longer exist… sorry.. I am not going anywhere.

    Food for thought….

    Jeffrey Jude

    September 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    • Jeffrey, I appreciate your comments and support. Many of the folks who’ve commented on this column at HuffPo or Bilerico have missed my point, in that there is a big difference (to me) in using a pseudonym and in an ongoing misrepresentation of themselves. As you note, it boarders on fraud.

      Like you, I have learned a lot from reading gay fiction by female authors. In fact, one of the first books which really impacted me was The Front Runner, by Patricia Nell Warren. It made no difference to me that it was written by a woman, but if–for the sake of argument–she’d written it under a pseudonym and marketed herself as a gay man, it would have really bothered me to have found out she wasn’t honest.

      I’m hopeful that this discussion may prompt more truthfulness. Interestingly, one of the people who prompted me to write about this issue has already been more forthcoming in their online discussions about who they really are than they had prior!

      Again, thanks for the note!

      September 8, 2012 at 12:07 am

  3. Hello Mr. Edwards-Stout,
    I am reader, I was lucky to get B’s in my lit classes. I am a het, white woman I am the mother of boys and have been with my spouse 30 years. So there is my disclosure if anyone is interested.

    I understand anger toward posers. I find that my anger toward posers gets in the way of acceptance of people who are genuine. I have chosen to give acceptance regardless of the risks.

    Also in The Huffington Post is an article titled ” Dad wears Skirt in Solidarity with His 5-year old Son”.
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/29/nils-pickert-german-dad_n_1840290.html

    The article mentions two young people who are experiencing their gender in non-normative ways. How does this post apply to them? If one of them were to become an author, what would be proper etiquette for them and the community? Let’s say one decides Suzie is their name and persona. She chooses to write under the name of Daisy Doo. Can she write stories about MC’s struggling for gender identity acceptance- yes, of course! But is there a line for her. Does she have to disclose some info before she can give advise to a lesbian young woman struggling with identity, orientation acceptance? Is it better for gender fluid individuals to stay silent? I’m not sure what this post is saying. Authenticity… whose the judge? Authenticity by definition REQUIRES substantiation.

    Yes I have given money to people who may have pulled a good grift on me, but in allowing that to happen I have assisted people who needed a lift. I have chosen deliberately to live this way, because I don’t want the posers to win in my life.

    The way of thinking you are purposing is not something I want to be a part of. If Daisy Doo were a performer singing about being a woman struggling with identity, I would want to be with a community that would be open to acceptance. I would choose to avoid a community willing to smear, squash and judge Daisy Doo when it was discovered that the anatomy did not correspond to the psychology.

    I understand what you are saying, but I am not comfortable with the cost/benefit ratio. The cost of crushing a Daisy is too high for me. I will continue to be irked at posers, but strive to live offering acceptance. {shrugs}

    September 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm

  4. I’m at a loss as to what to address first in this.

    The idea that any author should be forced into a) revealing their real life picture and b) that it should matter whether they are male or female is ridiculous. Yes, even for gay fiction.

    What you’re saying is that an author’s gender matters. You’re trying to couch it in a question, but you say, directly, that you’d feel duped by an author who you find out later is female, If you found out Adam Lambert is a woman tomorrow, would your whole world crumble? Would his fans? SHOULD it matter if he is? That’s the analogy you made with the singers of that band.

    It. doesn’t. matter. An author’s gender doesn’t matter. Their life experiences do, their written words, the pieces of heart and soul they left on the page, the way they made you feel while reading. Those are what matter.

    I really want this argument to end. I have so many female friends who write m/m, some who write gay fiction, I even have male friends, using FEMALE personae, who write lesbian erotica. Should I go beat down their doors, take their picture and post it so the world can feel safe knowing what’s between their legs?

    A few months ago, my friend Rod, we’ll call him, got really excited about his Grindr ‘date’. They guy had sent a picture. All was good. Hot sex was going to ensue! Hells yeah. He opened the door and found a guy very different from the picture. Rod, being Rod, did him anyway. Because sex is sex, he said, and the guy’s lying ass didn’t diminish my orgasm.

    Try not to let the author’s sex diminish your orgasm. That’s all I’m saying.

    September 5, 2012 at 5:43 am

    • The debate ‘the gender of the author doesn’t matter’ is moot, as why else would female authors adopt not only a male pseudonym but also create a virtual male persona? This is something female authors are doing by themselves for themselves.

      Female fans voraciously defended Clay Aiken’s heterosexuality and when he ‘came out’ he did lose a lot of fans. Again, this is something women did, not gay men.

      If your friends are purporting to be of a different gender for self-interest / to bolster sales, please do expose them, as that would end the hypocrisy and help promote acceptance.

      While your analogy ‘Rod the ass-fucking whore’ may be indicative of your gay friends, it does not represent the entire gay community, and I find it derogatory, insulting, and hateful.

      I would not want to read gay fiction written by women like you, if that’s all you think of us.

      September 5, 2012 at 11:05 am

      • @scavola– ‘m not a woman. I’m a transman.

        And Rod is not a whore. Thanks very much for expounding on your view of someone’s sex-positive lifestyle.

        September 5, 2012 at 11:17 am

        • Actually, YOU did that by stating, “Rod, being Rod, did him anyways”, implying that others in that situation would not, and by stating that Rod was concerned about the quality of HIS orgasm only. So yeah, using someone as a hole to get off in without any consideration of that someone as a person isn’t as much sex-positive as it is whorish.

          Even so, the tone was negative do to your use of the analogy as derogatory, “try not to let the author’s sex diminsh your orgasm,” implying that our books are erotic only.

          And I did not call you a woman, but said that I would not want to read books by women LIKE YOU.

          September 5, 2012 at 12:04 pm

  5. Bob

    Kergan,
    Another great article, and I also appreciate the well-written comments from your other readers. I admit that I am not as articulate.
    For me, it’s all about discovering a past that I hid from. I was married and closeted for my first 50 years. You and I have corresponded before. So, I watch any dvd, and read any book, which I feel is going to be genuine.
    This article is truly food for thought about a question I hadn’t considered. So, I guess I have to say I don’t have a firm opinion yet. But, except for this, I might never have even thought about it.
    In closing, I’ll see you at the WeHo Book Fair on the 30th. I’ll be the incredibly old gentleman holding a copy of your book for you to sign!!! :-)

    Bob

    September 4, 2012 at 2:47 pm

  6. I agree, I don’t think the debate applies to all gay fiction, but only to much more intimate gay romance.

    As you pointed out, it’s not only a matter of authenticity and sensibility, but also a structural difference between gay romance and M/M Romance.

    The advice I was given was that, if I wanted to succeed in ‘Gay Fiction’, I stop writing gay fiction, (romance or otherwise), for gay men and write M/M Romance for women, even adopting a female persona.

    In my opinion, women’s appetite for M/M Romance is too voracious, if it is to the exclusion of gay fiction.

    I’ve started my own group to that effect, ‘no girls allowed! (gay men only)’, on goodreads, not to devalue their interests, but to value ours.

    September 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

  7. Sue Brown

    I made a conscious decision not to use initials/a male name as a pseudonym because I knew I couldn’t maintain a separate identity on social media. Whilst I don’t regret choosing to be open about my gender, I am only too aware of the prejudice against female authors, straight, bi or lesbian.

    I am pleased that in the time I have been published there are a section of gay male readers (and authors) who are very supportive of their female authors, and recognise that gender is not the crucial factor in choosing a book.

    In my experience, M/M books are more than just the relationship/romance. In many of the books I have read (and written) issues that affect the gay community are also explored in depth. Or maybe that’s the type of book I choose to read and write. I’ve written about same-sex spousal abuse, religious homophobia, immigration issues, sexual identity and bereavement. And yet because I am a woman writing m/m they are not representative of the lgbt community?

    I understand your point about feeling duped by finding out someone is not what they portray themselves to be, but should that affect the strength of the books they write?

    September 4, 2012 at 10:41 am

    • I believe a good book is a good book, and we all have something to teach each other. But if one of the strengths of gay fiction (separate from m/m) is seeking the truth, what does it say when an author goes to great lengths to hide their true self? The work may be just as good and relevant, but does that “shading” undermine their greater message???

      September 4, 2012 at 10:46 am

      • Sue Brown

        Surely the sign of a good author is the research they do?

        Can lesbians only write about lesbians, gay men about gay men?

        Surely fiction is just that – fiction, good or bad.

        Are you betrayed by the ‘shading’ because your expectations weren’t met?

        September 4, 2012 at 11:02 am

        • I agree with you whole-heartedly. My beef isn’t the quality of what is written, it is the deception behind the facade. It is one thing for an author to use a pseudonym, and another to create and respond with readers as an entirely different person (a gay man), as if they indeed were that person.

          Fiction works better on the page than in real life.

          September 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

      • Just had a thought, would you read a biography of President Obama written by a Republican? The structure would be there, it may even be somewhat factual, and, in theory, it may not necessarily be biased against Obama, but it would not be biased in his favor either.

        What if the book was purported to be written by a Democrat, and you bought it, read it, didn’t care for it, then found out that the author was really a Republican?

        A book chronicling the Office of the President over the years would be less affected by an author of either party. Or a fictional thriller, featuring the President, etc.

        September 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm

  8. You bring up so many interesting points in this article that could take me an entire blog to respond. You are correct that we are in such a different age now where authors are more accessible and it sort of changes the game.

    As a gay man, I made a calculated decision on how I wanted to release my books so as not to be placed in a certain writing box. I don’t like to write in the same genre and I want to be able to share stories: many – from different perspectives. That said, while my female lit novel has won the most awards…the sales have been the poorest. Even though several reviewers have marveled that a man could get inside the head of a female and tell a story in 1st person, I wonder if it would have been different if I had written using a female author’s name. (I’ll never know.)

    That said: I think if people are writing fiction (and not memoir), they are given a pass in my book. Yes, we may feel duped to learn that “Memoirs of a Geisha” was a man and that (insert gay book here) was a female – but if the story touches us, where is the harm in that?

    September 4, 2012 at 9:51 am

    • Hi Greg, thanks for your thoughts. Given our ongoing talk of such issues, I hoped it would resonate with you! Take care, K

      September 4, 2012 at 10:40 am

  9. I think there is a bright-line difference between being an author who is proudly and openly exploring perspectives different than his (or her) own, and an author who is “putting on” a different identity in a way that encourages readers to be mislead.

    To authors who feel like they need to “take on” a false identity, I would say this: You are not giving your readers enough credit. Do not insult them. They will read your book, and if it is a well-written story, and if you do a GOOD JOB of portraying the character you are trying to portray, then your readers will respect you MORE, not less, for being able to see into their hearts and minds.

    September 4, 2012 at 9:46 am

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