Taking a look at women who write gay male romance novels…
By Paul Gallant
When Lauren Blakely, a married straight 49-year-old woman living in Seattle and a voracious reader, came upon the 2007 literary sensation Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman, a gay romance that was made into a 2017 movie starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, she devoured it in a weekend. Then read it twice more. And then she decided she wanted to write a romance between two men.
Blakeley wasn’t a writing newbie: she had started writing romance novels in 2013. You know the stereotypical romance novel: girl meets guy, then something keeps them apart for a while, then they get together, man and woman, happily ever after. Blakely became known for her steamy and passionate writing. Her first gay romance, A Guy Walks Into My Bar, was her playing with the idea of whether it was possible for two men, strangers, a US hockey player and a British bartender, to fall in love in six days. “I thought, ‘If half my readers read it, that would be great.’ It was a passion project for me,” Blakely tells me by phone. It became a bestseller.
Of course, Blakely isn’t the first straight woman to become successful telling stories about man-on-man love and sex. In the romance novel category, which is well-known to be dominated by female readers and writers, MM (male-male) is not something from another universe, it’s a substantial subgenre, just a step or two over from MF (male-female) fiction. The gay themes – furtive glances in locker rooms, workplace rivalries overturned in shared hotel rooms – are not necessarily aimed at gay men. In fact, one survey has suggested that 87 per cent of MM romance readers are female.
It’s certainly working for Blakely: all of her MM novels have hit the USA Today bestsellers list. Of the 100 romances she’s written, a substantial number have titles like The Virgin Scorecard and The One-Week Husband, with covers featuring chiseled men so overheated they might rip off the reader’s clothes right from their spot on the cover. Because FM romance books these days can have similarly racy covers, a potential buyer sometimes must read the text on the back to tell that these books are gay, not straight.
“An annoying sigh escaped River’s lips,” Blakely writes in The Bromance Zone. “’Do you think you and Jack will just snap back to friendship once you stop messing around?’ I shrugged, full of postcoital bravado. ‘Sure. Why not? Plenty of men and women go back to being friends after having a sex fling.’ Although I didn’t want to think of sex with Jack ending – mostly because I liked getting laid. I liked it a lot.”
Blakely has a personal connection to the material – but not in the way you’d think. Her father, who is gay, was closeted in the early years of his marriage to her mother. Interestingly, her parents stayed married after he came out. “Their decision to stay married has influenced me tremendously in how I think about love and romance,” Blakely says. “I chose to write about men who are out and comfortable being out. They move fluidly among their straight friends and gay friends, and they’re unafraid, at the end of the books, to get down on one knee and propose. I love being able to create a world my father wasn’t able to embrace when he was young.”
Blakely has a gay male editor read over her books to make sure they ring true, particularly the sex scenes. “He’ll tell me which words I shouldn’t be using and he’ll pay attention to the sexual mechanics. ‘They wouldn’t do that, that wouldn’t happen that way.’ It’s not like I’ve done everything with my husband that I write about in straight romances. There’s a lot of shower sex in my books, but not in my life.”
Lucy Lennox, an MM romance writer who lives with her husband and three children in suburban Atlanta, was encouraged by her sister, also a writer, to start writing novels. After Lennox wrote some FM romances, a fellow quilter in her quilting group, a Mormon woman, told her about MM romance and suggested that Lennox try writing one. Over the past five years, Lennox has written 40 romances, including titles like Hijacked, Forever Wild and Hitched. “How gay men talk about relationships is as different as how straight people talk about relationships,” Lennox tells me. “I know suburban gay couples who have a very heteronormative life, gay guys in New York who are regularly hooking up on Grindr. There’s a misconception that there’s only one way of telling a gay man’s story.”
Lennox has some fascinating ideas about why straight women are drawn to MM romance. Firstly, straight romances are full of “sexist junk”: the powerful assertive man, the damsel in distress. The power dynamics can be appalling. Inverting the formulas – lady boss seduces her male assistant – can be just as cringeworthy, and often hurts sales. By having two men as leads, there’s not as much baggage in having one rescue the other, or having one more powerful than the other, or having that flip, or having them be pretty much “equal” all along. When female readers get wrapped up in a scene about a male firefighter pulling a woman out of a burning building, they might, by default, insert themselves into the role of the female victim. If it’s a male firefighter pulling a future male lover out of a burning building, some women can more easily insert themselves into either role. It’s less about homosexuality itself than starting the game of love on a level playing field.
MM romance offers lots of other nuances as well. From a storytelling perspective, male-male relationships can provide more “will they or won’t they” sexual tension. Put a naked man and woman together in a room and the situation is, for most straight readers, automatically sexual. In fact, because women are often raised to be modest, that scenario could seem unrealistic from the outset. But men can be non-sexually naked together in many circumstances, allowing for a routine shower after soccer practice to – surprise! – sparkle with lust. Rough straight sex can seem rape-y unless it’s framed as BDSM, which is a subgenre that operates in another corner of the literary marketplace. But two rival studs of equally fit physiques wrestling over something can be, for many readers, extraordinarily horny. Having a man and a woman “face off” against each other physically seems weird, rightly or wrongly, while sports are huge in MM romance. “Enemies to lovers is a delicious trope. The tension is way different when it’s between men,” says Lennox.
As a straight woman, Lennox says, MM fiction allows her to read about the “male body parts” that interest her, though she is quick to point out that this experience is more nuanced than the straight male’s propensity to watch lesbian porn.
MM romance writers may integrate various aspects of contemporary gay life in their books, referencing gay bars and hookup apps, for example, as well as tropes like college days and professional sports. But some components of gay culture don’t translate well for female readers. No matter how promiscuous characters might be over the course of the novel, they are expected to commit and be monogamous by the novel’s end. Writer A.E. Via set off a firestorm in the MM romance community a few years ago when a book in her erotically charged Nothing Special series, about alpha-male police detectives, ended with the main couple inviting another couple over for a foursome. “Readers lost their shit,” says Lennox. “They think it’s cheating and it’s abhorrent.”
That’s when you realize – no matter how well written these books are, or how conscientious and sensitive their writers, it’s fantasy, not messy ole reality. Readers are looking for the idealistic parts of gay life: the glamour, the globe-trotting, the buff bodies, the smouldering heat. The complicated bits of gay life – self-doubt, homophobia, the difficulty of coming out, hard-to-harness desires, negotiating non-monogamy – must be set aside for a few hundred pages. MM romance, with its hot, confident bodies always ready for action or a tender moment, might not reflect reality…but they’re certainly good PR for gay men.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.