As long as there has been art, 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, the need to assume 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 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 in "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. This 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 authors of gay male fiction, 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 about same-gender affection in a way that allowed them to still remain disassociated; neither, however, cloaked her identity by pretending to be a gay man.)
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 gay fiction is. 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, that a gay author may bring to a story that a straight author cannot? Many of the aforementioned authors 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 falling within a specific genre. But in the years since, gay fiction has splintered, with genres within sub-genres blurring the lines and making the categorization of "gay fiction" difficult at best.
Like my forebears, 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 websites as a way to both get reviewed and promoted. However, many websites that 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 that often mirror the life experiences of both writer and readers. With genre material, however, form and formula is paramount, leading to stories that fulfill necessary requirements, authenticity be damned.
So if this matter of authenticity is the defining factor differentiating the two genres, what is to be made of authors writing gay fiction under pseudonyms, and/or 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 that 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 we 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, 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 I am thus continually surprised by the lengths to which 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 that 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 upfront that the person who wrote the amazing gay book I just read is a straight woman living in Liverpool 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 that 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 was a man who had misrepresented himself 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, Calif., 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 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?
Follow Kergan Edwards-Stout on Twitter: www.twitter.com/edwardsstout