This article was first printed in PETRIe 66 (2014).
Throughout my life, I’ve explored pretty much every genre and type of writing available. That is aside from one: erotica, and to be more specific, man-on-man fiction. Of course, I’d heard about ‘romance fiction’. My level of understanding of what it involved and contained only ever extended (with great naïvety) as far as Mills & Boon and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover – a whole other kettle of fish now I fully understand what steamy fiction really entails.
In my mind, such libidinous writing fell nothing short of porn for the imagination. Words tempered with meaning and passion that spiralled the mind into a heady and lustful other world - one privy only to the complicit thinker. It offered an antithetical union between the realms of sagacious scholars and salacious sexiness. An unlikely marriage, and one generally kept tucked away from prying eyes.
For many years, and generally speaking, erotic fiction has not been readily available to the mass audience – largely as a result of the content, but also due to the social ‘taboo’ surrounding the topic. Not many readers would, for example, feel comfortable reading a printed version of an erotic book in public. Like the heated motion pictures on X-rated sites, such literature was only accessible for those actively seeking it out.
However, with the introduction of the e-reader, erotica has truly seen its readership, acceptability and popularity grow. Indeed, the novels and anthologies written by Laura Baumbach, a popular male/male erotica author, are now available in e-book format from MLR Press, Amazon, Nook, Kobo and any of their affiliates - and in print from anywhere that can order from Ingram.
The greatest change for erotic fiction arguably came when E.L. James forcibly thrust the raunchy rendezvous of Fifty Shades of Grey upon us in 2011. It was, how shall I say - the turning point for erotic awareness. Women up and down Great Britain began announcing through telephone conversations, hurriedly sent e-mails and across all manner of social networks that they would be taking the fictional Christian Grey to bed each night. Within weeks of its publishing, this overbearingly sexual world had fully found its way into mainstream contemporary culture and we all got a taste of it.
In its prominent navy cover, Fifty Shades of Grey was everywhere. This was not by complete coincidence either. As E.L. James recalled when talking to The Huffington Post in 2012: “The editor at Random House said to me, ‘I don’t want this book on the back shelf of the bookstore in the erotic section. This needs to be on the front table at Barnes and Noble, because it is a cultural phenomenon.’”
Aside from opening up debates about erogenous zones and the finer details of foreplay, it also brought the question of feminism to the table – or should I say bedroom. See, contrary to what I had long thought, Fifty Shades of Grey is arguably feminist in its composition. Okay, so the vast majority of the narrative is about a submissive female character; and the sadomasochistic themes are not my idea of liberation. I’d also like to think the resulting swell in sales of sex toys at the time (The Observer reported a 200 per cent rise in the sales of jiggle balls at Ann Summers in July 2012) was not due to a generation of women inspired into thinking that this was a character they should emulate or aspire to become.
However, fundamentally, here was a woman writing a sexually explicit and hugely popular book for a mainly female audience. A space was created for women of all ages - grandparents to young teenagers - in which they could discuss the intimacies of their bodies and lives in a way like never before. They could be honest and open. It formed a sense of solidarity, community and empowerment amongst women who realised they too could speak about sex in the same candid way as their male counterparts. Adding to this, with the increased use of e-readers and kindles, women also found themselves able to comfortably read such novels without fearing the piercing male gaze or perception. This was their space, for their imagination.
Even the decision for E.L. James (aka. Erika Leonard) to write under a pen name was, as she told The Huffington Post in 2012, led more by her decision to be successful in her career, rather than an issue with her gender. She explained, “I thought I would continue working at my other job. I worked in television, and I didn’t know the book was going to be so successful. So I wanted to keep the two sides of my job very separate. I thought I’d write some naughty stuff in the evening, and go to work during the day. It never occurred to me that people would think I was a bloke.”
From a feminist point of view, erotic fiction became beneficial in two ways. It helped women open up about their inner fantasies, and speak about sex in a way like never before. It also allowed women producing literature to be open and empowered about their imagination and identity, forging a successful and prominent career as a result.
DO IT LIKE A DUDE
What would happen to the theory that erotic fiction could be deemed feminist, however, if that female author was instead writing for a male audience - and it was no longer a heterosexual union in discussion, but one of two males? While it may be liberating for her to enter such an intimate space, dominated predominantly by men, it is unchartered ground. How can she possibly know enough to write about it? Can she really be honest about her female identity?
The tables are most certainly turned. As I discovered, these women face a great deal of rejection, with their male counterparts largely escaping such refutations. Regularly, these female authors write under initials or pseudonyms for fear of turning off the men who read their work or telling loved ones about their writing. Continually, they have to prove the authenticity of their work; every ounce of success is a bitter fight.
One such woman who knows a great deal about this is American-born Laura Baumbach - owner of ManLoveRomance Press, a publishing house for this niche genre, with more than 200 authors on her books. She is additionally a successful author in her own right of male/male romance. Contrary to what one might imagine for an author of steamy gay fiction, Baumbach is a straight woman, mother of two boys, retired Emergency Trauma nurse living in Western New York and has been married to the same man for 32 years.
It is important, in understanding Baumbach’s work, to understand what ‘male/male’ fiction means. It is not just a rudimentary way of saying ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’. As she tells me, the distinction is in fact very specific and relates largely to readership. “Male/male erotic romance is specifically targeted to straight women. Gay romance is fiction targeted to gay men. It’s the language of the romance community.”
Baumbach’s titles include the much loved A Bit of Rough, featuring Bram - the man every mother of a gay man wants her son to find - and Mexican Heat, which has won numerous RWA [Romance Writers of America] awards, reviewers awards, 2010 Eppie awards, and touched a lot of readers with disabled hero Gabriel and unrelenting lover, Antonio. Her writing is every bit as vivid as one might imagine. “The stranger’s shaft was long, thick and hot; Gabriel seemed to feel every bulging, pulsing vein that ribbed its surface. Distantly he wondered whether the lube the man had used heated on contact with skin. His insides blazed, his opening burned and spasmed, straining to accommodate that driving cock,” writes Baumbach in Mexican Heat.
Her choice to enter the genre was based largely on personal taste, in which she reads the work of both men and women: “I write it because I read it. I read it because I find it hot and intensely sexy and arousing. One man’s good, two are better... I am drawn more to female author’s work for my own personal reading enjoyment (Z.A. Maxfield is a marvellous, highly skilled female author, as is Kendall McKenna) because I think overall they put more emotional passion into their work. I have a number of male authors I love reading (Vicktor Alexander, Parker Williams, and William Neale grab my attention) - but the majority are female authors.”
UNDER COVER IDENTITY
Baumbach has experienced anonymity within her career on two different levels and for varying reasons. The first instance came because Baumbach, like E.L. James, started off writing fan fiction. She began by using the pen name ‘amethyst’ for publishing her work. Incidentally, E.L. James began by writing under the name ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon’. Predominantly, this decision was made by Baumbach to use an alias because, “the experienced authors recommended it for safety’s sake.”
By definition, fan fiction (often abbreviated to fan fic) is a piece of work based on an original story, often featuring the same characters and settings, but written by a fan rather than the initial creator. Generally, either major plot points are changed or characters are put into entirely different situations to live out a particular fantasy held by the fan. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, was initially based on Twilight, in which there are many similarities between the behaviour and personalities of the characters.
Due to the subject matter and the nature of the readers though, pen names are advised. Baumbach explains: “‘Fandom’ people can be overly passionate about their favourite shows and characters.” As such, there have been occasions when anonymity was a useful tool for Baumbach to have. “I did have trouble with one reader who stalked me online and berated everything I wrote because it didn’t fit what she thought the characters would do. She was obsessive but nothing extreme happened. I was thankful for the pen name then.”
However, predominantly, the alias was far from liberating. “I never felt empowered by using a pen name,” she tells me. “I actually resented it. As an author, I was trying to grow my brand and get my name out there and every source that insisted I use a pen name lessened my efforts. It didn’t free me to make more graphic love scenes or tougher character choices. I’m a trauma nurse - I write pretty graphic anyway. I like flawed characters and different plot lines. I didn’t need the cloak of a pen name. I’m not shy about my writing.”
IN THE CLOSET
When Laura Baumbach moved into writing homoerotic fiction, she found pen names were commonly used. As Baumbach tells me regarding these anonymous authors, “some genuinely feel they identify with their ‘inner-male’ more strongly than any other part of them. Some choose a male pen name thinking they need to present their work as written by a male for readers to enjoy it or trust it; some just like the idea of a pen name no matter what it is.”
Quite often, many fear being stigmatised by their writing or feel that their literature might be perceived as a reflection of their lifestyle. There are also authors who, as Baumbach explains, “go to extremes to support the male identity... These authors really believe that being perceived as male is the only way to be successful writing male/male romance or gay fiction.”
The lengths they go to can include “getting a DBA [doing business as account] in their pen name so even the publishing house writes royalty checks to the pen name only, they post male relative’s photos on their websites as their own picture, use PO Boxes to hide their address, set up whole identities online to support the fiction of their ‘male’ persona... But once you go down that road it is hard to come back.”
For Baumbach, even though she had held a pen name when writing fan fiction, in moving into the world of homoeroticism, she felt it was important to be open about her identity: “When I started writing original fiction, I really wanted credit for my work; credit for my friends and family and myself to see what I was accomplishing, so I decided from the start to use my real name... I didn’t want to keep up the fiction of an alias of any kind. Separate e-mail accounts, website designs, online chats and public appearances all pretending to be someone else wasn’t appealing. So I decided not to do it.”
“I felt, in the long run, that it was more beneficial to have readers begin to understand that sexual orientation didn’t define a good author, even one that wrote erotic romance.” Not only this, but “I wanted everyone to understand and maybe, just maybe, start to become more accepting of gay relationships. If straight women readers become more accepting, they will pass that acceptance on to their children and possibly even their spouses. I know my sons and husband have grown far less judgemental by my being involved with male/male fiction.”
However, while Baumbach found it relatively straightforward and natural to be open about her identity, also having a supportive family around her, it isn’t always the case for other authors within the genre. As she tells me, “I know a popular heterosexual romance author - a big name here – that keeps it a secret from her grandmother because she is sure she wouldn’t take the news well that she writes erotic romance.”
She continues, “I know a number of authors who don’t tell their family; one who got a divorce over it when she started writing male/male fiction. Her husband was very religious and left her. She continues to write because she is good enough to almost support herself with it. Another is fearful she would lose her job in a southern hospital if her co-workers knew. I personally had a co-worker who continually told me she would pray for me day after day until I stopped writing male/male erotic romance. I just routinely told her I appreciated her thoughtfulness and open-mindedness.”
As Baumbach further explains, “the fear factor keeps a lot of authors under covers - fear of losing a job, friends, or respect and acceptance among their peers. It can be difficult. One of my editors keeps it from her in-laws because she would never hear the end of it; her father-in-law is not very open-minded about much. She has to hide anything pertaining to the press when they visit from out of town.”
Some change their names altogether, others use initials. Yet there has been an increase recently in female authors choosing to ‘come out’. As Baumbach tells me, remaining anonymous has become much harder in modern times thanks to the Internet and changing demands on authors. “When an author who has been presenting as gay decides it is time to come out as their true gender, it is usually because these days, authors need to attend events, book signings, conferences, panels and promotional venues in person if they are serious about building a readership.”
She continues: “You can’t do that if they think you are a gay man, but you are in fact Sally with two kids, a husband and C-cups. As an author, you have to make the effort to look the part of whatever name you write under if you are going to do public appearances - and you shouldn’t just think it applies to just this situation. The first time I met a heterosexual romance author – who had the sexiest pen name around - I was taken aback at the tiny, little, grey-haired, shrivelled, 80-something that shook my hand. She was great, although I’m not sure public appearances helped her branding.”
RELATING WITH READERS
Possibly the most significant reason for why many women are now being open about their identity when writing homoerotic fiction is their knowledge of their readership. Author Laura Baumbach gives me an example of hers in an account that really makes you think twice: “I once received a fan letter from a young man who complimented me on my story A Bit of Rough. It is a romance, pure and simple; nothing but a budding one-night stand that turned into a relationship. But the reader was so taken by it that he wanted to thank me for it. Then he told me that his mother had read it first and given it to him with the thought that she hoped one day he could find someone like the lead character to share his life with. After reading it, so did he. Straight woman to gay son. That is my target audience.”
As Baumbach explains, “I think some authors believed they could only be accepted if they were seen as men, but that was back when they thought their readers were only gay men. As we have gained an understanding of our own readership, we can see it isn’t necessary... I knew most of my readers’ were straight women because I wrote tonnes of very popular fan fiction first and my audience there were straight women enthralled with male/male fiction, just like I was.”
It is perhaps surprising, given the subject matter, that the main reader of homoerotic fiction is women; it would be easy to assume that homoerotic fiction predominantly attracts gay male readers only. However, as Baumbach estimates, easily 70 per cent of her readership is made up of women. “I think my straight female readers feel comfortable that they are with a woman just like them. One who enjoys male/male romance and isn’t afraid to say so.” In fact, it is quite a broad market when it comes to demographic. Baumbach estimates her target reader to be aged “over 18 to a 118,” but in reality the majority of her readers are 25 to 65-year-old women.
This knowledge of the reader and the types of characters and settings that they enjoy reading also makes it easier in many ways for Baumbach to write. As she continues, “I ‘am’ my readership - straight woman, wife, mom, career, home, family, life - with a love of male/male erotic romance. I don’t need to fantasise about other male/female relationships. I have a solid one myself. It’s the male/male passion that makes it so enjoyable. I don’t have another woman in sight to intrude on the romance.”
Understanding the reader certainly reduces the pressure for a female author to be seen as ‘authentic’ and ‘male’ by an audience of gay men who might reject her on the basis of being a woman. It also means her work can be judged fairly and appropriately without prejudice. The rise of an increasingly accepting reader has played a key role in female writers coming out: “The more accepted male/male romance is becoming, the less readers think it has to be written by a gay man to be authentic. As with anything new, people question the source of the thing, but as it establishes itself and readers are more comfortable with the idea of reading something they didn’t realise they might enjoy, they look for good storytelling and don’t worry about the storyteller.”
However, despite her decision to be honest, as well as changing attitudes amongst female writers and readers, for Baumbach, rejection and prejudice have marked much of her writing career, coming hand-in-hand with every attempt for success. “I’ve never been sorry, but I did hit some stumbling blocks early on because I write under my obviously female name. It wasn’t always easy to write under my own name... in the beginning, being female in a male-dominated genre made it difficult to be heard. It wasn’t a case of the stories not being good enough. Submitted stories wouldn’t even be read by an editor if the name was obviously female.”
There have been times when Baumbach has had to repress her female identity in order to balance out the reality of her gender with the success of her work. “I have only used my initials when forced to by a publication... Alyson Press once published one of my short stories in an anthology but insisted I use my initials only. I wasn’t to stand out as the only female in the collection by male authors. They were at least open-minded enough to read the submission and accept it. But not me.”
This is the second time in her life that Baumbach has been required to hide her identity, yet this time the choice was not hers and the reason was far more prejudicial. Her experience with Alyson Press would not be the only time Baumbach faced this hostile reception to her gender either. “I submitted several erotica stories to a gay men’s magazine and they were accepted but, after signing a contract, they would only publish them if I used a male pen name.” As she explains: “They wanted a very explicit, purple prose type of tag (yes, I did a lot of rolling of the eyes during this period of discussion with them, thank god for e-mail) but I finally got them to agree to using my initials.”
“It was usually gay magazines that insisted on this because their main readership was gay men, who they felt would be more comfortable reading erotica if they thought it was written by another man. Maybe I should have passed altogether, but it became about the principle of the thing. If their readers would enjoy the story, what difference did the author’s name make?”
As Baumbach continues, “I completely understood from their perspective that their audience was gay men and they wanted the reader to trust the origin of their fictional stories. However, despite my best efforts, they didn’t agree that I could write gay erotica without being gay - the same way I could write vampires without being one or serial murders without ever having once walked down that path... the same way I write the male point of view in heterosexual romances without being a man... and just like I don’t need to be a spy or a pirate or a Victorian queen or an alien to write that character convincingly.”
As Baumbach concludes her point with passion and fervour, “I don’t need to be a gay man to write a gay character, I just have to understand them and have enough imagination to bring them to life on the page. But it was a lesson in writing for your readership.”
PARTAKING IN PREJUDICE
Almost immediately, this point that Baumbach made struck a cord with me. In the initial stages of writing this story, I had suggested that our editor-in-chief should be the one to write it. How could I do justice to this story? I was a straight woman - what did I know? Thank goodness he had told me I needed to write the article. I may not be gay, male or know the first thing about the world of erotic literature, but what I do know - if ever there was a topic to keep me talking for days – is about women suppressing their identity within the realms of authorship.
My specialism has always been women’s writing - most pertinently, that of early-modern women who hid away in lofty rooms or castle walls, dancing rebelliously with radicalism, publishing intriguing and revealing works at a time when they were expected to remain silent and mute. In reality, not much has changed to this day really. Yet for some reason, because I was straight and female, I didn’t feel I could write about gay literature in the same way as a gay man - regardless of the fact the interviewee in question was also a woman and the topic in discussion was something I was incredibly familiar with.
What I realised, as I held Baumbach’s words in my mind, is just how easy it is to shackle female authors in the homoerotic genre - to categorise between black and white, and think that as a straight woman, they can’t do justice to the topic of homoerotic literature. I had shown this simple mindedness myself, without even thinking. My feminist brain was kicking itself for being so one-track minded, and for not looking at the bigger picture. Of course I could write this article. Why shouldn’t I be able to do justice to this subject, especially given that it involved women masquerading under male identities? Like Baumbach, I had an imagination - I could put myself in another world. I could write this article and do justice to it just like any gay man, if not better.
Suddenly, with this perspective under my belt, I realised how so often we allow ourselves into the minds of others through imagination, fantasy and dreams; through putting pen to paper, we bring breaths to life using the English language alone. It is one of the beautiful capacities that we have as human beings. Yet something as binary as gender and sexuality repeatedly and easily strips us of this power, even now when we think we have come on leaps and bounds in how we perceive both of these issues.
SEXING THE IMAGINATION
So how do women produce authentic and believable homoerotic fiction? It would seem the mind plays one of the most powerful roles in its production. Indeed, all erotica author, Laura Baumbach, has ever really needed for her work is her ability to think creatively and provocatively. “I find gay porn boring. Any porn boring. For me, sex is not a spectator sport. And no, I have never seen two men being sexually intimate. All I need is my imagination and my lifetime of sexual experience.”
In fact, it is this experience that critics quite often overlook. “People forget that straight women do a lot of the same things to please their man as gay men do. We do oral sex, masturbation, anal intercourse, etc. We’ve spent our lives pleasing a man - kissing, fondling, holding, reassuring, battling - living with a man. It isn’t a far reach to write about it from experience. It also helps that I’m a nurse - anatomy and such are a part of my life. I don’t shy from it and I write explicitly.”
DEALING WITH DISEASE
For Baumbach, though, the writing process is not just about stimulating the mind and erogenous zones with steamy sex scenes and erotic language plucked from the workings of her imagination. It is also about education, and being aware of what information an audience reading homoerotic fiction needs to be equipped with.
By the end of 2012, according to the NAT (National AIDS Trust), an estimated 98,400 people were living with HIV in the UK, including approximately 77,610 people diagnosed with HIV and 21,900 who were infected but undiagnosed. Of this number, it is thought that 41,000 of those living with HIV in the UK are men who have sex with men (MSM); 33,964 men diagnosed and receiving HIV care are also MSM, while 7,300 MSM remain undiagnosed.
These statistics are very important, particularly given that, while the number of HIV tests performed by the sexual health services that year saw an increase to 902,610, just under half of the adults who were newly diagnosed in 2012 were at a late stage of the HIV infection, when they should have already started treatment.
Although there have been notable changes in attitudes and understanding of HIV and AIDS, a great deal of work still needs to be done to both educate and raise awareness of the importance of prevention and early detection. As a National AIDS Trust survey by Ipsos MORI worryingly found in 2010, one in five people did not know that HIV is transmitted through sex without a condom. Adding to this, only 30 percent of respondents were able to correctly identify all true and all false HIV transmission routes when presented to them in the survey, and only one in six people felt they knew enough about how to prevent HIV transmission during sex.
One way of educating appropriately so more people feel confident to be tested and treated, as well as changing attitudes and lessening the stigma surrounding the disease, is through books. For writers of homoerotic fiction, this subject matter plays a crucial role in the production of characters and plot developments. As Baumbach tells me, “HIV/AIDS is addressed by many authors within the male/male category. Some write about a central character losing their love and finding new romantic relationships, some actively address their characters as living with HIV and how it affects them and their partners.”
She continues, “most try to be accurate and respectful of the people dealing with the disease and its affects. We write romance, so we are locked in to the HEA (happily ever after) ending or the HFN (happy for now) ending - so, many times, it is a challenge to write an upbeat story. This is where the skill of the author comes in.”
“I personally keep it in mind when creating my characters – using protection during sex, only having unprotected sex when in a long-term relationship where both have tested negative, etc. I probably feel the need to subtly put these things into the story because I’m a mom and a nurse. A double whammy. Do what I say and what I write.”
However, for Baumbach, it isn’t a case of simply drawing attention to the fact or sensationalising the issue in any way. As she tells me, “I do it without making a production out of its being there - just matter of fact, sensible, like I would expect my own kids to approach sex. I don’t preach or demand. I try to show by example through my character’s actions. Like, in A Bit of Rough, the characters are having sex in an alley; they have just met, but I make sure one character hears the sound of a condom being opened. A small thing but important. Later, they talk about their status when they decide to continue seeing each other. Just a part of their ‘getting to know you’ give and take.”
This awareness for Baumbach of her responsibilities came with a growing understanding of her readership and popularity. “I became more aware of my need to add these elements to every story when I began to realise how much of an impact my little romances had on readers. A mother passing one of my stories on to her gay son means I have a responsibility to reinforce sensible sex practices and not gloss over things they need to be aware of; but to do it without making a big deal out of it.”
BEHIND THE PEN
Interestingly, as well as imagination, personal experience, and the need to educate, the author’s background also plays an intriguing role in the development of plots, the relevance of characters and the popularity of their work. As mentioned previously, Laura Baumbach’s life is as opposite to the world she now inhabits as one could possibly imagine: “I’m a straight woman, mother of two boys, married to the same man for 32 years, a retired Emergency Trauma and ICU/CCU RN and business woman.” Yet despite being anything but a gay male writer, she still writes the homoerotic genre with flair.
Her work within Emergency Trauma has, if anything, the closest markings for her decision to move into homoerotic fiction. “Because of that training, I’m fairly (okay, a lot) assertive and take charge. I can make tough decisions and live with the consequences.” Perhaps it is this strength of character that also pushed Baumbach forwards so pervasively in her career, while others might have preferred to keep their sexual intimacies within themselves or under the wraps of another identity.
Indeed, Baumbach’s strength of character has no doubt also helped her cope with the reception to her work from fellow male authors. As Baumbach tells me, “there was a point about two-three years ago when everyone decided to cash in on the fastest growing new romance trend and everyone was writing male/male. But I think, if you are a straight woman, you can only write it well if it calls to you. It became clear quickly that a number of the authors trying their hand at it didn’t have their heart in it, just their eye on the royalty check. Readers noticed it too and a lot of those authors have faded away.”
It impacted, however, upon the serious authors within the genre. As Baumbach tells me, there were some “disgruntled feelings” between “some gay male authors and what they saw as straight women objectifying and cashing in on their culture.” She explains, “I have experienced it first hand. I met a moderately popular gay mystery author who felt straight women writing male/male erotic romance was an invasion of his lifestyle for personal gain. He felt women could only write ‘chicks with dicks’ not real men in love. Since I personally am a finalist with the most prestigious gay awards group there is - the Lambda Literary Awards - it shows straight female authors can write male/male erotic romance just as well as gay men.”
This sense of rejection, however, continues to be pervasive for female writers of homoerotic fiction, especially at industry events. As Baumbach tells me, “early on, I attended the Saints and Sinners conference.” Held in New Orleans, the annual event (now in its 11th year) was designed to be an innovative way of reaching the community with information pertaining to HIV/AIDS, and disseminating key prevention messages via writers, thinkers and spokespeople that are prominent in the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) community. It was also intended as a way of bringing such literary minds together to celebrate their arts.
For Baumbach, though, when she attended, she was “met by disdain, disgruntlement and out-right rudeness by a number of male attendees. It was the first time I had ever been so uncomfortable in a group of strangers. As an emergency trauma nurse (retired now), dealing with less than pleasant people is an everyday thing for me - but this was so pointedly directed at me that I was shocked.”
Experiencing rudeness from colleagues and writers within the homoerotic genre itself is hard enough – as well as continually having to battle with publishers to prove oneself as a plausible and viable option and repeatedly being rejected both in writing and in person on the basis of being female. However, another issue that authors such as Baumbach must deal with is the rejection of their genre from the literary industry overall; romance is just not quite highbrow enough, it seems. Erotica even less so.
As Baumbach tells me, “in all honesty, literary fiction authors have always thought of themselves as a step above romance authors. That will never change. Romance authors have always been thought less of.” This denunciation from the broader literary community is perhaps surprising, though, given the popularity of the romance genre - something e-publishers were fast to recognise, capitalise on and profit from.
As the RWA [Romance Writers of America] found, romance fiction was the top-performing category on the bestseller lists in 2012, and generated USD $1.438 billion in sales in 2012 and USD $1.350 billion in 2013. The sales of romance books on e-readers proportionally doubled in one year from 22 per cent in 2011 to 44 per cent in 2012. As The Independent reports, this is in comparison, however, to growth of only 20 percent for general fiction. It is thought by The Business of Consumer Book Publishing 2013, that 74.8 million people read at least one romance novel in 2008.
Romance is evidently popular, despite the wider literary snub. However, within this genre, there are many sub-categories - male/male fiction being one of them - that each have to continually fight to prove themselves as being worthy of their place in the overall genre of romance, struggling repeatedly for acceptance. “Once I began writing original fiction and was in print,” Baumbach tells me, “my work was accepted by two established e-book houses. But even after that, I had a very hard time finding review sites or writing contests that would accept my work because it was male/male. Rejection became the standard response.”
“I had to petition on a popular review site every few months for almost a year before they would look at my work. I submitted my bestselling novel A Bit of Rough to a RWA [Romance Writers of America] writing contest and received notes back from the judges with statements like ‘not bad despite the subject matter’ and ‘I can’t believe I had to read something like this.’”
As she continues, “Romantic Times magazine would not accept any male/male romance for review. They would take an author’s money for the ads but they refused to review it saying their audience wasn’t interested in that kind of work. (They eventually ran a poll to prove it, but only proved they were wrong. They now accept male/male for review). But before they changed their minds, I set out to force them to review a male/male title.”
Baumbach not only had to deal with the negative response to her writing from the romance community through review, but she also had to face up to it in person. “When I first began trying to promote myself as an author of male/male romance, the only events really open to me were gay fiction events. Once I started attending traditional romance events, I was met with the same attitude (of rejection as a female author), with just a bit less animosity.”
“I even had my promotional material removed from an events ‘promo alley’ because the hotel said a guest (who was not part of the huge romance convention) objected to the materials - even though they were by far the most modest promotional material there. That became a huge incident on the web; I had the convention sponsors calling me at home and threatening me, hundreds of people blogging about it and gay-owned firms threatening to boycott the hotel chain over it. It was actually frightening after a time.”
Baumbach also had to face up to this open rejection at the Romantic Times (RT) Convention, a yearly event that is sponsored by the Romantic Times magazine. Part of the event is titled ‘The Fairy Ball’, of which 12 authors pay a huge fee to be part of; they sponsor the ball for all the convention attendees and, in doing so, promote their work.
Baumbach decided to join it in the same year that the Romantic Times refused to review her work because, as she tells me, “part of the benefit for being a sponsor was to have RT review one of your titles, and since male/male is all I write, they would have to review one. Except it didn’t work out that way.”
“After taking my money and putting me through all the hoops for the event, when I submitted my book for review, I was suddenly kicked off the sponsorship. That turned into a bit of a battle with insane e-mails from the owner of the RT business, her assistant and various threats and pronouncements of my personal damnation for writing such romance to begin with. In the end, the leader of the 12 author group demanded I be put back in and the event occurred, but my book was never reviewed.”
For women writing within the erotic genre, they must fight against both the reception of their feminine identity and against the industry response to the topic they write on. It is a path fraught with rejection, in which fight or flight often takes motion. The constant rejection that Laura Baumbach faced could have left her with a bitter taste in her mouth, refusing to persevere for fear of further refusals and rebuffs.
However, Baumbach instead chose to use her experiences to effect change. “ManLove Romance Press, aka MLR Press, opened in January 2007. I had been writing male/male for several years, winning awards, gathering readers who begged for more and print, but none of my publishers at that time were willing to invest in male/male print. I became frustrated with the lack of reviews, the lack of acceptance for contests and awards programmes that demanded print copies - and finally decided that my category of romance needed someone to stand up for it.”
“I pulled together some of my top selling peers to write for me, and we became a force to be recognised. I didn’t start out to be the poster girl for gay romance but it happened anyway. I started out with three authors and we now have just under 200.” Generally speaking, Baumbach has a wide amount of freedom as a result - both as writer and publisher. “All presses have the usual no-no list because they are illegal activities: Necrophilia, bestiality, paedophilia, rape for titillation, etc. Beyond that, if the romance, character, development and the high degree of eroticism are in line with the story, we are okay with it.”
The statistical truth is that generally, Baumbach publishes female authors more than men. “As a publisher, the hard economical fact is, on the whole, they sell best. I can tell the difference between a male author’s work and a female author’s work, in general. I can be wrong sometimes, but not often. It’s the depth of passion. I don’t think women feel it more, but they express it better.”
“I have learnt that it is the quality of the writing over time that wins the readership, not the sex of the author. As a publisher, I’m drawn to a good story with characters I can relate to. I often don’t even look at the author’s name or biography until I’m done reading.” Indeed, this way of thinking seems to be reflected within reading patterns too, with the 2012 Romance Book Consumer Survey finding that 50 per cent of those that bought a romance novel chose to do so based on the story, while only 19 per cent found the author to be part of the decision.
Throughout her career, there has been an unquestionable passion and visible determination from Baumbach to prove critics wrong, to ignore the negative repercussions of rejection, to change the understanding of the genre, and to push forward the status of female writers, both in general and as producers of homoerotic literature. The eventual reward has since been sweet, and felt with greater definition.
“I had to fight for every review, every book signing, and every agreement to take one of my stories on in a contest,” Baumbach tells me. “The day I actually won my first award was breathtaking. It was a simple paper certificate but it meant so much more than the people who awarded it could imagine. Four years ago, when I helped found the first RWA [Romance Writers of America] chapter for writers of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgender and Queer (GLBTQ) romance, it was another huge stepping stone to acceptance for us. RWA is extremely traditional and cautious - and one of male/male romance’s biggest stumbling blocks - so finally becoming a part of the organisation was ground breaking; one of my proudest accomplishments.”
As well as finally being rewarded with personal achievement, Baumbach has also been able to see her industry gain recognition too: “The most surprising thing that happened in my mind was when Rolling Stone named male/male romance ‘what’s hot in books’ in 2010. That was epic. International recognition for a category of romance many didn’t know existed until then. After working for over a decade by that point, to gain a small measure of recognition - it was glorious.”
Despite all the complications and rejections, Baumbach continues to be successful; her future is packed full of exciting opportunities. “Currently I am working on the sequel to Mexican Heat, titled Tequila Sunrise, which is the further adventures of the two main characters in Mexican Heat once they leave law enforcement and begin a life together. I am also working on a new novel, titled Dark Side, about a hard-edged loner ex-CIA agent who now owns a successful international security firm. He finds love when a kidnap victim literally falls into his arms – which isn’t easy given he is scuba diving at the time (and yes, I scuba dive, so I am writing with some actual knowledge on the subject).”
“I will also be sponsoring at the Great Romance Northwestern Event in Seattle in September and MLR Press is sponsoring the Gay Romance Literary Retreat for readers and authors in Chicago in October. Additionally, I just finished up a pod cast with the American Library Association and one for Publishers Weekly.”
There is also the question of changing perspectives towards homoerotic literature across the globe. As Baumbach tells me, the reception currently “depends on the country. England, Canada, Germany all embrace it, Italy and Spain shun it. Japan prefers harsher male/male stories, more in line with Manga (hugely successful cartoon magazines, created in Japan on a number of genres), and such.”
CHANGING THE CLOSET
As my conversation with Baumbach draws to a close, I realise that, while it has been long and detailed, everything I have learnt - and considered as a result - really has been enlightening. For me, this hasn’t just been a story about erotic literature - about two men fucking each other through the nib of a pen. It is in fact a much deeper and more fraught tale, peppered with rejection, in which the trials and tribulations that gender and sexuality have presented throughout history have continued to show their face, affecting all realms of our society and social understanding.
I have learnt that we are capable of whatever we believe we can achieve, as long as we remain open-minded, honest and aware of our surroundings. It is quite often not ourselves that hold us back, but others - and, as the latter, we should learn to lose that ignorance. Who are we to define what others can be or do based on their gender or their sexuality? If they have an imagination, an ability to understand, and can relay the human experience - then they too have an equal right to write such fiction.
It is reassuring to know that female authors are beginning to find the space within the homoerotic genre to be honest about their identity, and are beginning to finally leave their closet. That we are beginning to finally change how we see women as producers of fiction, and are becoming more aware of the power we all have to inhabit a world other than our own - even if that space is just our imagination.
It is also positive seeing how the increasing success of homoerotic fiction - the ‘black sheep’ of literature - is subsequently changing how the gay community is perceived throughout society. I particularly like that women are passing their understanding gained as a result of reading the texts on to future generations, therefore changing how we perceive sexuality – whether that is heterosexual, gay, lesbian or transgender. Of course, changes still need to be made to how we perceive women, how we receive erotic fiction as a genre, and how we understand sexuality. I believe it is through this ability to think like another, and to put ourselves in their shoes, that we can truly begin to make the headway and changes in acceptance that still need to be made.
Ultimately, literature is one of our most powerful tools to change history. It allows us to look within: as we explore our imagination for answers, we can also teach others by entering their imagination. In 2012, the Lambda Literary Awards launched a pilot scheme in which LGBT writers visited, in person or across Skype, high school and college literature classes to discuss their work with young people. Acceptance starts early; literature leads change. As Baumbach concludes, “I believe you can only make change from within. Screaming from the outside doesn’t do anything but teach them to turn a deaf ear to the noise."
Words: Grace Carter
Image source: White Gauze, 1984 by Robert Mapplethorpe