One of the things I’ve been doing this past month is helping get the Queeromance Ink book-link site up and running. And in the process, I stumbled across an old question. When is a book really “Romance” and when isn’t it? And while Queeromance Ink has inclusiveness and wide access as a primary goal, it still arose in some discussions of how the site would function, and in reader questions.
Defining romance came up in two ways. One was in deciding which books actually belong on a site labeled “Queer Romance?” We want readers to find all the stories they’ll love, but without being lost in unrelated books. That means deciding what type of books to include, or not, at some level, to avoid being swamped and to keep the site on focus. When will it be helpful to the readers to say “that book is outside the purview of this site?” Lack of LGBTQIAP content is an easy answer, but what about lack of enough romance content?
The other was in the discussion of custom fields, to help readers with searches. Scott’s beta testers said they wanted to be able to search for “HEA- Happy Ever After” or “HFN – Happy For Now” or “Bittersweet” or “Cliffhanger” endings. (As entered by the authors, and hidden behind a spoiler tag, for those who don’t want to know.) Which raised the question – if a book is bittersweet, is it really a romance? Does it belong on the site?
The M/M genre is where I most commonly see the questions of “what is a real romance plot” arise, although maybe because that’s where I spend my time. The same romance plot debates – like bittersweet endings – of course occur in books with other romantic pairings and across the range of main character gender identities. The examples I know and can discuss best are from M/M. I also think some of the discussions may be more notable in M/M, because I’m guessing that a higher proportion of us in M/M have also read a lot of M/F genre romance, and may have absorbed the preconceptions of that genre.
M/M has lots of wonderful books where two guys meet, go through trials or adventures, and get their Happy-Ever-After together, forever. Romance™. And then there are gay fiction classics where the main characters have no romantic aspirations at all. Not-Romance™. But a lot of books we sometimes include on “romance” lists fall somewhere between.
M/M-romance readers often come to the genre in search of something that steps away from the confines of traditional genre romance. It’s one of the strengths of the genre. I remember reading about a romance conference in which a well-known author of M/F books apparently led her readers in a chant of “Heroes never cheat!”
But… how true is that? Can we write a real romance with a cheating hero? For some people the answer will be no, whether it’s M/F or M/M or F/F. For others, Bareback by Chris Owen is a wonderful (hot) happy-ending M/M romance. The cheating in the middle is not a deal-breaker. Over 3000 ratings and a 4.0 average on Goodreads suggests that a big chunk of M/M readership considers a cheating hero acceptable in gay romance, as long as the ending works out in love and commitment. That’s one version of stepping away from a narrow, dogmatic view, that says there is only one path to true romance. and that limits it from outside the characters’ choices. Not an important one, not a universal one, but perhaps symbolic of the place some romance readers are moving away from.
What about other ways that we urgently need to break the old-fashioned genre romance mold?
We have books where the romance is not M/M but M/M/M. Sometimes that ends in a happy and solid relationship (like Julie Bozza’s A Threefold Cord.) Sometimes the power structure in the three-way relationship is not fully balanced, via BDSM (like Room at the Top by Jane Davitt) or in a poly relationship where the three men have different emotional and romantic needs (like Santa Baby by Heidi Cullinan.) We have books where one of the three guys is disembodied (like Bone Rider by J. Fally or SPECTR by Jordan L. Hawk.) In all of those, the ending is happy and there’s a romantic interconnected relationship, but it’s not traditional. Isn’t that part of the whole point, though, that we don’t force relationships to be “traditional” in any narrow sense of the word?
I recently read a wonderful book where one of the two men in the relationship needed sex in his life, and the other didn’t enjoy sex much. What worked for them was an open relationship sexually, but closed romantically. Our old “heroes never stray” genre mold taught readers to ask, is that a romance? And we can answer that definitely, any arrangement that satisfies all partners emotionally constitutes a true “romance.” It’s not about tab A in slot B, or Biblical fidelity, but about meeting emotional (and physical) needs of the people involved, about openness and consent. People of all kinds, including Ace characters, may find their needs best met by something other than the traditional closed pair of old-fashioned genre romance. Insisting that the characters we read (or the people they represent) have to hew to some narrow definition, is to invalidate real, human, romantic relationships across the wider spectrum.
On the emotional and relationship side, being inclusive and valuing all those expressions of love equally is an obvious goal of any queer romance effort. Not every reader will have an interest in every story line, and there has been discussion over what and how to tag things for people to find the books they love, but they all clearly and equally belong in the romance genre. So while these factors are sometimes debated by individual readers, that type of inclusion was never a debate on the site, but rather a goal.
The question does arise of how central any relationship needs to be in a book, with regard to the plot content, to be romance. How much emotional progress has to happen though a story? How vital must it be to the integrity of the book? That’s a different kind of “genre” question, and it runs on a continuum. Is a settled, happy, and stable established relationship still “romance” in a book with another main genre? How deep does the love between main characters have to go, toward unconditional and forever love, to tip a story into the romance category? Is it enough to have a mention of LGBTQIAP characters in some kind of relationship, or does it need to be more essential to the story? Is there value in drawing “not romance” lines at some point, for books where the relationship may be secondary?
And what about the “Happy Ever After” constraint? What about the HFN ending? The cliffhanger? I write a lot of HFNs, because life is unpredictable and it takes time to reach a solid HEA. Is a tentative Happy For Now ending, like my first Tracefinder book, still a romance? Is it only a romance if you know it’s in a series? Many beloved M/M series, like Josh Lanyon’s Adrien English, have installments that are definitely not hand-in-hand into the sunset, but the series reaches a HEA. There are also stand-alone books that are HFN, where you hope the guys will last, but can’t ever be sure.
Some great M/M series have early books with serious cliffhangers. I’m thinking of Kage by Maris Black, or Little Boy Lost by J.P. Barnaby. Each series ends with a solid HEA, but what about when only one book is released so far, and you’re dangling by a thread? Do you wait to classify it as a romance?
One thing I love about M/M romance and the readers of this community is the way they tend to be inclusive, not exclusive. A lot of books that are considered among the top favorites are not really romance at all. Series like Infected by Andrea Speed – a big-cat shifter detective with more than one romantic partner in his life as the series goes along, and at least one bittersweet book. Or The Lost and Founds by Edmond Manning, where each book finds Vin with a different man, loving and nurturing the man and the relationship, but with a clear end date, until Book 5’s HEA. Or the Boystown series by Marshall Thornton, which really are gay mysteries, although through in the middle of the series there is a warm and heartbreaking relationship.
And then there are the beloved bittersweet books – One More Soldier by Marie Sexton, Protection by S.A. Reid, Junction X by Erastes. Or even something like my own Full Circle. Relationship-centered books that end up somewhere very far from a HEA. I say beloved – but of course that’s only true for a subset of M/M readers. Others really want to be able to avoid books without warmly positive endings. But enough love them to not want to leave them out in the cold.
As we were figuring out how the Queeromance Ink site would work, one pretty obvious answer was that readers of the various romance genres want to find a wide range of books, not a narrow one. By using tagging for the endings of books, to enable searches, the goal was to include a variety of books that appeal to romance readers, without hewing too closely to the genre limits.
Scott ended up with the site accepting any book where the plot includes any significant romantic relationship, and at least one main character is somewhere on the Rainbow LGBTQIAP spectrum.
This not only meant that so many of my genre-skirting favorites would be included, but that the site would also reflect one of my favorite things about M/M (and of the wider LGBTQIA romance) – the idea of inclusion, of widening boundaries, and of letting people define for themselves what makes up a workable romance.
What do you think? If you read M/M, which of your favorite books get discussed amid M/M romances, but really don’t belong there? Do you include bittersweet books on your romance shelves? Is there a reason to draw boundaries around the M/M romance genre? If so, what categories do you use for the exclusions – erotica? Gay lit? Other genres? Have you ever picked up a book a friend shelved as M/M romance and been irked that it didn’t fit your criteria? And now that we’re allowing authors to add search information about endings, tropes, heat level, character identities, protagonist ages, and more, will having those details be enough let you find the books you want to read, amid a broad “sort of romance” selection?
This has been a fun project to consult on for Scott, and has made me think in new ways about how we classify the books I love. (You can find Queeromance Ink at https://www.queeromanceink.com/ and if you’re an early author participant, the tropes are now up for adding to your posted books.)