Why I Write Urban Fantasy Instead of M/M

Writing your opinion on M/M is a dangerous thing, I’ve found, and not for fear of offending gay men, but rather the women who make up the vast majority of its writers, readers and reviewers. I’ve said before that I’m cool with that, but I always feel that when I’m about to discuss what I’m about to discuss that I’m drawing a line in the sand rather than explaining a personal choice. I don’t claim that what I write is “better” or anything like that, but still, there’s a confession I need to make.

I don’t read M/M romance anymore. I likely never will again.

And to begin, it’s not because the covers are largely perfectly sculpted abs with no heads (God knows book covers aren’t even in spitting distance of fair for women), nor is it because the leads have the kind of sex that I’ll likely never have with men so beautiful they’d bring me to tears but damaged enough for me to have a shot with them. It’s fantasy, I get it, it’s an escape where the two pretty men get together and have great sex and fall in love.

And I don’t want to read about that, because to me (and I’ve read a few M/M romances)  the final reward for the protagonist is, let’s face it, bland.

M/M romance, and well, a lot of gay fiction tends to reward the protagonist with normalcy. We get the relationship. We get to come out to our parents and be accepted by our friends. We get to buy the house in the suburbs or the nice apartment. We get to go to a state that’ll allow it, and get married. We get to start a family.

In other words, we get to be you. The normal people.

We go through hell and a lot of soul searching and a lot of personal sacrifice… to be regular.

Or we die of AIDS but it’s really tear-jerking.

That’s the fantasy?  That’s what I should be dreaming of? That’s what I need to read a book to experience because in the real world it’s beyond my reach?

Hell, that’s what I can have right now. It’s not much of a fantasy if it’s something that everyone else has. In fact, for me, it’s kind of sad. But then, M/M isn’t really for me, is it?

So I don’t want to write M/M.

I want to write Urban Fantasy with protagonists who are gay.

Instead of being called a faggot every other page…

Put simply, I want to write a story where the hero can risk his life for the common good and emerge triumphant, where the hero beats the bad guy, where the hero has his flaws, but is good-hearted and devoted to values the reader can identify with, where the hero can celebrate victory with the one they love, but where the story isn’t just about that celebration, where the hero maybe reminds us that people are fundamentally decent, and where the hero can rest when he’s finally done.

And I want that hero to be someone like me, but I don’t want the entire story to be putting a spotlight on the fact that he’s gay. I don’t want to have to dumb down a plot or shoehorn in a sex scene simply because my lead is homosexual. If Jim Butcher doesn’t have to do that to Harry Dresden, why should I have to do it to someone like James Black? (Note: My current publisher has NEVER asked me to dumb down a plot or force in a sex scene, but this does happen in the gay genre fiction industry.)

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any stories or movies where someone like me was the hero. I had movies where someone like me was at best the comic relief, or was dying of AIDS. I watched movies where a man sleeping with another man was a sure sign someone was crazy or a murderer or completely depraved. I read books and played video games were we were ridiculous flamers or tokens. Never once did we get to be the hero and kill the bad guy and save the world. I’m not saying that if I’d had a book when I was 16 that featured a gay lead emerging triumphant, my life would’ve been awesome, but it would’ve been nice to have something like that. In college I had memoirs shoved down my throat about gay men who survived the 70s and 80s, some of which were inspiring, such as the stories from the Stonewall movement, and the rest were about men contracting HIV from fucking every random guy they met under a pier or in the park or at a rest stop while they tried to do a gay rendition of The Air Conditioned Nightmare. I realize that the purpose of those memoirs is to wake you up and piss you off, but I have to admit something here: I’m not seventeen anymore. I no longer run purely on righteous indignation. Instead I try to see how I can help in my own way.

Besides, the exception to the Larry Stew rule has already been claimed.

I know that there’s plenty of fantasy out there that features gay characters, but I’m not into traditional fantasy, where someone like me would have to be the Prophesied Larry Stew and ride a dragon and wield the Sword of Destiny and generally possess all manner of badass powers to succeed. In urban fantasy, there’s magic, sure, but it’s in our world, in the places we see every day, and the protagonists are just as worn and damaged as the rest of us. In traditional fantasy, morality is generally black and white, absolute, good guys and bad guys, but in urban fantasy the gray areas are explored much more deeply. Living saints are rare, and rarely protagonists in urban fantasy. Instead, we get struggling people who’ve often been through their own private hell, but not a life so horrifying that we can’t identify. Spencer Crain is the son of a Coyote and the grandson of a trickster god, but he’s also a kid whose father walked out on him and left him alone to take care of an ailing mother. James Black is a sorcerer, altering reality itself with the power of his own will, but he’s also an abuse survivor, someone who has been cut off from his friends and family as a result of his abuse and sees the world in that fashion. Richard Stone is a Fae porn star, but he’s also an orphan trying to live up to a towering example set by his father and wondering why he can’t just give up. Lennox Kingsley is a modern paladin of Pan, but he’s also a college kid trying to nail down what exactly he’s going to be while still dealing with the death of his mother.

In the midst of all that, romance is often a distraction, a means of feeling something towards normal for a moment, but it’s not true catharsis. Romance is a flicker of hope amidst the fire of determination. I don’t want to write a story where a man’s broken life is fixed because he met the right guy. I’ve been in relationships like that, and your life is still just as broken, but you now have someone to lean on while you try to fix it, and let me tell you, that can put a hell of a strain on a relationship. Sex in the midst of that is a drug, an escape, a moment in the afterglow where everything seems manageable or a thousand miles away even as the problems lurk on the periphery. I realize that romance is meant to be escapist, but as I stated, I don’t want to write a romance.

And there’s a danger to saying this, an acceptance as well. There isn’t a lot of money in this, I’m well aware (VERY well aware. 😉 ), if I want to make my writing more about the urban fantasy elements than a couple of guys sharing tender looks and having adjective and allegory heavy sex, but I’ll have to be okay with that fact that that will turn some people off (sometimes literally) to my writing. I’ve received fan mail, both positive and negative, and I have to say that the most heartwarming was the e-mail that simply stated that the reader wished he’d had the book when he was 17. Those are the books I want to write.
We still cool?


Filed under Commentary, Writing

9 responses to “Why I Write Urban Fantasy Instead of M/M

  1. Naomi

    I would never have found you if you did not write urban fantasy. I had never sought out m/m fiction or romance, but I do read urban fantasy and your book was suggested on a review site I read. I can’t even remember which one, maybe Sara’s urban fantasy web page. So I for one am glad you write urban fantasy, and Iook forward to more books from you!

  2. Nicole F.

    I’m also really glad you write urban fantasy with gay characters. I did come to you from the M/M Romance world, but I really don’t like M/M Romance–mainly because I like men who are not 15-year-old girls (though your reasons are good, too.) Coming out stories are getting boring–I lived my own, I don’t need to hear every single permutation. Besides which, coming out should not be the most exciting thing in a queer person’s life. I’m an older bi woman, so I’m not looking for role models in your fiction, though I’m glad you provide some. I love plot-driven fantasy, sci-fi, and urban fantasy, and I prefer my protagonists be gay, (or at least omni-sexual men or women.) But I also love porn, so the M/M Romance is occasionally good for that, though usually I enjoy male writers more. Still, most of the time, I will go for a stellar plot, fantastic world, and compelling characters over porn, and you offer all three in spades. Heck, I even dig your essays! So keep writing, and I’ll keep buying.

  3. Kira

    one of the reasons i love your books is that they aren’t sex driven plots. but m/m romance is no different than m/f romance in that it’s highly idealistic, finding the perfect partner. having the amazing sex…and so on. David Wellington’s vampire stories have a lesbian protagonist, and it has nothing to do with sex.

  4. I can say that Lethe Press has never asked an author to dumb a book down or add a sex scene. I’ve never been told by another author working at another gay press this is a requirement.

    That said, I think you make some excellent points about what gay men should want and expect from fiction.

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  9. Joel

    Thank God, someone finally gets it. Thank you for writing this, and for doing what you’re doing. The world needs more of this.

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