Summer Reads: Some Gay Romances

One perk of having a Kindle is the unlimited supply of M/M romance e-books that I can now enjoy, free from concerns about privacy and shelf space. I’ve read a couple of standouts that I’ll discuss below, and meanwhile have been thinking about some peculiarities of the genre.

I was never really a fan of hetero romance novels–I didn’t look anything like the girls on the covers, and more importantly, I wasn’t attracted to the kind of meaty alpha males who conquer these ladies with a blast of pheromones. I don’t relate to the genre’s near-universal construction of female sexual response as surrender, or the notion that falling in love happens on an instinctual level where chemistry overpowers rational free choice.

I’d guess that this critique resonates with the large population of semi-straight women, like me, who read and write stories about two men in love. Besides our simple enjoyment of the male anatomy, maybe we’re looking for alternatives to the genre’s traditional gender hierarchies. We might appreciate some fantasies where we’re just spectators, not worrying how we measure up to the leading lady.

Gay men in love, at least in theory, have the opportunity to meet each other as equals. Because homophobia is often one of the obstacles to their eventual happy ending, the characters are compelled to be more reflective about the nature of desire–how do they know what their “real” feelings are, and how much weight should they give to eros compared to other moral and social values? Not all M/M romances allow political consciousness to intrude, but the best ones, in my opinion, allow it to deepen the story.

The funny thing is, though, that M/M frequently carries over some of the weird patriarchal themes of the old bodice-rippers. Our imaginations are so thoroughly conditioned that we don’t take full advantage of the genre’s potential for gender liberation.

I first noticed this phenomenon in yaoi, the Japanese manga subgenre also known as “boys’ love”. These romance comics featuring male couples are primarily written by and marketed to women. However, the gender hierarchy is alive and well. There are generally clearly delineated “top” (seme) and “bottom” (uke) characters, with the latter being drawn as a more effeminate or androgynous youth. In fact, sometimes the uke is literally a teen boy involved with an adult man, which echoes another problematic theme of traditional romance fiction–the borderline non-consensual sex that the victim winds up enjoying.

Among the yaoi books I’ve read so far, Tetuzoh Okadaya’s The Man of Tango distinguished itself because both partners are depicted as adult men who switch roles, in bed and out, mutually guiding one another to open up new dimensions of themselves. As for the sex, let me just say that this book was sold in a sealed shrink-wrap and totally lived up to it.

Okadaya’s fellows also have a close female friend who is a sympathetic, three-dimensional character. The same cannot be said for a lot of works in this category, such as Youka Nitta’s hot but silly Embracing Love 1 & 2, about male porn stars who go gay for each other. Too often, women in M/M are either absent or mere foils for the men. They’re needy girlfriends, cold ex-wives, or disposable sex-dolls, who only enter the narrative to prove the male character’s virility and the inadequacy of the relationships preceding the male leads’ pairing. Considering that women are in charge of this genre, why are we building “GIRLZ KEEP OUT!” clubhouses for our sexy boys?

This brings me to another odd trope of gay romance, so common that it has its own acronym: GFY, or “gay for you”. (My mom-of-choice, who has become an expert on foreign lesbian soap operas on the Internet, reports that it’s all over the place in girl-girl plots too.) A typical romance pairs an experienced, comfortably out gay person with a partner who has never had a same-sex lover. The more plausible books (relatively speaking) at least set up some backstory that the GFY had previous gay desires but didn’t act on them because of spiritual conflict, social pressure, or trauma.

In Jamie Fessenden’s amazing Billy’s Bones, for example, the man exploring his first adult same-sex relationship is alienated from his own sexuality because of repressed memories of child abuse. Not only doesn’t he know what he wants, he doesn’t remember what he’s already done. His partner, a therapist, has to learn how to support his recovery without caretaking and controlling him. The result is a genuinely egalitarian partnership between adults. I can’t say enough good things about this book’s responsible, well-informed, and compassionate treatment of a topic that is usually sensationalized or shrouded in denial. Check out Jamie’s blog for insightful discussion of love between men, in books and real life.

Another beautiful novel, Tim Bairstow’s The Shadow of Your Wings, explores the mentor-novice theme via a love triangle among three men with a fraught relationship to the Church of England. (The book takes place in England in the 1990s, when gay priests had to be celibate, although straight priests could get married.) Jack is an elderly monk whose life has been warped by repression of his same-sex attractions. He becomes obsessed with Felix, a beautiful, virginal youth who is staying at the monastery to prepare for ordination to the priesthood. Felix has never dared to act on his sexual orientation. The third player is Jonas, the groundskeeper, a savvy young man who loves Felix and helps him see through Jack’s spiritual manipulations. This book is not heavy on the sex; it spends far more time mapping the emotional terrain of love, self-knowledge, and spiritual awakening. A must-read for theology nerds everywhere.

Felix’s loss-of-virginity plotline, the GFY trope, and the plethora of coming-out stories in M/M made me reflect on how a romance novel establishes that the central relationship is “special”. Here, too, I smell the lingering influence of purity-based morality from traditional heterosexual norms.

Romantic convention provides two main tracks for setting up this specialness, both of which I find problematic. The more experienced partner (the male in hetero romance) has had a lot of meaningless flings, but now he’s going to behave better because he’s found The One. (E.g. Jonas in Shadow, Angie in Man of Tango.) The less experienced partner is letting down his defenses for the first time because he’s found The One.

In hetero storylines, I call this the “not like other girls” delusion–an actual quote from high school stud Jake’s pursuit of virginal Marley on the TV show Glee, which consciously referenced John Travolta’s pursuit of “Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity” in the musical Grease. In both cases, he tries a little harder not to be a dick because she is purer than other girls, not because…uh, every girl should be respected? Being a dick is bad? In real life, this is not a man who is ready for a healthy relationship. He hasn’t done any of the inner work to transition from pick-up artist to husband. The clever but frustrating Steve Carell rom-com Crazy Stupid Love makes this point, but then throws it away in the interest of tying up all the plotlines with a happy ending.

“The right person will change you” is apparently very deep-rooted in the romance genre, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. While I enjoy these books, I think it’s disappointing that gay men (and their female fans) aren’t given more role models for relationships between two sexually experienced, mature adults.

Then again, my sample is limited. More research is needed. Gee, is it getting hot in here…?

On Finishing (Sort of) the Endless Novel

Dear readers, join me in the happy dance:


(*a good major revision of)

(**Book One of Two in the series)


Paraphrasing French author Paul Valéry, the poet W.H. Auden famously observed that “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” This quote sticks in my mind as I sort through my many feelings and questions about reaching this milestone in the writing process. Questions like: Do I have the right to say it’s “finished” when I know there will be more edits from my critique readers and my (as yet hypothetical) publisher? Can I celebrate publicly even though someone is sure to find imperfections in the manuscript? I keep expecting someone to spring out from behind a tree and taunt “Ha-ha!” like the bully Nelson in “The Simpsons”. How could you ever imagine this was good enough? Who do you think you are?

Rather than “abandoned”, I like the word “released”. This manuscript is ready to be given a little freedom to fend for itself, like my son going off to preschool next month. In both cases, the freedom is carefully bounded. A two-year-old by himself can’t choose trustworthy companions and roam the neighborhood with them. I have to select an environment that looks safe, stay involved, remain grounded in my own authority, and pray for the best. Similarly, I think that a fledgling manuscript needs to meet the world in stages, not all at once. I’m taking the advice that I give to aspiring authors all the time: choose only a few critique readers, selected for their sympathy to your style of work and their ability to give ego-free feedback, and remember that you are the ultimate authority on what feels right.

This is counterintuitive advice in a culture where we’re accustomed to ranking everything on the Internet. Much has already been written about how the Facebook “Like” button flattens and trivializes our responses to the world on our screens. This single option is supposed to be an equally adequate reaction to a funny cat picture and a news story about police brutality. Plus, social media’s built-in expectations of “liking”, re-tweeting, pinning, and voting can give us a false sense of entitlement to judge others.

I got a Kindle Paperwhite for my birthday, which I like very much, but every time I finish a book, it invites me to rate it from one to five stars on Amazon. Online reviews are very useful–sometimes more entertaining reading than the book itself–but the star system, standing alone, has begun to strike me as absurd. What does it even mean to rank The Goldfinch and an upright vacuum cleaner according to the same metric?

The Buddha spoke of the Eight Worldly Winds: pleasure and pain, loss and gain, praise and blame, and ill-repute and fame. The enlightened person seeks equanimity no matter which wind is blowing, not being tossed about by every change in circumstance. Her self-concept is larger and more flexible than any one instance of praise or blame, for example.

For a quick exercise in equanimity, check out the Amazon or Goodreads reviews of any book that you really loved or really hated. You’ll find equally passionate one-star and five-star reviews, sometimes based on the same exact thing about the book.

So I am going to celebrate, and have faith that my book will reach the right people at the right time. And always support it with a mother’s love, even if it poops its pants on picture day.

An Un-Chosen Person: My Jewish Way of Being Christian

A few weeks ago, I forwarded an article on the New Atheism to a longtime friend with the message, “This seemed like something you would appreciate, as a historian and ex-Christian!” My friend is a scholar of the history of science and its intersection with religion and politics. He grew up in the evangelical heartland but is highly critical of its beliefs and emotional dynamics. He replied:

“How could I claim to be an ex-Christian after I was indoctrinated to be a Protestant fundamentalist and have spent most of my life in Christian circles and societies? Only by defining a Christian abstractly and intellectually as an adherent of certain doctrines would it be possible to say I’m not a Christian, i.e. that I do not or no longer subscribe to a certain creed or screed of metaphysics. Sociologically, ethically and even to some extent intellectually, how could I be other than a Christian? The same can be asked of you, Adam [my now-Buddhist husband] and all my atheist Jewish friends in relation to a different religious heritage—how could y’all not be Jews (whatever else you may also be)?”

This brilliant, unexpected twist on self-definition set me wrestling once again with my complex feelings about my heritage. Even calling Judaism a “heritage” is difficult for me for two reasons. For one, I was not raised Jewishly enough to fit in and follow along when I tried to take up Jewish observance in my early 20s. I didn’t have the shared memories of youth camps, ethnic recipes, rites of passage, or the general sense of unquestioned membership in an extended family. I was like an adoptee who goes back to her birth country, only to find that she’s too Americanized to blend in with the people who look like her.

The second reason for my unease relates to the blending of religion and ancestry. I chafe against the implication that I’m not allowed to discover my own religious worldview, the one that solves the problems of my life. “Heritage” suggests that my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs are the filter I must see through, or the weight that I’m obligated to carry on my journey. It gives other people the right to intrude on my most private and sacred relationship (with God), simply because I share their genetic material.

And yet, ironically, this objection is so powerful for me because of my psychological heritage as the child of a narcissist. A freethinking narcissist, to boot, who didn’t expose me to synagogue and Hebrew school because she’d found those institutions oppressive and lifeless during her own youth. My bio mother was “spiritual but not religious” before it was cool.

She also got me a passport when I was born, to escape to Israel if America ever turned against the Jews. She told the story of FDR refusing to accept boats of refugees from the Holocaust. She said Jews were outstanding in society because we valued education, debate, and questioning.

I have strong emotions about the endless conflict in Israel but no useful insights, so let’s leave that topic aside. If I have anything like a Jewish identity that I’ve taken into my Christian life, it consists of this outsider consciousness and the spirit of free inquiry that was formative in my upbringing. Because Jesus was Jewish, too, it seems like a legitimate perspective from which to critique the authoritarian and unworldly features of Gentile Christianity that cause me so much distress.

For instance, when I feel the dead hand of the past suffocating me in debates about Biblical inerrancy, I recall the Talmudic story (Baba Metzia 59b) where two factions of rabbis are debating a point of kosher law. One group successfully calls on God to do miracles as a sign that their position is correct. But the other group wins the day by countering that the Torah is on earth, not in heaven. Having given the law to humankind, God has to step aside and let us figure it out! Delightfully, the story ends with God laughing that his children have bested him.

Going back to my scholarly friend’s distinction between identity and beliefs, I also think often of the Jewish emphasis on spiritual practices when I become angry or frightened at the Bible passages in my daily prayer liturgy. Not to put my situation on a par with his, but I take comfort in Elie Wiesel’s anecdote from Auschwitz, where the prisoners put God on trial and found him guilty…then said the regular evening prayer.

The phrases, images, and rituals of the Book of Common Prayer are part of me at a level deeper than agreement or disagreement. Sometimes that makes me feel helpless. I chose to become a Christian, it’s true, but I was also responding to the fact that Christianity was already a part of me, through immersion in Western sacred art and music. Who can explain why my family’s trove of Jewish-American literature and Isaac Singer folktales didn’t speak to me so personally? Was my conversion a response to God’s call, an assimilationist desire to break my family’s isolation, a rebellion against an overbearing parent? Perhaps it only matters because the abused child in me is still desperate for freedom, triggered by the idea that an all-powerful being would initiate a relationship with me. Was I ever free to refuse consent?

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door…” (Rev. 3:20)

At the end of all this reasoning, I don’t genuinely doubt that Christianity was where God wanted me to be when I converted. Do I still belong there? I’m going to pray my way into the next step. My (Jewish) Jesus likes people who keep asking questions.