BP Note: About a month ago we were informed of a fabulous group of authors, reviewers/bloggers, and readers who decided to focus on Queer Romance as a way to bring awareness of how romance, love, and everything connected isn’t limited to certain types of relationships but is instead something which can and hopefully does apply to everyone regardless of how they self-identify. Here at The Book Pushers, we also believe love and romance aren’t restricted so we are participating. Alexis Hall author of Glitterland, the Kate Kane Paranormal Investigator series, and most recently the Prosperity series graciously agreed to provide us with a series of very thought provoking connected guest posts. Starting today we will feature a new guest post every friday ending on the 31st. Thank you Alexis for sharing with us and I am sure I will view the world through an expanded lens by the time this month is over. If you would like to learn more about Queer Romance Month please feel free to click on the widget in the side bar or the Queer Romance Month image in this post. Good reading.
Queer is Intimate
Queer or straight or what-you-will, if your romantic feelings are sexualised, I think a lot of people go through a stage of life best articulated as “omg, now I can have sex”. For me, it hit around lateish adolescence and continued throughout university. It took longer, a lot longer, for me to reach “omg, now I can have love.” And, obviously, the way we engage with intersections of identity and sexuality and behaviour are complex and individualised. For a lot of people in my social circle OMGNICHS was clearly a very liberating and joyous experience. For me, while I certainly had some good times and I don’t regret them in the slightest, it was always tinged by defiance. And the truth is, it was the only way I knew how to express myself. It was the only thing I knew how to want.
Sexuality. Sexual identity. Homosexual. Bisexual. These words are all about sex. Ironically, it’s something they have in common with a lot of the most popular insults for the queer-identified ( cocksucker, fudge packer, marmite miner, rug muncher, muff diver, clamlicker) which means that –regardless of whether you’re coming at it positively or negatively – ultimately you have a preliminary understanding of sexual identity that is largely defined by sex acts. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of sex acts of all kinds. But it’s also where gender and history and queerness all come together in a really sticky way.
First of all, the history of homosexuality is complicated and subtle, and has lots of peculiar little pockets: Welsh lesbians, Georgian polyamorists and male-male couples who openly described themselves as being married. But at the same time there’s also no getting away from the fact that, in England at least, because of the various legal frameworks surrounding and defining homosexual relations, the history of homosexuality is basically the history of buggery. I find it kind of telling – and also rather depressing – that we legalised sexual activities between men in 1957, but we didn’t get around to the marriage thing until 2014. The upshot of which is that our most enduring conception of what homosexuality means is that it’s about the right of men to put their dicks in other men.
This brings me back to romance, and the book I want to talk about today. For me, the important thing about queer romance is not the Q-word but the R-word. This is because it takes as read (as the default, even) a broader, more generous and – in all honesty – a more subversive understanding of what same-sex attraction means: which is that, just like opposite-sex attraction, while certain sexual behaviours may form part of it, it’s fundamentally about love.
But, at the same time, romance is a powerfully gendered, ah, genre, and while it can engage in fascinating and profound ways with social constructions of gender, it can also affirm and perpetuate them. This is made even more complicated by the fact that one function of romance is definitely connected to its function as fantasy or pleasure reading: our fantasies are fantasies and, as such, inviolable, but they’re as much informed by our cultural context as anything else. Men are “supposed” to be for sex and about sex, to have active and promiscuous sexualities, an expectation that romance novels often fulfil. And, of course, there are also virgin heroes, and nerdy heroes, and man-next-door heroes, and even the occasional submissive hero, but they’re very much the exception.
In queer romance with male protagonists, this becomes even more difficult because on the one hand you have the fact this is a romance, so it’s about love, but on the other hand you have a lot of historical, social and genre-driven sexpectations about queerness and masculinity. I should probably say at this juncture that I have no issues at all with erotica for its own sake, or sexual content in general: expression is important, especially when you’re dealing with marginalised people and devalued sexualities. But while OMGNICHS is important, so is OMGNICHL and, for me, the power of m/m lies in its capacity to explore and depict intimacy between men.
KJ Charles’ Think of England might not seem, on the surface, an obvious choice to illustrate this– Charles is best known for her plotty, sexy, paranormal Victorian swear-fests (which I also heartily recommend, by the way)–but this book is quietly and stylishly one the bravest, boldest, most important queer romances I’ve read for a while.
Owing a very explicit debt to Edwardian pulp novels, it’s a not-quite country house mystery, full of dark deeds, dirty secrets, and unexpected reversals. Our hero, Archie Curtis, is the (fictional) nephew of Sir Henry Curtis of King Solomon’s Mine fame: an upstanding English gentleman, through and through, who has recently returned from the war, having lost the fingers of one hand in a military accident that may have been sabotage. He’s basically the worst spy in the world, but nevertheless as the book opens he’s accepted an invitation to a remote country house, hoping for answers about the incident that ended his career, and took the lives of his friends. The house guests are your usual assortment of apparently entirely proper but furtively dubious characters, among them an effete Jewish poet called Daniel da Silvia. Who of course, is a real spy, investigating pretty much the same thing as Archie. And much more competently.
At first glance, neither of these characters seem much like romantic hero material. Archie is a racist, homophobic prig. And Daniel is the sort of queer who is supposed to give queers a bad name: brittle, flamboyant, unrepentant. Given their reciprocal and instant aversion – each instinctively assuming the other to be the enemy – it’s equally hard to imagine them finding any common ground at all, let alone falling in love. But one of Think of England’s preoccupations, as you might expect from a spy novel, is the spaces between appearance and reality (there are lots of gentlemen having badly, for example, and acts of kindness from unexpected sources) but what emerges as we see Archie and Daniel progress slowly from antipathy to grudging respect to affection to love is that they’re simultaneously not what they appear to be and exactly what they appear to be: Daniel is essentially using queerness as a mask for queerness and Archie is using decency as a mask for decency. Their love story is essentially one of mutual recognition, taking them beyond the social construction of who they seem to be to who they truly are.
Of the two of them, Daniel is the character who tends to get the attention of reviewers, and it’s easy enough to see why. I think, as a reader, it’s instinctive to find identification with outsiders and rebels, and Daniel is a delicious blend of defiance, sensuality and vulnerability. (And he has a pieced nipple … just sayin’). But, for me, Archie is the heart of this book. The queer outsider has a fairly well-established place in literature, but Archie – confused, well-meaning, thoroughly decent Archie – is the queer insider, and that is its own little tragedy. They are both profoundly lonely people, but poor Archie doesn’t know why.
He’s very much the one with most learning to do here and watching him fumble around with his sexual desires and his deepening feelings and their inevitable impact on his sense of self and his understanding of his place of society is heartbreaking and moving at the same time. He’s not always the most sensitive of fellows, but his honour, courage and general goodness never falter, and there’s something remarkably powerful about seeing how the very traditional, masculine values he embodies are neither changed nor diminished when he falls in love with another man. If Daniel is a representation of queerness-as-other, then Archie serves as its deconstruction: stripped of its charged social context, the simple truth at the heart of Think of England is that queerness is no more inherently supposed to be “like” Daniel than it is supposed to be “not like” Archie. And the Edwardianess and the spyiness come together to provide a perfect setting for this delicate untangling of the knot of queer identity. Daniel and Archie may articulate their queerness very differently, Daniel is all about performance, and Archie is all about denial, but ultimately the thing they have in common with each other – whether their world recognises it as such or not – is love.
And, naturally, these ideas carry through into the way the novel engages with sex, and sexual intimacy. Daniel gives Archie a couple of blowjobs relatively early on in Think of England, though the first is Required Or Else Their Spy Cover Might Be, forgive the pun, Blown (this makes perfect sense in context, and it’s entirely the sort of, cough, overblown scene you’d hope for in this kind of book) and the second – a consequence of the first – comes about through a confused mixture of lust and pride, neither of them fully understanding the other’s motivations or perspectives. In a strange way, Archie is trying to do the decent thing, and deal with the fact his response to Daniel is entirely different to any his previous reactions to “fooling around with chaps”. Whereas Daniel, while he is more comfortable with expressing same-sex desire, he assumes that desire can only find expression within a context of selfishness, hypocrisy and cruelty:
“I’m hoping you’re not planning to hit me.”
Curtis lifted his head at that. “Of course I’m not! […] Why on earth would I do any such thing?” [He] found himself ruffled by the suggestion. He might not be an intellectual, but he wasn’t a bloody brute.
“Oh, well. Some men appear to feel that it’s less queer to have a chap suck one’s cock if one abuses him afterwards.”
All genres have their patterns: if a romance may be called a journey towards intimacy, then mutually satisfying sex is often the reward. Or, perhaps, more specifically, a particular type of sex becomes the most fulfilling culmination of a series of physical intimacies, usually beginning with a kiss and ending with a penis in a vagina. In m/m romance this tends to place a high premium on anal sex. And while none of this is a problem on a per-book level, I don’t like the broader scale implication that there’s a ladder of increasingly “valuable” sex acts, or that sex only counts if you’ve got a penis in an orifice, or that the sexual behaviour of same-sex couples is supposed to map as closely as possible to the behaviour of opposite-sex couples.
In Think of England, however, it is intimacy – not sex – that is the “reward”. There is a tender moment with a shirt stud, there is conversation, laughter, a rescue, gratitude, the sharing of truths and … finally, finally a kiss. Which you will have to read for yourselves, because I’m not spoiling it. For me, sex is about context, not about acts, and – not to put too fine a point on it – falling in love isn’t a conveyer belt to putting your dick in someone. There’s a lot to admire in Think of England – witty dialogue, a twisty plot, a wonderful sense of place, time and Englishness, its two rather non-conventional heroes – but I think what I most appreciated was its restructuring of the genre expectations surrounding sex, reminding us that emotional vulnerability is still one of the greatest masculine taboos, and that queer relationships are as much about the heart as the… um … wang.
Another selection of intimacy-focused queer romances I like:
The Lonely Drop, by Vanessa North
This is free, so you have no reason not to try it. It’s a very gentle love story about two friends finding each other again. I like it because it has a purity to it: it’s gentle, it’s romantic, and it’s sweet without being saccharine. Beautifully ordinary really – no doms, no werewolves, just two men, falling in love.
Blessed Isle, by Alex Beecroft
First off, this is too short, but that’s the petty complaint of someone who loved it too much. It’s essentially a forbidden lovestory, between a quiet, lower-class ship’s Captain and his flamboyant, upper-class lieutenant, presented in the form of a journal written in alternating chapters by the two of them. Essentially their narratives intertwine, responding to each other. And while there’s also lots of high adventure and danger on the high seas, for me this is essentially a textual romance. The intimacy of shared words. Lovely.
Claimings, Tails and Other Alien Artifacts, by Lyn Gala
My Weird Pick. This is … gently kinky sci-fi about a human linguistic and an alien trader. What I admire about this is the intricacy of the world building, the de-familiarisation and consequently the deconstruction of concepts like masculinity, submission, sex, sexual abuse and prostitution, and its deep and peculiar tenderness. The aliens are strikingly alien, but this is essentially a slow build towards mutual understanding. And love is love, right?
Queer Romance Month is running throughout October. We will be showcasing over a hundred essays, articles, stories, recommendations and flash fiction pieces from a broad range of queer, queer-writing and queer supporting authors from across the het and queer romance communities. We do hope you will join us.