Gay romance fiction

Ghetto Blasting

the mass-market future of LGBT romance

by Damon Suede  (originally posted at the Chicks & Dicks blog) 

"No one deserves to be punished for loving with an open heart." (Hot Head - D. Suede)

In case anyone hasn’t noticed, I’ll say it explicitly: Gay romance occupies a ghetto.

Ghettos exist to protect communities and imprison them. On the one hand, a ghetto allows for shared language, social norms and cultural experience. Whether sharing religion, race, sexual orientation, or professions, ghetto occupants feel safe and band together to defend lives that fall outside the societal box. This is true if you’re talking about tourist-friendly groupings like Chinatowns and Little Italys, academic or trade districts, the so-called “inner city,” and the “gayborhoods” of every metropolis. Ghettos organize clans into demographic blocks for their own protection and viability. Cool, right? On the other hand, there’s a dark side to this impulse.  Ghettos divide unassimilated groups from the larger community, “quarantining” the scary, exotic Other so that nothing unusual or unfamiliar mingles or interferes with the moron majority status quo. That sucks.

Now, to be clear, I’m talking to writers of LGBT romance here. Readers and journos might enjoy me ranting. But in everything that follows, I’m speaking to my genre colleagues.

For a decade or more, all LGBT romance has been operating in a ghetto which harms our sales, our audience-base, and our public perception. We fall in the cracks between hetero romance and general LGBT fiction. Both of those groups have deep ambivalence about us as a presence. The average romance reader remains blissfully ignorant of the existence of LGBT romance and the average readers of LGBT literary fiction looks down their noses at “trashy” romances. Those preconceptions harm us, daily, and the only material solution is to address them professionally and dynamically.

The same day I signed my contract for Hot Head, my first gay romance, I registered for membership with the Rainbow Romance Writers, which (for those of you who don’t know) is the RWA chapter formed expressly for and by professional authors of LGBT romance. To me, joining seemed like a no-brainer, The Romance Writers of America is one of the most powerful trade associations for professional authors, impacting author treatment, market research, and distribution for millions and millions of books. For LGBT romance writers to have a place at that table is beyond important if we want to survive and thrive.

Why bother with the Rainbow Romance Writers (RRW) and by extension, the Romance Writers of America? The members of the RRW fight like hell to end the kind of amateurish insularity that keeps us in our tiny ghetto. Consider the enormous benefits:

  • Advocacy and solidarity in the LGBT and romance communities
  • Real world leverage and access afforded by a national organization with real clout
  • Research and retailer campaigns to improve visibility of titles and better categorization
  • Outreach and education within and beyond our little pocket universe

The RRW is the only organization created entirely to support professional authors of LGBT romance. Moreover, the RRW is working to raise visibility of all books in LGBT romance, not just its members. Even if you aren’t a member the RRW works on behalf of all LGBT romance writers. You should join because you think your writing means something and deserves to be seen outside of a ghetto.

Now…I'm biased, because in my second year of membership, I've just been elected VP of the Rainbow Romance Writers chapter and we've had a kickass two months to start the RRW year, so feel free to take this as a subjective call to arms. If you are a career-focused writer of LGBT romance and you aren’t a member, I gotta ask you why.

The new RRW board just kicked off a slate of actions with the goal of raising visibility for our genre in 2012: at national events in the LGBT and romance communities, doing market research, media education, and advocacy for members. We're really committed to upping the stakes for LGBT romance and seeing career-focused authors claim their share of the national attention given to romance in general. The genre has evolved and the RRW chapter has done likewise; we're no longer content to just say "our books are here and queer," and have gotten active in making ourselves heard. I've said it over and over, but our genre is evolving rapidly and professionalism will play the pivotal role in our survival ratio and the success rates in years to come.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m doing just fine. My books sell. I don’t have any questions. I like sticking to a small community hidden from the eyes of the world.” That may be, but don’t for a moment think that the ongoing cataclysm in mainstream publishing is not about to rock the LGBT romance boat in a big way. Let’s be frank: Anyone who thinks the big six publishers move into epublishing won’t crucify the small presses and authors who don’t live on the NYTimes bestseller list is a fucking dingdong. If you are a professional author of LGBT romance then you should be fighting like hell to make sure that we maintain our place at the table.

To join the RRW, membership in the national organization is required, of course. How can we be taken seriously as professionals if we won’t have hard conversations with other professionals? Professional writers of LGBT romance have every reason to join the RWA and transform it from the inside for our mutual that we can compete for shelf space and media coverage effectively.

I’ve heard authors object to joining the RWA because “The RWA is old-fashioned and discriminatory. I refuse to give my money to an organization that doesn’t treat LGBT romance equally.” To that I’ll say, if you want the world to change then fucking change it. Stonewall did not happen because a bunch of drag queens decided to stay home and mix their own drinks back in 1969. They made themselves heard and they invented a better future for all LGBT people.

You want tolerance, freedom, visibility? Then stand in the damn light.

Some writers have said that they don’t join the RRW because they don’t want another loop of redundant promo or hardsell announcements. We agree, adamantly. Anyone who is a member of RRW will tell you it is much more than a social club or a shill farm. Do we network and help each other? Hell yeah, but that is the least of our business. Our entire mission targets career-focused writers who want to get beyond the postage-stamp, narrow-cast ghetto we've occupied since M/M invented itself in the margins of slash and fanfiction. The RRW has active discussions about craft, business, promotional strategy, and more…but we are promo and spam-free. We stay on topic, and those topics concern every person committed to writing LGBT romance professionally.

Look: I was raised in an LGBT home. I HATE ghettos, and I've zero intention of writing and publishing in one. Not to sound like an activist, but my membership in the RWA's LGBT romance chapter puts my work and my passion in the path of thousands and thousands of people who have never even heard of LGBT romance, in a larger organization that literally affects bookstore policy and media context for romance nationwide. FWIW, the RWA is one of the most powerful author organizations because of the marketshare of romance within the publishing industry and the leverage that afford them with media and publishing. Are they reactionary and slow to evolve? Fuck yes. But they are evolving and we are claiming a place at a very influential table, one action, one reader, one article at a time.

What's so great about the RWA and (by extension) the RRW? It's a group of professional writers getting shit done that will radically transform the way our books get read, reviewed, sold, and by whom. We don’t have to be a quirky pocket universe in publishing. The time has come for career-focused writers of LGBT romance to play in farther fields and for bigger stakes.

RRW members have been kicking all kinds of ass for the genre and benefitting their own books thereby. Changes are happening, and not by accident or without effort. For my part, I tend to think of the RRW more as a group of hilarious activists putting LGBT romance into unexpected hands all over the damn place. The recent kerfuffle about the discriminatory RWI/MTM contest got our genre international coverage in the New York Daily News and in the (UK) Guardian; RRW members (and the chapter) got shout-outs in major newspapers that had an explosive impact on visibility. That response came together with coordinated efforts and RRW members asking the right questions of the right people.

The advocacy projects we have underway are aimed at improving the access and visibility of ALL writers of LGBT romance, not just members. We're campaigning with online vendors to improve categorization and labeling to make our books easier to find; we're publishing articles in chapter newsletters and magazines all over the place; we’re actively working with GLAAD for media education and advocacy about LGBT romance; this in turn raises visibility of all LGBT romance with millions of people currently unaware of its existence; we've helped members with contract problems and done outreach with new markets and nonprofits...

As my mother used to say, "If you always do what you always did, then you always get what you always got.”

If you’re happy living in a ghetto… if writing is a hobby and you don’t take it too seriously… if you don’t mind your books only reaching a closed circle of readers who already know about them… if you want our creative community to stay insular and inbred… if you want our publishers to be crushed by the incursions of the big six in the next five years…then by all means, stay where you are and do what you’re doing.

But if you're a career-focused writer of LGBT romance and you're serious about becoming a better writer, reaching a wider readership, dismantling assumptions within our industry, and excelling as an artist and a professional, the Rainbow Romance Writers is worth much more than just a look.

We are changing minds, one heart at a time.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2012. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.