Whew. Just finished up the all-day soiree that is the Gay Romance Northwest Meet-up, which happened in Seattle (LUV ME SOME SEATTLE) this past weekend at the amazing Seattle Public Library downtown. Wow. What a facility.
See all about the GRNM at THIS LINK.
I moderated a panel dealing with the future of lesbian romance in terms of subject matter, publishing, and promotion. Panelists included fellow authors Jove Belle, Jill Malone, R.G. Emanuelle, and Kate McLachlan.
One of the things that came out (see what I did there?) in the panel was that there appears to be “parallel universes” of LGBTQ fiction. That is, M/M appears to have the most established infrastructure in terms of things like networks and professional review sites as well as a greater presence at conferences and book events followed, distantly, by F/F and then trans and queer.
So let’s chat more about this, yeah?
One of the things that I noticed in the panel was that no cisgender men were in attendance in the audience, but quite a few straight-identified women showed up (they identified themselves as such) and expressed some frustrations about how and where to find lesbian fiction. Which is something that I don’t understand, since there is a vibrant lesfic publishing and writing community and there are lesbian fiction conferences every year: Golden Crown Literary Society (Arlington, VA in 2016); Left Coast Lesbian Conference (Palm Springs, CA); LoneStar Lesfic Festival (Austin, TX); and several women’s/lesbian events around the country every year that include lesfic readers and authors. There are also lesfic presses that do actually get coverage in USAToday and Publishers Weekly. So why is there a disconnect?
I posited that it seems M/M and F/F and trans and queer publishing and writing are all moving along, but on parallel tracks and there’s not much overlap. Panelists and audience members agreed that if there were more overlap, and more attention from the larger romance community, lesfic might be able to expand its audience. One audience member noted that M/M fiction has a strong contingent of straight-identified women writers, many of whom started writing heterosexual romance and then expanded to M/M. And indeed, you will find quite a few straight-identified women writing M/M fiction, but not very many writing books with a lesbian romance. Most of the authors I know of currently writing F/F are lesbian- or bi-identified, though there are some straight-identified and cismale that I know of who write it.
One of the other issues that came up in the panel — and I like to do interactive panels that include audience participation — as to why lesfic doesn’t get the play or recognition as M/M involved the following:
Lesbian fiction involves female characters (or female-identified), and in western cultures (and many cultures, for that matter), women still occupy lower social status than men. Which means that PERCEPTIONS need to change about women and the characters in lesbian fiction. One audience member suggested that since women aren’t seen as “doers” or “interesting” or even “individual” in the larger society, the perception may be that books featuring lesbian characters (i.e. female-identified) are probably boring since, after all, women “don’t DO anything.”
Which we all know to be false, but nevertheless there is that idea. Think about women in the literary world in general, in which women writers don’t get the same recognition male writers do (see here, here, and here).
I heard a story from a fellow lesfic author who gave her manuscript to beta readers to check over. One of the readers was new-ish to this author and straight-identified. Well, she read the manuscript and sent it back and said she enjoyed the story, but something was “missing.” So the author and the beta went back and forth about what it possibly could be that was “missing” and finally, the beta realized that the story was all women characters. There were no male characters in prominent roles. The beta had never read a book that didn’t include men as anything other than backdrop and she realized (to her credit) how conditioned she had been to expect that men and, by extension, male characters, are the only things that “make things happen” either in life or literature.
Again, we all know that’s not true. I mean, I HOPE you realize that.
Another audience member suggested that perhaps lesbian fiction needs its one “break-out” story, with that one power couple that captures the attention of readers. Given that the entire genre seems to be hidden from a larger audience, I’m not sure whether or even how that could work. There are many lesfic authors who have been writing for years and who have those kinds of couples, but if there’s no road to another destination, it doesn’t matter how many great lesbian couples you have if they never make it down that road.
So I wonder. If F/F and M/M and trans and queer fiction weren’t all separated from each other and instead we all worked to bring each other’s work to greater attention in all kinds of audiences, would that old adage hold true, that a rising tide lifts all boats? Because basically, it seems to me that readers want good stories, and characters they can relate to.
I wrote last year at Queer Romance Month that there was a perception that there’s “no market” for F/F.
I disagree. I think there is. We just need to build the connections to the parallel universes and get that rising tide in play.
Happy reading, happy writing, happy Monday!
Andi, that was a great panel you guys organized and a really interesting conversation. I definitely think it’s time that lesbian romance met the mainstream market, and I don’t understand why it hasn’t.
This has been on my mind since I published my last romance, Something True, with a predominantly heterosexual imprint. For my work in progress, I’ve been trying to deliberately make choices that would appeal to a straight or bi-curious female readership (while still writing something my lesbian sisters will find fulfilling and authentic.) It’s made me realize that I might not understand my straight female friends as well as I think I do.
I’d be curious to hear from more straight women about what they like about romance and what things would draw them to a f/f romance.
Hi, Karelia! So great to see you! Anyway, yes, I would also be interested to hear from more straight-identified women about what they like about romance and what would draw them to a F/F romance. Thanks for stopping by.
You and I had an e-conversation about this topic last year sometime, when a straight-identified friend of mine invited me to a romance con in Charlotte, and she couldn’t understand why lesfic wasn’t more involved/available. You sounded frustrated at the time, so I’m glad this is starting to happen. I’m forwarding this blog to her for so hopefully she will share her thoughts as an avid and open-minded reader.
I was in the process of writing a blog and talking about the issues brought forward in the panel you moderated and I will finish it, but of course it is definitely not as eloquent as yours! Thanks for bringing forth the issues! Well done.
Hi, Annette! Good to see you there and please do post any thoughts you have. Much appreciated.
If Sarah Waters isn’t enough of a breakout success to attract new readers, it’s not clear to me what a breakout would look like. Success on the level of the Hunger Games?
Mind, if one finds they rather like Waters and sets out to read more like that, I can see how they find their way to Winterson and maybe a couple others, but anything from BSB or Bella? That’s a lot less obvious.
Indeed. And I’d argue that Waters does not write genre fiction, like F/F romance tends to be. So I think the audience member was referring to a break-out in terms of genre fiction. Thanks for stopping by.
I agree on this point: in terms of genre, Waters is writing “mainstream fiction”. The definition is less about subject matter than about style and structure. So the success of her books doesn’t necessarily translate to receptivity to lesbian genre-romance.
Is this just a reflection of a wider societal split? Chicklit is a derogatory term… Men don’t read romance…. Comments on awards long lists about female representation… In England there has been a debate about TV panel shows being predominantly male because there were few female comedians who were good enough – big media hullabaloo and now there are ‘always’ women on panel shows…. Break out writers like Sarah Waters, Jeannette Winterston and Val McDermid write strong female leads but I think their TV coverage has helped… We have few lesfic writers in bookshops and they have ‘special’ sections in the ones who do (like Foyles in London) which means non-lesbian readers are unlikely to browse among them… I don’t know what the answer is but I think the discussion is useful and I will continue to contemplate…
Thanks for the thoughts and thanks for stopping by. I do think there’s a wider societal issue at play (at least one…heh). A combination of factors, but the point is, how do we get lesfic into a wider audience?
Get it on to mainstream book shops shelves where ‘people’ will pick it up when browsing instead of it being sold as a specialist niche…. maybe mainstreams are nervous of offending people…..
Hoping this shows up under Anne’s comment about “mainstream” book shops. That is something every single F/F author has tried and is still trying. Most large bookstores have all but eliminated their LGBT fiction (specifically–GENRE) sections (folding it into “cultural studies,” it seems, and focusing on a few authors/presses) in the US, at least, and that trend started even before 2009, when Amazon and online retailers really took a chunk out of bookstore sales. LGBT bookstores also started to fold, as well as other independent bookstores, with the rise of online retailers.
Also, if a publisher is print-on-demand (POD) — which many small lesfic houses and all indie authors are — it’s extremely difficult to get books onto the shelves in stores and it’s extremely difficult for indie authors to get their books on shelves. Here’s a post from last year on HuffPo about how bookstores are still not willing to shelve POD books and there are still big book awards out there that do not accept books from self-published authors.
For the uninitiated, print-on-demand means that a book is not printed until it’s actually ordered. The older model of publishing involved “print runs,” in which a set number of books were initially printed (say, 5000) and warehoused somewhere and then shipped out upon order.
This article explains the price breakdown on POD for bookstores. These are other things to consider. An author takes a loss when books don’t sell at a bookstore, just as bookstores do.
In order to get books onto the shelves in bookstores, authors have to take a lot of time to approach the bookstore staff and convince them to carry the book. Used to be a publisher did that, but anymore, authors have to do 95 percent of their own promo and marketing, especially if published by a small, independent house. If you’re self-published, you’re doing all your own marketing.
So even if a lesfic author were able to get bookstore staff interested in carrying his/her work, there would then be the issue of where to shelve it. LGBTQ people may be able to legally marry in the US, but they’re not legit (and they can still be fired in 29 states), by any stretch of the imagination. And bookstores do not want to risk anti-LGBTQ people raising a stink about a lesbian romance that was shelved in a place “kids could get to it.” As if kids can’t wander through a bookstore and find all kinds of things their parents might freak about! And if a bookstore shelved it in the regular romance section, it would be a matter of time before someone came along and got completely freaked out that there’s a LESBIAN book among the romances.
So though bookstores may lend a little bit of credibility, it’s a lot of legwork and no guarantee of return.
What lesfic has is its own infrastructure and universe. M/M fiction has its own, as well, but it also has the added benefit of authors who were writing heterosexual romances for a while who then expanded their repertoire to include M/M. So M/M is able to borrow infrastructure from so-called “mainstream” romance whereas F/F just hasn’t had the kind of reception that M/M has gotten in that circle. I’d like to see bridges built between M/M, M/F, trans, and queer and that so-called “mainstream” romance organizations start being more receptive to F/F panels rather than saying, “Oh, there’s no market for it,” as I was told last year when I offered to put a panel together for a regional romance conference.
So there’s a PERCEPTION beyond lesfic that “there’s no market for lesfic” and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy outside of lesfic. Perhaps the issue is shattering that myth.
(Re-posted from Facebook)
I think it’s a complicated interaction of a number of factors. I tossed in one observation from the audience at the panel itself: in publishing in general, male writers get more support, critical attention, and publicity than female writers, and books with male protagonists get more support, critical attention, and publicity than books with female protagonists. Oh, and awards too. There have been a number of statistical studies demonstrating this. (Nicola Griffith is currently doing some long-term data crunching on the awards aspect.)
If you look at a specific genre that is gender-skewed for other reasons, the overall pattern may not be as apparent. The thing I mentioned in panel comments is that we are raised to think that women’s stories aren’t as interesting as men’s stories. In consequence, even female writers will often default to writing about male characters simply because they have a hard time imagining (or becoming engaged by) stories centered around female characters. And similarly, readers — without even realizing they’re doing it — will unconsciously discount the idea that a story about women could be as interesting as a story about men. And, after all, if stories by and about women were just as good, wouldn’t they get that publicity, critical attention, and awards?
Laying out the data for people is the first step because most people who are making these unconscious assumptions and choices don’t want to believe that they’re biased. They want to believe that they’re simply reading (or writing) stories that are objectively better than the alternative.
(Adding more comments here that weren’t in my Facebook comment)
For lesbian fiction to appeal to a broader audience, authors also need to be aware of what factors that broader audience is looking for in a book. We’ve all heard stories snout how someone who isn’t a romance reader thinks it’s easy to write romance…and then flops because they don’t provide what romance readers are looking for.
Part of appealing to non-lesbian audiences (or lesbian audiences outside the lesfic readership) is knowing what they’re looking for in a “product”. I have more of the opposite problem: in essence, I’m writing mainstream fantasy (with lesbian characters) for a lesbian press, but there are clearly aspects of what the lesfic reading community is looking for that in not providing. On the other hand, I’ve found it relatively easy to expand my readership within the mainstream SFF readership. (Within the constraints of pretty much having to operate without the support of my publisher in that context.) I can do that because that’s the reading community I come from and I have a sense of what readers are looking for.
So it’s not just a matter of “how do we get non-lesbians to read books with lesbian characters?” In many cases, they’re already doing that when they get the chance. The problem is “How do we get them interested in reading these particular books?” Or “How do we get them to know these books exist?”
My own experience has been that lesbian-oriented presses don’t put much, if any, effort into marketing outside “the community”. I suspect the theory is tgat there isn’t enough return on investment to be worth it. And it may only pay off for specific books that have wider appeal. But if you don’t try, it isn’t going to happen. Current marketing practices don’t tend to get lesbian books in front of the eyes of people who aren’t already looking for them. (Think about where we get shelved in Barnes & Noble.) People can only buy things they know exist.
Anyway, that’s probably more than anyone wanted to hear from me.
Hmm, maybe if I wrote shorter comments, they’d get more discussion!
Interesting stuff Andi – thanks for comments above – and as an unpublished writer I’m unaware of the intricacies of what happens so thanks for the POD and marketing info. I’m thinking now that maybe it’s a reader’s responsibility too… I read the upcoming blog on Women&Words and then go to Amazon or Bold Stroke Books/Yvla or wherever and order or download… Maybe I need to go into my local Waterstones every month and ask why they don’t have these books available? Maybe if thousands of readers did that it would have an impact? The only bookstore I know with a dedicated LGBT bit now is Foyles…. And the covers of some M/M books have interesting photos on them – lots of six packs in evidence and I don’t mean beer (that’s probably a whole separate genre!) so it isn’t about ‘offending’ people… Maybe us readers need to get involved?
YES, that would be buckets of awesome! Markets respond to consumer demands, after all. So if readers went to bookstores and asked them to carry certain authors, that would be awesome. And regarding the covers of M/M — well, you’ll see similar covers on M/F. Dudes with rippling musculature.
If you want to read a funny/snarky blog about romance (mostly M/F), see Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. It’s a hoot. And you’ll see plenty of rippling muscles on M/F covers.
I actually became an F/F writer in part because I craved romantic F/F SF and fantasy but could find little. My local LGBT bookstore had a feast of contemporary lesfic, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I’d long been a reader of mainstream SFF, and while I was an avid fan of romantic subplots in SFF media (regardless of participant genders) I seldom read genre romance. Occasionally I found an M/F historical I liked, but there were far too many uninteresting sexist “alpha male” jerks amd authors who obviously espoused troubling ideas about consent and gender roles.
A while back, I started despairing of how few of my life goals I’d achieved, and one of those goals was writing and publishing fiction. I had an idea that I wanted to write a floridly gothic fantasy romance in which the brooding Byronic (anti)hero was a woman, but I thought “Would any publisher even consider that?” So I started poking around online, idly curious, and found the books I’d been looking for – as well as the submission call for the collection that ended up including my first fiction sale (not the Gothic; that’s far from done).
So I found F/F to read largely through writing it. Rather backwards.
In response to Heather Rose Jones above, I’m an anomaly; since early childhood, I’ve always preferred to read and write about women, long before I identified as bi or as a feminist. In the children’s book world it’s often said that girls will read about boys but boys won’t read about girls, and the same assumption tends to be made in the adult world. I think it’s part of the larger assumption that male is the default and the “universal,” and of our cultural devaluation of women and of things traditionally associated with femininity.
(Also, seconding Andi’s recommendation of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The cover snark posts and reviews of really weird books are hilarious, and they’re also a good source of recommendations for more feminist-friendly M/F – Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, etc. – and M/M.)
Thanks for stopping by. And if you don’t already, Althea, stop by Women and Words, which focuses on lesfic and feminist fic (and occasional nonfic). [full disclosure–I co-admin that site.]
Throwing in my two cents here, I see the problem as being the result of the still patriarchal society in which we live. Women are of less interest in general (not that I agree) and lesbians even more (unless used by straight guys as a turn on)
Working all together with m/m and trans and queer ? I’m not sure we (lesbians) will gain anything in that process as we are very often here to support others but rarely supported in return…
I’m only a lesbian reader and I’m not interested in seeing f/f books going mainstream in any way but I guess writers are interested in gaining more visibility.
Thanks for the thoughts. I think part of the issue, too, is that a lot of us who write F/F currently have a very small audience to whom we write. I do have straight-identified readers (male and female) and I’m sure there are trans and bi readers who read my stuff, but the majority of my readers generally identify as lesbian. If our markets were to expand into the so-called “reading mainstream,” I think it would help reach people who perhaps are struggling with LGBT identities and don’t believe they’re worthy of healthy, romantic relationships or any number of messages they get from the dominant culture, wherever it is. The more people writing LGBTQ fiction and nonfiction who get their books out there, beyond the audience that is “already in the know,” if you will, then the more people can have access to a wider variety of authors, characters, and stories. And perhaps these books will inspire people to tell their own stories, and to become more comfortable in their own skins. AND, perhaps these stories will help open dialogues into the wider culture to break down barriers and build stronger communities. I like to think so, anyway. Thanks for stopping by!