On Defining M/M Romance

February 20, 2012

What is male/male romance, and how is it different from gay romance?

That’s a question I’ll be tackling as part of my research agenda for the next year. In the past, I’ve tentatively defined the male/male romance as a narrative that focuses on the romance between two or more men that has been written by women, usually in the expectation that its primary audience will be other women. By contrast, gay romance would be a narrative that focuses on the romance between two or more men that has been written by men, usually in the expectation that its primary audience will be gay men.

These definitions suggest two to four possible points of differentiation: the author’s gender and, perhaps, sexual orientation, and the target audience’s gender and, perhaps, sexual orientation, if one assumes hetero/homo binarism.

Of course in reality we know that things aren’t that simple. Men write and read male/male romance, women write and read gay romance, and sexual orientation doesn’t fit neatly into straight/gay categories. The m/m timeline I’m developing on this site includes lesbian and gay male writers, as well. Moreover, it’s quite likely that as the male/male romance niche grows increasingly mainstream — as I think it will — more overlap in authorship and readership will occur.

A third possible means of differentiating the genres might be to examine literary style. Are there any differences in the dominant themes or characterizations in male/male and gay romance? An analysis of cover art might also be interesting, to see whether any differences might be noticed across the two genres.

Finally, a fourth possible means of differentiating the genres might be to examine the works’ marketing strategies. Are there any differences in the way male/male and gay romances are marketed? Shelved? Or are those issues moot in a genre largely populated by ebooks?

As I’ve considered my definition of m/m romance, I’ve looked for associated research. Unfortunately, scholarly work on the subject is still sparse — almost all of it pertains to slash and boys’ love, rather than original m/m popular romantic novels. On the bright side, however, m/m romance writer Josh Lanyon offers plenty of anecdotal and personal information about the m/m genre in Man, Oh Man! Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash.

Lanyon’s book is both a primer on “how to write a novel” and a focused look at the male/male industry. Lanyon, whose works currently make up a significant portion of my Kindle collection, writes,

The essential difference between M/M fiction and all other gay genre fiction is that regardless of the genre — mystery, military, paranormal, historical — the romantic relationship between the two male protagonists is going to be of paramount importance. All M/M fiction is romantic fiction (2008:6)

And, he adds about romance in particular:

The stand-out thing about M/M versus gay romantic fiction is that there’s a distinct sensibility to M/M fiction. In effect, it’s gay men in love and making love versus gay men fucking. It’s about sensual and evocative details. It’s about the choice of language. It’s about emotions rather than mechanics. (2008:8)

Lanyon also rounds up a number of definitions from other writers and publishers. One publisher noted that m/m romance is often written by women and “most of our audience is straight females but we have a solid contingent of gay readers as well” (Harte in Lanyon, 2008:12). Another added, “[r]eaders who are reading M/M fiction aren’t reading gay fiction. It’s two different types of books” (Scognamiglio in Lanyon, 2008:12). Yet others commented that they make no differentiation between m/m and gay fiction.

Of course, it’s possible that general recognition that m/m and gay audiences are somewhat different has grown since 2008. For example, a 2009 article by Gendy Alimurung in the LA Weekly noted that “most readers of gay-romance novels are — like most readers of straight-romance novels — women who devour 300-page stories of men falling in an out of love with each other, all the while having abundant, glorious and oh-so-graphic sex.” Similarly, a 2010 discussion of the genre by Devon Thomas in Library Journal defined m/m as “gay romantic fiction mostly written and read by straight women. Featuring traditional romance conventions, including mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, and happy endings, these stories show both physical and emotional intimacy between men.”

Lanyon thinks women found m/m fiction first due to their exposure to slash — and, I’d add, boys’ love — but that more gay men are now discovering and reading it. Gay men may be more likely to pick up a m/m romance because, despite any differences that may exist in style and target audience, these romances are being shelved and marketed by third-party distributors as gay romance. A 2009 Baltimore City Paper article by Heather Harris noted that both Borders and Barnes & Noble quickly moved Alex Beecroft’s False Colors from the romance section to the GLBT section of their stores, and Amazon dropped it, along with a number of gay titles, during the April ‘09 “Amazonfail” incident. It seems unlikely that this shelving preference has changed, although there’s probably a research project there waiting to be undertaken.

The m/m romance genre has continued to grow and gain recognition. In December 2010, Thomas’ Library Journal article called m/m romance “one of the hottest growing segments of the romance genre,” and just a few months later, in February 2011, Elio Iannacci reported in The Globe and Mail that “Amazon’s Kindle has had such success with the genre that the e-book site has tripled its ‘m/m’ stock since January, 2010.”

The genre isn’t without its controversies, however. In February 2012, an Oklahoma chapter of Romance Writers of America raised a flurry of discussion among m/m romance writers when it refused to accept m/m submissions for its “More Than Magic” contest. The contest was later closed with an apology note stating, “We recognize the decision to disallow same-sex entries is highly charged. [...] We do not condone discrimination against individuals of any sort.” The queer community also holds some skepticism toward a genre written largely by self-identified straight women. Victoria Brownworth, in Lambda Literary, writes critically that m/m romance is “about reinterpreting gay male relationships for heterosexuals in a fashion that is fetishistically sexual and which thus can be accepted–because it is ultimately negative [...] When we give straight writers the power to say we got our own relationships wrong and they know better, we are embracing our own oppression. That’s at the core of M/M writing–not the queer gaze but a distorted gaze.”

Yet Lanyon believes m/m fiction has an advantage over gay fiction because, he writes, “while many women readers are likely to be disappointed by the lack of emotional intensity in much of gay genre fiction, there’s a great deal to appeal to gay male readers in M/M fiction” (p. 13). Similarly, a 2009 article in Lavender Magazine suggests that m/m romance may be popular because “M/M relationships do not have the same gender stereotypes as straight relationships. There can be much more to these characters, and they don’t need to fit into typical female and male roles. The story really can go anywhere, with no social or expected boundaries—enticing to both the writer and the reader.”

All of this brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this article. Is there a difference between m/m romance and gay romance? If so, what difference does that difference make? A 2010 article by Lizzy Shramko in Lambda Literary put the issue well: “How does a genre of fiction that is exclusively centered around homosexual love, and largely written by and for explicitly straight writers and readers challenge the typical notion of what LGBT fiction is? Perhaps more significantly, how does it problematize the mutual exclusivity of homosexuality and heterosexuality?”

Those are the kinds of questions I hope to tackle, and that I hope other scholars may be tackling along with me, over the next year or two. I welcome your comments, responses, and suggestions.

Works Cited

Alimurung, Gendy. “Man on Man: The New Gay Romance … Written By and For Straight Women,” LA Weekly (Dec. 16, 2009). . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

Brownworth, Victoria. “The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality. A Response,” Lambda Literary (Aug. 19, 2010). . Accessed Feb. 20, 2012.

Harris, Heather. “Zipper Rippers: Women Write Gay Male Romance Novels for Women,” Baltimore City Paper (June 17, 2009). . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

Iannacci, Elio. “What Women Want: Gay Male Romance Novels,” The Globe and Mail (Feb. 11, 2011). < https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/valentines-day/what-women-want-gay-male-romance-novels/article1902774/>. Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

Lanyon, Josh. Man, Oh Man! Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash. Albion, New York: MLR Press, 2008.

Lavender Magazine. “Male/Male Romance Novels Flourish Trangressions and False Colors are Recent Examples.” (Aug. 13, 2009). . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

Romance Writers Ink. “RWI Magic Contests.” . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.
See also Dear Author’s report on the contest: . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012).

Shramko, Lizzy. “Can M/M Romance Challenge the Definition of LGBT Lit?” Lambda Literary (Aug. 18, 2010) . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

Thomas, Devon. “Bodice Rippers Without the Bodice: Ten Male-on-Male Romances for a Core Collection,” Library Journal (Dec. 16, 2010). . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.

See also:

Wilson, Cintra. “W4M4M?” Out (Aug. 17, 2010). . Accessed Feb. 19, 2012.