Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gay fiction ... edutainment or entertainment?

Some readers who follow this blog and have touched down on my websites (the NARC site, for example), might know the name of Aricia Gavriel, who has commented here a few times, and written some essays about gay fiction in general, and Jarrat and Stone in particular. Aricia is one of DreamCraft's proofreaders. Before anyone asks, "proofies" are reimbursed in copies, not cash, so "jobs at DreamCraft"won't to be the answer to your prayer anytime soon ... but thanks for thinking about it!

The other day, AG swung by the DreamCraft office to drop in some chapters and pick up some more ... segments of LORDS OF HARBENDANE ... here's another perk of being a "proofie" ... you get to read new books before they're published. You also get to scribble all over them in colored felt-tip pens. Personally, I think it's all part of some evil power trip. Guys: I never said I was a typist. In fact, I'm thinking about issuing a tee-shirt with the logo, I HATE TYPING!.

So, AG was over at DreamCraft and, as usual, used one of the computers to surf for a while. Her home machine is a brontosaurus, equal to the task of emails, so long as it's an interface like the old Eudora or Pegasus, or Gmail at a stretch of the imagination. Hotmail? Crash. There are five fast machines in one room at DreamCraft, running every operating system under the sun ... ah, the joys of being a multimedia studio.

Okay, Keegan, cut to the chase. Let's have the gist of this ramble while we're still young!

AG was on Speak Its Name (, which is a gay book review site I've had bookmarked for a long time. Somehow, however, I managed to miss the page AG stumbled into. Shows you how observant I am. The link is right there on the top of the page. I just never noticed it, much less clicked it. I, uh, tend to read blogs in the evening after work, when my brain is fairly fried.

If I'd clicked through, I'd have landed here: ... and discovered an interesting discussion about (!) OKHOMO.

Many readers of this blog will be blinking now, muttering, "Say what?" Turns out, it's a jargon term meaning, "everyone's gay and everyone's okay about it" ... meaning, the characters in the story are okay with being gay. Off-the-page, in fact, a minority of readers and some gay book critics very definitely take umbrage at having the angst factor in a novel diminished, so as to get the adventure aspect of the story moving, and probably also (the important facet of this discussion) to increase the book's entertainment value.

Aricia Gavriel nailed the absolute heart of the "OKHOMO" question in the comment posted to the above page. It got me thinking last evening. I'm still thinking about it. So, that's where I'm going with this!

Does a gay novel, particularly a gay historical novel, have a duty to be filled with the angst and pain of reality, in order to convey a not-so-subtle message to readers, in the manner of edutainment? Or can the angsty part of the narrative be toned down, in favor of entertainment?

In fact, I don't actually have much of an opinion either way; and I can certainly see the sense of both points of view. Gay writers and publishers are in a cleft stick (a fact book reviewers frequently ignore, or never recognized in the first place). Gay fiction readers are either gay or gay-friendly -- which means the writer and publisher are "preaching to the choir" with angsty material.

Gay fiction readers are already well aware gays have been persecuted throughout history, and are still suffering today. A modicum of angst in the narrative is an extremely good thing, since it sets the reality for the novel's background; However, unless the storyline is actually about the persecution of gay characters, there's only so far a writer can go into the realms of pain and suffering, either physical or emotional, before the story starts to tickle a dangerous line beyond which the reader will find the book depressing, or maudlin.

So, I can see both sides of the argument -- and there are two ways to go: entertainment and edutainment. Sure, you want a gay historical which is intended as entertainment to be true enough to history to be realistic. But after that, the narrative has to get past the sorrow, get on with the story and give the reader a thrill, a laugh, a good reading experience. The gay novel which is intended as edutainment is where writer and publisher can afford to wallow in the pain and misery of reality.

In several places in these blog pages, I've said "the reader is the ultimate bottom line," and it's critical for both writer and publisher to know who those readers are and what they need. Past a certain point, preaching to the choir could easily be a mistake. Who's going to pay good money for a depressing book? Yet, any historical novel set in an era when there was prejudice toward gays needs to be realistic enough ... and there is certainly a delicate "floating point" around which writer and publisher are working.

How much reality is too much? The "floating point" shifts constantly between entertainment and edutainment. The decision as per which pigeonhole is the right one for a specific novel is for the writer to decide. (An editor or publisher can certainly ask for a rewrite: "Give me another draft with a lot more sorrow, some really miserable characters, and we'll go to contract." In other words, a book can be shifted from one pigeonhole to the other ... and back again.)

As a writer with several historicals under by belt, I've risen to this challenge and each time come to a decision on a book-by-book basis. The heaviest angst is in WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT, set in the Crusades era, where there's a death sentence waiting for gays who are caught. Next heaviest in sorrow would be FORTUNES OF WAR, which is a lot more realistic than WHITE ROSE. Seriously here, WRON is a historical fantasy, with the emphasis on the fantasy. FORTUNES is set in the Elizabethan era, and its historical accuracy is very high indeed. DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, set in 1727, has a medium dose of misery and a massive story which tends to overpower the sorrow -- if it didn't, you'd never get through 450pp. THE DECEIVERS is quite high-level angst ... in a much shorter book. What you can get away with in 250pp, you won't be able to carry through 450pp. DECEIVERS is set in 1862, with a historical accuracy factor of about 99.995%. NOCTURNE is extremely accurate in historical terms, and moderately miserable in gay terms, with another monstrous story which overcomes the sorrow and gets the reader through about 400pp.

I did one story set in the era before Christian piety got into the Celtic tribes of Britain, in the years when the late-Roman morality would have almost certainly influenced the thoughts and behavior of the tribes left to cope in the socio-legal vacuum when the legions departed. AN EAST WIND BLOWING was not widely popular, for various reasons. Some critics cite the silly cover (don't blame me for that one! GMP put the cover on it, not MK) or various editing problems (GMP was the publisher; they were in strife and starting to wind down, though no one knew it at the time). It's also the least angsty of my historicals, due to the time setting. The Romans had a very different view of homosexuality; the Christians had not yet taken over, and no one knows how the Celtic tribes felt about the whole subject, so it's writer's licence! Work this out: freedom from angst (plus a silly cover) yields a gay novel which has been the least popular of all my work. In other words, gay fiction readers need some angst ... as in, no pain, no pleasure? Hmmmm.

A very good argument for both sides of this delicate case -- how much reality is too much in gay historical fiction intended as entertainment, and which pigeonhole should a novel be put into? -- is made by the commentators on the page at Speak Its Name: ... and I want to thank Aricia, for leaving a comment, from the perspective of the book-buying reader.

Thanks to AG for that ... I'll paste the comment over here, for reference. I also urge readers to go have a look at the original page, which has opinion galore. For the moment, here's AG:

    Interesting question — and already so well discussed, I can really only add one more idea to the melting-pot. I agree, books should be well researched before they are well written … and nobody with half a brain in their head doesn’t know what gay men have suffered through the ages (and still today in places like the mid-east … and could be in America too, if the “Dominionists” get into the White House and institute Old Testament Law to replace democracy — terrifying thought isn’t it?)

    However, I’m “just a reader.” I guess … I’m the person who puts down their twenty to buy your book! So at least some of the time the writer needs to think about what I want in trade for my twenty. Sure, I want good research and good writing …

    But I read for entertainment and fun — hardly ever to be educated and/or maybe even to get depressed. My point is, I already know what the past (and other countries) was (and are) like for gays. I don’t need the lesson taught again and again, so — bottom line — a writer has to “get realistic” and still make the book entertaining and fun!

    That’s a whopping-huge ask. I’ve read some books where I was scratching the head and saying, “I’m positive this wasn’t true,” then also, I’ve read some books where the homophobia was probably 100% total accuracy, but the book ended up so depressing I struggled to finish and only got through because I’d paid maybe thirty or forty for this novel.

    My personal fave is Mel Keegan. In the historicals MK walks the line between the real and the entertaining … and gets it just right (for me). (Truth is I really also get excited about MK’s SF work, which is maybe 400-600 years from now, and homophobia is gone totally — replaced by things that are just as bad and new fights … meaning, gays can live their own lives without prejudice, and take part in the new fights to set people free). But in the subject of Historicals — I’ve read a lot, and for me, Mel Keegan gets the balance of “real” and “entertainment” just right.

    Hope this was interesting…

Very, AG -- and thanks for the plug, kiddo. Every little helps! Incidentally, when's your site going back up? A couple of people have asked about "Aricia's Jarrat and Stone Page."



Aricia said...

Hi Mel ... I'm working on it, I'm working on it. Honest.

Actually, I'm starting to think about maybe having a blog instead of a site. They're easier. Also, I really don't like the way hosts like Geocities stop letting you log in (they locked me out for some insane reason, my Jarrat and Stone site wasn't updated for like two YEARS because I couldn't work on it, then they DELETED the site because it hadn't been updated in too long!

I don't need to go there again, so I'm thinking ... Wordpress might be the way to go. Will let you know.

Atun said...

The statistic that is recently heard says that less than 6% of gay couples have kids, so using "what about the children?" as a reason for choking off civil rights is void.But these are details, exaggerations in an important cause; KRS-One, who takes great care to note he's for the uplift of all people, might say that white histories of blacks are much more drastically inaccurate.


Mel Keegan said...

Atun: thanks for commenting ... but can I ask you to be more specific? From your wording here, I can't make out what you mean. What's an exaggeration? Are children [of gay couples] the exaggerations, or are they the deatails? I don't follow you. And, our rapper friend might say that white histories of black people are much more innacurate than what?

Mel Keegan said...

Readers note: Atun's comment is on the wrong post. It's supposed to be on "Gay Marriage rights: Prop 8 opens the door on a dark future" ... please read it in connection with that one. Thanks.

Dusk Peterson said...

"can the angsty part of the narrative be toned down, in favor of entertainment?"

Or toned up, in favor of entertainment? :)

I assume you're specifically talking about "the angst of being gay in a gay-unfriendly world," not "the angst of being carried off by the pirate captain while your lover searches the high seas for you." But I did find your way of phrasing the matter amusing, because my target audience wants mega-angst in its gay stories. They do keyword searches on phrases like "angstfic" and "darkfic."

Getting back to the subject: If one is going to address the topic of prejudice against gays in historicals, I rather like the way this is handled in the stories of Parhelion: the awareness of being in constant danger is always there, but it never overwhelms the story to the extent that the reader loses track of more important matters in life, such as whether the hero will ever admit to himself that he's crazy about brunets.

Seriously. In the long run, such things are far more important, as those of us who have been in the "constant danger" situation know. That's why I suspect that the best writers on this topic are often ones who have gone through danger themselves, or who have carefully researched the subject. I remember, for example, a scene in the World War One movie Gallipoli in which the soldiers cheerfully shake the hand of a dead soldier. That scene was written by somebody who had done their homework; when you're in constant danger, often the only way in which to survive mentally is through lots of humor and lots of love.

So, to me, realistic means "not overly depressing," because it's in the most depressing situations where you see people doing the most to lift their spirits.

Mel Keegan said...

I do believe I was talking about the general "gloom and doom" factor of some gay fiction, where the central characters are not just depressed about their situation, they also find themselves harassed, victimized ... all of which makes for reading which might well be realistic in the historical sense, but one wouldn't choose to read it for amusement's sake!

I know the scene you mean in GALLIPOLI -- one of my favorite movies. Incidentally, back at the time it was made (I wasn't at the premier, but saw it the week it opened), film critics called it a "gay romp." I always wondered about this. Makes you watch the movie again, with a different eye open.

Sure, "angst" can also be taken to mean the anguish the characters suffer in the course of the story. I'm well known for putting my heroes through a grinder ... and in this sense, the more angsty a book it, the more readers tend to like it.

However, the angst I put my heroes through isn't "victimization" and "gay, lonely and depressed about it" material -- just the trials and challenges of life, given the plot that's unfolding.

Having said that, I have tackled the subject of being gay in a world that seems to despise you, three times ... FORTUNES OF WAR, DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT and THE DECEIVERS.

In each instance, I tried to be as realistic as possible, up to a line that said to me, "Stop right here or most readers will put the book down."

This is actually the decision making process I was talking about ... literally, where does one draw the Max Angst Line?!

Fascinating discussion, and thank you for commenting!


Dusk Peterson said...

"Incidentally, back at the time it was made (I wasn't at the premier, but saw it the week it opened), film critics called it a 'gay romp.' I always wondered about this."

Um . . . As a friendship fiction author, I have a different perspective on this.

For one thing, this is a World War One movie. It was in the right period style for that type of portrayal of male friendship. For us to say "open affection between men in World War One must mean they're gay" would be like a Victorian novelist saying, "People who live in co-ed dorms must be having sex." We'd be projecting our own society's value system onto another society's very different way of viewing things.

Which isn't to deny, of course, that there was gay sex taking place in the World War One trenches; it's just that open affection between men wasn't automatically read as gay back then, the way it often is today.

Sorry if I sound grumpy. I don't get grumpy about people slashing friendship stories (well, obviously), just about critics who mistake their own fanficcy subtexting for the creator's intentions. My genre (friendship fiction) will be doomed if everyone regards friendship fiction as merely a disguise for gay/lesbian/het fiction.

Dusk (going off the Web for the winter, but you're welcome to e-mail me if you have further thoughts on this)

Mel Keegan said...

Actually, I must agree 100% here: I was extremely surprised by the reaction of early 1980s film critics, and remember thinking at the time, "1915 was very different, guys."

Which is not to say that gay relationships didn't happen (they did), but I do believe friendship were more ubiquitous -- for an excellent and inescapable reason...

In the GALLIPOLI era, an extramarital, sensual relationship between people of whatever gender was frowned upon. A hetero relationship without a wedding ring would create a pariah where a "nice girl" used to be."

And as for gay relationships ... the taboo was still very powerful. (Powerful enough that you wouldn't find the "casual experimentation" that was much more common by the time you get into the 1970s (about the same time those film critics almost dismissed GALLIPOLI as a "gay romp.")

In those days, People fell back on friendship: duh.

Also (and this is sad) friendships today don't seem to be as durable as those made in the early decades of the last century. You have very old folks,today, still friends after 70 years ... meanwhile, you have younger people who swear their "friends for life" status in June, and never even call each other by Christmas. It's a little sad ... and a lot weird.

Great to discuss this with you! Have a nice winter break,

Dusk Peterson said...

Thanks! Glad to hear we're in tune on this.

Erastes said...

Sorry to get here so late! Thank you for posting about this, and I'm very happy you read Speak its Name - It's been quieter than it should be recently, but I've been sick and all my reviewers are busy bees but I'm going to work harder at it next year!

I agree about the balance, and it's a tricky thing. I feel that - in times when there was a danger - it would be negligent to ignore it completely unless they were in some place where that conflict wouldn't come into play (say, on a desert island!!) but then not to swamp the book with OMG I CAN'T I'M GOING TO BE HANGED.

Alex Beecroft and Lee Rowan do this balancing act beautifully in their Nelson's Navy Age of Sail novels. They somehow manage to fall in love, have a (limited) sexual relationship under the Articles of War and although the threat is there, it's not so much that depresses, nor is it unrealistic because the threat of discovery colours everything they do.

The other aspect of OKHOMO is that of other people being OK with it, and this I see very often. Servants who don't blackmail, family who just accept it, a Regency society that doesn't care and even laughs about it - all nonsense! While I don't want to see the problems overshadow a book, to see everyone accepting of the homosexuality makes me fume!

Thanks Mel!

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