kaigou: this is what I do, darling (3 break out of prison)
[personal profile] kaigou
[note: edited to reduce ambiguity in middle part]

Last year (has it already been that long? or am I confusing my fails?) there was the slight kerfluffle among we netizens between female romance writers of M/M fiction and gay (male) readers. This particular note was barely more than a footnote, but I saw it mentioned in a number of places: deriding stories as 'okay-gay'. The label means every character is "just fine" with homosexuality. There's no trauma, no bullying, no isolation, and friends discovering a gay character's sexuality don't respond with negatives but positives, if they even bother to give the character's sexuality that much thought. I didn't see anyone questioning this, which even at the time raised my eyebrows. I don't mean questioning whether it's okay (so to speak) to apply this label; I mean questioning the assumptions in the label.

A few months ago, CP picked up a copy of Boy's Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti. Most of the essays are, frankly, rather pendantic, and some just repeat what's been said plenty of places elsewhere. Some are only barely related to the genre in question, and have little more than a few names dropped of BL publishers to tie the essay into the anthology's theme. (I note all that in case you're thinking it sounds like a good read. It has its bright spots, but of fourteen essays, few really stood out to make the cost worth it.)

One of the essays had a point that's been bubbling around for awhile now; the essay is "Gay or Gei? Reading 'Realness' in Japanese Yaoi Manga", by Alexis Hall. The author interviewed female (American, from what I gather) readers of yaoi manga, asking them about whether yaoi manga is realistic, and what elements 'make' a yaoi story realistic. The essay really cries out for a longer treatment. It packs in enough implications of intersectional privilege that it could nearly carry its own book if the author chose to unpack everything she's forced to gloss in an essay that's only about nine pages long. (I had quoted, but cut because it wasn't entirely relevant to this post overall, and its inclusion seemed to be misleading people on where/what is getting discussed here.)

Anyway, here's what really popped out at me. More like, smacked me upside the head. Of the readers interviewed,
...respondents emphasize certain characteristics as belying the "realness" of the yaoi manga text... [one respondent] mentions that the lack of prejudice in yaoi is a factor that makes it unrealistic. ... While violence and anti-gay discrimination are certainly present in the lives of many gay men, it is troubling that this association goes so far as to victimize gayness that any representation that does not fall within the confines of these negative factors are viewed as "unrealistic" or "idealistic"... In other words, this response suggests that "real" gayness is reached through experience of victimization. [emphasis mine]

It's not just a message that to be realistic, a story must contain certain negative factors. It's the corollary: that without those elements of life-sucks, the story is pure fantasy, with neither value nor validity.

The bit quoted above sent me back to a connection I'd made the first time I saw a (gay, male) LJ-poster deride a M/M story as "okay gay". It's an author's note (scroll down to the very bottom) from Matthew Haldeman-Time, a gay male novelist and short story writer. His was an approach I'd seen stated so explicitly, and it made an impression on me as being a valid argument. I think it bears repeating:
...if you're looking for fiction about gay men being harassed by homophobes, you won't find it here. My point is, there's enough of that in real life; this is my corner of the Net where I can do whatever I want, and I'm not going to waste time on bigots.
[...]
Homophobia is a daily reality, yes. It should be explored and combated and dealt with, yes. And there are many great places/times/ways to do so. But that won't happen at this website. Because, frankly, in addition to being an excellent way to explore the world we live in, fiction is also a great escape. This site is where I escape into a world where being gay and being bisexual and being straight are just the same, equally accepted, equally celebrated. Because that's the way that the world should be. And will be. This site is just ahead of the game in that area. But the rest of society will catch up. One day.

Stepping away from the hot potato of okay-gay, I started thinking about analogies. What else is unrealistic in fiction? What other facets do I see in fiction that I don't see in real life, that if I were honest (or cynical?) I would have to define the story/s as 'unrealistic'?

Well, just about any representation of women, in the romance genre.

I don't mean the female characters themselves. I mean how the world treats them, because that's a straight-up (err, sorry) match to the okay-gay concept. If romance novels were realistic, I'd expect to see a lot more female characters having to deal with love interests who have many good points but are still chauvinist jackasses in other ways. I'd expect to see anything from fewer female characters with title and responsibility and a fair salary to match it, to more female protagonists made miserable by the reality that 'pretty' (to paraphrase an online essay) is the rent women pay for occupying a body labeled 'female'. I'd also expect to see a lot more weary acceptance that this is just how things are: no smack-down on the jerkwads, no final showdown in which the female protagonist lays down the law and the chauvinist pigs amend their ways.

There are additional intersections in the way 'escapist' is treated as a dirty word and so often leveled at romance fiction. (To which I've always thought: if a whole lotta people are trying to escape something, it's usually a clue to me that the 'something' is not nearly as awesome as everyone's saying it is.) I mean, I can't escape this reality; it freaking sucks to be female -- even in this day and age -- for a thousand different reasons. I know full well the reality of not-okay-female world. I live in that world. But sometimes, I just want a break, and a chance to read a story in which I see hope of a day when I won't have to live in that goddamn world.

Perhaps, then, we need to understand the possible intentions or framework of a [specific] story, before we can judge it. Can stories have differing purposes and yet be equally valid as representations of our world?

Does a story intend to educate on some level, to create a series of events, populated by a group of people, that we could see as happening in the world right now, somewhere? Could in-story incidents appear in the reader's life -- and would the story then act as a kind of template? That is, the reader can think, it's just like that story, so now I have an idea of what to expect -- even if "what to expect" amounts to "it's going to suck from here on out". Does it present the world as-it-is?

Or does a story attempt to illustrate what the world could be? To open a reader's eyes, to give the reader a chance to spend some time in a world where rape jokes are treated as offensive and unacceptable by female and male characters; where when a woman says "no," a man stops; where an interviewer doesn't look at a female candidate and privately decide she'll probably be leaving in a few years to have babies, anyway, so it's not worth hiring her now. To imagine a world -- otherwise presented as realistically as possible -- where when a friend says, "I started dating this guy," everyone else in the room reacts with the same excitement given an announcement of, "I've been seeing this girl."

Those who prize only the former will often deride the latter as 'escapist', but I think the latter is more accurately aspiration. The former have their place and their value -- there is no doubt in my mind, at least, as to that. But the latter also have a value that should not be dismissed so out-of-hand.

Beyond that, could there be an additional intersection going on here, that makes women writers writing M/M more sensitive to the same issues Haldeman-Time raises in his author's note? Could it be that women writers who take the okay-gay route are instinctively applying the same 'negative-free-zone' (or at least a 'substantially-reduced-negative zone') as what romances in the past two decades have begin to apply to women's experiences? Could it be that we need to start seeing okay-gay in the same way that many women readers describe women-centric fiction: as a template in which the concept that 'women are also human beings' is not mutually exclusive with 'reality'?

The okay-gay stories don't have prejudice or bigotry on the pages, just as there are plenty of interracial romances where the "interracial" or "multicultural" aspect of the romance is an issue (or not) only to the two lovers in question, and the rest of the world doesn't even blink. Or stories with BDSM, where characters can enjoy their personal kink and the social reaction -- if there's any at all -- is simply, 'to each his/her own' with no knee-jerk panic or uninformed mob mentality. I wouldn't blame a single person who lives with that shit daily, any kind of discriminatory shit daily, to long for the chance to curl up with a book that shows life without that additional, constant, unending, subtle (or not-so-subtle) negativity. For that matter, even as someone who doesn't live with those particular types of negativity, I still enjoy the chance to curl up with a book that shows me that those things, too, could happen without that experience of victimization.

I don't think this approach makes a story invalid, of no value, not worth reading. As Haldeman-Time put it, I think it makes the story realistic... for a world that's not yet here. But it will come. Someday. And just as we need stories that show where we are, we also need stories that show where we want to end up.

Date: 25 Oct 2010 12:38 pm (UTC)
hakainokami: Kirk in captains chair, I reject your captaincy and substitute my own (Default)
From: [personal profile] hakainokami
I'm about to go to bed, but I wanted to reply because this really hit me; it relates to something that really bothers me in fandom sometimes- especially Star Trek and Gundam Wing. Its HOW many years in the future and there is still sexism/homophobia. Really? You can't imagine that hundreds of years in the future DADT and homophobia and sexism would be gone? Look at Canada! or one several other countries that don't care what sex their military personnel sleep with. More than one country today allows people of the same sex to get married. Sexism is in no way gone, but its a lot less in most developed countries than 30 years ago and even less developed countries are starting to try- why can't that trend continue? And look at Fullmetal Alchemist... its a shonen series so they pretty much skip the idea of sex entirely except for crushes and a few minor references, but since the authors never bothered to say why add DADT? If the series never addresses it, why assume its there instead of assuming its not?

Date: 25 Oct 2010 12:54 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
Here's the thing, though: some of us DO want the real. So when you talk about "the point of a story" (as if all stories were alike!) as being aspirational, you are completely discounting what people like me (and yes, there are lots and lots of others like me--you may not know any of them, but I do) want to read, what we want to write, and what we want to watch.

The more a story is about what real people really experience now, already, somewhere in the world, the more interesting it becomes to me. I have never heard the label 'okay-gay', but I know the phenomenon of which they're speaking, and I'm not interested in reading stories like that. It wouldn't feel real to me, so at some point in the course of the reading, I would stop. There is nothing wrong with this, just as there is nothing wrong with what you want to read in a story. There is room for all kinds of stories in this world. And I don't want what I want because I want my stories to be "educational," either--I want what I want because it is what I enjoy.

I'm very angry as I write this, kaigou, and I'm spelling this out because I know that my anger doesn't tend to come across in print. But I've had this conversation in fandom so many times. So here's my angry, jaded appeal that no one ever listens to: Please don't write about theories that are in essence sweeping generalizations that squeeze people out who want different things out of stories than you want. Please. Please.

-J
Edited (elaboration) Date: 25 Oct 2010 01:00 pm (UTC)

Date: 25 Oct 2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
It wasn't just the words you didn't use that made it come across that way. It was some of the words you did use. You have now edited, so I can't quote you directly (which is incredibly frustrating, given that we were still in the middle of a conversation about the words you used in this post and the intent behind them), but the original version of the post clearly stated that the very purpose of a story was to be aspirational. So yes, of course it read like you intended to be saying that realism in storytelling was less valuable--how else could something like that have been read?

But your editing suggests that you'd rather cover those issues up than engage about them, so...*raises hands in surrender*

-J

Date: 25 Oct 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
I don't think you're being malicious or devious, so that much is easy. I think you wanted to argue that stories don't have to be set within the real world in order to be valid, but that you did so by dismissing those stories that are set within the real world. Once you realized that you weren't just preaching to the choir, i.e. that there are some people reading your journal who weren't going to take it as a given that all writers of m/m slash would of course prefer the aspirational kind of fiction, you changed the post because you realized that your overgeneralization was distracting from the actual point you were trying to make.

So I think the reason for the changes wasn't malicious, but I also think you made those changes without really understanding the kind of story you were dismissing in the original version of the post. Or for that matter, the kind of argument the original version of your post was engaging with, which you found in the book your original post quoted. I don't think you understand why some of us female slash writers prefer stories about true-to-life situations, and I don't think you understand why some gay men would be bothered by stories that do not depict true-to-life situations.

In any case, I'm not vilifying, I'm arguing. And I'm doing that because I think you're wrong. I think your original post demonstrated that wrongness in a more obvious way than the current version does, but the comments that you're making suggest that you still don't understand. And I wish you would listen to the other point of view, and maybe ask questions about it in an effort to understand better.

-J
Edited (clarifying) Date: 25 Oct 2010 05:36 pm (UTC)

Date: 25 Oct 2010 03:00 pm (UTC)
shippen_stand: White Crow (white crow)
From: [personal profile] shippen_stand
At one point in my life I was dressing a statue as a part of a day that included so many impossible things. The owner of the statue looked at me and said, "If you put today in a book, no one would believe you. [Famous literary author he knew] said he was always criticized as fantastic for the the things that came straight from his experience."

Fiction is generally a pack of lies, especially when it is most True.

As with you, the thing that struck out most was this: In other words, this response suggests that "real" gayness is reached through experience of victimization. The full experience of being gay involves discrimination, from mild to extreme. The full experience of being female involves sexism, from mild to extreme, and the constant potential threat of rape. (Yes, men can be raped, and it sometimes happens as part of harassment of gay men--just as much an expression of power as raping a woman. Statistically, it's less likely.) So when a male author writes a convincing female character, do we discount it because he hasn't experienced sexism? Or because he's a male writer, do women read the unconscious sexism in male character behavior and that helps us mark the character as realistic? Or if the writer has written an idealized world where sexism does not exist, do we believe the character because it is what we would want the world to be?

Men have written successfully from a (straight) female point of view. Women have written successfully from a (straight) male point of view. Why does it seem so wildly unlikely that straight woman could write from a gay male point of view? There's a valid argument that gay men are not women with dicks, and a lot of female m/m romance writers tend to do something like that. The earliest slash I read was rife with feminization of characters. Men can be emotionally vulnerable, but they don't generally express it in traditionally feminine ways. And not all men are the same. And, and... The experience of victimization is a part of what makes up the character of any gay person. That cannot be denied. The story may not always require depicting that part of a gay person's life. But when it should, then it should.

Rambling post rambles. Sorry.
Edited Date: 25 Oct 2010 03:02 pm (UTC)

Date: 25 Oct 2010 04:55 pm (UTC)
jae: (writinggecko)
From: [personal profile] jae
I am glad you are now stating that reality-within-storytelling is just as valid as the aspirational kind of story (even if I don't believe for one second that you actually believe that). But your last sentence is a complete strawman. Stories that strive for ultra-realistic scenarios can do far more than "show us how much the world sucks." Real people have real wonderful experiences within the actually existing world, and that can happen just as easily within a fictional story as well.

Do you need an example of this, within the genre of fanfiction? I could show you hundreds, but let me be so bold as to show you one of my own. "40 Miles North of Presidio" is a coming-out-to-oneself story set in the "Friday Night Lights" universe. The character doesn't experience victimization about his sexuality, not even a little bit, but it is very clear that this story in which both bad things and good things happen is set within the real world of rural Texas. There are implications of that all over the place, and the point-of-view character has a huge inner struggle with those implications, because that is the kind of story that I like. But nowhere does it require that he become a victim.

Now, you may not like that kind of story. That's totally legitimate. But please don't talk as if that kind of story doesn't exist, or lump it in with stories that are All About Victimization.

-J

Date: 25 Oct 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
shippen_stand: Written by a Shippen (Default)
From: [personal profile] shippen_stand
I conflated them on purpose, because of the sometimes-heard opinion that "okay-gay" is based on a complete lack of understanding of what modern gay life is actually like. I don't think I missed the point; I looked at the entire post through that specific lens. That might not have brought me to your point.

Date: 25 Oct 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
Yes. Yes. Yes. That is the kind of slash story I want to read, and the kind I want to write. Said story doesn't have to be about victimization (which is a lovely little strawman if I ever saw one), but I don't want to read it if it is contextualized against a world where no discrimination could ever happen. The very idea is just completely unappealing to me.

-J

Date: 25 Oct 2010 05:29 pm (UTC)
shippen_stand: Written by a Shippen (Default)
From: [personal profile] shippen_stand
That's what I was trying to get to. The experiences shape the gay characters, just as sexism shapes women, regardless of whether a specific story deals with discrimination/victimization. This is why I think "okay-gay" criticism from LGTB people has an element of, "You have no idea what my life is like. How can you write it as if everyone in the culture thinks it's okay to be what I am. Trust me, I know they don't." It's a valid point.

Date: 25 Oct 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
*nods* That's been my explicit framework for years--that the Gael Baudinos of the world can write their current-or-past-realistic explorations as they like, but that isn't what I want to read. So I write what I do want to read, which is more the kind of world I'd /like/ to live in.

The critique I actually lend credence to sometimes is the one about how constructing a world in which bias X doesn't exist can make it easier for an author to stop thinking about bias in general, which can show up in some pretty unpleasant ways. But given how universally not-thinking-about-bias shows up, in all generes and approaches, I am unconvinced that the "no bias X" part is directly causative, by itself, of any "only my experience exists" part. Or, for that matter, that an inclination to excising bias X is indicative of a tendency to "only my experience". So I tend to throw that into the "any author has to stay aware of potential erasures, duh" bin.

Date: 25 Oct 2010 06:57 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
and that our next generations who -- I sincerely hope -- have to deal with less and less of it will not, therefore, be considered "less real" as gay adults, simply because we managed to make the world a better place

Alas, I have seen exactly this attitude crop up sometimes within the circle of feminism, so I expect it will happen. Which depresses the everliving fuck out of me. I mean, yes, it's necessary be aware that things are not perfect and we need to keep going. But it's good that my little freshers look at me like they've never heard of anything so outlandish and ridiculous when I give them the "employment makes a woman less fertile and anyway their brains are smaller" articles from post WWII to read. It's good that they don't have that in their worldview, and they are not any less feminists (or women) for having grown up without it!

I think I need to go read some Third Wave authors and console myself, now.

Date: 25 Oct 2010 06:16 pm (UTC)
opusculus: Black hole (Black hole)
From: [personal profile] opusculus
This is a really interesting post. I wonder how much of an overlap there is between audiences who enjoy "focusing on bigotry is the only way to write" or "aspirational escapism only please". I've noticed in these kinds of discussions it's easy to present them as completely mutually contradictory, and in my experience...I don't know if I'd consider that true or false. I know most of the stories that stick in my head forever are the ones that deal with prejudice without making the entire story defined on it, but I don't think I'd enjoy them nearly as much without the background of fluffy aspirational stories where no one has to deal with that crap. For me personally, I don't think the potential reality has anything to do with me enjoying bigotry-free stories so much as giving me enough of a break from current reality to have the energy and desire to engage in a story that handles issues well. Happy fluff gives me energy, and I appreciate that.

On the other hand, I personally despise stories that have no redeeming aspects to anyone whatsoever and which are entirely depressing (or even mostly depressing). I know that there are people who love them, and I wonder how many of them are the people who despise escapist lit.

M/M fiction, in my experience, seems oddly weak on stories in the middle. With most other issues - racism, sexism, etc. - I can think of stories that touch on the existence of bigotry without making it the whole focus of the story. Some can even maintain the escapism anyway. With m/m, off the top of my head I'm coming up blank. I can think of fluffy up the wazoo, and the occasional really depressing story, but not really much in between.

I'm not really sure where I was going with this.

Date: 26 Oct 2010 07:46 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] maire
I like what I'm hearing here, which is that you think the unrealistic 'okay-gay' story is just as capable of being a good work of art as the realistic story, and that lack of realism need not be held up as a judgement against a work. Have you read Tolkien's 'On Fairy Stories'? I feel it makes roughly the same point, although more generally. The section on escape feels particularly relevant to me.

(I didn't, FWIW, perceive you as making any judgement about the validity or enjoyability of realistic stories beyond the implicit one of assuming that they are generally regarded as capable of being worth while.)

Date: 28 Oct 2010 04:51 am (UTC)
mediumrawr: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mediumrawr
For better or worse, a story needs to interact with the audience and their expectations. Recognizing that an audience's expectations can be problematic has value - refusing to write stories that use those expectations, in one way or the other, is bad writing.