Those of you who follow my posts here know I rarely (translation: never) write true blogs posts. What I do is more of a slang-ridden Awesome Dood newsy kind of deal. There’s nothing I could say craft-wise that others aren’t saying more eloquently. I suppose I could post more reviews, but not like you can’t read mine on goodreads.
Still, every once in a great while, I have something to say and I believe what I have to say might add to the discussion. This is one of those times.
Violence. In romance.
There has been a veritable Armageddon-esque storm of controversy surrounding violence/rape tropes in the m/m niche in the past weeks (or has it been months?) among m/m blogs and review sites. Since some of my books can be said to fall into the works in question, I’ve followed the discussions quite doggedly. If you posted or commented on this issue? I probably read it. I just didn’t speak up because I genuinely wanted to hear what readers and reviewers had to say. I also had some pondering to do. I wasn’t going to remark until I’d processed and given the issue the attention I feel it deserves. From everybody’s perspective, not just my own.
Well, I’ve processed.
First a caveat. I write het, ménage and m/m with darker threads woven into my stories that have included violence and rape, although a good bit happens off-screen. But I wouldn’t say the stuff that happens on-screen is gratuitous. (Feel free to disagree.) Also bear in mind that I’m not speaking from a purely m/m perspective. I write girl cooties as well as the m/m and see no reason to limit the discussion to m/m alone.
What is a romance? A story in which the developing love relationship is the central focus. (Feel free to disagree with that too.) The fact that some of these characters haven’t led rosy lives doesn’t insta-remove the focus from the developing relationship. It just means that character probably has bigger hurdles on the way to love and commitment. These characters are hurting. They may be functional, but that doesn’t always mean healthy. They have trust issues. They make mistakes that characters who don’t share their histories/experiences maybe wouldn’t make. They have a lot of work to do before they can have their HEA. None of that requires that these obstacles must be the central focus, though.
Generally speaking, romances take us away to a different world. As a reader, I want to be taken away at least. When I pick up a book, I want to breathe in someone else’s skin and move in a world not my own. Sometimes, those worlds are soft and sweet, with rounded corners and cabinet safety-locks. Sometimes, as a reader, I need that. Our world isn’t perfect. Far from it. Just turn on the news, compadres. Our world doesn’t come equipped with those padded edges and safety-locks. A couple of times, one of my clients (I’m in charge of a food pantry) has cornered me in the parking lot and scared ten years off my life. You think I don’t want a world where I don’t have to worry about that drug-addicted client beating the hell out of me? Wrong. Sometimes, I want to visit a world where drug addicts don’t terrorize the people who try to help them.
But…Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I want to visit a world just like my own. Or even worse than my own. Where people hurt. Where people make horrible mistakes, just like I make mistakes. Where senseless shitty things happen and you sometimes wonder how in the hell things ever got so bad. I want to see those characters deal with that world of horrors because I too deal with a world of horrors. I want to see those characters work through the Ginormous Mountain of Crap that weighs them down because sometimes it weighs me down too. I want to feel hope. I want that character to give me a reason to hope. Love blooms in spite of the ugliness of what can happen in our world today. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. And when that love emerges in the ugly, craptastic world of horrors? That love is all the more fine and precious. It’s beautiful. All the more beautiful because those characters had to work for it. They had to fight for it. They have to nurture and protect it. Just like each of us do every single day. Maybe we aren’t fighting a brutal vampyr war. Maybe we were never enslaved by a rival kingdom or molested/abused as children (lucky you). But the world can still eat away at us. Bit by bit.
That’s why I write stories with darker threads and that’s why I read them. These stories are in many ways a catharsis for me. I’m one of those people who didn’t have the rosy life; count yourself blessed if you are. But for me, these stories aren’t about the less-than-rosy. They’re about hope. They give me a reason to hope because if love can shine bright for those characters and in those worlds? It can shine brightly for me too. Even if my drug addicted client beats the hell out of me. Even when I’m scared to death because a guy on the sex offender registry has started to attend scouts meetings with his son. Even though I was raped. (Yeah, try having a thrice-convicted rapist at your scout meetings when you’ve been raped–NOT. FUN.) But love happened for me. It’s still happening for me. I had to work for it and I still do. I had to fight for it and I still do. But plowing through shit to come through the other side doesn’t make mine any less of a love story. It just makes my love story–and the stories with darker themes that I love to write–that much more extraordinary. In the very best sense.
Those of you who insist violence in romances means they aren’t legitimate romances? I don’t blame you for your preferences. I wish to God you’d stop blaming me and pointing accusing, condemning fingers at me for mine. I’m not a freak, thanks. There are a lot of other writers and readers just like me and we all aren’t the pervy deviants you suggest (or insist) we must be.
If you don’t like books with these darker threads? Fine. Don’t read them. But please step off your pedestal. Stop preaching to the masses that stories with violent/darker themes aren’t real romances. If love is the focus, they are romances, no matter what the characters have to work through to snatch the prize. They’re just a different kind of romance than you like. Different tastes doesn’t automatically equate to lacking in all merit and only scary perverts read this–or words to that affect.
Also a final word about labeling…I’ve seen that banner carried far and wide these past weeks: Darker themed books must be properly labeled for rape and violence!
Are you telling me that you couldn’t read the blurb of my Spoils of War (which includes: “Enslaved during the invasion of the rival King of Herra…” and “…the Herran King, abuses his captive…”) and not know that this is a darker book? Or that readers couldn’t tell from Lovely Wicked‘s blurb (“…When they meet there again while visiting their dysfunctional families as adults, Mitch and Liv escape the ghosts of their past…”) that it has darker threads too? Heck, my latest, What Rough Beast, has an explicit alert for violence as a special content warning. (The vampyr are at war and curiously enough, war can be violent–go figure.)
While I agree that better labeling may be the answer in some cases, I’d also argue that writers and publishers in many, many instances have alerted the reader to darker themed stories through special content warnings, blurb contents, and/or both. I respectfully submit that, a great many times, readers and reviewers have simply ignored those warnings or have paid little heed to them. Bloggers and reviewers have waxed long and long and long (and long) about darker themed stories that include violence and/or rape. The demands for better labeling has been…ironic, given the inaccuracies of these protests. (For example, people have inaccurately claimed a book was labeled as “romance” or “BDSM” when that particular book clearly was not and already included the labels those same people demanded.) Maybe better labeling is the answer, but I think perhaps readers (and reviewers) paying more attention to EXISTING labels and reading the blurbs would help. A lot.
The belittling and sweeping condemnations of stories with darker themes that include violence and rape have also been, at times, incredibly hurtful to me as both a writer and a reader. Yes, I know. Writer. Thick skin, hello? But this has been going on for weeks and weeks (and weeks, ad nauseum). Maybe I’m naive and stupid. No wait. I’m a newbie. Of course I’m naive and stupid, LOL, but it genuinely floored me that such judgmental, insulting and hurtful remarks would spring from the oft-ridiculed and oft-condemned m/m community, of all people. People I know. People I respect. The folks I thought would be open about those of us who are different…weren’t. That still stuns and saddens me.
Do you think the outrage over violence/rape in m/m (or het & menage) has gone too far? Or should the tarring and feathering of us deviants immediately commence? Comment below.