Since you asked so nicely … The VM ponders authenticity

I woke up this morning and saw my own name in my RSS reader. Huh. Was not expecting that. Thanks for the compliments, TP, I learned a lot from our back and forth as well. You asked that I expand on what I meant when I commented on the repeated focus on the authentic gay male voice in m/m (I’m calling it m/m here rather than gay romance because the community is more m/m than gay romance, in my opinion). First, my take on the AJL mess and then I will try to answer your question.

I see two sources of outrage in the AJL situation.

(1) An author was outed as a straight woman. This author had apparently manufactured a complicated and entirely false story, complete with photographs, of a gay male authorial persona and life. This went beyond an author bio using male pronouns to include descriptions of an ongoing relationship with another gay male author, stories about coming out, tips on how to write m/m from a gay male perspective, etc.

(2) The deception crossed from the personal and fictional author-bio realm to non-fiction blog posts, thus extending the commonplace types of fictional authorial persona (male pronouns, gender-neutral discussions of personal life, etc.) into a non-fiction environment.

I was really bothered by (2), even more than (1), which I find reprehensible but not totally unusual when it comes to authorial personas. I’ve written about the persona v. author topic before so I won’t rehash it here. I’m not saying people aren’t right to be bothered by (1), and I do think it crossed a line, it just wasn’t as heinous to me personally.

And then, as I was busy being righteously outraged about (2), the situation became murkier.

AJL wrote a post in which he self-identified as a gay male. That put him in the trans category (the T in LBGT). So to call him any kind of woman, let alone a straight woman, was to deny his self-identification. Rumors have flown about this. Some people who seem to have reason to know say he’s really a straight woman, others say he has self-identified as a male for a while.

I’m going to assume he is who he says he is. I’d rather believe him and be a fool than disbelieve him and be a cruel and incorrect cynic. I’m willing to be a generalized cynic but not this type. This does not mean I believe the “coming clean” post. It means I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt. In large part I do this because when people who don’t have a lot of information decide not to believe AJL, it resonates beyond his individual case.

The chatter on the internet has hit at least the second-highest category on RRR Jessica’s kerfuffle alert scale (adjusted for m/m). The debate on Goodreads has been especially lively, and some of it has centered around Damon Suede’s post at the YA LGBT group.

I wasn’t actually thinking of Suede’s post and the reactions to it when I made the comments about gay male authenticity at TP’s (I was thinking about someone else entirely, to be honest), but of course it’s an example of what I’m talking about. His comments are rocketing around the internet in part because they capture a lot of the outrage certain observers feel, but they seem to have added resonance because the commenter is a gay male. My problem with the latter is that it is the opinion of one gay male reader (and in this case writer), but it’s being treated as if it’s more salient than other opinions on that basis (I’m unable to link to a couple of illustrative comments because they’re in a closed Goodreads group, but here’s the same idea in a slightly different context).

I had a mixed reaction to the post. His anger at the deception was something I agreed with, unsurprisingly. But his consistent use of female pronouns felt unnecessarily aggressive and disrespectful. And when he went beyond the AJL case in particular, he totally lost me:

I have known there were female authors actively deceiving their readership about their gender since I started reading gay romance. In some cases it’s blatant enough to be comical, in all cases it’s sad, gross, and ironic in a genre which should be about tolerance, wholeness, and integrity. Shades of the Vichy, methinks. I have blogged about this several times, and suggested each time that the entire community offer amnesty to impersonators willing to come clean. I understand the fanfic roots of a lot of the impulse to impersonate, but fraud is fraud. Umm, duh?

Do I think Llewellyn and others like her are evil? No.

Aside from completely failing to understand how this is like Vichy (AJL is Pétain? His supporters are collaborators? Women with pen names are anti-gay?), what on earth is the amnesty comment all about? How will the entire community do that? A Constitutional Convention? An Executive Order? A public ceremony? And that reference to Llewellyn and others like her [sic]? WTF? Someone else is doing (1) and (2) above? Really? I am not a fan of this kind of drive-by anonymous accusation. If you’re not going to name the “others,”, then can we please just stick to the topic at hand?

Look, I get why readers and authors elevate gay male writers and care about authenticity. At least some of m/m romance purports to be about real-life-type gay men, and many m/m authors are sensitive to and actively supportive of gay rights. But so many of these books are light years removed from anything approaching reality, just as Harlequin Presents are light years removed from real sheikhs and billionaires (and secretaries, for that matter).

I am thrilled when I come across an m/m book that reflects a historical or contemporary reality I recognize. But my reality is also only a tiny slice of the big, complicated reality that is out there. And so is every gay man’s experience. Holding up an individual gay man’s view as more important because it’s “the gay position” is a fool’s game. It’s no different than telling someone who violates some stereotype you hold about an ethic group that they’re “not really Asian” or “not really Latina.” It’s just the positive version.

Suede’s comments are resonating for a lot of people because they agree with him, and because he’s a gay male writer they feel additionally validated in their anger. But go back to that Goodreads thread, or to AJL’s own blog post, and look at the gay male voices who support AJL. They should be seen as just as authentic and influential, but they’re ignored or argued with. And what about the gay male writers who haven’t said anything (I can think of at least one)? Why aren’t we following their example? Suede is the voice of one gay man (and for many observers, he’s a very articulate and compelling voice). But that’s it.

Like a lot of readers, when I read a book written by someone I’m 99% sure is a gay man (hey, it’s the internet, if I haven’t met them face to face I’m not 100% on anybody), I unconsciously give it points for authenticity. But I don’t assume I’m getting some Generalizable Gay Experience, or start measuring all other books by that particular novel’s depiction of gay life. And when I read an unsatisfying or badly written book by a Real Gay Man I don’t assume that it’s reflective of what all gay men write either.

There are plenty of books I’ve read by women (yeah, AM Riley and Jordan Price, I’m looking at you and assuming you’re women, sorry if I’m wrong) that give me the same feeling of reading something that could be real. It’s just not written from personal, lived experience. It’s the power of their imaginations and their talent that create that effect. There’s a tradeoff between imagination and authenticity for writers who aren’t, say, Sean Kennedy. I refuse to give up the former to gain the latter.

Do I like being lied to about someone’s “true” gender? Not particularly. But I’ve also become very aware that gender identification is a lot more multifaceted and complicated than I once thought, and I don’t have enough information about any author to be confident that I fully know why they make the choices about author persona that they do. So unless I’m hit in the face with an unusual type of deception, as happened in the AJL case, I don’t think about it a lot.

I didn’t read AJL before this because the books didn’t appeal to me. If I had, and I had loved them, would I keep reading? I don’t know for sure, but I think I might. At the same time, though, I won’t read Anne Perry. See? I’m inconsistent. But I know it, so I get uncomfortable passing judgment. Your mileage, as always, may vary.

15 thoughts on “Since you asked so nicely … The VM ponders authenticity

  1. I’ve discussed this with you on Twitter so won’t belabour the point. I’ve emailed Suede about the Vichy remark as I don’t understand it. However I don’t see it or the regrettable pronoun use invalidating his remarks. Many people, some gay, writing about this either don’t believe Llewellyn or don’t understand how hurtful the pronoun issue is to trans people.

    I don’t see why Suede should ‘out’ writers while alluding to a well known issue in M/M. I know there are many more women passing as gay men in m/m. It’s not a fantasy.

    Riley and Price have never claimed to be male. End of story.

    But on that, it’s not the claim to be *male* that’s the issue. It’s claiming to be *gay*. Some women doing this are lesbian or bi. Many aren’t. That’s where the appropriation comes in, and where the moral issue actually lies. Claiming be a gay man while writing about gay experiences – real or fictional – lends weight to one’s words that simply using a male pseud does not. And that’s the line for me. You do not appropriate other people’s life and pain just to make a buck. It’s wrong when James Frey does it, it’s wrong when Helen Darville/Demidenko does it, and it’s wrong when Mrs Mary Q Straightperson does it.

    Maybe we need to stop talking about psuedonyms and start talking about fake bios which aren’t obviously fake.

    • I didn’t mean the whole comment was invalidated for me; when I said he lost me I meant I in that part of the argument. I still agree with his emphasis on the deception. I just didn’t appreciate the whole “teaching moment” aspect of it. But then I rarely appreciate that kind of remark in those circumstances. I like people to stick to the point, especially when the point is already so volatile and messy. I also thought the extension to “others” detracted from the cogent argument he was making about AJL in particular, and “like her” seemed a bit much. I’m not up for lumping everyone in the same basket.

      If Suede believes the genre should be about “tolerance, wholeness, and integrity,” then the use of female pronouns seems especially unfortunate.

      I appreciate (in both sense of the word) that you have a bright line, and others I talk to have them as well. I just haven’t been able to create one for myself. Believe me, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I’d rather err on the side of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt and be a fool about those who are only doing it for the money. But I think that for many authors, it’s often more complicated that that. I say this as an outsider, however.

      I don’t like the elaborate fake bios either. But I’ve also noticed that not all authors who cop to years of having a fake male persona are treated the same way when they ‘fess up.

      • ” But I’ve also noticed that not all authors who cop to years of having a fake male persona are treated the same way when they ‘fess up.”

        Name one? In my experience there are a few voices raised in disgust, which are drowned in the chorus of ‘there there darlings’ from those with a vested interest in not shining too great a light on the practice. I imagine when the biggest name I can think of comes out – if she does – exactly the same thing will happen x 100.

        • I was thinking of when TA Chase outed herself. The details are hazy for me now, but I do remember that there had been a big kerfuffle about women creating male personas right before that and how awful it was (what I’m not remembering is whether it was aimed at a single person or more general). Then when Chase made a blog post, no one talked about it except on her blog, where the commenters were all supportive. I found the disconnect between the earlier outrage and the silence on her switch disconcerting, but I guess I was just naive (I was extremely ignorant of the m/m community then, even though I had been reading the books for a while).

          Anyway, what I learned from that was that I wanted my abstract position and my concrete position to match up. That’s when I realized my line in the sand wasn’t going to hold up, because I didn’t feel I could judge individual, concrete cases (I never know enough to be comfortable). Your abstract and concrete positions do seem to match up, just at the other end of the spectrum.

    • Oh awesome, thanks! I hadn’t seen that.

      I was mostly kidding about Price and Riley, because I’m pretty sure I’ve come across information about Riley before (and Price I know I have, but again, internet, 99%, yada yada). But I really enjoyed reading Riley’s post. It reminds me again why I love her books.

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  4. What really bothers me about AJ’s mea culpa column is the reaction of her fans. They have cursed and gone as far as threatening off line people who thought they were entering into a discussion.There is no place for that in my opinion.

    • Yes, a couple of fans in particular were extremely unpleasant, and AJL did nothing to rein them in. There was a fair amount of attacking in a couple of the other threads too, though, and the escalation of demands to publishers in the m/m thread was really strange. I guess Goodreads mods have different responsibilities than mods on other boards I’m used to.

  5. I’ve missed most of this, being online only intermittently, but feel mostly disgusted and disappointed. In posts on other topics, I’ve mentioned in passing that the implied gender identity assumed by author names bothers me. I understand it, but it still bothers me. This, this is much worse than that. It fills me with a reluctance to trust any author bio of any sort, and increases my reluctance to engage with any author online without some independent confirmation that the bio they publish is real.

    Of course, on a personal level, I find deception exhausting and a waste of time, so from the larger perspctive this also leaves me even more bewildered. Or maybe that’s just the meds I’m on.

    • The level and scope of the deception is really staggering. I really feel bad for the readers who were strongly invested in AJL as a person. I tend to prefer separation from the authors I read, with a few exceptions, and even with those I try to err on the side of *not* asking for information beyond our common interest in their novels.

      I hope you are feeling better, but I don’t think your bewilderment is just the meds. :-) It makes my brain hurt to think about it, and I’m over the flu at this point.

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