Independent community: Placing the non-gendered novel

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How well do you let gender expectations shape your writing? Is conforming to genre tropes a prerequisite for success?

While writing my first novel, The tenant, that summer, I thought surprisingly little of my readers. It was my first time writing a book, and my inexperience led me to write first and then to find an audience.

I envisioned the reader as a variation of myself, a gay or bisexual man hoping to find aspects of his identity and sexuality reflected on the page. Growing up, novels by homosexual authors had provided useful insights into the ways of being in the world. And yet representations of sex – one of the defining experiences of gay identity – were often veiled or sanitized. Storytelling has the power to excite body and mind, connecting our inner selves to the larger world around us. I wanted the novel to be erotic and honest, to describe how sexual experiences can inform our sense of self and help us cope with the challenges that shape our lives. I also wanted it to be accessible – a short, breezy summer read that a young gay man could easily understand, without being intimidated by his literary pretense. I set out to write what I had struggled to find as a reader: a straightforward, positive and explicit take on the gay novel about coming of age.

Whether sex and desire can shape our identity is something gay men know intimately, but I was concerned that it was less clear (or clearly marketable) to the custodians of the edition. I decided to bring the novel into the world myself. Without the mediation of a publisher or publisher, there was no one to convey in-depth knowledge of market and genre expectations, to explain what I was doing wrong, at least commercially.

It’s dizzying how quickly a self-published work can come out into the world and start to connect with readers. It wasn’t until then – months too late – that I started to see audiences as a segmented market.

I didn’t realize that the publishing ecosystem is tightly structured around the genre, which retailers and online promoters immediately asked me to define. Readers didn’t ask questions but made their own assumptions based on the cover, blurb, and the many codified ways a book is presented for sale.

Literary fiction is a genre in which writers are allowed to mix it up, provided they have the awards, accolades, and track record to pass the cord. As a rookie author of a slim, self-explanatory queer novel, I was a realist. The tenant, that summer was not literary fiction, and I could live with that.

Because of the many explicit passages, the eroticism tag seemed essential. This placed my book in one of the two piles.

The first stack gathered gay erotica written primarily for arousal, and while aiming for more than just titillating, I had no shame in adding my book to this stack. Once a flourishing form of illicit literature sought after by mostly gay men in lockdown, it has shrunk to a very short pile in the age of online pornography and gentrified queer culture, collecting dust in the corners. darker internet (or the creaky second floors of the last remaining brick-and-mortar LGBTQ bookstores).

It turned out that the second stack reached the moon. The romance / erotic genre is worth over a billion dollars in the US alone, more than crime / mystery and sci-fi / fantasy combined. It saw a further increase in sales during the pandemic. Gay romance (or “MM”) is one of its biggest categories. I was surprised to find that MM’s steamy romance and erotica is mostly written by women, for women.

It’s fascinating that explicit stories of men seducing other men are now sitting on millions of bedside tables in the suburban bedrooms of heterosexual households around the world. On one level, it’s wonderful that the stories of coming out, sexuality, and homophobia have been so openly received. Who am I to decide or judge who should write or read queer stories?

And yet my lived experience, which underlies The tenant, that summer, does not conform to the tropes of this giant of a genre, and the sex I am describing differs from the no less explicit principles of MM eroticism.

Genre readers put so much emphasis on beloved tropes that they are often spelled out on the cover of a book. About my novel, readers wanted to know: is it friends of lovers or enemies of lovers? Does it feature household, injury / comfort, or fake boyfriends? None of the above, I’m afraid. Worse yet, its ending was neither HEA (happily forever) nor HFN (happy for now), the two options available to romance writers, I’m often reminded of.

At first I bristled as romance and erotica readers began their reviews by expressing disappointment that they couldn’t find the elements they expected. In the end, I ended up accepting and welcoming these different interpretations of the material, and the criticisms remained strong.

If I had to do it all over again, and I will; I have more than one story in me – I would have planned the launch and promotion better, using the lessons learned since posting. But I would write the exact same story, staying true to my voice and my lived experience, even when the result doesn’t quite fit the browsing categories. By having to define my writing, I discovered thriving, supportive communities united not only around their love of a beloved genre, but storytelling as a whole.

Levi Huxton is an Australian author. His first novel, The tenant, that summer, is now available.

A version of this article appeared in the 08/30/2021 issue of Editors Weekly under the title: Place the non-conforming genre novel


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