Thursday, September 8, 2011

Thoughts on the Man with the Chest

My goodness, disembodied torso, what a fabulous chest you have! I see that you’re paired with a gorgeous woman on this cover. I guess that means you’re straight. I’m also going to assume, based on the fact that you have no head, that you are driven entirely by your animal nature. If there were a wolf on this cover, I’d be convinced. But even without the wolf, I’m sure you’re a man’s man with your feelings buried deep inside, where only this woman, who is so much like me we could paste my picture over her face, can find them. Men like you are my secret desire.

…actually…they’re not. Not MINE, which puts me in the minority around the romance community. But that’s okay, I’ll just sit in my corner with my head against the wall, scribbling away about queers like me. (As a queer woman, I am allowed to say that. Don’t call in the referee just yet.) I’m a loner anyway. And maybe someday someone will discover one of my stories curled up in a bottle and find they actually like it. Maybe. Some day.

Okay, I’m being a little melodramatic here. All I really intended to write about (in a totally non-melodramatic way) was that the stuff readers love, devour, guiltlessly consume, is exactly the stuff I don’t write. So, the bestsellers, the money-makers, the man-with-the-chest books… they’re not mine. That’s not what I write. It would really help pay the rent if I did…but I don’t.

I actually have a story to accompany this confession. It’s kind of a nice story. About a month ago, I was approached by a publisher I work with often and love, love, love. They wrote to tell me the love is mutual, so much so that they wanted to commission some novellas from me for a new erotic romance line they’re looking to introduce.

Wow! That was a huge compliment. I felt all warm and fuzzy until I read the submissions guidelines for the line: hetero only, no gay content, no BDSM. Must feature a “strong Alpha Male hero” and “feisty” but loveable heroine.

So, I’m sure the majority of romance writers would crack their knuckles, lick their lips, and pound one out on the keyboard (a story, of course), but all I could do was stare at those words, “strong Alpha Male” and…okay, I admit it, I cringed a little bit. I did. Strong Alpha Males have got to be my biggest turn-off in the history of everything. Maybe it’s a “lesbian thing,” but I don’t think that’s it, not entirely. I suspect there are women out there who identify as straight and would agree with this appraisal. The grunting, salivating, dominating and domineering “man with the chest” is…yucky. Yes, I realize he is the fantasy of the many, but he is sooooo not mine.

And please don’t get me started on how much I hate hearing a woman described as “feisty”—my feminist Spidey Sense finds “feisty” an infantilizing word, in that it minimizes women who speak out against patriarchal oppressions of all kinds, including unwanted male attention…but I said I wasn’t going to start, didn’t I? So I won’t.

Anyway, I went back and forth a lot on this one. It was an honour to be asked to produce work for a new line. The publishers knew they were taking a chance, setting foot outside their normal terrain, and they asked me to come with them. I never want to end up in anybody’s bad books, and I feel like turning down work is just…not a good idea generally. But I knew in my gut what they were asking for was not consistent with the work I produce. It didn’t appeal to me, and I really didn’t feel I could make a story work if neither my heart nor my hips were invested in the project.

But I said to myself, “You’re a writer—you should be able to produce any kind of story you’re asked to.” And maybe I could…but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. (The KFC double down is an excellent example—you can probably afford to buy yourself bacon sandwiched between two deep-fried pieces of chicken, but does that mean it’s a good idea?)

In the end, I wrote my publisher back and politely declined the commission. It means a lot to me that I can devote my time to writing queer fiction, fiction that appeals to me and that represents who I am in this world. A lot of readers love the man with the chest, but a lot of writers write him. In fact, I’m sure the number of books of this type currently on the market far exceeds the demand for them.

And let me clarify: I don’t have anything against people who write the man with the chest, or people who read him. It’s just not to my taste, just like my transgender stories, or my lesbian stories, or my bisexual or otherwise queer stories, or my adultery stories, or my hipster stories, or my stories that are erotic without any romantic component at all…aren’t to everybody’s taste. That’s cool.

Before I hop away, I should also mention that I often hear writers stating, with the voice of absolute authority, that ALL women love the man with the chest. Some say that it’s a “natural” component of a woman’s existence to love the Strong Alpha Male, and…kids, that’s not cool. It places me, my taste, and my sexuality under erasure, and I have no desire to be erased.

If I'm writing about guys, they're probably going to be shy or nerdy or guilt-ridden or, or, or... There are exceptions, I'm sure, and I don't write any of this to be unpopular, but the Man with the Chest? He's not for me. Which is okay, because if you like him...more chests for you! :-)



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