A while ago I spoke to a student who was researching the effect Section 28 had on people who were students while it was in force. I thought of various effects it had on me – on the way homophobic bullying was treated in my school, on the sex education I received, and so on. One of things this sort of legislation aims to do is to reinforce heteronormativity, a picture of the world in which straightness is normal and other sexualities are deviant or perverted. Recently I’ve been thinking about a place where I still have some heteronormativity to root out: understandings of genre.
Romance fiction is a big field. Paranormal romance, sci-fi romance, historical romance… but if you asked me to describe a typical romance story, I’m pretty sure I’d give it a man and a woman as lead characters. I’m told human brains think about categories by having some core examples, the ones which are most typical, and some around the edge which are harder to say, and then some examples which are outside the category. For example, the category ‘fish’ might have a goldfish in the middle, and an eel near the edge, and a dolphin just outside. Genres probably work the same way – for ‘fantasy fiction’, Lord of the Rings might in the middle, Star Wars near the edge (and also on the edge of sci-fi, because genres can overlap), and James Bond novels just outside. (It’s not technically magic, but…)
When I first met romance stories which were not about straight couples, they weren’t called romance – I was in a fanfic community so they were called slash stories (or femslash if they involved women or lemon or something else; language on the internet is rarely stable for long). Because the characters involved had been created by someone else, and were often canonically (i.e. according to the creator) in heterosexual relationships or at least assumed to be straight because of the prevailing heteronormative culture, there was a sense of subversion about writing slash stories. It was a genre, but one you found online and not one you could look for in the library, or even on Amazon, which started to get big about the same time I was writing slash fanfic regularly.
Online shopping creates many problems, but one problem it solves is how to buy things you think won’t be stocked, or would be embarrassed to ask for, on your local high street. I remember ordering Swordspoint and some other, not quite so good, novels with gay or lesbian characters – things I knew weren’t in my local library, which I’d scoured for LBGT+ content as one of my responses to Section 28, but which were recommend by friends in the fanfic community. I don’t remember any of them being labelled as romance – Mel Keegan, for example, was called ‘gay adventure’, and other things didn’t even name LBGT+ content on the covers.
This has changed in recent years, and some forms of LBGT+ romance have their own subgenres on book recording sites like Goodreads. (Why MM and lesbian rather than other words, and in the absence of other categories? I don’t know. Probably history, cisnormativity, bi invisibility, and lack of standardisation across different sites all play a role.) It’s still taking me a while to internalise good language for describing this, though.
I got thinking about all this because I wrote a novel about a romance between two women, so it looks like I’ll get lots of chances to practice. How do you describe these genres? What do you think are the middles/edges/not-quites of genres?