Gay and Lesbian Romance on Amazon: Two Cheers for “Community Action”
In a 16 September 2014 post on the Lambda Literary site, “Dear Mr. Bezos”: Pushing Queer Romance Forward With Community Action,” Tracy Timmons-Gray congratulates herself for a letter-writing campaign—to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos himself, no less—that Timmons-Gray says was responsible for the sudden appearance of the categories “Gay Romance” and “Lesbian Romance” in Amazon’s general “Romance” storefront.
And, with them, of 11,000 gay and lesbian romance books that had previously been “hidden.”
Timmons-Gray hails this decision by Amazon as an acknowledgement of “the value of queer romance books [which] should be celebrated publicly like other books and not hidden.”
Certainly they shouldn’t be hidden. Customers who want such books should be able to find them, and the writers of genre fiction deserve whatever access to readers Amazon is able to provide (which, in a population of 14,947 LGBTQ romances—the updated figure as of this writing—is meager).
But whether celebration is in order is another matter. I remain unconvinced that the existence of these categories—or of 15,000 gay and lesbian romances on Amazon—represents either happy news for queer arts or a civil-rights victory.
In the first place, these nearly 15,000 books are overwhelmingly self-published—and it shows. Even when they’re not, the groan-inducing clichés of genre fiction are glaring.
[Zane] didn’t even think about stepping back so he could look at Ty’s face, the face he’d seen in his dreams and forced himself to remember every night as he lay awake. He just squeezed his eyes closed and held on to Ty like he might be taken away again, clutched at him as he would grasp for his very soul in a pit of a thousand reaching hands.
Adam knew the four Marines lifting weights. Three of them were werewolves, which had been a surprise at first, but ultimately hadn’t mattered. Sometimes Adam didn’t understand something being discussed, or he didn’t get a joke or a reference. He usually faked it until the subject got changed, but lately Adam wished he hadn’t worked so hard to stay ignorant of werewolf culture.
[Walker’s] pale brown/blond hair, dark eyes, and his strong form immediately put Ollie in mind of a young Brad Pitt. There was something tough about him, a bit of the bad boy, but that was undercut, or maybe the better word was highlighted, by a sense of vulnerability he kept almost, but not quite hidden…. When he sat down and saw that Walker had already ordered a carrot and lemon pancake with currants and crème fraîche on top for them, the deal was sealed.
He pulled the solid body in his arms tighter against his chest until hot, sweaty skin slid against his equally hot, sweaty skin…. He shifted his mental image to an extremely attractive cowboy he’d once tried to set Marty up with, before Marty spilled the beans about his then deeply closeted boyfriend, champion bullrider Tripp Colby.
Bad writing isn’t the most pressing issue, though, and by now even the most incensed defender of English prose has abandoned the dream of burning all the books that contain lines like “a pit of a thousand reaching hands” or “hot, sweaty skin slid against his equally hot, sweaty skin.”
Instead, what is genuinely dangerous for queer letters is that searching Amazon for LGBT literary fiction has become a hopeless obstacle course. Finding something decent to read now means having to wade through thousands of titles—most of them with covers that are NSFW—in the categories of erotica, beach-reading, potboilers, Gay Paranormal Werewolf Erotic Romance Stories, or Gay Transgender Holiday Romance Novelettes (I am not making this up).
As of five minutes ago, for example, the FIRST THREE BOOKS to appear in Amazon’s “Gay & Lesbian Literature and Fiction” section are: Flings: Sexy One Night Only Encounters; Gym Boys: Gay Erotic Stories; and Me and My Boi: Queer Erotic Stories.
Good for these writers and the writers of 15,000 jersey- and bodice-rippers. No one is objecting to the existence of their books or to their presence on Amazon.
But I do object to their being indiscriminately classified in the same category as David Leavitt, Patricia Highsmith, Monique Wittig, EM Forster, May Sarton, Neil Bartlett, Thom Gunn, Colm Toibin—and just about every single book on the Publishing Triangle’s list of the “100 Best Lesbian and Gay Novels.”
As book selling has moved online, queer writing has paradoxically become more deeply hidden. The reader who wants to use Amazon to find out what’s new in gay literary fiction, for example, faces an arduous journey. Chronological listings are haphazard, randomly mixing new work with reprints, reissues, and multiple editions of the same title; “Gay & Lesbian Literature and Fiction” is a single category that merges the work of established authors with self-published potboilers and porn; keywords are applied so haphazardly that nonfiction, DVDs, and foreign-language titles all regularly appear in the same search results. In short, a worthy new queer book—unless a reader already know that it exists and can search for it by name—is guaranteed to sink out of sight.
Amazon has a long way to go before it creates a search function that helps readers find LGBTQ literature within the deluge of genre books—the category that currently overwhelms all other queer publishing.
But Amazon’s approach to cataloguing, which is based upon no established library system, is only a symptom. It’s not the problem itself. How Amazon sells books wouldn’t even matter if queer brick-and-mortar bookstores still existed as they once did in nearly every American city — and, with them, booksellers who made it their business to know what was going on in queer writing. But they don’t exist, and those that remain are a struggling handful.
And in that context, there’s something distorted about celebrating the fact that 15,000 gay and lesbian romances are now more visible on Amazon than is Close to the Knives, Trash, or Kiss of the Spider Woman.
In the protracted agony of serious queer literature, it is our own publishing industry—which now includes not just mainstream houses but laptop editors in basements and spare rooms across the continent—that should be taking a hard look at its priorities.
An expanded discussion of these issues can be found in the essay “Class/Mates: Further Outings in the Literatures and Cultures of the Ga(y)ted Community” published in Blue, Too: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers.