In short: I love this.
In long: I wrote about how much I loved it over The Bookpushers
for Queer Romance Month.
Queer or straight or what-you-will, if your romantic feelings are sexualised, I think a lot of people go through a stage of life best articulated as “omg, now I can have sex”. For me, it hit around lateish adolescence and continued throughout university. It took longer, a lot longer, for me to reach “omg, now I can have love.” And, obviously, the way we engage with intersections of identity and sexuality and behaviour are complex and individualised. For a lot of people in my social circle OMGNICHS was clearly a very liberating and joyous experience. For me, while I certainly had some good times and I don’t regret them in the slightest, it was always tinged by defiance. And the truth is, it was the only way I knew how to express myself. It was the only thing I knew how to want.
Sexuality. Sexual identity. Homosexual. Bisexual. These words are all about sex. Ironically, it’s something they have in common with a lot of the most popular insults for the queer-identified ( cocksucker, fudge packer, marmite miner, rug muncher, muff diver, clamlicker) which means that –regardless of whether you’re coming at it positively or negatively – ultimately you have a preliminary understanding of sexual identity that is largely defined by sex acts. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of sex acts of all kinds. But it’s also where gender and history and queerness all come together in a really sticky way.
First of all, the history of homosexuality is complicated and subtle, and has lots of peculiar little pockets: Welsh lesbians, Georgian polyamorists and male-male couples who openly described themselves as being married. But at the same time there’s also no getting away from the fact that, in England at least, because of the various legal frameworks surrounding and defining homosexual relations, the history of homosexuality is basically the history of buggery. I find it kind of telling – and also rather depressing – that we legalised sexual activities between men in 1957, but we didn’t get around to the marriage thing until 2014. The upshot of which is that our most enduring conception of what homosexuality means is that it’s about the right of men to put their dicks in other men.
This brings me back to romance, and the book I want to talk about today. For me, the important thing about queer romance is not the Q-word but the R-word. This is because it takes as read (as the default, even) a broader, more generous and – in all honesty – a more subversive understanding of what same-sex attraction means: which is that, just like opposite-sex attraction, while certain sexual behaviours may form part of it, it’s fundamentally about love.
But, at the same time, romance is a powerfully gendered, ah, genre, and while it can engage in fascinating and profound ways with social constructions of gender, it can also affirm and perpetuate them. This is made even more complicated by the fact that one function of romance is definitely connected to its function as fantasy or pleasure reading: our fantasies are fantasies and, as such, inviolable, but they’re as much informed by our cultural context as anything else. Men are “supposed” to be for sex and about sex, to have active and promiscuous sexualities, an expectation that romance novels often fulfil. And, of course, there are also virgin heroes, and nerdy heroes, and man-next-door heroes, and even the occasional submissive hero, but they’re very much the exception.
In queer romance with male protagonists, this becomes even more difficult because on the one hand you have the fact this is a romance, so it’s about love, but on the other hand you have a lot of historical, social and genre-driven sexpectations about queerness and masculinity. I should probably say at this juncture that I have no issues at all with erotica for its own sake, or sexual content in general: expression is important, especially when you’re dealing with marginalised people and devalued sexualities. But while OMGNICHS is important, so is OMGNICHL and, for me, the power of m/m lies in its capacity to explore and depict intimacy between men.
KJ Charles’ Think of England might not seem, on the surface, an obvious choice to illustrate this– Charles is best known for her plotty, sexy, paranormal Victorian swear-fests (which I also heartily recommend, by the way)–but this book is quietly and stylishly one the bravest, boldest, most important queer romances I’ve read for a while.
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