For those that have followed my blog closely, you may know that I participate on the group blog Oh Get a Grip. I recommend you check it out to see what I and my fellow erotic writers talk about.
Today, I posted a rather lengthy essay/post about diversity in movies and other media — and how this is and will be reflected in my writing. It was a big post, and rather personal, so I thought I should cross-post it here and share it with you.
I don’t watch a lot of movies. I find them boring.
It’s basically Heterosexual White Guy confronts an enemy that wants to destroy the world (or the world as Heterosexual White Guy knows it, which can mean his career, his marriage, his city, etc.) and only Heterosexual White Guy can save the day. It’s gotten real boring, cliche, and repetitive.
Other than Guardians of the Galaxy, I don’t watch superhero movies. They’re all the same. Good Heterosexual White Guy must save the world from Evil Heterosexual White Guy. They have a big battle. Buildings are destroyed. But just when it seems Good Heterosexual White Guy is about to lose and all hope is lost, he finds the strength within him to overcome. Yawn.
The trailer for Infinity War, the culmination of the last several years of Marvel movies, is a snooze fest. I struggle to pay attention to the whole thing.
Then there’s Black Panther. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s one Marvel movie that I will make a point of seeing. Everything I’ve seen and heard about the movie tells me that it’s one I have to see — I dare not miss it.
What’s drawing me to the movie? It’s not about Heterosexual White Guy. Even more, it’s not even set in Heterosexual White Guy’s world. It features a nearly all black cast in the fictional African country of Wakanda and it thrives on the energy and vitality of the Afrofuturistic world it portrays.
Black Panther has so captivated audiences worldwide that it’s smashing box office records. There are news stories of inner city kids of colour in Canada and USA filling theatres, seeing themselves in the heroes on the screen (for the very first time), and being filled with inspiration and hope.
Last year, Wonder Woman did the same thing for young women that Black Panther did for kids of colour. Theatres were packed for Wonder Woman, smashing all expectations, because audiences were craving a strong female superhero.
Last night, I saw the movie Love, Simon. This movie is about a closeted high school boy who finds the strength to come out and find love. Love, Simon is so powerful, so heartwarming, so honest, and so true that it’s inspiring young people around the world to scrounge up the courage to come out. Social media is filled with stories of people who came out after watching the movie, then feeling so free and loved after doing so. (Honestly, I cried through two-thirds of the movie and I’m really not a crier. My sister calls me an emotionless robot — so this is a testament to how powerful this movie is.)
And it certainly didn’t escape my attention that **spoiler** Simon’s love interest is a black Jewish boy.
A while back, I watched Call Me By Your Name — a story of gay love in the 80s. It’s one of my favourite movies of all time. It is so beautifully done.
Diversity is on the rise in Hollywood. It’s good for business — all of the movies above have been critical or box office successes, or in most cases, both. All of them have drawn in audiences who may not share identities with the main characters, but they still find points of connection. When I saw Love, Simon yesterday, I highly doubt that the room was filled with LGBT audiences. My mom (who is straight) saw Call Me By Your Name and raves about it, and she’s going to see Love, Simon very soon.
During the Oscars, they televised a pre-recorded segment about diversity in movies. Oscar nominee Kumail Nanjiani had this to say:
“Some of my favorite movies are by straight white dudes about straight white dudes,” he said. “Now, straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.” (source)
Audiences are finding themselves in these movies. And these movies are far stronger for it.
I hope this trend continues. I’ve mentioned many times before that I’m a die-hard Star Trek fan. I love how diverse the cast of the new Star Trek: Discovery is. In the past, Star Trek has been celebrated for it’s diversity, but it seemed diversity meant heterosexual white people and heterosexual black people. Until Discovery, I could probably name and count non-white and non-black characters on one hand.
With Discovery, among the main cast and secondary cast (which includes regularly-seen-though-not-always-named bridge characters), we have white, black, Latino, Malaysian, and Pakistani actors. (Shazad Latif is actually British, but his Pakistani heritage is a refreshing splash of diversity.) We also had Star Trek’s first official gay couple.
There is strength in storytelling reflecting real life. It makes it more honest, more true, more relatable.
A while back, there was outrage on Twitter (haha, when is there not outrage on Twitter?) over a writer who said that she is writing an all-white all-heterosexual cast of characters because that’s life as she knows it. The response from the internet at large was that if that’s life as she knows it, she’s likely ignoring the world around her. Almost no one lives in an all-white all-heterosexual community.
But reflecting diversity of characters is only half of it. The other half is diversity is emotional honesty.
In Love, Simon, Nick Robinson (who plays Simon) does a phenomenal job of exhibiting the awkwardness, discomfort, and ongoing nervousness of coming out. I saw a lot of myself in him and his portrayal of Simon. I’m sure many people did.
In Call Me By Your Name, Elio (brilliantly portrayed by Timothée Chalamet) has a very different journey than Simon — he struggles with the same issues, but doesn’t really have a coming out aspect to his journey. It’s reflective of the journey that many people have with their sexuality. No two people have the same journey.
Watching these very diverse movies and these movies that pack an emotional gut punch has me thinking about my own writing and what’s lacking — and what I want to achieve. I’m working on a very long novel right now, New York Heat, which is a sequel to two series I’ve already published. Since it’s a sequel, I’m mostly working with pre-existing characters … who are all white. Thus, with the two new characters I added to this book, I made one of them an immigrant from Ghana. It’s a small piece of diversity, but just the start of what I plan to do with my writing. I also made two men bi rather than gay, because I’m increasingly recognizing the threat of bi-erasure in erotic literature (and society in general, for that matter).
The sequel to New York Heat will be a book called New York Ice. Presently, I know of two new characters I’ll be introducing — one will be a trans man and the other will be a Thai gay man. The books are set in New York City, after all. I remember back when Friends was on TV, there were occasional articles in the media about how white the show is given where it’s located. I don’t want my books to suffer the same criticism. Really, though, it goes much further than wanting to avoid criticism. They say “write what you know” — so, what do I know? My close friends and family are white, Filipino, Malaysian, Pakistani, gay, straight, lesbian, trans, and more.
By writing diversity, I’m writing what I know. I’m writing a reflection of the world I live in, the world as it is.
Then there’s the emotional gut punch. One could very easily argue that erotica and erotic romance is no place for emotions other than lust and love.
Emotions and emotional storylines of all types add diversity to story.
The ending of Orphan’s Triumph by Robert Buettner (book five of the five-book sci-fi Jason Wander series) turned my world upside down for weeks. I still get chills thinking about how Buettner created such an emotional gut punch that was so unexpected — especially for the genre of military sci-fi — but was so perfect. After spending five books fighting an implacable enemy, one who has utterly destroyed everything and everyone Jason Wander cares about, **spoiler** the book ends with a final confrontation between Jason and the enemy (a planet-sized hive-mind being). I saw this coming half-way through the series. Then Buettner turned it all upside down by having Jason talk to the enemy, understand the enemy, have the enemy understand him, and then forgive the enemy and letting it go. Regularly in life, we are challenged to forgive our enemies and to show compassion to those who have harmed us. This book shows us how powerful that moment can be.
This four-panel comic strip from the often-hilarious and often-sombre Pearls Before Swine packs an incredible emotional gut punch in only a few words. This is a pain that almost anyone can relate to, whether or not they’ve experienced a school shooting.
Seasons three and four of Futurama, an often-goofy animated sci-fi show by the the guy that made The Simpsons, often has me in tears because of the unexpected but oh-so-perfect emotional gut punches. Peppered among the goofy episodes are emotional stories about love, family, loss, and more. The Jurassic Bark episode often has me tearing up just by thinking about it — a thousand years in the future, Fry discovers the petrified remains of his dog, Seymour, from before he travelled to the future. **Spoiler** As he’s about to clone his dog from the DNA they’ve found in the petrified remains, he discovers that Seymour lived a long life after Fry left and travelled to the future. In the closing scene, we discover that Seymour spent the rest of his life waiting at the spot where he met Fry, hoping that his master would return to him. The very closing second is Seymour passing away.
So is there room for this kind of emotional gut punch in erotica and romance?
I’ve mentioned before that I have a few pen names — under my other pen names, I basically write wank stories. They’re short and they’re meant to get the reader off. There is a place for those in the market and I’ll continue to write them.
But for this name, for Cameron D. James, I’m seeing a shift in where my writing is going. I will still market my stuff as MM erotic romance and/or gay erotica — but it will be so much more than that. New York Heat and New York Ice are both going to pack an emotional gut punch that is extremely atypical for the genres. But it’s the story I want to tell.
The best stories are often the ones that the writer is most invested in. Under this pen name, I write the stories I’m most invested in. I throw my whole heart, mind, and soul into these books. I try to reflect diversity (and I’m striving to do better at it) and I try to reflect emotional honesty — and to do that, I have to create stories that are deep and rich, which means I can no longer just do surface-level love stories. I can’t be afraid of taking a risk and going for something sad or painful.
Will I lose some readers? Undoubtedly.
Will I gain some readers? Undoubtedly.
But who am I writing for? The reader or myself? I’m writing for myself. But that doesn’t mean the reader won’t get something out of it. With novels of emotional depth and honesty, featuring characters that are diverse and true to life, who face the same struggles and trauma that real people face … there will be people who read my books and say, “Finally, a book that I identify with.”
I’ve always struggled with the vociferous argument that condoms must be used in MM erotic romance. The key argument is typically that featuring condom use or over-long explanations on how getting tested is a normal thing that loving couples do is written into the book for the young gay man who might be reading the story — maybe he’ll internalize that message and have a healthy approach to his sex life. The problem with that, though, is the key readership of MM erotic romance is women, not gay men. The message is nice, yeah, but it’s directed at the wrong people. (And, honestly, I think it reinforces the idea in non-gay-men’s-minds that gay men are diseased and must use condoms to stay alive — but that’s an argument for another day.) By including this in the books, these writers are trying to reflect a rather narrow exeperience that is not shared by their largest readership.
But by writing a diverse cast and plots that feature that emotional gut punch — and stories that reflect life itself — I can write something that almost anyone can identify with. That Pearls Before Swine comic I linked to above has a message that anyone can identify with, whether or not they’ve been personally affected by a school shooting. The ending of that book, Orphan’s Triumph, is about forgiveness in the most extreme of situations. Jurassic Bark, that episode of Futurama, is about loving your dog. These are relatable to anyone who consumes these media. And all of these media are richer and stronger for it.
I’m finding my way in my writing.
I was lost for quite a bit. I wrote some wank stories and thought that was the extent of it. I was going to write some stuff in other genres (in fact I have a sci-fi novel on my hard drive and plans for a trilogy, as well as plans for a line of thrillers that my writing group says is strong enough to land a traditional deal) — but I’ve put all of those projects aside and have no plans to pick them up again.
Why? Because they’re just plot. The don’t have the diverse characters (though I could certainly put that in) or the emotional gut punch that I now realize is what I love most about books and movies. To rewrite those books to include those things would make them very different beasts. I may return to them at some point, but I’m not ready for it yet.
I write stories of transformation, growth, pain, trauma, healing, hope, love, loss, and family. I write stories about life. Yeah, there’s a lot of sex along the way. Sex is part of life. There are probably people who read my books for just the sex. But there are also probably people who would read my books even if there wasn’t sex in it. I’ll write what I want to write and my audience will find me.
Just like audiences are now finding themselves in the movies, I’m hoping readers find themselves in my books.