Is She or Isn’t She… Will She or Won’t She… These are the Questions
by Heather McVea
I began writing lesbian fiction in 2012. Prior to writing in the genre I read it extensively. For the sake of full disclosure, I didn’t read the sub-category of the genre I primarily write, i.e. paranormal fantasy. I read lesbian romance.
Lesbian romance, as a sub-genre of lesbian fiction, often uses a character’s sexuality as a device to keep the plot moving. In other words, to the exclusion of all other conflict, the author would resort to having the primary issue, roadblock, or conundrum be whether or not one of the protagonists would cross the proverbial street and hookup with a woman. I would read a book, mind you, enjoying the central story, and there would be this sense of déjà vu…
Meet Jane and Maura. Jane is a lesbian, and she’s introduced to Maura. Maura is getting a divorce from her husband (or some other crossroad event), and Jane and she become fast friends. Jane may or may not tell Maura she’s a lesbian. Regardless of whether Maura knows about Jane’s sexuality, when she starts to have romantic feelings for Jane, she dare not speak of them. Jane is also pining for Maura, but knows it’s like living death to fall in love with a “straight” woman. And this goes on for two hundred to three hundred pages with various subplots and whatnot thrown in for good measure.
Lesbian romance, not unlike its heterosexual counterpart, is, at its roots, genre or popular fiction. Typically, people read genre fiction for its formulaic nature – even if they aren’t consciously aware that is what draws them to a particular book.
To this point, I submit my first book Waking Forever as exhibit A. The lesbian romance formula was so entrenched in my brain that even though I had vampires, dead boyfriends, and the meaning of what it was to be human all tossed into the book, I still had the “will she or won’t she cross the proverbial street” thread running parallel to all the other perfectly engaging conflict.
Interestingly enough, I broke from that mold with the second book in the series, Ela: Forever. I decided to tell a villain’s origin story. There was no romantic thread running throughout the book. Quite by accident, I never asserted the protagonist’s sexuality. Rather, it was just understood she was a lesbian, which was one of many aspects of her character.
Fresh off of Ela, I began writing the third book in the series, Becoming Forever. Unlike Ela, this book would look and act a lot like a lesbian romance, with one exception. The two female protagonists would simply fall in love (once they got past the vampires, lycans, and shifters, of course). They wouldn’t have deep meaningful conversations about sexuality, and talk about when the other knew she was a lesbian. Instead, their sexuality was not central to who they were, and by default, was virtually irrelevant to the plot.
By the time I got to the fourth and fifth books in the series (Dying Forever and Coleen: Forever) the question of sexuality as a plot device never comes up. The two main characters in each novel meet, like each other, date, and – because I’m still a bit of a slave to the romance formula – live happily ever after.
These patterns in my own writing got me thinking about how the history of a genre can influence its present. For the sake of word count, I am going to continue to focus on the sub-category of lesbian romance. Otherwise, I could spend pages and pages discussing the evolution of lesbian fiction all the way back to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928).
I’m thirty-eight years old. In preparation for this post, I asked a twenty-five year old friend of mine (the ages matter to the point I’m making shortly) if she had noticed a trend in the lesbian romance genre. She said she had, and unsolicited made the same observation about “will she or won’t she” that I had made. I asked her how she felt about the formula, and why she thought it prevailed throughout the genre.
What she said made a tremendous amount of sense to me, and speaks to how organic storytelling truly is. She said popular or genre fiction is cyclical. Younger readers usually want to see variations to the formula, in essence making it their own. While older readers (I didn’t ask what she thought “older” meant, and frankly, I didn’t want to know), prefer the formulas be followed because that’s the lesbian romance genre of their youth.
The conversation was all very well and good, but it just led me to another question: Why do older readers – generally, but not always – like the tried and true lesbian romance formula? The answer lies in history influencing the present. As lesbian romance became more widely read and written, both were being done by generations of women who had struggled to define their sexuality, and fought to be heard once they found their voice.
Of course their sexuality was a defining characteristic as that very basic, visceral trait was constantly threatened, mocked, and shunned. It only stands to reason then that the characters in lesbian romance would also struggle with their sexuality, talk about, and define their experiences with it.
Whether you prefer Jane and Maura’s story, want two people to fall in love with little to no regard for sexuality or gender, or any variation on those themes, the fact you even have a choice is indicative of changing social views, and shifts in what is considered cultural norms. We see this shift most clearly in the growing popularity and variety of lesbian romance sub-categories (paranormal, fantasy, and urban fantasy romance – to name a few), and the subtle shift away from is she or isn’t she… will she or won’t she.
Heather McVea was raised in a small town south of San Antonio, Texas, and is the author of the urban fantasy series Waking Forever. Prior to escaping to the big city, she raised Hampshire pigs, rode motorcycles at entirely too young an age, and once snow boarded behind a Ford pickup truck. She relishes a strong gin and tonic, but leans after three. Shiny twinkly things make her cringe, up to and including Hollywood vampires. Heather recently published the fifth book in the Waking Forever series, Coleen: Forever, and will be publishing a standalone short story, Wayward Destiny, in September 2015.
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