How much do you let genre expectations shape your writing? Is conforming to the tropes of a genre a prerequisite for success?
Penning my debut novel, The Lodger, That Summer, I thought shockingly little about my readers. It was my first time writing a book, and my inexperience led me to write first, find an audience later.
I imagined the reader as a variation of my own self, a gay or bisexual man hoping to find aspects of his identity and sexuality reflected back on the page. Growing up, novels by gay authors had provided useful signposts to ways of being in the world. And yet depictions of sex—one of the defining experiences of gay identity—were often veiled or sanitized. Storytelling has the power to excite body and mind, connecting our inner selves to the wider world around us. I wanted the novel to be erotic and honest, to describe how sexual experiences can inform our sense of self and help us face the challenges that shape our lives. I also wanted it to be accessible—a short, breezy summer read that a young gay man might easily pick up, undaunted by its literary pretense. I set out to write what I’d struggled to find as a reader: a frank, positive, and explicit take on the gay coming-of-age novel.
That sex and desire can form our identity is something gay men know intimately, but I worried that it would be less clear (or clearly marketable) to the gatekeepers of publishing. I decided to put the novel out into the world myself. Without the mediation of an editor or publisher, there was no one to impart expert knowledge of market and genre expectations, to spell out what I was doing wrong, at least commercially.
It’s dizzying how fast a self-published work can get out into the world and start to connect with readers. It was only then—months too late—that I began to think of the audience as a segmented marketplace.
I’d failed to realize that the publishing ecosystem is tightly structured around genre, something online retailers and promoters immediately asked me to define. Readers didn’t ask but made their own assumptions based on the cover, the blurb, and the many codified ways in which a book is presented for sale.
Literary fiction is one genre in which writers have permission to mix it up, provided that they have the awards, accolades, and track record to make it past the velvet rope. As the fledgling author of a slim, explicit queer novel, I was realistic. The Lodger, That Summer wasn’t literary fiction, and I could live with that.
Because of the many explicit passages, the erotica tag seemed unavoidable. This landed my book into one of two stacks.
The first stack brought together gay erotica written primarily to arouse, and, despite having aimed for more than just titillation, I had no shame in adding my book to this pile. Once a thriving form of illicit literature sought out by mostly closeted gay men, it has dwindled to a very short stack in the era of online pornography and gentrified queer culture, gathering dust in the dimmer corners of the internet (or the creaky second floors of the last remaining LGBTQ bricks-and-mortar bookshops).
The second stack, it turned out, reached all the way to the moon. The romance/erotica genre is worth over a billion dollars in the U.S. alone, more than crime/mystery and science fiction/fantasy combined. It has enjoyed a further surge in sales during the pandemic. Gay (or “MM”) romance is one of its largest categories. I was surprised to discover that steamy MM romance and erotica is primarily written by women, for women.
It’s fascinating that explicit tales of men seducing other men should now sit on millions of bedside tables in the suburban bedrooms of heterosexual households the world over. On some level, it’s wonderful that stories of coming out, sexuality, and homophobia have been so openly welcomed. Who am I to decide or judge who should write or read queer stories?
And yet my lived experience, which underpins The Lodger, That Summer, does not conform to the tropes of this behemoth of a genre, and the sex I describe differs from the no-less-explicit tenets of MM erotica.
So insistent are genre readers about beloved tropes that they are often spelled out on a book’s cover. About my novel, readers wanted to know: Is it friends-to-lovers or enemies-to-lovers? Does it feature ménage, hurt/comfort, or fake boyfriends? None of the above, I’m afraid. Worse yet, its ending was neither HEA (happily-ever-after) nor HFN (happy-for–now), the two options available to romance writers, I’m often reminded.
At first I bristled when romance and erotica readers began their reviews by expressing their disappointment at not finding the elements they expected. Eventually I came to accept and welcome these different takes on the material, and the reviews remained strong.
Were I to do it all again—and I will; I have more than one story in me—I would have better planned the launch and promotion, using lessons learned since publication. But I would write the very same story, staying authentic to my voice and lived experience, even when the result doesn’t neatly fit browsing categories. In having to define my writing, I’ve discovered thriving and supportive communities united not just around their love of a beloved genre, but of storytelling as a whole.
Levi Huxton is an Australian author. His debut novel, The Lodger, That Summer, is out now.