Thursday, June 18, 2015

Fatalistic Thoughts

Goodreads hasn't figured out what I like yet. I started using the web site a while back, hoping I could eventually stuff it with enough ratings that it could suggest a few off-the-beaten-path books for me. (Netflix, for example, has become fairly good at anticipating what I'll think of a movie.)

Specifically, I decided at some point that I really wanted to read a book with a gay main character. I'd read a couple of books by Christopher Rice (and had generally liked them), but I was looking to try a new author. So I perused a few suggestions from Goodreads, and decided to check out Fatal Shadows, a mystery-thriller by Josh Lanyon. Despite the sillyish, Danielle Steele-like title, readers seemed to think highly of the book. And if I liked it, Lanyon had written several more adventures featuring the main character.

My review of the book itself, I can encapsulate rather quickly. The prose was sometimes clever, but sometimes corny. The secondary characters felt underdeveloped. The mystery was dull, its "solution" easily anticipated for lack of credible suspects in the story. It was a rather average, and ultimately forgettable, book. But thinking about why I'd had that reaction led to some much more interesting places.

Something just felt "off" about the whole book.The main character, Adrien English, is not an LGBT activist, isn't part of a club scene, and isn't actively dating -- yet his world is somehow inundated with other gay men. I think there may actually be more gay characters than straight characters in the book; I have no clue how he's meeting them all. Of course, my personal experience isn't remotely the only one a gay man can have, but this didn't feel like it reflected reality to me -- any reality, not just specifically mine.

This got me thinking about whether this author had strayed from the old "write what you know" saw. And that in turn made me wonder, if the author in fact wasn't a gay man, what might make him choose to write about one? It hardly seemed like it could have been a strategic decision for bestseller success, particularly in the year 2000 (when this book was first published) -- a time when LGBT acceptance was at a much lower level than it is today.

So I decided to do a little Googling about Josh Lanyon, and quickly found some forums engaged in discussion as to whether he is, in fact, a woman writing under a male pen name. (Josh Lanyon has readily acknowledged that he is using a pseudonym, as he did not want his real name out there.) It turns out that a large swath of fiction featuring gay men -- perhaps even the majority of it -- is actually written by women, for an intended audience of women. They're not primarily mysteries, or sci-fi novels, or contemporary fiction, or whatever. They're essentially romance novels (a genre largely aimed at women), written for a subset of the audience who think that if one sexy man is hot, two of them together is at least twice as hot.

I have no problem with this audience getting stories to satisfy them. (Certainly, they're not generally getting it from film and TV. Those mediums are still at a point where female-female relationships are presented as titillating, while male-male relationships are typically chaste if featured at all. Apparently, girls kissing is awesome, guys kissing is gross.) I also think a man (gay or straight) certainly could choose to write a story of this type if he wished. But with this kernel of doubt about Josh Lanyon's identity planted in my brain, I felt like it might "explain" some of the inauthentic parts of Fatal Shadows.

This in turn got me thinking about sexism. At first, it was me challenging my own reaction. Was I saying anything like, "well, of course a woman couldn't write a gay man believably!" Egad, I hoped not. But that line of thought made me realize some sexist tropes of the mystery genre that were subverted in the book. At the risk of spoiling the ending a bit, I'll say that Adrien Engish, after finding out who the killer is, still proceeds to have sex with him. It's part of a poorly constructed ruse to buy time, and it's utterly ridiculous. But then, isn't this maybe just a gender flip of the traditional "stupid female character who just can't quit her man?" A gender flip of the "weak woman who is powerless against a man, so uses sex to subdue him?" The more I thought about it, the more I really felt it was. And, more importantly, I really felt while reading I was reading it that this resembled no person in any reality I could believe.

How many women have read how many versions of this trope in how many novels, and thought the same thing of a female character? Or worse, what if this trope isn't seen as so ridiculous a departure from reality when featuring a woman as it is when featuring a man? Ugh.

So, ultimately, I suppose I'd have to say Fatal Shadows was a provocative little book. As you can see, it really got me thinking. That said, I hardly think any of this was the result of shrewd authorial intention (regardless of the author's gender). No, I think the book was just a flimsy mystery with average writing. I give it a C. But then, apparently, I'm not the target audience.

I guess I'm back to Christopher Rice for now.

No comments: