I write both historical and contemporary fiction; while love in its many forms certainly figures in the contemporary stuff, my historical books are openly a mix of crime and romance. Another writer on English Historical Fiction Authors, a closed Facebook group, had used on her book cover a model who had also figured on the cover that Spiffing Covers had done for A Just and Upright Man, the first book in my James Blakiston series set in the north-east of England in the 1760s. We had an online chat about the model and the way in which we had each used the pic differently to get the result we wanted and then I said something that made me revisit the male/romance question. On my book, the picture of the young woman had been so placed that she seemed to look over her shoulder at the Castle behind her and I added, ‘though she might have been wiser to look at the man in front of her since he falls hopelessly and irretrievably in love with her.’ It hadn’t occurred to me till that moment, but I had made the big and apparently hopeless longing of one character for the love of another a male thing – the person doing the longing was a man and the longed for object a woman.
Of course that is not an unknown combination. Many books have been written about the love of a man for a woman and some of them have been written by women. I do think, though, that it is by far the less common approach. I also believe that, at least in historical novels, there is a difference between the way that most women writers would handle a man in love and the way that male writers like me do it. I know that readers will be able to point out cases where this is not so, but it does seem to me that most men in love written by women have something of the cad about them. The problem they have to overcome (there must always be a problem to overcome, or where’s your story?) is to abandon the habit of regarding women as interchangeable chattels in order to allow themselves to love the heroine. By and large, I don’t think men write their stories in that way.
I suppose it’s natural that when a man writes a love story (because what else is romance?) he writes about what it feels like to be a man in love with a woman. That’s what he knows. And I could write exactly the same sentence but substituting woman for man, she for he and man for woman.
We write what we know and what (straight) men know is how it feels to be in love with a woman. So, okay, I’ve spent nearly 600 words saying something that, by the time I get to this point, seems too obvious to waste a blog post on. But in reflecting on how I approach a love story, I remembered what happened with Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, and that is not an historical – it’s set in the present day. We were ready for publication. As far as I could tell, everyone was onside and the book was finished. Then my editor sent me an email. “Look, John, I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this but I’m not happy with the last third of Zappa’s Mam. You’ve got Poppy chasing Billy and it doesn’t work. You need Billy chasing Poppy.”
My first reaction when I read that was, 'You have to be joking. Writing this book has taken over my life for the past eighteen months. It’s finished. And now you want me to rip out the last twenty thousand words and substitute a different twenty thousand. Are you nuts?' And my second reaction, which came shortly after the first, was, 'Of course. Why didn’t I see that? I knew there was something wrong and now I know what it is.'
The question is: if Zappa’s Mam had been written by a woman, would she have had to make that change? Or would she, simply because she’s a woman, have made a better job of writing about the pursuit of a young man by a young woman?
Well, of course, we’ll never know because Zappa’s Mam is my book. I wrote it. Just as I wrote A Just and Upright Man in which Blakiston falls hopelessly in love with labourer’s daughter Kate and – just because he is an upright man – overcomes his lustful desires and goes about wooing her as a gentlemen should.
If I have a conclusion, it’s this: that a man can write romance every bit as well as a woman. But he can’t write the same romance as a woman would write. What he brings to the love story, simply because he is a man, is different and always must be. But it does raise a question:
How many male romance writers can you name?
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