It is thrilling to see literary fiction, crime, every category of fiction expand. We have learned enough about how brilliant White opium addicts and spunky old White ladies solve crimes. Stories set deep inside another culture fascinate me, and I love how sneaky they are, educating me without a hint of teaching or preaching. As for race, I will grab a book about Easy Rawlins or Joe Ide’s I.Q. faster than any Agatha Christie.
Yet just now, looking for more escapist murder mysteries for bedtime reading, I skimmed a plot summary that emphasized a same-sex love interest and attendant complication. And then I slid on to the next book before I had time to argue with myself.
The knee-jerk reaction both puzzles and embarrasses me. My reflexes do not kick when a book is seriously good and I have heard rave reviews. I have been rather easily seduced by same-sex desire in the writing of Andrew Sean Greer, Jeanette Winterson, James Baldwin, E.M. Forster, Armistead Maupin, Alice Walker, Ocean Vuong…. After all, fiction is not meant to replicate one’s existing preferences; junk food and candy do that. Fiction is supposed to open new worlds.
But apparently escapism brings up biases I had not reckoned with. Why should I be so resistant? I am not picky about the relationships in my mysteries: a hard-won romance is a lovely distraction from murder, but a witty and well-seasoned marriage is just as much fun, as is the glum frustration of someone who is lonely but at least has buddies at work to commiserate with. The goal is not a ripped bodice, just a reminder of love as we grapple with death.
So why does it have to be my sort of love?
Maybe I do secretly want a cerebral version of a bodice-ripper, and I should swallow my scathing opinion of romance novels and eat a little humility? Perhaps I am fantasizing just as breathlessly as those readers are, but I lack the courage of self-awareness.
It is time, I decide, to balance my stupid reflexes by reading a ton of mysteries with lesbian detectives or gay cops.
As I start to pick out the first batch, though, it dawns on me that I have already read quite a few. I just never thought of them under a label because they were not presented to me in that way. This makes me wonder: Are publishers emphasizing an LGBTQ author, hero, or plot complication to attract more LGBTQ readers and authors (which would be a good idea) or just to remind all readers how inclusive they are now? And if this is simply PR, is it any different from naming someone’s race when it should be irrelevant?
If I opened a book about someone described as smart, intense, dedicated, and funny, and in chapter three I found out they happened to be gay, I would read on happily. But publishers sometimes shine such a spotlight on sexual orientation that there is no room to say anything else. If they focused on a cool plot or deft characterization, maybe I could too?
No, that is a bullshit excuse. If the book is about people in India or Vietnam, much is made of that fact in the plot summary, and I am drawn toward the book. Nothing in me says whoops, that is not intended for me, because I live in Waterloo, Illinois.
Does sex draw a brighter line because I do not readily imagine being intrigued by a partner I might not choose in real life? That cannot be right, either. I found Anne Rice’s vampires sexy, and not once had I yearned to sleep with a vampire.
So why is my purely escapist reading different? And how have others managed all these years? Anyone who is lesbian, gay, trans, queer, demisexual, or asexual has had lusty heterosexual heroes shoved at them forever. Nobody ever bothered to note in advance that a noir mystery was about a cisgender heterosexual private eye looking to get laid in 1940s L.A. Do they imagine themselves into the books or read from a comfortable distance? Maybe people summoned empathy faster when they knew their own sort of relationship would seldom find its way into any book at all. And is my cursory skimming of escapist novels biased because I am spoiled by privilege or because I want to expend less mental energy?
Reading’s pleasure is more complicated than it seems. Saying that my junk-food reads let me escape by imagining myself into the main character’s life sounds simplistic and a little childish, but that is how it feels. I am questioning and reacting along with the detective, feeling the same frustration, confusion, grim resolve, and elation. One night I might be a fat recluse tending my orchids, another night a flapper with a trust fund and a taste for adventure. Or a Buddhist monk, or an African philosopher. Religion, class, ethnicity—none of that matters.
Nor do I mind imagining myself as a guy. Even that sentence is wrong, because in fiction, the self drops away and all you have is imagination. Pure empathy, not a makeover. The transference comes easily to me, so I was surprised to see a Goodreads poll that found a sharp gender divide: 90 percent of male readers’ fifty most-read books were written by men. Only five of women’s fifty most-read titles were written by men.
Are book clubs driving that divide? My book club happens to be all women, but the authors we pick are pretty evenly divided. Surely everybody but J.K. Rowling is past the time when female authors had to use initials or pen names to draw male readers? Or do men now need gender-neutral names, too? Worried, I pull up my list of favorite authors. Nope, evenly divided, and hardly an initial among them.
Which brings me back to my own inexplicable blind spot, created by hormones or conditioning or both. Time to binge. I can already guess what will happen: When the books are well-written, I will find myself caught up in the character’s life as usual, rooting for them, thrilled when they find love or lust reciprocated. I will read more books by the same author.
The question is, will I remain a hard sell when I am skimming through a list of new books, looking for an entry point? And if the booksellers relax about category labels and just tell us why the book is worth reading, will that open my mind?
The age-old problem of inclusion: does society move forward faster by highlighting difference and demanding that people attend to it, or by including so casually that we forget to put up walls?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.