Queer Storylines: Spicy Indulgence or Commercial Necessity?
Vote on the "Yin vs. Yang" tendency whilst ignoring the 'silent majority'.
counts will be counted!
The fictional piece posted below this week’s ir[reverent|relevant] commentary is for paid and complimentary subscribers. It’s been deleted from my edited novel.
Scrolling down to first read the extract will help you vote with more conviction and certainty. I’m told electorates still do this in some countries. What remarkable people they must also be.
Here are two contrasting reviews of the extract. Vote below on which you think applies best. Or feel free to provide your own opinion with a comment.
A tender piece of gender-fluid, queer romance, easily slipping into women’s fiction, with strong literary and commercial appeal. An assured debut, it’s written with appropriate sensitivity by a young woman author, drawing on her difficult Eastern-oriented life experiences.
A tacky tale trading on the tired ‘lesbian space pirates’ trope. It’s a pretty lame attempt to fit the marketing buzz around spice-seeking YA ‘tokkers. It’s penned by a white, middle-aged man, FFS. I bet his wife had to help him – enough said…
Just do what the vast majority of people do. Billions of them, all day, every day. Without feeling a constant, obsessive urge to tell everyone all about it.
Don’t Ignore The Silent Majority
I recently read an obituary which recounted the life of a phenomenally successful musician. What struck me was how they described their popular market appeal. They said they represented the “silent majority”, never fashionable but with a large and loyal international following. They played for presidents, had their songs covered by the biggest stars and were a household name in many countries.
The lesson I took from this was that you can be one of the most popular entertainers in the world for decades without being a trendsetter or a contemporary follower of fashion. You can be a successful artist with multiple chart hits whilst never appealing to memes, marketing managers or contemporary mores. You can, in other words, be just like those you might appeal to: the ordinary man, woman or child in the street. You can act out an ordinary, quiet life: go to college, raise kids, be good grandparents, go on vacation, enjoy sports, cook food, read books, listen to music, watch TV and pay taxes. You can just do what the vast majority of people do. Billions of them, all day, every day. Without feeling a constant, obsessive urge to tell everyone all about it.
This sales model works because the majority are just that. They constitute the biggest market segment, your broadest customer base. Not the loudest, the most opinionated, or those struggling on the margins. The latter are and will always remain a statistical minority (until their views and activities are incorporated into the boring mainstream). They also, on average, earn – and therefore spend – less money, being younger, marginalised, working in non-traditional jobs, placing their principles above kow-towing to the inanity of such humdrum human certainties as death and taxes.
So, when a writer stares at a blank page, how far should they traverse to the left or right of a normal distribution curve to sate a vocal minority's needs and wants? How much do you appease those who think their opinions count most? How far do you stray from what you do, who you are and how you act, deliberately constructing fictional characters whose lives appear to bear very little resemblance to their creator’s? How many contemporary cultural boxes do you ensure your novel ticks to avoid diatribe-laden denouncements? How many review stars do you seek from the vox influencum populi, as they pronounce themselves satisfied with your genuflected tribute to their narrow cause?
It’s crucial not to lose sight of the most important ‘hidden-in-plain-sight’ majority: the white cis degree-educated women who constitute 80% of the anointed gatekeepers to bookshelf content – uncoincidentally, a very similar proportion to those fiction writers, agents and editors occupying the Anglo-Western publishing sphere. They already practise applying this majority model inside industry’s opaque covers, because they have shareholders to please, children to appease and partners to tease, as they live out their (extra)ordinary lives. Mostly. No-one gets drunk, high or hysterical with excitement in a weekly acquisitions meeting or at a major book fair. That’s best left for award ceremonies, major launches and light lunches. Mostly.
P.S. For reference, neither of the reviews you can find above have or will arise from a silent majority. Or myself.
Below is the excised novel extract I promised. I’d love you to read it, think about it, then scroll back up and vote on if it’s best described by the A or the B. Nothing too serious (he says…).
Yin vs. Yang
I’m enjoying another luxurious bath, reflecting on the joy and peace I’ve found during the last few weeks spent ensconced inside. More than any other time of my life, the tensions inside me have evaporated after sinking into the community’s daily routines. The new environment provides the stability and security I’ve craved and my journey’s scars have faded, both inside and out; mentally and physically.
Underlying it all is my optimism for a permanent cure. Despite my cells continuing to rebel under the medics’ onslaught, I’m determined to protect any fragile flame of happiness from the still looming threat of terminal failure.
It’s difficult waiting in remission for the certainty of having my life given permanently back to me. I want to live and love again. Even if, deep inside me, small balls of cells continue to rebel; dividing uncontrollably, exposing my happiness to a terminal reality I’ve always refused to indulge in, even if positivity never eliminates the pain.
Indulgence has instead appeared in the radiant and graceful form of the First Daughter. After our initial, awkward encounter, I couldn’t put the genie of my affection back into its bottled-up container of desires. I didn’t want three wishes, I just wanted to be alive and with her. We’d continued to engineer meetings, either on hikes, away from prying eyes, or snatching time in whispered conversation in the few alcoves. I’d sometimes express concern at how she might jeopardise her position; or worse, her mother’s. But when I hinted at meeting less often, painful as it was, she grew angry and upset.
There’s a knock on the door and I’m not ashamed to have another wish answered. Emerging through the curling wisps of vapour, she resembles her mother in poise, but her face is gentler in repose. The surprise takes my breath away so much I fail to greet her. The sash around her waist is pulled as tight as the ribbon helping to secure her hair into a bun. She’s dressed in a simple robe decorated with an irregular geometric array of dark-bronze panels. Her lighter, gold-flecked eyes shine into mine with their uniquely piercing gaze. As she draws closer to the bathtub, I sink lower into the hot water. She purses her lips in the same way as when facing an unfamiliar word during reading practice. Successful pronunciation at the first attempt isn’t to impress her amateur teacher - pride in her abilities comes by default with her social position. Instead, her squeezed lips signal a bolstering of self-confidence before she tackles an obstacle.
We still haven’t spoken. She places her book of an excuse on the small table next to the bath. It’s the one I’d offered to read to her. I’d said it would help her understand. Now she’s here and I think she does. We don’t need to talk. Narrowed eyes accompany another compression of those lips. If nothing and no-one can prevent her from being here, then I doubt I can prevent her hands from straying into my bathwater.
I close my eyes as she soaps each of my limbs in turn. Then she gently scoops the suds from my scarred torso. I don’t want to know where her gaze falls. Her fingers have a delicate touch, her hands are firm. I want her to scrub ingrained layers of filth from places that shouldn’t exist. But it’s hard to conceive, no matter how large a rock, or even mountain, my angel’s lips might cause to move.
The luxury of her devoted attentions kindles a rare warmth, every pore of my skin coming alive. I can feel my mental barriers softening when strong arms suddenly coax me to rise from the water. I open my eyes to find her nose almost touching mine; the alien, flexing ellipses of her unwavering pupils boring into my brain. I hesitate, then draw back, before either mouth can seek the other. Instead, I search for clues in the gorgeous oval of her face to what’s spurring her on.
It’s me who now needs reassurance; to know if her feelings run as deep as mine; if she shares the same urges and desires. But she just smiles as she beckons me to turn around, to spray a shower of cooler water onto my body. She only rescues the damp book at my urging, before I gasp and laugh again as needles of water scour my back, my skin tightening with a delicious frisson.
When I join her in my bedroom, wrapped in a soft towel, her other excuses are waiting for me. New clothes are laid out on the bed. Clothes to both look and feel good in. Swathes of Eastern silk and woven wool to match my new surroundings; garments I long to have her wrap around my sparse, fresh-rinsed frame. I lift a hem and rub the material between finger and thumb. It’s as smooth as my scrubbed skin. I’ve never worn clothing this fine.
“For you, Paysha. To make you look… better,” she says. I blame her choice of words on my poor teaching and thank her with a small, formal bow, masking my real feelings, despite the bath-time intimacy. She returns my gesture with a feminine grace I don’t deserve. These gifts I can’t, I won’t, refuse. But they don’t provide the final reassurance I need.
Uncertain of what to do or ask, I tease the rescued book from her deliberately stiffened fingers and spread-eagle it on a sun-drenched window ledge set high into the wall. The act triggers a memory of another, larger damp tome – with far drier subject matter. Its instigation of my long journey seems an age ago. My life had only ceased being a series of dangerous, disjointed probabilities after being offered the security of this community, both her home and my sanctuary. I’m grateful to be here and alive - more than alive, more than anywhere – even if I might never be whole.
She is behind me before I can turn around, her hands gripping my waist, taking charge once again. I tense in unwanted reflex, from both a clifftop dalliance and other, older memories. Sensing my stiffness, she leads me in a delicate dance, one hand spinning me slowly about as the other unwinds my towel. A turn and a half later and I’m forced to face her in all my flawed nakedness. I can’t meet her gaze, wanting to grab back the towel, hands hesitating over my scars, my vulnerabilities exposed more than ever before.
She eases my arms to my sides and beckons me to sit on the bed. Then the community’s exalted First Daughter kneels before me and dries my skin with short, precise dabs of my towel. Each delicate brushstroke from this humble display recruits more of my nerves into a tingling effervescence. She continues to patiently blot my skin with studied concentration, silently taking me in, until my stomach is a tight knot of anticipation and my body yearns to selfishly enfold hers.
She rises effortlessly and places her hands on my shoulders, guiding me to lie on my front. Only a vestige of my initial resistance remains and I’m a willing supplicant as her yang reaches out to my yin; her head to my toes. I feel butterfly kisses on my feet; my calves; the backs of my knees; a slow, traversing ascent up the insides of my still emaciated thighs. The warmth of her breath accompanies every application of her lips to my goose-bumped skin. Another prescient shiver of pleasure passes through me, feeding a wave of deeper, uncontrollable heat which threatens to melt decade-old walls of self-doubt.
No, no. Unbidden and unwanted, old fears erupt as angry flames from hidden but raw places, full of prejudice, pain and despair. Kindled by the rare union of heart and mind I’ve willingly nurtured, their fire cauterises fresh buds of emotional and physical attachment. My fear of knowing deep-down they wouldn’t survive to flower has been realised, the roots of such doubts creating another destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy.
I push myself up on my elbows and twist towards the woman who has dared come closest to breaking through my walls of purgatory: “I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t… I’m not…” This matters so much to me, but my inadequate half-apology reveals nothing.
She raises her head at my sudden hesitancy, her confusion quickly masked as I expose all of myself to her attention. I know what’s holding me back, but I don’t know why. My hands try to cover myself, spoiling the precious moment this angel has dared to create, despite her own recent journey of uncertain exploration and cautiously nurtured trust.
She doesn’t look hurt; she doesn’t persist. Instead of frustration, a tranquil smile conveys her belief that patience and lack of prejudice will eventually guide me, like her eagles, to unimaginable heights. Her fingertips brush my eyelids shut, and she gently returns me to lying on my stomach. Her parting caress of my back, a slow drift of her fingertips from neck to the cleft of my cheeks, releases a long, delicious quiver down my spine. It further fractures the ice that has walled off the only safe place I have; where I thought no-one else could ever go. A place that harbours the real me.
As the flames of pain and doubt subside, amidst the falling ash of charred buds, I descend deeper into my cold cave of hopes and dreams. ‘I’ve found someone to adore,’ I whisper to myself. ‘A woman whose mind can speak even to mine.’
But I’m too late to respond to my heart’s thawing desire, the click of a closing door signalling my love’s departure. I lie still for several minutes, eyes still closed; keeping her presence fresh in my mind; recapturing her delicate touch on my freshly scrubbed skin with my own caressing fingers. But alone isn’t enough and I turn to see she’s placed the drying book face-down next to me. Unlike my earlier poses, the two women on its cover dress and sit in a manner befitting the prose inside: with a measured grace and quiet, determined confidence.
I lift the book up to see which page it’s open on. It’s both another gift and the reassurance I seek, revealed with a subtlety only she could muster. My angel doesn’t need teaching how to dispel my fears, least of all by me. The quarter of a millennium separating our attraction and this author’s pen is irrelevant. A single sentence has been underlined on the still damp, yellowing open page: ‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’
I could never say it better; my love, my all, my everything.
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