What Is Literary Gay Romance? A Definition in 5 Points

If you’re like me, your fiction preferences tend toward stories that take you deep and release you with reluctance. When I remember the books I loved most, I feel the joy again. I’ll bet you do too.

Literary gay romance — a niche within a niche within a niche — offers a unique opportunity for the discerning reader. The qualities listed below, when found together in a novel, add up to a reading experience worth the effort of the dig through the niches.

My definition is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive. These are simply the main qualities I seek when looking for a literary gay romance, clarified after years of reading and writing off the beaten track in the romance genre.

1) Romance Beats with a Twist

Literary is not synonymous with it’s been done before. A literary romance will stand out as containing something new, something different enough to intrigue, beguile, delight.

This uniqueness entices the way a slice of your favorite dessert entices after a week of eating clear broth. Unburdened by the predictable plots and often-repeated phrases found in a romance genre’s mainstream stories, this story stands apart.

Many books in a genre may be similar to the other books in that genre in multiple ways, sometimes in so many ways we feel like we’re reading the same book over and over. A literary romance takes us through new terrain, deviates from the norm in ways that captivate and interest us to an unusual degree, thus blasting a siren call to readers well-versed in the genre, while also remaining true enough to the romance genre to not disappoint reader expectations. Yes, there’s a happily ever after, but the journey to get there reads as fresh and fascinating.

2) Gay and/or Bi Characters Featured in the Romance Storyline

Gay romance, as of this writing, has become something of a shorthand term for stories about two (or more) gay men falling in love, sometimes including bisexual men, transgender men, and/or gender non-conforming characters. (That statement is a simplification of an ongoing cultural discussion and debate around terminology, ownership, history, and other aspects; see the end of this article for more about this.)

Literary gay romance is a romance with gay main characters, but that doesn’t mean the plot must be about gay or LGBTQ+ issues. A gay character grappling with any life-altering challenge (or multiple challenges) in a romance storyline counts as literary gay romance, whether or not the issues they’re struggling with, learning from, and growing through are specifically LGBTQ+ issues.

Romance tropes apply here as well. What we’re doing is broadening the field of “what is romance.” Of course LGBTQ+ sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and life experiences, in all their nuanced truths, claim space in the romance genre. In our quest for inclusion and acceptance, gay romance raises a hand to say, “Welcome, and let’s hear these stories.” Literary gay romance raises a hand to say, “But also, let’s value these stories, the people who are represented in them, and the people who write them by telling these stories as well as we can.”

3) High Editorial Standard

In my experiences as a professional editor and as an author with books published traditionally and independently, I’ve seen firsthand that the editing process and standard for traditionally published books is often more rigorous than for self-published books. An exception is the self-published author who invests in the editing processes by involving outside assistance at multiple stages of the manuscript’s development.

The benefit of a high editorial standard is the removal of impediments to the reader’s immersive experience. The presence of errors, including spelling and punctuation mistakes, irrelevant wordiness, faulty sentence logic, and hundreds of other pitfalls, pulls the reader out of the story.

The story itself can be a masterpiece, but if the writing through which the story is delivered is flimsy, the story dulls.

Literary gay romance exhibits a higher than average editorial polish — often much higher than average within the wider genre. This infuses the reader with trust sufficient to let go and fall into the story.

Whatever a story is about and however the author’s voice is expressed, quality writing and editing polish the book to high levels of refined, erudite, rarefied.

4) Every Sentence Counts

Years ago, I was fortunate to have private art lessons with a painter whose work I adored (and still adore). One of her perspectives that stuck with me was to consider every square inch of my art important enough to make interesting. Since then, I’ve applied that lesson to my life in many ways, including writing my novels with the goal of making every inch interesting.

The author’s commitment to making the bits interesting is characteristic of literary works. The author who makes every sentence count (even when that means hiring quality editors) respects you as a reader — respects your investment of time, energy, and money — by cherishing the details of their story’s language.

This attention to minutiae helps to sweep us away as we read. We’re pulled further inside the story, enchanted, and given little opportunity to disconnect and return to the mundane reality in which we are only reading a book.

In a literary romance, the tug of each subsequent beguiling sentence pins us to a tale in which we star. The gift of the author who masters the interesting inch is reader immersion to the point of being the character in the scene.

5) Sneaky Lingering Reverberations

As a reader, I know I’ve hit the jackpot when I experience what I call the difficult dismount. I can tell from the heft of the pages remaining to be read, or the percentage indicator on my e-reader, how much of the story remains and I feel reluctant to let go. There’s only one first read of a favorite book.

This stickiness extends after the book is (finally, alas) finished. There’s a staying quality to the story, the themes, the lessons, the characters, the writing itself, or a combination of those elements. These are the books we find ourselves telling others about, waxing on about over dinner or on the phone, mulling over as we wash dishes or drift to sleep at night. The authors of the best literary gay romances worm their way into our lives beyond the book. We learned something as we read. We changed, and we carry the change with us as we navigate our lives.

In short, we are deeply affected emotionally. The story and we, somehow, became one, and we are the better for it.

Note that none of the qualities listed above say that the story needs to be written by a specific type of person with specific traits or characteristics. I am a woman who writes gay literary romance, striving as I do so to achieve the qualities I’ve listed above. I’ve written about this in “Why I Write Inclusive Romance” and “The Womanly Art of Writing Like a Man” (and elsewhere) and continue to delve into these topics.

Alice Archer is the author of The Infinite Onion and Everyday History, thought-provoking romance novels for strong hearts. You can subscribe to her newsletter to receive a free story, notification of new releases, giveaways, and more.

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