Cultural Differences in M/M romances: by Feliz

The majority of M/M authors write for a North American market and don’t even think (much) about their fans in other countries, unless they themselves live outside the US and Canada. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? This site has visitors from all over the world – 156 countries so far – so I assume that the reading audience for M/M books is pretty diverse. Yet those of us who live here tend to think of  North America as our entire universe. The language differences that readers in other countries have to overcome to be able to read one book written in English must at times seem insurmountable to them, especially when it’s peppered with idioms, slang and jargon that only someone living in these parts would know. However, most publishers demand language and spelling uniformity in their books  – American spelling – whether their writers are Australian, Canadian, British, German, Russian etc. It also doesn’t seem to matter to the majority of publishers if a book is set in the past- 1930s Britain, for example – the spelling has to be American,  even for example, using the word “ass” instead of “arse,” which has a very different meaning in Britain and is a very important body part in M/M. 🙂 This boggles my mind!      

I had an email recently from Feliz, a German blogger who is a regular on this site, and she commented on some of the cultural differences between European and North American readers which related to language and perceptions. I was intrigued about some of her observations because I live in a bilingual country (Canada) where there are two major cultural influences – English and French – and the differences are vast, but they make Canada a unique and beautiful place to live and, I hope, make Canadians more understanding about diversity. Because I was so impressed by Feliz’s comments I asked her to write something that could be posted on the site. This is what she wrote:     

   

When I asked a Thai friend of mine what she thought was ‘typically German’, she said: “Typically German is to speak one’s mind.” I recalled her saying this when Wave suggested that I write this post.       

Languages reflect on the people who speak them, and vice versa. Everybody who comes here to Wave’s site speaks English; it’s a global language, after all. Yet, for someone like me who hasn’t cut her teeth on English it’s sometimes hard to get something right in order to not sound offensive or just plain stupid to a native English speaker. Even if I say or write something “by the book”, I sometimes seem to strike a false note. For example, it’s correct English and would sound perfectly polite in German if I said, “No, you’ve got this wrong.” I could speak like this to my German boss and he wouldn’t mind. But to obtain the same level of politeness when speaking to an American I’d have to say something like,  “I’m afraid that’s not quite right.”      

These are fine nuances, of course, but I think they matter. Unfortunately, in everyday life you become aware of this only when you get confronted with it, and then, more often than not, it’s too late – and the business goes to hell in a handbasket ;-).      

The latter made me quite sensitive to the small but mighty differences…      

Much of what we like or dislike, not only in books, depends on where we come from. Tastes differ, but this only goes so far. Where individual preferences end, more universal principles come into play, some of them so deeply ingrained in us by upbringing, education and the life that we lead we aren’t even consciously aware of them most of the time. We only notice  them when we leave our own home turf and get in touch with a foreign culture, either by traveling abroad or by interacting with someone from another background. Or, in my case, reading books in a language I didn’t grow up speaking.      

German supermarket

When I first discovered the world of m/m romance it was so new and exciting for me, I couldn’t read fast enough. I devoured books regardless of the subject, as long as there were two guys getting together in them. I couldn’t find anything comparable on the German book market. Not this vast variety of themes, settings, characters, subgenres and sub-subgenres. It was like going shopping in a German General Store and then coming to an American mall.      

Yet, after I had stopped being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices, I started to read with my eyes open, so to speak. There were things that tended to show up again and again, regardless of author or theme, and I couldn’t help but wonder about them. Read with a stranger’s eye, those things struck me as “very American”.      

On the surface, the cultural differences between Europe (or in my case, Germany) and America don’t seem that substantial. Democracy, a (mostly) functional legal system, decent availability of food, education and healthcare, McDonald’s, Hollywood, VW Beetles, mobile phones, TV and indoor plumbing. All the same.    

US supermarket

Except where it’s not.      

There’s the notorious warm washcloth, for example. When I met it for the first time in an m/m romance, I stopped reading and went like “Huh, what?” (and that was still in my voracious phase, mind you). Of course, I can only speak from my personal experience, but I’ve never come across a man who jumped out of my bed after the deed was done, ran to the bathroom and came back to either clean up his or my mess with a washcloth, warm or otherwise. 🙂      

Yet, I think the “average American” is obsessed with cleanliness. Quite a while ago, my family hosted an American exchange student who insisted on taking a shower at least twice a day and made my mother buy her a razor, because “in the United States, we shave.” She was thirteen, same as me, and for the life of me I couldn’t fathom where she wanted to shave, back then.        

I’ve come to loathe the warm washcloth. Seriously. Either admit that sex between whoever can be messy (and hooray for that, for where’s the fun when it’s not?) Or let them deal with it otherwise. Much has been said on this blog about that very topic, so I’ll stop here. Yes, sex might leave a wet spot, particularly when at least one man is involved. And yes, sometimes you just get to sleep in it. Deal!      

[I understand from a very reliable source that while he may do a “quick clean” with whatever is handy e.g. a t-shirt he would never leave the bed to get a wash cloth, warm or otherwise. :)]  

Or the obsession with condoms (and lube), but the latter is slightly different).      

Yes, there are such things out there like AIDS and STD’s, and it’s not funny if you have to deal with them. Yes, any sensible adult should make sure the stranger he (or she) is about to do the nasty with can’t leave behind a possibly life-threatening keepsake. Thus, the use of a condom should be a given, at least in contemporary novels, between strangers, after one partner has been cheating, when someone is having trust issues and so on. But why have them appear in every single sex scene? ‘Givens’ should go without saying, at least after a while. There are even stories where the use of condoms borders on ridiculous, like fantasies (the weirdness of condoms in those is only topped by jars of superglide extra-wet fairy lube appearing out of thin air)  🙂 or sometimes historicals (I’m aware condoms have been around since Casanova’s time, but the knowledge about STD’s has not, so what the fuck?) There is again something “very American” about this to me. Something to do with making sure not even the biggest idiot ever can come to harm by something you produce.      

In the U.SA citizens seem to be able to (successfully) sue companies for the weirdest things, like burning your thighs with too-hot coffee because you were dumb enough to place your coffee mug between them while driving out of the McWhatever’s parking lot. Or killing your cat by putting it into the microwave oven or the laundry dryer. The first time I came across the disclaimer on the front page of a BDSM story which said, don’t try this without an experienced partner, I couldn’t believe this was serious, but it was.      

There are other things, of course, which appear exotic to me. For example, the American school system. The entire topic of high school stories eludes me. In Germany, we don’t spend that much time at school, obviously. School sports teams, discussion clubs, homecoming queen and king, cheerleaders, jocks and nerds – okay, skip this, we have those, too, but they don’t spend that much time trapped together on a highschool campus. There isn’t this obligation to be part of the football team to be “in.” There is no football team. Most German schools don’t even have a cafeteria; school ends mostly at noon or early afternoon, and you go home afterwards. Sports, music, pastime is done mostly in clubs (“Vereine”) which have nothing to do with your school. Not many Germans identify with and by the school they attend or went to like Americans do, and which university you go to mostly depends on your grades and your personal liking. There nothing like your “elite universities” over here either, or at least there wasn’t such a thing in my time, and universities are free. Most professions are learned not in college, but through apprenticeships.      

So the problems of a high school jock and a nerd falling for each other aren’t of particular interest to me, since I barely can relate to them. Yet, many readers seem to love those stories, since there are so many of those out there.      

From what I’ve come to understand, a lot of m/m romance as it is today is a “very American” thing. It appears to me that regardless of the author’s origin or the setting of the story, many books were written for the mainstream taste, which to my German palate is smoothed, sweetened, evened out and unified like American cheese. 🙂 Nothing anyone might have to chew on, behold! Nothing that might taste like the real deal, or even – yuck!- be a little smelly. Not much to disagree about. It’s interchangeable and completely forgettable after having been consumed.      

Sometimes “mainstream” m/m romance seems to me like some kind of compromise between the universal human urge to peep at other people’s dirty secrets and the equally human urge to keep things neat and shiny on the surface. It even appears that some authors are uncomfortable to the point of shame with the fact they are writing m/m, but do it because it pays big these days, similar to readers who want to be titillated by picturing two men having sex with each other but don’t want to be bothered by the smell of sweat, semen and shit that comes with it. Hence the glossing-over.      

This is something else that seems very American to me, but I might be prejudiced here. In my understanding, many Americans are quite ambivalent when it comes to the matter of sexuality in general. There are the wild Spring Break parties, but most American women wouldn’t dream of going to a public beach topless, and expect to be married or at least having dated “properly” twice or thrice before having sex. There’s a contest between male American teenagers re who is going to lose his cherry first, but the girls who let themselves be charmed into helping those boys do it get “a reputation” and are considered women a decent man can’t bring home to meet his parents. There are a few  states where gay people can marry (and American “gay marriage” is a much more substantial thing than German “civil union”), but there’s still the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. And so on…..      

 I am aware there isn’t the m/m romance, nor the m/m romance reader. I began to look for those things, with a mix of annoyance and amusement, and I tried to find books where those things didn’t happen, silently cheering on the authors for breaking something I’ve come to think of as “the generic off-the-mill mainstream pattern”. Luckily those are out there, and their number is growing.      

But is this really a matter of culture or rather a matter of personal taste? Do other non-Americans even notice the same things which bother me, or other cultural-related things, or nothing at all? Do Americans, for that matter, and does it bother them, too? What about other native English speakers?      

Readers, what do you think? Have your say.    

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

93 comments

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  • Lovely stuff! I travelled to Britain this summer and had my first ever afternoon tea with scones , and it was absolutely delicious I thought I’d try and make my own last weekend. I might have deviated from the norm maybe – I found a bunch of random scone recipes here and made 5 different kinds! My friends were so happy when I invited them round for tea and scones, complete with real whipped cream. Great fun!

  • Wave, I have to agree with you. I don’t expect fiction books, which is what we are talking about here, to be held to the same standards as non-fiction. These are supposed to be entertaining stories, sometimes absolute fantasies, not how-to manuals.

    Having said that, I think that a talented writer can teach us many things during the telling of a story, but it is not a requirement. I also am very aware while I am reading, that although this might be entertaining, it’s not necessarily safe to try in my RL. I’m not about to go out on a boat during a storm, but did thoroughly enjoy reading about this recently. 😉

    • TJ

      You’re not going out in a storm? Damn! I was going to offer to go with you even though I’m not a good swimmer – make that a poor swimmer. 🙂

      Having said that, I think that a talented writer can teach us many things during the telling of a story, but it is not a requirement. I also am very aware while I am reading, that although this might be entertaining, it’s not necessarily safe to try in my RL.

      As you said, talented writers can teach us many things by not preaching. I do notice when there’s a lack of condoms in situations I think might be unsafe, and even comment at times. (some nerve huh?) But I never say that the author has to put jackets on his/ or her guys. I feel it’s entirely up to the author, not the editor or the publisher or the readers to dictate what they include in their stories. I should probably write a story with lots and lots of condoms. LOL

      • Wave,
        “I do notice when there’s a lack of condoms in situations I think might be unsafe, and even comment at times. (some nerve huh?)”

        Yes, me too, and I grumble “idiot” as I read and move on knowing that a smart man would use a condom in that situation. I do think they should be included in stories when needed, but can be done without sounding like we’re reading the directions on the back of the box. When a character leaves a room, we don’t expect a step by step description of him grasping door knob, turning it clockwise, pulling it toward himself, etc. They just open the door and leave. To me it should be there but more subtle.

        Ooh – do write a condom book Wave! It could be all about cheaters who practice safe sex! 😉

        • TJ

          Ooh – do write a condom book Wave! It could be all about cheaters who practice safe sex!

          You really shouldn’t dare me. 🙂

  • @Ingrid, I do manual labor before 7 AM. I like some protein in my breakfast. When I worked in an office, cereal was fine.

    On the race thing…*sigh* We just DID race!fail over in fandom. A white writer cannot write characters of color without appropriating, but to write a world without them is racist by omission. Interracial is labeled so that those who like it can find it more easily. And the US has a really difficult time talking about race, racism and other stuff.

    I think people can be profoundly influenced by what is in books. There are whole religions built on that idea. This is also why you find a lot of poly people in SF fandom: too much Heinlein.

    Most people understand that serial killing is undesirable, just as they understand sex is desirable. The average reader is much more likely to try rimming, just because he read about it, than to try scooping out his lover’s eyes with a grapefruit spoon (both of which I’ve written). There will always be someone who goes “ooo, cool, I never thought of that!” and tries what they’ve just read. I was that person, but I learned to research the acts after the tabasco sauce. So I write realistically, no matter what genre I write. And I do go off on m/f and f/f authors who do stupid stuff with their sex scenes.

    • Angel

      I know that writing about race is touchy, but we write about religion which is probably the #1 issue in our world and one that has already started countless wars and killed millions.

      There are a few white writers who write M/M books with other ethnicities as protags, without making a big deal about their race, and I mentioned some of them in my post a year ago. It can be done and done well. Other races are not a different species. You might be surprised to find that you and I agree on most things. I don’t ‘live’ my race 24/7 – my family is made up of mostly mongrels because there is so much intermarriage and we have the best time debunking all the theories about race. You know some of the ones I mean. No, black men do not have the biggest cocks, despite what you see in porn, gay or otherwise. On average they may be bigger but not the biggest. TMI? LOL

      We need to introduce some humour into these posts.

      Just remember Angel when I go on a rampage and start killing people I’ll blame your books and then sue you. 🙂

      Re the other stuff: I still maintain that M/M books are not a teaching tool. Why do these books have to be politically correct? Why are readers trying to set standards for the sub genre? If I don’t like a particular sub genre or genre I don’t read the books. I did that with het and haven’t read a het book in about 3 years because I began to hate the way women were characterized as TSTL in a lot of the books. M/M should not be required to set standards for anything, including sexual mores, and if some readers don’t like what they read they should speak with their money – by not buying the books. That works.

  • I am now feeling an urge to write a story centred around a village cricket match. Or possibly a few frames of snooker — somewhere on the last-but-third hard drive are the notes for a Blake/Vila story with part of the dialogue lifted directly from commentary at the Crucible.

    You find cultural differences in all sorts of odd corners. I had to re-write a couple of paragraphs of “Lord and Master” after my editor pointed out that most Americans were going to be confused by my references to sunset times in London unless I made it explicit that those times are much later in summer and much earlier in winter than is experienced across much of the contiguous 48.

    And on the condom thing — the Lord and Master characters are still using condoms for anal sex, even after they’ve been married for three years, but that’s a personal quirk of Steven’s which Mark puts up with because he loves him…

    • Cricket? Since according to what I’ve heard a cricket match takes a week there should be room enough for a romance. I’d totally read this.

      And there’s nothing wrong with personal quirks. Nothing at all. 😉

      • Top level professional cricket matches take (nearly) a week. Village matches can be done in a day — but that’s still enough for sparks to start, and be fanned at the next match. 🙂

        • I would love to read an m/m set around village cricket – would they be competing for the Village Cup?

          Wave’s post a few weeks back about m/m books centred around sport gave me a plot bunny centred around a test match, but as I’ve only become interested in cricket in the last few years (and mostly in the last 2, since we moved to a place which doesn’t have FM radio reception so it’s longwave or via-internet, lol) I don’t really know anything about the non-international side of things. Can’t think of a better way of learning a bit than by reading an m/m romance set around it 😀

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