The Epic Win …. by Nicole Kimberling

Nicole in 1992

When I asked Nicole Kimberling to write a post, as usual I had no idea what she would say. I’m always amazed at what authors write in these blog posts and what she produced was this little gem. 

Recently I had a conversation that reminded me of the primary event that led to the formation of Blind Eye Books as a company, and the principle that guides it, which I think might be of interest to readers.  

Back in 1992, my wife and I were living in Colorado during the Amendment Two battle. For those of you who did not live in Colorado, Amendment Two was a law designed to prohibit all legislative action at any level of government that would designate LGBT people as a protected class. It was three days before the vote. Propaganda flew thick and fast. Massive campaigns had been launched to register LGBT voters (mainly in bars) while equally massive campaigns targeted the state’s young Christian voters (mostly in churches). My wife was in art school at the time, and we were at the apartment of one of her fellow students whose name I honestly can’t remember, but let’s just call her Amy for the sake of narrative ease. Amy was torn about how she would vote. At her church, she was being told to support the amendment. She didn’t know any gay people–or rather she didn’t know she knew any gay people, because she didn’t know she was sitting in the room with two of them, but I digress. Amy’s apartment was absolutely full of crosses and pictures of horses. She was 18 years old. Tentatively, late in the evening, she asked if either one of us had read Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage series. We said that we had and she lit up. She’d purchased the book because it had a picture of a white horse on the front of it and through reading the series she’d come to realize that the primary character, who she loved, was gay.  

Amy asked if we thought that real gay people could be good people, like Vanyel. 

Sure, we said, why not? 

She asked if we knew any gay people and we said that yeah, we did. 

All at once she decided. She said that if that were true, then she could not possibly vote ‘yes’ on the amendment. She said that for the sake of Vanyel she would vote ‘no’. 

I was absolutely amazed. Never before had I heard of anyone changing their vote because of a fictional character. Moreover, a fictional character that I personally thought was kinda wimpy. Wouldn’t Renault’s The Charioteer have been the more influential book? Or Warren’s The Front Runner? Or any book that did not include talking ponies?   

Apparently not. Not to Amy, anyway. 

I completely reassessed my view of the purpose of speculative fiction that day. Rather than being a collection of sentences detailing how life really is, spec fic became about characters and about stories about how life could be if we could imagine it. When we started Blind Eye Books fourteen years later, I kept Amy present in my mind. I decided that the single most important thing about a manuscript for our company was whether or not the author allowed their LGBT characters to be heroes and whether or not they allowed those heroic characters to win and to be happy. Because even Vanyel never got a real Happily Ever After, but I was betting that there were young gay and lesbian people out there who wanted to see people like them reflected in fantasy fiction the way that straight people get to be–kicking ass, saving the day, and getting the hot guy (or gal) at the end of it.  

My own personal goal in building a line of books is to connect to an audience that is starved not only for positive images, but nearly bereft of genuinely heroic characters. I want to publish books where the LGBT protagonists smite all adversaries, against all odds, superseding mortal limitations. I want to publish stories of characters whose greatest triumph at the end of the book is not simply to be allowed to live, but who get an epic win. 

That was my ideal, my goal and my purpose—to give these kids somebody to want to be. I wanted to present characters who were as cool as Aragorn, as sympathetic as Harry Potter, as badass as Wolverine, as sizzling hot and relentless as Alice from Resident Evil while simultaneously being really, really unambiguously gay. I thought the gay community would be the primary buyers of our books. That, as it turns out, was wrong. The primary purchasers of our work are people just like Amy—M/M readers. 

There has been a lot of talk in the last year or so about total authenticity—especially in the M/M writing community. Authors and publishers have essentially been asked to choose a battle line to take. Academic and political arguments have been advanced and subsequently parsed to death on every site everywhere. Is it all right for straight women to write gay men? Is it all right for gay men to like romance, especially the idealized stories offered by romance publishers? Do these genre stories misrepresent homosexuality? (The answers to these questions BTW are: yes, yes, and “not any more than Rambo misrepresents the capacity of an average Viet Nam veteran to engage an entire regiment of the US National Guard.”) 

I decided to offer this anecdote—the Blind Eye Books origin story, as it were—because it is a real example of one vote being determined by something as seemingly inconsequential as a series of genre novels featuring a gay protagonist written by a straight woman and purchased by another straight woman. 

One vote changed is not what one would generally describe as an epic win. But unlike the epic wins of fiction, that one vote was real. Because of Vanyel, Amy became what those of a political nature, such as myself, call an ally. Allies are important. Because, really, when it comes time to count the ballots, you can never have too many friends. 

So I suppose the question I have for readers is: Has a book or a fictional character ever changed the way you perceive something or someone? It doesn’t have to be a gay book or character—I’m just curious to hear if there are other stories like Amy’s out there.  

  

Author

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

40 comments

    • I KNOW! But we shouldn’t be too hard on him. He was a trailblazer, breaking ground where few had tread before him.

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  • Omg, I love Vanyel! I totally understand changing vote for him. 😀

    I read M/M romance mostly because I find the social patterns and character interaction in F/M romance so tiring and predictable. Somehow M/M romance/adventure/fantasy/thrillers works better for me and I personally don’t care if the author is female/male. There is more freedom in character interaction and connection even though the genre definetely has its clichés.

    I do think reading M/M romance has changed my view on gays/gay rights overall, maybe made me more laid back over different ways of living and loving, but it’s hard to pinpoint one specific character or book. Maybe Josh Lanyon’s Jake would be such a character because I was puzzled by how unable he is to turn off his sexual attraction to males, even though he clearly wants to and has tried for a long time. His desperation made me think about that kind of situation and how that would be.

    I think good fiction has the power to make us fall in love with characters without prejudice and defense mechanisms and let us root for them no matter race, sexual preference and even species… if some of that can be carried out to real life then I guess it is a win.

    Reply
    • saga: Maybe Josh Lanyon’s Jake would be such a character because I was puzzled by how unable he is to turn off his sexual attraction to males, even though he clearly wants to and has tried for a long time. His desperation made me think about that kind of situation and how that would be.

      NK: Yeah, Jake is a truly excellent example of a human conflict being played out in fictional character in a way that is so real and so well-explored that the reader feels that she’s been given a window into the life of another. The Hell You Say was the first book I read in the M/M genre–and the route by which I discovered this community–I think Lanyon should be considered a gateway drug. 🙂

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  • This was a fabulous post – a really striking story of human life, where we’re all important and all measured on our merits, not just the categories we’re allocated by other people. I wouldn’t call myself a political animal, but I believe truly in welcoming allies and hopefully being one myself.

    Gosh, I wish I could think of an epiphanic book or character in my life LOL. I feel I’ve been shaped by a whole bunch of them. Strangely enough (or not?), many YA books have stayed in my mind forever – Wrinkle in Time, Skellig, authors like Ray Bradbury, Cynthia Voight, Malcolm Saville, Paul Gallico. The characters were at a critical stage of their life, and of course so was I. I think fiction can be such a powerful influence then.

    I remember reading The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier at an early age – I read and loved *all* of her books! – with a gay character. It was a really good thriller, tense and chilling as only she could write, and the characters were there to carry the story, not for any particular sexual agenda. You’re right, that’s the best kind of book. When it shapes your world without you even being aware of it.

    And yay for epic win, as well. We all deserve to be heroes!

    Thanks for a very heartening and thought-provoking post, and I’m very glad that Blind Eye books came into being :).

    Reply
    • Clare: You’re right, that’s the best kind of book. When it shapes your world without you even being aware of it.

      NK: So true. I don’t know if the mechanism of fiction works because of natural resonance already present in the reader or because the author can get their message across in a holistic and non-aggressive way. Or maybe because of both factors coming together to form a sort of synergy.

      Or I might be over-thinking it. It might just be that an author creating a sympathetic character will naturally present that character in a humanistic fashion and if that character is socially other (from the reader) in some way then there will be a natural extension of thought that occurs. Sort of like, “if Charles is cool and Charles is also part of Group X, then it follows that at least some other members of Group X could also be cool.” But all occurring on the unconscious level in the reader’s mind.

      I’m sure it works the other way too–that groups of individuals can be vilified by a single character representation. That’s the real danger of writing characters outside of one’s own social class/group, etc. It’s definitely where it behooves an author to tread carefully and conscientiously. I was definitely biting my nails when writing a Japanese character for Red Thread of Forever Love for just that reason. I didn’t want to blunder into and then accidentally reinforce some terrible pre-existing stereotype.

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  • *Has a book or a fictional character ever changed the way you perceive something or someone?*

    I can’t say it was a specific book, but rather the whole genre of m/m stories.

    Same here, in a possibly even more convoluted way. Even before I saw the actual movie, I came across a discussion of Brokeback Mountain on a discussion board passionately devoted to a piece of Victorian fiction. Incidentally, my first meeting with Brokeback Mountain, the movie, was in German – yes, if you can imagine it: Ennis speaking German!

    Eventually I discovered BBM fan fiction, eventually moving on to original m/m fiction.

    I lived most of my life in a military environment => meeting few if any gay people – and the few I met were female. I am still waiting to come across a bona fide, out and proud male British Army officer. In the meantime, m/m fiction, like all genre fiction generally perceived as banal, clichéd, trite etc. – I could easily quote the whole Thesaurus – has without doubt changed my view on a number of GLBT subjects.

    IMO fiction is a powerful influence: I love Dick Francis’s books, and though there’s no single book of his that made me change my course in life, reading his books my opinion on photography, painting with oils/acrylics, kidnapping negotiation, booze, glass blowing, Russia, banking, the world of diplomacy, pain, insurance, movie making, flying, diamonds, extortion and giving in to it, architecture, bookies, family, survival, adversity and coping with it, mafia and more has been changed forever, sometimes drastically.

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    • liade: Incidentally, my first meeting with Brokeback Mountain, the movie, was in German – yes, if you can imagine it: Ennis speaking German!

      NK: Weirdly enough, I can easily imagine Ennis speaking German. Maybe that’s because he reminds me so much of my own Wyoming bachelor-farmer relatives.

      liade: I am still waiting to come across a bona fide, out and proud male British Army officer.

      NK: I’ve met some out American Army officers, but not ones who were still in the army. My lawyer, for example, could actually be a character in a M/M novel. Ex-army turned public defender with GIANT guns (and by that I mean huge biceps, rather than actual firearms.) He was my physical model for the character of Nick in the Bellingham Mysteries. I swear to God, he is, like, seven feet tall. Shaking hands with this dude is so intimidating. Seriously, I could fit both my hands and one foot in his massive palm.

      liade: In the meantime, m/m fiction, like all genre fiction generally perceived as banal, clichéd, trite etc. – I could easily quote the whole Thesaurus – has without doubt changed my view on a number of GLBT subjects.

      NK: When I started writing this post, I suspected that it would be the case that readers other than Amy would have had the same experience, simply because fictional characters would allow a sort of vicarious interaction that wouldn’t have occurred in a reader’s everyday life for whatever reason. (I like the example of Dick Francis’ novels–I mean how many of us grapple with situations like those?)

      Reply
  • Back in the 70’s( gasp) in my senior school library , there was a seductive bookcase reserved for the lower sixth and older…..being a voracious reader I’d already read most of the books that appealed to me on the other shelves, so of course I snuck out books from the the reserved shelves. There I discovered “Last of the Wine” Mary Renault. Her character Alexis was my first introduction to a male /male relationship. It totally charmed me, the intensity and drama was outstanding.

    These days it is the contemporary rather than the historical novels that appeals, but I have very fond memories of all Mary Renaults brave and beautiful men.

    Reply
    • Raine: Back in the 70?s( gasp) in my senior school library , there was a seductive bookcase reserved for the lower sixth and older

      NK: Gasp! The 70’s! LOL

      I know what you mean about that seductive restricted shelf. It sparkles with forbidden adult content, naturally attracting the curious reader forward.

      I, too, am a Mary Renault fan. I confess, though that it took me a really long time to figure out that Ralph and Laurie were actually having sex in the course of the book because it wasn’t written out, but merely implied. 🙂 I’m just a concrete thinker, I suppose.

      Reply
  • “Has a book or a fictional character ever changed the way you perceive something or someone?”

    I can’t say it was a specific book, but rather the whole genre of m/m stories.

    I started out reading Harry Potter slash, and moved on to original fiction.

    “The Charioteer” was amongst the first of those stories, and it is an all time favourite.

    I’m now a firm ally and supporter of the LGBT community. I even rallied on our parliamentary steps to support gay marriage, on my own, amongst a group of strangers. That’s something I’d never have done before discovering gay fiction.

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    • gaycrow: I even rallied on our parliamentary steps to support gay marriage, on my own, amongst a group of strangers. That’s something I’d never have done before discovering gay fiction.

      NK: What a great story! And you know, just from a personal perspective, its so wonderful to discover new capacities in ourselves–to challenge ourselves to go beyond what we thought we could or would do–whether that’s to confront the discomfort of being among strangers or to have the courage to write from the heart.

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  • Just wanted to say I really enjoyed this post, even though I don’t think I have a story analogous to the one you describe.

    More broadly and less interestingly, I suppose everything I’ve ever read has influenced me somehow. So I’m sure it affected me that when I was young I often read books that had strong relationships between male characters even when I was very young (I don’t think I would have thought in terms of “gay” or not then, both because of age and because that was a different era – early 70s) – but it’s hard to say which came first, since I gravitated toward these seemingly on my own.

    Vanyel is the first character I remember reading who I was aware of as “gay” – he stands out in my memory, though I don’t think he changed my opinions in any meaningful way.

    I can understand “Amy,” though. I’ve read widely, but I’m probably the sort of reader who would be more likely to be affected by Vanyel than by The Front Runner. He’s a fictional character who is alive in my head in a way that seems to happen only with (some) genre fiction, and those characters do have the power to move me on a totally visceral level in a way that more “literary” characters don’t.

    Reply
    • Justacat: He’s a fictional character who is alive in my head in a way that seems to happen only with (some) genre fiction, and those characters do have the power to move me on a totally visceral level in a way that more “literary” characters don’t.

      NK: It’s interesting how that happens isn’t it? I’ve often wondered why genre characters have this massive power to inspire. I think it might be because they are allowed to be more idealized than their literary counterparts.

      There’s a quote from speech from film that I love called “Straight Jacket” that I think sums it up. It’s long, and it’s about characters in movies, but here goes: “Movies, for all their cornball reactionary idiocy, show us life as it might be if only we could live up to our ideals. Movie characters are honest and loyal and brave. They sacrifice themselves for those they love. They are proud of the qualities that make them individuals. They stand up for what’s right no matter the odds or consequences. Movie characters, in short, would not care who plays them. But I guess there’s a reason we pay money to see people like that.”

      Here’s the link to the movie the quote comes from, if you haven’t already seen it.

      http://www.straightjacket-themovie.com/

      Reply
  • Hi Nicole. Everyday I bring my lunch and miscellaneous stuff to work in THIS BAG.:-)

    I can’t think of a specific instance where something made me change my mind. I think I’ve always been pretty go with the flow, however m/m in general has probably made me even more tolerant in that it exposed me to some things I simply never thought about or thought were “icky”. 🙂 I’ll use BDSM for an example. I’m still not interested in running out and trying myself to the wall for a good whipping, but I can understand people better who do and I think I view it in different terms than I did before, I can see how it works for some people and I’m less likely to think “ewww, weird”. It’s more like “Not my thing, but I get that it works for you.”

    I do think some of the frienships I’ve forged through this genre (and on-line in general) have certainly opened my eyes to what’s going on politically around the world. I’m not quite so oblivious because in Canada we don’t hear much in the news about GLBT battles elsewhere, Hawaii for example. If I hadn’t seen that on Twitter I wouldn’t have known they’ve passed the civil union law. So while I haven’t made as big of a decision as Amy based on anything I read, I think probably the little things add up.

    One vote doesn’t seem like a lot but every vote counts, they can’t all be dramatic wins.

    Reply
    • Hi there, Tam!

      First I’d like to say that I can’t think of a more noble use for the BEB tote than to keep women from hunger. 🙂

      And you know, even though I am actually a fairly political person, I, too, have found M/M websites to be quite informative, in terms of breaking news.

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  • Yes! When I was 12 or 13 (I’m about to turn 44) I found Joanna Russ’s “The Female Man” in the public library. It’s a science fiction novel that people either love or hate, and unlike a lot of feminist fiction that was then current, the characters aren’t particularly written dogmatically. They’re loud and passionate and sexual. She doesn’t let them be miserable and noble martyrs to patriarchy. They demand happiness.

    Oddly enough, or maybe not, it was through Russ that I first heard about about M/M erotica for women, specifically in her early 80s essay on Kirk/Spock.

    Reply
    • Hey GR–

      Yes! I read that Russ essay too way, way, way back in the day. I remember being baffled, yet weirdly intrigued by the K/S fanfictions that were showing up at the time. A friend of mine had dozens and dozens of them.

      Note to younger readers: This was before people posted things on the internet, so these fanfics were photocopied, comb-bound zines distroed on the downlow.

      One of the very first things I edited was my friend’s 100+ page novella for a “First Time” anthology.

      Wow…I haven’t thought about that in years.

      Reply
      • Yeah, mind-blowing to realize that you could read fun, dirty things like that!
        But overall, she really did give me a vision of what kind of woman/feminist/queer I could be.

        Reply
        • Again, I think it’s a testament to how fiction can build a framework for a not-yet-existent idea or concept of how people can be, if they choose.

          Reply

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