“My God, you’re a man!” It was a line I heard over and over again at a party thrown by the women’s fiction arm of my publisher earlier this year. And it’s little wonder; of the 29 authors there, I was the only man. And as such I was treated as a novelty, with some guests openly regarding me with suspicion.
But research shows that this wariness towards male authors writing for women isn’t without foundation; according to the website Goodreads, female readers think they’re much more likely to enjoy novels written by other women. In fact, of the 50 books published last year that were most read by women, 45 were by female authors.
So, I’m here to defend myself – and to put the case for male authors who write for women. Because I like writing for women. For a start, the vast majority of readers of commercial fiction are women, with women much less likely to look down on the kind of romantic comedies or sexy thrillers I write as fluffy or lightweight. More to the point, I’ve found that women tend to be more interested in expressing, or just exploring, their emotions than men are. And this is what interests me as a writer.
But let’s be straight up: there’s no way I can tell you more than a female author can about what it means to be a woman. What I can offer you, though, is a different perspective on what it means to be a human being living in today’s world. And I think a gay man’s perspective is a unique one; now that homophobia is gradually dying out, we’re lucky enough to be invited into the straight women’s world and the straight man’s world. And this gives us a fascinating insight into the differences between the two. (Yes, men do tend to talk about their relationships much less than women and I’m afraid they’re less likely to notice – never mind appreciate – jewellery and shoes.)
I think a gay man’s perspective a unique one; we’re lucky enough to be invited into the straight women’s world and the straight man’s world
Yet, even though we’ve achieved equality, at the same time all gay men over the age of 30 know how it feels to suffer, to be told we’re disgusting and not good enough simply because of who we are. This can lead to the kind of self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour that affects people of both sexes and all sexual orientations for a wide range of reasons – and it’s one of the things I explore in my new novel, Nothing But Trouble. As a gay male author who’s had his own struggles in life, I like to think this instinct is something I understand.
I also like to think my books are raunchy fun. Because we’re defined by what we do in bed, people expect gay men to be sexually frank and they tell us all kinds of intimacies, many of which I channel into my sex scenes. This also fosters an outrageous and sometimes shocking sense of humour; it’s no coincidence that the TV series Sex And The City, although based on the novel by Candace Bushnell, was written predominantly by gay men, who helped build on the camp humour of the source material.
But I’m not just gay and I’m not just a man. I’m also an uncle, a brother, a friend and a boyfriend. I’m from a typical working family in the north of England, I worked in TV and the creative industries for 15 years and I struggled with an addiction to booze and bad boys for most of my twenties. All of these things have fed into my writing – just as everything you’ve ever experienced in your life will influence your responses to the books you read.
Of course, it’s perfectly natural for a reader to be drawn towards books by a writer of the same sex, or, for that matter, from the same country or social background. But, at the same time, surely one of greatest pleasures of reading is being able to experience the lives of characters very different to yourself, putting yourself inside their heads and hearts and exploring their inner worlds? Not only is this fascinating and fun, but I believe it increases our capacity for empathy. Reading makes us better people and, if everyone read more widely, the world would be a better place.
So, I can’t promise any insights into what it means to be a woman in my novels. To be honest, I can’t even describe women’s clothes without looking at fashion magazines to steal ideas for outfits worn by my characters. But I hope I’ve explained what male writers like me can offer. And I hope, the next time I go to a publishing party, I won’t have to spend most of the night defending my gender.