The Brokeback effect

How, pray tell, does one write a bodice-ripping historical romance when neither of the lovers wears a bodice? If it’s a homoerotic romance novel, try instead British naval uniforms or sweaty, half-naked blacksmiths.

And get ready for a big surprise: The target audience for these hunky chunks of beefcake love is heterosexual women. The novels are too heavy on romance and longing to really attract gay men, who tend to want more action than these decidedly soft-core sex scenes provide. Instead, readers are treated to the deep emotional lives of men who love each other—and the demographic that eats it up is straight women.

The straight feminine fascination for man-on-man action has a historical precedent; the first romantic fan fiction—stories written by fans about characters from a television show or film—consisted of love stories that featured Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock (of Star Trek fame). Their well-defined friendship wasn’t enough to meet the emotional needs of female fans, who scripted a romance that is alive and well on the Internet. (Just for fun, Google “Kirk Spock m/m fic.” But be warned: Some of it is explicit and certainly not safe for work!)

Call it the Brokeback Mountain effect. That heart-wrenchingly romantic tale of two cowboys in love—penned by a heterosexual woman, Annie Proulx—turned into a surprisingly popular movie. And guess what? Straight women loved it; that demographic is credited with much of the film’s box-office success.

Such “slash” fiction, so named because of the little symbol that is placed between the M’s to designate that it’s about two men in love, has found a happy home on the Web (alongside its lesbian equivalent, femslash). But in print, Running Press has done it first.

In Erastes’ Transgressions, David and Jonathan fall in love in a smithy, where David’s father has apprenticed the young Puritan Jonathan. The lovers are separated by Britain’s civil war, with David loyal to King Charles and Jonathan on the side of the Parliamentarians. The history’s fairly accurate, the writing’s pretty good, and the romance is both tender and hot.

A good deal of the conflict comes from the setting; England during Cromwell’s reign was hardly gay-friendly. But these men are in love with each other; the sex is hot and ever-present, but it’s not the raison d’être for the story.

The same is true of Alex Beecroft’s novel False Colors. John Cavendish, a British naval officer, has just been given command of the Meteor, his first ship, and his new executive officer is the good-looking Alfie Donwell. Think Patrick O’Brian goes Brokeback and the master gets commandeered pretty doggone well. The historical setting—in False Colors, it’s a short time before the American Revolution—still provides a great deal of the novel’s conflict (thought apparently buggery isn’t quite the sin onboard a boat that it is among the Puritans). Nonetheless, the focus of the novel remains on the emotional relationship between John and Alfie.

And yes, Beecroft is a straight woman. And Erastes is the nom de plume of a middle-aged straight woman.

Hey, we’ve long known that straight women and gay men can often be the best of friends. Why should we be surprised at overlapping tastes in men—and in men on men?