My rating: 1 of 5 stars
A friend of mine commented recently that she does not like to read authors who are unfamiliar to her. She prefers tried-and-tested books that deliver the same effect, and perform the same function, over and over again.
Given the little free time she has, in-between the demands of work, home and friends, the last thing you want to do is curl up with a book that you actively dislike, or maybe even despise, or which (heaven forbid) is boring.
Of course, I sympathise with this sentiment. This is one of the reasons why I have so many different books at various stages of ‘being read’, as it often depends on my mood, energy level or particular interest what I feel like reading.
I do feel, however, that you do yourself a disservice as a reader if you do not experiment a bit in your reading. The benefits of discovery and growth far outweigh the danger of stepping outside of a comfort zone.
But I will never presume to judge other readers. Whatever you read – be it Stephanie Meyer or Michel Foucault – the fact is that you are reading. Hamlet’s comment that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could apply equally to the diverse communities of genres, authors and readers out there.
Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Ink by Isabelle Rowan: you could say I popped my MM cherry with this, my first experience of the genre – which apparently is bristling with homely women writing erotic gay fiction dripping with bodily fluids. This piqued my curiosity, as I read a lot of gay literay (literary gay?) fiction.
In response to the question of why (straight) women write (gay) fiction, MM author Amy Lane was quoted on www.likesbooks.com as saying that “love is redemptive, and if any group needs the redemptive qualities of love, it is gay men.” Z.A. Maxfield said that “what was missing from previous gay fiction was the happy ending.” Personally I think that both these sentiments are risible; clearly these female authors promote an idealised view of gay life and sexuality that has little to do with reality, gay or otherwise, coming to think of it.
Anne Tenino commented that MM authors brought ‘romance’ to gay fiction; Josephine Myles said she felt “like a man” when she wrote MM fiction, which entailed a different power dynamic to straight female relationships. The latter comment is interesting because it ignores the fact that gay relationships have power dynamics like any other, particularly with regard to sexual roles (such as ‘top’ and ‘bottom’).
Increasingly then one gets the feeling that MM fiction promotes an idealised world of sexuality-without-consequences, where partners are ‘equal’ and indulge in provocative desires with an attitude that is more permissive than it is liberated.
It is unlikely that Ink is completely representative of this genre, of course. Reading it though has made me curious to try a few more books by different authors, if only to better understand the genre tropes a little better.
Reading this also reminds me how difficult it is to write erotic fiction. Ink attempts to straddle a rather fine line between soft-core innuendo and outright explicitness. There are lots of bits like “Take me into you, Michael” that flirt with anal penetration … but when it comes to the Big Seduction, the sentence that “he nudged the head against Michael’s puckered entrance and began the slow push in” is so droll that it jettisons the reader from the narrative. (From a reader’s point of view, I was also curious as to why Michael was the passive partner specifically; it would have been far better if this had been a ‘flip-flop’, in keeping with the genre’s presumed aim of [gay] sexual equality.)
The reason that this is as explicit as it gets though is, I feel, due to the author’s fundamental lack of understanding of the precise mechanics of gay anal intercourse, in particular. In general there is a lot of staring-into-other’s-eyes and throbbing-members-in-jeans-rubbed-together. (The technical term for this, of course, is ‘frottage’).
The novel’s sole female protagonist, Abby, comes across as a Yoda-like figure, dispensing Hallmark platitudes and feminine insight, but without a hint of her own sexuality. When Michael tells her that his latest boyfriend is, well, a vampire, she does not even blink, and just tells him to “be safe”.
It is Abby that believes in the ‘true love’ that Michael and Dominic share, and that guides the story to its resolute climax of acceptance, reward and disaster avoided. It is clear that Abby is a stand-in for Isabelle Rowan herself, as this is the character that indisputably conveys the ‘moral’ of the story.
Galen, the eternal child vampire conflicted by his nature as a killer and his faded humanity, is very reminiscent of Godrick from the HBO series True Blood, while the idea of a vampire surviving from Roman times has been explored by writers such as Michael Schiefelbein.
There is nothing wrong with using genre tropes though; it just depends how you invigorate them. It is here that Ink blotches its own copybook, as this is rather an anaemic take on vampiric lore. Rowan offers a fumbled explanation of her vampires not being entirely dead, which is why they have sufficient blood circulation to maintain a hard-on. (Glen Duncan’s take on vampiric fuckery is far more transgressive in this regard).
The most interesting part of this novel is its setting, namely the tattoo parlour called Ink. A great idea would have been to focus exclusively on this establishment and to follow it and its vampire management through the ages.
So … in my humble estimation, both gay and vampire fans are likely to be disappointed by this. It remains to ponder what general MM readers make of it. I suppose it satisfies the genre’s general requirement for romanticised titillation, focusing on an idealised and unattainable (gay) relationship.
My biggest problem here is that there is a worrying under-current of anti-gay sentiment that Rowan was probably completely oblivious to. Michael’s fight against his ‘true’ nature, and trying not to give in to his urges, can easily be read as someone struggling to come to terms with being gay, which here is equated with the ‘unnatural’ scourge of vampirism. Perhaps this is reading far too much into such a slender tale, but I think authors need to be aware of the possible interpretations and implications of their work, whether implicit or explicit.