Joan/Sarah F at Dear Author has a fascinating and nuanced post up about the ethics and politics of historical accuracy in m/m historical romance. This sounds like an issue with a very narrow audience, and some of you might (and certainly are) saying, "Oh, I'm not a romance reader" or "m/m romance? Are these words coming out of your mouth even the English language?".
Admittedly, this isn't a genre of romance I've ventured into, but it is a booming one, and one in which a lot of issues of theoretical, readerly, and academic interest are being raised. The largest of these is this: why is this genre, which takes gay men as its subject, mostly being produced and consumed by straight women? (My favorite line of this article? “You don’t have to commit murder to write a good mystery.”) What are the ethics of this, and what are we to make of its aesthetics (or erotics)? In other words, what does this say about the nature of desire and literary identification?
But Joan/Sarah F. raises a whole array of other scholarly issues. First, and most important for scholars of the novel or the romance:
She then goes on to address the problem of identity as historically contingent: in other words, it was only in the last century that the idea of homosexuality as identity (as opposed to a set of discrete actions) comes into clear being. It hardly seems coincidental that this shift occurs in tandem with the inward turn of humanism and the Enlightenment.Only the 18th century could have made the idea of marrying for love the dominant narrative. For reasons both social (rise of middle class, literacy, leisure time, disposable income) and technological (paper, printing, book binding), only the 18th century could have invented and popularized the novel. And, most importantly, only the 18th Century could have focused that novel on the feminine and the domestic, on the ways in which two people negotiate their love, form a relationship, and become the ideal social unit. We think about love and relationships the way we do today because of the 18th century and, in unavoidably connected ways, we read the romance novels we read today because of the 18th century roots of the novel.
Because of this, she goes on to say, post-Renaissance historical romance can examine the role of romantic love in claiming the liberties of individual rights, establishing the nature of modern privacy, and outlining the physical body as one boundary between personal freedom and social power:
She concludes by extending this move from the ethical realm to the political one:writing about a man in the eighteenth century, who is what we would now consider gay, fall[ing] in love with another man entails detailing how he comes to realize that he CAN fall in love with his sexual partner. [...] More importantly, to have historical m/m romance claim the same narrative as m/f romance, a narrative that is inextricably intertwined in the political, social, and civil rights of the individual to choose their own destiny, makes writing m/m romance a political act, and writing accurate m/m historical romance vitally important.
Even if you aren't a reader of romance, take a look at her post: it raises important issues about the ways romantic love and an Enlightenment conception of personal liberty are entwined with the very nature of the novel itself.The historical accuracy of the way people thought about themselves, about love, about sex, about IF they could fall in love and WHO they could fall in love with, the etymology of the terminology they used to imagine their relationships, is vital to the progress of their relationship because the very WORDS we use define how we think and how we see and interact with our world. So why write m/m HISTORICAL romance if you’re not going to play around with that?