Growing Up Reading Queer: The Legacy of Tragic Endings

I’m not sure when I knew I was queer, but it was early.

I grew up reading a hodgepodge of lit, most of it out of my age range like many good bookworms, but especially a lot of Harlequin romance novels. I loved historical, the more overwrought and corseted the better, and I don’t think I read anything written after 1998. It was a golden age of stylized covers and euphemistic language, all about the highs and lows of tragedy — and it was before the genre gradually rehauled itself to be less, uh, loose with consent and misogyny. It poured the honey of strife always, always leading to a happy ending directly inside my brain.

When I realized I wasn’t straight, I tried to find those sorts of stories written for people like me.

Spoiler alert: there weren’t a lot of lesbian romance novels, or gay romance novels, and the idea of romance with a bi or trans character was a joke no one actually laughed at.

I found a lot of nonfiction, and some poetry, but the sexy melodrama I wanted — the strife leading to a happy ending — was scarce or absent. Instead, I got fiction about a community struggling to survive. When what I found was agony and loss in the wake of oppression — and AIDs — it told me that it was what I could expect.

Stories about our agonies, big and small, are necessary. But we also need the flip-side of that coin: we need escapism, or hope, or just proof that we won’t die and that someone will love us.

Queer romance exploded with the popularity of ebooks in the mid-2000s. Since then, we’ve adopted a lot of the conventions from our heterosexual counterpart: clichéd covers, formulaic plots, and happy endings against all odds. At the same time, it’s a transformative genre that has gained its own quirks and tropes and drawbacks. Though there’s a hierarchy (White cisgender men loom large.), I can finally read meet-cutes and historicals and sci-fi about bi women like me. There are happy endings for trans folks, and asexual folks, and there’s even experimental fiction, dark fiction, and traditional literary fiction being published by LGBT romance houses now.

But before I had K. J. Charles, Josh Lanyon, and Radclyffe on my Kindle, on my bookshelf there was (and still is) E. M. Forster, Patricia Highsmith, Rita Mae Brown, James Baldwin, and Jim Grimsley.

I love Jim Grimsley, which is an awkward thing to say given that I’m shilling an interview with him. It turns out I’m not alone in my adoration; many of my friends poured out of the woodwork when I mentioned him. We’d all thrown ourselves on the sword of his work at pivotal points in our lives — and I mean that: his stuff is sharp, and it tends to hurt. Dream Boy was the first book of his I read at around age 14, after a trek up to Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, where I tucked myself into their towering shelves and didn’t come out for an hour.

After a few months into production of the podcast I co-host with Austin Chant about queer romance lit, The Hopeless Romantic, I started to think about Jim Grimsley. Austin and I had traced some of the origins of the genre, and we’d talked to some of our favorite people about important topics (like trans romance and bi romance and disability rep in the genre, and even an episode about sex scenes), and I’d talked at length about how important those first queer stories I’d read were and how they’d shaped me.

Since Grimsley is someone with a lasting impact on my feelings about queer literature and even being queer, the germ of an idea — What if I asked Jim Grimsley to be on the podcast? — took root. Eventually, I asked him; he said yes; after some scheduling snafus we finally managed it; and now there’s audio proof that Jim Grimsley is as thoughtful, kind, and talented as I hoped he might be. In the episode, he talks about his propensity for sadder subjects, the industry’s changing attitude toward queer fiction, and the autobiographical roots of some of his work.

Jim Grimsley’s work isn’t romance, and that genre division is part of the conversation about and within romance: where does the split between LGBTQIA fiction and LGBTQIA romance land, exactly? THR’s conversations frequently turn broad, as queer romance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a spin-off from the legacy of queer fiction before us, from mythology all the way down to Angels in America. Ignoring the bigger genre and ignoring the culture around us would make for an extremely boring podcast.

In a time when queer characters in mainstream media are still killed off and denied happy endings and when queer stories seem like fodder for straight audiences, I think a lot of us still turn to books to find ourselves. The fourteen-year-olds of now should be able to find the tragedies, literary fiction, and nonfiction of our past and present, but stories should be written for them, for malleable teenagers. They deserve stories where they don’t die and someone loves them.

Now they can have that. They can have it because authors and books about systemic oppression and loss laid the groundwork for genres like queer YA and romance. It’s a bittersweet genre, and it can’t be divorced from its legacy.

Check out the “Grim Jim” episode of The Hopeless Romantic: