A strange curse lies over the family of Lord Crane, and after the murder of his father and his brother, someone is now apparently trying to kill him, too. The magician Stephen Day is called in to the rescue, saves Crane from almost certain death, and the two of them embark on a journey in pursuit of the mysterious murderer.
That is the plot of “The Magpie Lord,” the first volume in the romantic trilogy “A Charm of Magpies,” which focuses on a love story between two men, against the backdrop of the gray landscapes of 19th-century England.
LISTEN: Director Rama Burshtein opens up on romance and religion
Everything that happens in the book – tormented passions, threatening dangers and numerous obstacles on the way to fulfilling their love – could seem familiar to faithful readers of the romance genre, but is takes place between men. And it is not alone. “A Charm of Magpies” is one of a flood of romantic LGBTQ novels that have filled Israel’s bestseller list in the past year.
“’Lord Magpie’ is the first volume of a trilogy that has done everything possible to drive the audience away,” says Shani Weisselberg, co-director of the romance genre-oriented Facebook group “All That Romance.” “It’s a romantic story between two gay men within the fantasy genre, which is not successful in Israel. It’s high society and transpires in the 19th century.”
Even though all those factors should have made female readers reject the book immediately, “what happened was insane,” recalls Weisselberg, whose Hebrew-language group has about 50,000 members. “During Hebrew Book Week the publisher ran out of the books. I saw [publisher] Dorit Tamir frantically demanding, ‘Bring me copies!’ And that’s only one example that shows you how eager the audience is for these books.”
“I didn’t believe what was happening during Book Week,” confirms Tamir. “The events began on Wednesday. I brought lots of copies. By Thursday, all the copies were completely gone. Suddenly lots of young people started coming, and they simply bought everything. I approached my distributor in hysterics. They opened the warehouse especially for me on Friday to bring me more books, and this insanity continued in the following days, too. I’ve never seen such a thing.”
How do you explain it?
“The audience that came and grabbed the books were young people aged 15 to 22 who read blogs, understand what’s happening abroad, spend a lot of time on TikTok and Instagram and know exactly what they want. There was insane hype on social media regarding the book. Not a day goes by without a story about it. They came already knowing what they’re looking for. These young people are living with the issue of sexual identities and they’re dying to read literature about it.”
- What it really means to be queer and Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank
- André Aciman on the Parallels Between Jews and Gays, and His New Novel 'Find Me'
- Two Men and Three Adopted Kids: How Parenthood Changed Israeli LGBTQ Families
- Nazis, sex and Stasi paranoia: Cruising through gay life in Cold War Germany
Since its inception, the romance genre has dealt with classical heterosexual relationships. He, usually successful and filthy rich, met Her, a local Cinderella, and they fell in love and married with a sunset in the background. But there has been a revolution in the past 15 years. The rise of Amazon, websites with fan picks and fan literature have led to a massive development of romance subgenres, such as suspense, science fiction, historical or erotic romances. If you fantasized about it – you could read it.
And within all this joyous celebration, LGBTQ romance books have also grown. Rolling Stone magazine recognized this subgenre already in 2010 as one of the hottest literary trends.
The trend has become only stronger in recent years. According to NPD BookScan, about 850,000 out of 47 million print romantic novels sold in the United States in 2021 were LGBTQ romances – twice as many as in 2020. Print sales of such books have jumped 740 percent within five years, at a time when some public libraries and schools in the United States have banned books for children and young adults featuring LGBTQ characters.
This trend is continuing in Israel, too. Just look at the flood of books translated into Hebrew and published here in recent years. Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue,” which is now being adapted into a film on Amazon Prime with Uma Thurman and Stephen Fry, describes a relationship between the son of the female president of the United States and the British crown prince, who is transformed in the story from an enemy into a lover.
Alexis Hall’s “Boyfriend Materal” depicts the budding romance between a young British man and a conservative barrister. The list also includes “Heartstopper,” “Him,” “Bully King” and many more. According to publishing house figures and the book app “Ivrit,” many thousands of copies of these books were sold during the first months after their release and are still selling.
Promoting an agenda
“Boyfriend Material” was one of the big commercial surprises of the past year. It shaped to a large extent the way in which the Israeli market regards the genre. “The agency that represented it sent the book to all the publishing houses,” says Ziv Cohen of Sela Books.
“I read the synopsis and I went for it without reading the whole book before acquiring it. I wasn’t aware of the crazy hype surrounding it. I told the agency in the U.S. that it won’t sell even 200 copies in Israel, and that I was only doing it to promote an agenda of LGBT literature. Understand, it was sent everywhere and no publisher believed in it.”
When did you realize that you had a bestseller on your hands?
“I held a vote on the ‘All That Romance’ Facebook group to select the title for the book, and that’s where I started to understand what was happening. I’d never dealt with the romantic genre before. Suddenly, I discovered the tremendous hunger for these books. I was sure the audience would be only LGBTQ readers, and we invested a lot of resources in an ad campaign on Grindr. Ultimately, thought, 98 percent of the people who bought it were women aged 14 to 60.
"I never thought that an LGBTQ romantic comedy would speak to women in such a wide age range and I certainly didn’t expect it to do so well. We launched it with a digital version and it sold thousands of copies within two weeks. It topped the stores’ bestseller lists. We printed a first edition of 3,000 copies. Stores were getting so many orders that we printed another 3,000.”
Except that bookstores didn’t know where to place “Boyfriend Material.”
“At first, they put it in the young adult section, or the prose or romance section, but they were getting swamped with orders. When they saw it was a big deal, they moved it to the main areas and put it center-stage,” Cohen says. “Young people these days are on TikTok and blogs. They know about everything. They wait for books to come out. There was so much hysteria surrounding this book that the bookstores ended up building special display areas for it.”
This book opened the door for other publishing houses. “’Boyfriend Material’ did me and the genre a terrific service, because it was displayed and did very well,” Tamir says. “When ‘Magpie Lord’ came out, I wanted it to be placed next to similar books. If it were the same story except with a man and woman as the protagonists, they would immediately toss it on the shelf of the romantic novels, but ‘Boyfriend Material’ went on display even though it’s obviously an LGBTQ book.”
The commercial trend may be new, but romantic literature featuring two male protagonists was not invented yesterday. The roots of the genre can be traced back to E. M. Forster’s “Maurice,” written in 1914 but only published posthumously, in 1971. Although “Maurice” belongs to the belle-lettres category, it still meets all the rules of the romantic genre – a love story with a happy ending.
Forster wrote: “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows.”
Forster’s insistence on a happy ending made it impossible for the book to be published in Britain, where homosexual relations were outlawed until 1967. Pointing out the great hypocrisy of the situation, Forster noted, “If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well… But the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.”
“In the past, things were not so explicit,” says Yoav Reiss, head of Persimmon Books, which published a Hebrew translation of the novel. “When Maurice finally finds physical happiness, it is understood from the context and not from what is described in the book. Still, the book was pioneering in telling us that love between men can have a happy ending, which is something that didn’t exist in literature before then.”
Liberation from restrictions
One of the interesting anomalies regarding LGBTQ romance novels is that the majority of its readers are straight women. “Romantic literature is very patriarchal. Usually you’ll have the voluptuous woman and the man with the sexy arms, and I’m not comfortable with it,” says Dr. Keren Landesman, an expert in epidemiology and public health who also runs the Israeli Facebook group “Queer Romantic Literature.”
“But as soon as you move into LGBTQ literature, we’re no longer confined to the gender roles in which a male has to save a female. Then you can tell stories that are liberated from the social restrictions that we impose on our world.”
“Stories that are about dealing with body image, or with sexual identity. This literature challenges your basic assumptions, and that is the role of literature. Also, the genre has evolved. A decade ago, it was mainly stories about coming out of the closet and coping with homophobia. Now it also talks about how to balance career and family. The whole range has expanded.
"There are characters who span the entire trans spectrum and have a variety of sexual identities. Some books refer to characters as ‘them’ without making a big deal out of it, when the conflict has nothing to do with gender identity and could be about their job being in Toronto while they live in Florida, so what are they going to do now?”
“There are things I’m not ready to accept in straight novels, but that I am ready to accept here,” Tamir says. “A relationship in which one of the parties is weak and the other is strong, or one is rich and one is poor. Or even the scene in which the hero presses the heroine to the wall and kisses her. Between a man and a woman, I interpret that as an assault bordering on rape, but between men, when they both belong to the stronger sex, I’m okay with it. Then I can see the passion.
"There are a lot of assumptions about relationships between men and women that I can’t accept in straight literature, but here those restrictions don’t apply because the relationship is more equal to begin with. The plot of ‘Magpie Lord’ takes place in the 19th century, when in the parallel straight literature the premise is that the women are all virgins until marriage. Until then, she just bats her eyes and the whole story is built up very slowly until the sex. Here it’s the opposite. The closeness between the pair comes from the sex, and only afterwards do they start to develop feelings for each other.”
Gali Weinreb, who wrote the 2016 book “Mitztaynim,” which revolves around a homosexual relationship, says patriarchy tipped the balance for her, too. “‘Mitztaynim’ deals with growing up in the academic world and tries to look at how the home we come from affects who we are in a relationship,” she says.
“I’m straight, but as I was writing, I understood that the male characters were headed toward a romance. I really liked that because it freed me from inserting male-female relations into the book. There is so much preoccupation and so much material on this question. You’re so caught up in a stereotype, that there is no room left to tell a story beyond that. I wanted the characters here to be grappling with class divisions and with their nuclear families. Adding all that to the built-in differences between a man and woman would have knocked the book off-balance.
“These books give us a break from the way women are usually judged, from descriptions of the woman’s body. If the book’s heroine is described as ‘beautiful,’ it might make me feel inferior. And even if she’s described as ‘fat and attractive,’ what does that say about all the other overweight women and the attitude toward obesity? I don’t have patience for all that. While I know all these things exist in the world, I want a break from all that when I’m reading the genre.”
The audience wants more
LGBTQ literature is a generic name. but the main characters in most of these books are gay men. Love stories between lesbians are much less popular. “Online surveys we conducted clearly showed that 70 percent wouldn’t read a romance between two women. Only half wouldn’t read a romance between men, and that’s a significant gap,’ says Weisselberg.
“Internationally, too, there is much greater demand for romantic literature about gay men. I can understand it. I’m straight, I’m attracted to men, I won’t read a book about lesbians because I won’t be attracted to the heroines. These books often contain detailed sex scenes, and the sex has to speak to you.
"This affects the publishing houses’ choices, too. Until 2014, there was no romantic genre here at all. The big publishers wanted nothing to do with it. So, queer literature was certainly out of the question. When Limor Moyal published 'Merkavot Ba’Ayalon' in 2015, a romance novel with gay characters, no publisher would chance it. She self-published it and it sold like mad. Publishers have started publishing these books, but they won’t do it if they feel the financial risk is too big. And right now, publishing lesbian literature is too risky.”
“I’m a political person, very left-wing and liberal, a supporter of LGBTQ rights. I think popular literature is an excellent way to reach people,” Moyal says. “I wanted to change perceptions about the LGBTQ community. But I didn’t have any illusions that the big publishers would bet on a pioneering homoerotic book. Their thinking was that I am writing for gay men. That’s a very small market. So I published it independently. The first edition sold out in a month.
"I immediately printed a second edition. Five thousand copies flew out the door. Readers loved the book. It definitely has to do with the fact that the protagonists are gay men. Lesbian romantic literature does not sell nearly as well. Basically, women, who are 80-90 percent of the genre’s readers, are mainly straight. They like men, so if you bring them two then all the better.”
Nonetheless, there are budding signs of change. A number of publishing houses have acquired translation rights for lesbian romances. Books with trans characters have been published in Israel and done well.
“We published ‘Bully King,’ a book with difficult triggers – violence, bullying, sexual harassment, suicidal thoughts,” says Galit Uzan Malka, a partner in Turquoise Publishers. “The plot is set in a puritanical town in America and we knew we were taking a crazy chance with it. We published it with some trepidation but there was suddenly a huge buzz around it and it was snapped up. A lot of teens heard about it on TikTok.
"Then we published the sequel, about Dean, a trans man who hasn’t undergone full surgical reassignment. He works as a mechanic and he meets Taylor who is bisexual. Dean lives with the feeling that he is faulty and dirty; he can’t feel comfortable anywhere. He feels he’s neither completely a man nor really a woman. He can’t find love. He has no place in the world – until he meets Taylor, who accepts him as he is. It’s a very beautiful love story.”
“When Bully King came out, the sales were crazy, but we only really understood what was happening during Book Week when waves of young people who had come just for this book thronged our stand. We didn’t get it at first. Then we discovered this whole world on TikTok that we weren’t aware of, where ‘Bully King’ is the star. We feel that we managed to shatter the glass ceiling for this genre in terms of readers, who today want a lot more than a formulaic love story.”
Not only are LGBTQ lit readers mainly women, so are the writers. And as the genre surges, the question arises whether there is any problem with straight women being the ones writing romantic and erotic books about gay men.
“This is a general question about literature,” Tamir says. “When David Grossman wrote ‘To the End of the Land,’ did he do it less well than if a woman would have? It depends on the writer. I have a problem with the idea that only Blacks can write about Blacks and only men can write about men. A good writer can write anything. When someone objects to a Black woman writing a white male character, it’s for political reasons. It’s not about whether she is doing it well.”
Dr. Landesman also weighs in on the issue of straight women writing about gay men. “Opponents say it’s fetishization of men. It’s true that some of the books border on pornography, and if there’s anyone who knows what it’s like to be objectified it’s women. But if you look at the pornography out there today, it mainly portrays women who were filmed or written about by men, so let’s have perspective. I think that thousands of years of patriarchy ought to just sit quietly by for half an hour and let us read the story we feel like reading.”