The Emotional Toll of Romance

If you haven’t caught wind of the whole Santino Hassell saga yet, I’m sure you will soon enough. Twitter and Facebook will get you up to speed. 

But, where do we go from here?

M/M Romance as a subgenre has had its fair share of hot mess catfish stories. Many of them took place before my time as a reader and author. I’d heard about them because a convincing catfish story never dies. I think this is different, on a variety of levels. It’s more than just a team pretending to be a single entity. It’s more than marital status. It’s about claiming an identity(ies): bisexual, immigrant, etc. It’s about hurting people emotionally. It’s about manipulating the narrative to suit your needs. It’s about shaming victims. It’s about fostering an environment where cyberbullying is seen as an acceptable option when you’re under scrutiny. 

But of course, we may never get the entire truth because “Santino” might never admit culpability or how far back the untruths go. And I will use “he” because that’s how I knew this person. I believed I fostered a friendship with a single dad who was a bisexual man. The emotional manipulation on his part has been an ongoing thing, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I’m sure I’ll land on a few “DO NOT EVER BUY” lists after this, but it’s quite all right. I am fully secure with speaking my truth. To those who say they “only care about the books and not the drama,” YOU are part of the problem. This is not simply “drama,” this is tainting an entire subgenre. It’s promoting misogyny and toxic masculinity. It’s about causing readers to lose faith in authors. 

Romance authors create worlds. We create escapes. We make people feel good. We save the world with happily ever afters and happy for nows. We make the awful disappear for a bit with our words. 

I cried. I cried when the stories about Santino finally started to sink in. As a reader I was hurt, as an author, I was devastated. 

We never want to believe the people we like/love are capable of doing horrible things. 

The folks who have stepped up to take down problematic people in Hollywood, in YA, in the music industry DO NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY. It’s not like these people woke up one morning and said, “Let’s ruin some careers!” They were hurt, wronged, taken advantage of, and they fought back. The women and men involved in this situation are no different. They broke their silence and spoke up. 

The thing that stings most about this debacle is how difficult Santino has made it for WoC and PoC to make significant headway in queer Romance. I remember a discussion I had with him recently. I said, “I can write the same material as you, talk about the Bronx (which I have) and the other lesser known and grungy parts of NYC, and although I may not write as well as you, I will never have the same audience. White people are okay reading about people of color in a digestible form. A cis white man writing about gay/bi men who are Latino, gender non-conforming, asexual, biracial, is A-okay. A black woman, a Latinx person, an Asian person writing about the same topics will never have the same traction as you. We will never get the same coverage.” He admitted I was right and said reading my words made him sad. 

Santino opened the door for queer Romance to break into mainstream Romance within the last two years. And as an aside, say his wife (a Latina) was indeed the person writing the books, HOW FREAKING COOL WOULD IT HAVE BEEN TO KNOW A WOC IS A DOMINATING FORCE IN GAY ROMANCE? She had the talent and the platform and could have used it to her advantage. A great opportunity was missed. 

But, he did his part to help amplify my voice. Some people are aware of who I am only because of my friendship with Santino Hassell. I didn’t friend him to get noticed. I’m not the starfucker type. I didn’t friend him to gain clout. I befriended him because I adored his words. I found him to be incredibly talented. But, it’s what I do. I forge close friendships with authors whose work I enjoy. And I will scream just how much I love said work from the rooftops, but now, I’ve had to face the fact that the friendship I thought existed didn’t. The person I thought I knew, isn’t real. The person(s) behind the persona hurt a lot of people and caused some deep, deep, deep pain. I feel betrayed. I feel let down. But this is not about me. It’s not about my feelings and my hurt. It’s about the people who have been relentless for over a year and felt like they were shouting into the void. This will always be about those women and men who were taken advantage of. The victims of this emotional turmoil are the folks who deserve our attention. 

The knee-jerk reaction to automatically defend someone who you believe is being doxxed because of what *they* said without further investigation is so, so, so worrisome. His former agent said in a now-deleted tweet something to the effect of readers, “…aren’t owed anything other than books…” Santino’s accusers were asking for clarification regarding things SANTINO HIMSELF SAID. Not anything new. Just what was presented to the public by HIM. How hard is that to do? It doesn’t involve being invasive. It doesn’t involve revealing any more personal details. It only involves clarification regarding previous statements, and that did not happen. Instead, they were attacked, blocked, and slandered. 

There were inconsistencies in correspondence between Santino and myself, but even without those things, I would not have inserted myself into any conversation defending him. Not because “he’s a cool guy,” or “I met him at a few cons,” or some other justification. My reason for being slow to react is that he was ALWAYS kind to me. ALWAYS. Our interactions were nothing but pleasant (shit talking aside). I have no vendetta against this person. No ill will. No excitement to see his demise. Santino has always been helpful anytime I needed him. But even so, I did, and do, not think he is beyond reproach. No one is infallible. 

We never want to believe the people we like/love are capable of doing bad things. 

As I stated above, where do we go from here? 

The majority of Romance writers are women. And as women, we owe it to ourselves to do better. Authors of M/M Romance who are women, we owe it to ourselves not to fetishize gay/bi men in the stories we craft. Gay/bi men aren’t caricatures. We can do so much for this subgenre if only we worked a little harder. 

As Romance writers, don’t champion a cause if you aren’t truly willing to do the work. If your words are just lip service, don’t speak. 

Want to see more diversity/inclusion in Romancelandia? Include it in your stories. It won’t always be representation in #ownvoices form because publishers are lagging behind, but it’s something. And something is far better than nothing. 

Don’t fall back on excuses about not wanting to get it wrong. Make some friends. The Internet is at your fingertips. Join local writing groups. Get to know PoC as more than props and stereotypes. Read books written for, by, and about PoC. Read books for, by, and about queer people. Read books with Muslim protagonists that aren’t full of incendiary language. Get to know people who differ from YOU. No matter the size of your platform, signal boost marginalized voices. Do. The. Work. And be authentic about it, please. Please. 

Want to destroy stereotypes about Romance readers? Diversify what you read in the genre. Switch subgenres to keep up with what’s out there. You also don’t always have to read traditionally pubbed authors. There are tons of indie authors waiting for a space on your Kindle. 

Call out problematic behavior on and off the page. As the MTA says, “If you see something, say something.” WE ALL TALK. Bloggers, authors, Goodreads users, talk to each other and yet no one wanted to come forward in this situation for fear of reprisal. That scares me. We couldn’t have an honest talk about what was going on because people were being blacklisted, blocked, threatened, etc. We have to learn to listen. Listen to readers. Listen to other authors. Listen in general. We can’t have tunnel vision because someone is a friend. 

Overall, be more critical with your observations. 

I think Romancelandia will recover from this, but personally, I have an entirely new outlook. I still want to see the best in people, but I’m also waiting for the other shoe to drop because it very well could be possible that my next fave author is problematic as hell, too. 

Using Format