“Gay life is this object out there that’s waiting to be written about. A lot of people think we’ve exhausted all the themes of gay fiction, but we’ve just barely touched on them.” Edmund White
This is not a new idea: people have written about it before. I wrote about it in one of the earliest posts to this blog, here.
“We are serious people. We confronted AIDS. We survived Reagan and Bush (1) and Bush (2), we have learned to work the political system, we have gotten gay marriage in some places, and we have fought against DADT and are fighting against DOMA. We are transforming what marriage means in this country and what this country considers a family. As gay people, we have fought in the great battles of our time. We have been heroic and successful. We have been fighters. We have preserved those aspects of ourselves which were unique. But our literature doesn’t reflect these things.”
We haven’t learned how to get the real quality of our lives into our literature, and we seem to be content with light beach reading, adolescent coming out stories, gay sex-and-romance stories that all seem to have been written for the young adult market. That’s not what we are.
A cursory look at our literature suggests what we’re not focussing on—gay romantic relationships between mature adult gay men and women in love, gay social relationships, gay family relationships all of which move way beyond “coming out” issues, gay men and women in communal situations. Christopher Isherwood wrote about grief in A Single Man, and then Tom Ford, in 2012, made a perfect book into a perfect movie, about a man grieving for his lover in a culture that won’t recognize how deeply he is wounded. See here, and here. For predicaments that gay people find themselves in today, think of the Catholic Church. What crisis of faith are men and women—priests and nuns as well as lay people—in the Catholic Church experiencing as a result of the abuse of gay people by the Church? What gay person in the hierarchy of the church is experiencing what crisis of faith as marriage equality moves to more and more states? The church is in a bind from which there is no escape. More and more gay people are coming out, they are demanding equality, they are not going to accept the kind of solution the Church seems to be offering or can offer, given its current doctrines. And yet the Church has no where to go to escape the vast tidal wave of dissent that is approaching it. Then there is the part of our lives where we feel most acutely that we have been stigmatized or subjected to anti-gay violence. This is the part of our lives which is the subject of my novels, Ceremonies, Race Point Light, and Adam in the Morning. For several hundred years of the modern world gay people have been abused and stigmatized and, as a result, shown heroism and nobility. And where, as a consequence of all this, is our literature?
This is the way it works. A reader, seeking to buy a book on a particular subject, goes to his local bookstore and, not finding it, asks for it. “I’m looking for a novel about a gay priest and his crisis of faith.” When he doesn’t find it, the reader can ask the guy behind the desk. Eventually, his request—and his dissatisfaction with the books available to him in his local bookstore—make their way up the chain to the person who buys for that particular bookstore, and then perhaps further up the chain to the distributor (“These are the books I will offer to the bookstores in my district”) and finally to the publisher, who learns, “Customers are asking for novels on a gay priest and his crisis of faith.
If there actually are books about gay priests and their crisis of faith that the distributor can find and sell to his bookstores, then the problem is solved. But if there is no book that fits this description in the publisher’s list, this news must be passed to writers, who say to themselves, “It’s an interesting subject. I actually know a gay priest. I must spend time with him and find out more about his life.”
To address the fact that our literature doesn’t reflect our lives, the reader has responsibilities. If he is not satisfied in the bookstore, he ought to tell someone. “I want a big serious book that addresses the issues that I have to address!” But there is more to it than that. The reader has to know how to read. This weekend, I read a posting on DailyKos titled, “Books Go Boom! Why I fell in love again with the novel.” It’s a wonderful read. She says, “I found it an arduous mental trek to get all the way through a novel. Mostly because my attention span was shot.” Reading is work—it’s a collaborative effort between the reader and the writer that produces the narrative. She says, “My favorite novels contain more humanity, story, meaning, and the potential to imagine in every direction my mind can turn to.” It’s incumbent on the reader, holding the novel in his hands, to make an effort to match the writer’s imaginative suggestions, to be receptive to what the author is doing, to bring to this collaboration something commensurate with what the writer has offered.
A number of years ago, in the early nineties, OutWrite, the gay writer’s conference, was held in Boston, and a friend told me that, after the last session, eight or ten writers and agents and publisher’s representatives were having lunch. Somebody posed the question, What are the books that haven’t been written but should be written? A number of possibilities were tossed out, and then an agent from New York spoke up. “Somebody ought to write a novel about the murder of Charles Howard in Maine in 1984. He was chased and beaten and thrown off a bridge into a river, where he drowned.” My friend said, “But I know a man who has already written that book.” So this friend put me in touch with that agent, and it would have been a fairy-tale, if it had ended this way, because the agent read my book and told me on the phone, “This is a wonderful book.”
But it wasn’t a fairy-tale, because the agent then drew a breath, and the next thing she said was, “But no publisher in New York will publish it.”
And this takes us to the next part of this discussion of Edmund White’s comment on our current gay literature and how it has not done more than merely to scratch the surface of our lives.