Writers write about political subjects all the time—Henry James wrote about the place of women in late nineteenth century England, and Charles Dickens wrote about the legal system and the poor in the nineteenth century, William Faulkner wrote about black people in the 1920s and 1930s, who “endured,” he said. Yet Jonathan Franzen, on July 31, 2016, on Slate, when asked what kind of novels he wrote, said, “Well, they ain’t political novels, that’s for sure.” Even though we’re accustomed to political subjects, political novels have a bad reputation, and it is unclear why that is so.
First, definitions. A political novel could be Advise and Consent, by Alan Drury, about the confirmation hearings of a Secretary of State, where the characters are politicians, and the conflict the novel depicts arises out of the responsibilities of politicians. This is fairly straightforward stuff. There are also novels about political situations with political characters but which are not really “political novels.” All the King’s Men, for example, is about a governor of Louisiana, Willie Stark, and also about a political reporter Jack Burden. Robert Penn Warren says All the King’s Men is not about politics and not about life seen as a series of political choices or public policy. What it is about, is a series of themes—responsibility, guilt, time—that are explored. So Warren says. It may be true that people are not agreed on what a political novel actually is. See Thomas Mallon in the New Yorker.
It may be true that most novels, to some degree, are “about” politics. Pride and Prejudice may be thought to be about Elizabeth Bennet’s need to find a man to marry, but it is also an analysis of the economic condition of women in 1810 as they affect a young woman trying to decide how to live her life. The laws governing entail and the legal status of women in England in 1810 meant that women like Elizabeth Bennet had no option but to find a man. They had to marry, and if she wants to find a handsome, rich man, who is sexually agreeable, the context of her story gives urgency to her search. Every word of Pride and Prejudice is about Elizabeth’s attempts to maintain her freedom in a world where women were not considered free—while men were. P&P is about a lot more than a young woman finding a man who is good looking and rich.
Most gay novels have not been much concerned with politicians or with public policy. We have tended to focus most strongly on the intensely personal crises of the individual—In Search of Lost Time, Maurice, The Dancer from the Dance, A Single Man, A Boy’s Own Story, The City and the Pillar, Faggots, The City of Night, Nightwood—where the society in which a character lives is often sketched in while the author focusses on some other aspect of his life. In this way these novels may be like All the King’s Men. Christopher Isherwood suggests what it was like to be gay in Southern California in the early nineteen-sixties. George, while grieving for his lover, is thinking of a heterosexual neighbor who thinks she is being progressive by quoting from a psychology book about homosexuals: “But your book is wrong, Mrs. Strunk, says George, when it tells you that Jim [George’s lover] is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife. Jim wasn’t a substitute for anything. And there is no substitute for Jim, if you’ll forgive my saying so, anywhere.” It is a moment in the book, when the nasty news of the world George lives in rises to the surface, exhales a belch, and then subsides. It happens in a few other places too. Isherwood assumes the reader knows very well that George’s world hates George, so he doesn’t make much of an effort to lay out the details of this hatred.
Because of this, while Isherwood’s book is a beautiful book, it doesn’t describe the world I have lived in most of my life where my most intimate feelings are inextricably bound up in the public matters. Many of my friends are deeply political people, and even if they don’t talk about politics very much, they are aware of the policies of the government and of their effect on our lives. This has been true since Stonewall, and probably in some places even before that. Men and women—usually I would guess in separate gatherings—argue about the condition of being gay in America. They are interested in the McCarthy hearings in the late forties, drenched as they were in homoeroticism, homophobia, and anti-semitism, and they have been interested in the military rules against letting homosexuals serve and in the other areas of twentieth century culture—the churches, diplomacy, teaching among them—in which being homosexual was forbidden. They would be interested in the questions, How did this happen? What are its effects? How exactly does the President’s new proposal or the Supreme Court’s new decision afffect me? What am I going to do about it? How does this change the way I have to address my choices?
I was aware from about thirteen years old that my being homosexual prevented me from serving in the military and from serving in the Foreign Service. The importance of my sexuality—which I was just discovering—was growing larger and moving closer to the center of my life. These were political questions that occupied me, but the novels that were being written at the time did not reflect this importance. I couldn’t find any novels whose protagonist was experiencing anything like what I was experiencing, even though prose fiction was supposed to be the genre that gave most importance to realism, that is, to a depiction of the recognizable reality of the lives we live.
What I was experiencing was a massive invasion of my privacy by a government at all levels which did not recognize any limits to its power when it came to LGBTQ people, even to choosing the sex of the person I could marry. At the time, I didn’t put it in those terms. All I knew was that I was “unhappy” and doomed to be “lonely.” There were plenty of novels about unhappy teenagers, but in 1955, none at all about teenagers who were unhappy because they were being pursued by banshees like the federal government.
In subsequent posts on this subject, I will look at political novels and at why the consensus of critics and scholars came to determine that they were not good novels. And then I will look at my own novels, including Winter Rain, which will be published by the end of this month, as examples of what is possible for gay political novels and consequently for literature.