What should be the subject of a gay writer?
I ask this question seriously. I have read a recent article in Salon by Daniel D’Addario which seems to explain what is happening now in publishing.
The headline over D’Addario’s article is, Where’s the buzzed-about gay novel? D’Addario knows something isn’t working. There are just not enough gay characters in current literature getting the same intense examination that heterosexual characters routinely get. He also says, even the LGBT characters who do make it into books in the bookstores are from a narrow range of experience. D’Addario says, “Publishing is not a charitable endeavor devoted to equal reception for all: it’s a business catering to the interests of an audience comfortable with gay people but not necessarily comfortable with stories that don’t cohere with a mold recognizable from, say, the most recent Michael Cunningham novel.”
There seem to be two causes for this present situation. D’Addario quotes Matthew Gallaway, the gay author of The Metropolis Case, “The publishers want to sell as many copies as possible,” so they want to stay away from anything that might be controversial. Readers, too, bear some responsibility. Sarah Schulman, lesbian activist and novelist, says readers “have gotten used to a certain kind of white gay [writer] who does not have very overt sexual content in his work, who fits paradigms they’re comfortable with.” The result of this is that “the gay character must not experience homophobia from middle-class white people, he can experience it from rednecks, but not from people like the reader. He’s not allowed to be angry about his life.”
Concluding, D’Addario discusses something he calls “minority lit,” in which the minority writer will write, in the words of Alexander Chee, “about the difficulties one faces as X minority in the US—and so this becomes the expectation.” Chee concludes, “even before you pick up the novel, it can feel like you’re about to read a long-form complaint.” D’Addario seems to feel that the possibility that a novel is a “long-form complaint” is a terrible thing, driving away publishers and readers.
But something else is happening here too. Twenty or thirty years ago, academic historians started assigning novels to their history students as a way of teaching them about some historical phenomenon. Intruder in the Dust, Absalom, Absalom! Native Son, Giovanni’s Room, and Portrait of a Lady. If D’Addario is right in his assessment of current publishing, where will future historians go, among current gay novels, to find the truth about the lives of gay men and women in the first decade of the twentieth century? If publishers don’t want anything controversial, and if readers don’t want anything outside their comfort zone, who will tell the truth?
When I was seventeen, in high school, I came to understand that a writer—we were discussing Herman Melville—was a truth-teller. It was not until twenty-five years later that I was handed, as on a silver-platter, the subject about which I was to tell the truth—what happened to a group of gay people in a small town in Maine when one of them was murdered by bigots.
Later, I wanted to write about the life of a gay man who had gotten married in 1964, then read about Stonewall in 1969, then divorced and moved into the gay community in 1984. There was nothing about this man in literature. In fact, whole important swaths of the American population have been ignored by writers who create America’s literature, and fiction treated them as if they didn’t exist. But they did exist, and we need to know about them.
What was the effect on individuals of DOMA and DADT and the various obscenities of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association during the forties, and fifties and sixties, and of the constant assault on the persons of gay people from Christian churches? Where has been the writer who could tell us that the most savage abuse that a gay person experienced during those decades usually came from his own family?
No wonder the buzzed-about gay novel does not yet exist. We have people like D’Addario explaining to us why gay writers need not tell the truth about gay lives. The reason we have the literature we have is that intellectually lazy agents and editors and commentators and critics say over and over to readers and writers that it’s OK—even necessary—not to tell the truth about our lives.