Recently in Salon, Steve Berman commented movingly on the closing of Giovanni’s Room, the LGBT bookstore in Philadelphia and the loss to Philadelphia. In his lament, he looks for the cause of these closings—lack of community support, competition from amazon.com, assimilation of all of us into the straight world. What he doesn’t bring up is that it might have been caused by the lgbt publishing industry itself.
Our local bookseller here in Boston said last year that LGBT readers no longer buy gay books. This matches what I was told three years ago in an email from a finder for a literary agent, that the market for gay novels has “vanished,” and in another email in the same year, in which I was told that it had “collapsed.”
The question is, Why? What happened to it? I suspect that at least part of it is the changing nature of the novels being published. The publishing industry has changed the description of the kind of book it wants to publish.
We are told by Daniel D’Addario, in Salon, that LGBT publishers want to stay away from anything controversial, and 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 is literary characters who “must not experience homophobia from middle-class white people. He can experience it from rednecks, but not from people like the reader. He is not allowed to be angry about his life.”
And yet, many LGBT persons are angry—angry about years of government discrimination, savage abuse from the churches, and he is angry about personal rejection from the heart of his family and from the society we are a part of. Many of us think anger is what drove Stonewall and what has driven the successes of our major civil rights organizations the last fifty years. We live with the consequence of decades of abuse, yet the publishing industry says we must not write about a character who is “angry about his life.”
In short, we’re told that publishers think “the reader” doesn’t want reality. The result is that the reader stops reading because novels don’t have anything to do with his life. And when he stops reading, he stops buying, and then bookstores, like Giovanni’s Room, close. It is a dangerous thing, not to tell the truth.
In February 2011, I wrote this:
We are serious people. We confronted AIDS. We survived Reagan and Bush (I) and Clinton 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 does not reflect these things.