*irritation, irritation* We are in the habit of taking such claims with a grain of salt, correct? When a person proclaims some superior trait of a group to which he claims membership, we typically call it nationalism, racism, or chauvinism when country, race, or gender is involved. Yet when it comes to gay men and their supposed superiority in all things literary, we call it respectable news. What the f*ck gives?
The New Gay Fiction
After years of neglect from the mainstream, queer lit undergoes a renaissance
by Edmund White
The Village Voice
June 20th, 2006 12:06 PM
At the beginning of the 20th century Rodin said that Americans had just lived through a renaissance and no one in America knew it (he was referring to the advent of painters such as Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Sargent). Something similar could be said about gay fiction right now, which is totally neglected and almost never reviewed by the mainstream press but which has never been more vital. In fact it could be said that gay novels and short stories are among the best being written anywhere now.
Of course there are a few exceptions to the general blackout—the worldwide success of Michael Cunningham's The Hours and the Booker prize–winning novel by Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty. The action of both of these books, to be sure, takes place outside the gay ghetto and includes many important straight characters; both books belong to what is called "post-gay fiction," a subgenre that David Leavitt may have invented in his first collection of stories, Family Dancing.
The vogue for gay fiction has long since passed after a brief flurry of visibility and celebrity in the late 1970s and early '80s. The market did not respond. Whereas the literature of other minorities (Asian American, African American, Latin American) presents the straight reader with interesting variations on his or her own life by taking up the themes of parenthood, marriage, divorce, adultery, and the intergenerational conflict, the literature of the gay ghetto seems at times utterly alien.
With the collapse of the gay market—and the closing down of gay literary magazines such as Christopher Street and nearly a hundred gay-themed bookstores across the country—gay fiction became invisible, often to the gay community itself. Gay studies as a subject was drying up in the universities (not that gay scholars had ever devoted much energy to contemporary gay creativity). Even the way gay novels are shelved at a bookstore, in a quarantined section labeled "Gay and Lesbian," places a wall around these books that few straight women readers—much less straight men—would have the guts to breach.
Case closed. Except for the inconvenient fact that in the last five or six years gay writers have been turning out some of the most exciting fiction being written today, though it is sold in the small numbers more typical of poetry collections. This spring has seen the publication of an extraordinary novel, John Weir's What I Did Wrong. Weir has written only one other book, The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket, which was highly acclaimed in 1989 as a stellar first novel. His new book tells the story of Tom, a middle-aged teacher at a university in Queens, who has lost his lover—a foul-mouthed, impossible, endearing novelist—to AIDS. Tom feeds all his need for love into his charged relationships with his best friend from high school, a drifting straight guy, and with one of his students, an oppressed, apologetic, disenfranchised kid who plays in a rock band and worships Sharon Olds's poetry. This is among other things one of the best books about how ordinary folks live in New York now. His students work at restaurant jobs in Manhasset and blow their salaries at a casino in A.C. They're almost all heterosexuals and Tom studies them as if they were members of another species. "They're outsiders, not pariahs. Their irony is different from mine. The defining crisis for them is their disbelief in other people, while mine is disbelief in myself. Straight guys are conspiracy theorists, wrecked by the knowledge that they can't control the world. Yet I learned early on that I can't control, well, me. I yearn for guys. I am what I want. Straight people aren't asked to justify their yearning. They don't have to boil themselves down to an impulse or an act. Unlike me, they think, 'I am because I want.' "
There are also several recent novels and collections of short stories by younger men that prove the efforts of gay writers to reach out to the world at large. Patrick Ryan's Send Me is about a modest family in the 1970s living near Cape Canaveral in Florida; two of the sons are gay, the older one closeted and the younger one weirdly free of the constraints of the period. This book is full of careful social observation in the manner of Cheever; one of Ryan's stories has been selected for The Best Short Stories of 2005. Actually it's a bit unfair to label it a gay book since so many of the stories are about eccentric if thoroughly heterosexual characters. The first and last chapters in his book, however, are devoted to the younger brother's struggle with AIDS, a theme that lends great depth to a tale of quirky family life. In much of good gay fiction today AIDS plays a role. In Keith McDermott's first novel, Acqua Calda, an older actor with AIDS ventures to Sicily, where he is to participate in an avant-garde theatrical event. During his sojourn he becomes extremely ill but the show must go on and his decision to play his role despite backstage envy and condescension lend him a quiet heroism.
Vestal McIntyre's stories in You Are Not the One are edgy urban tales about young gay men interacting with their straight colleagues at the office or with friends. In one story a young woman decides she needs a gay man in her life (a Will to her Grace, perhaps), but she chooses one who is slippery and ultimately not too friendly. Mack Friedman's Setting the Lawn on Fire is again linked stories that take a young man through a horny, repressed boyhood, up to a summer of canning fish in Alaska and onto a seriocomic career as a hustler. Such a summary does no justice to the elegance and originality of the writing.
Barry McCrea, a young Irish-born Yale professor, has written a rapturous ode to Dublin in his first novel, The First Verse. A gay student at Trinity is manipulated by a strange cult of heterosexuals who use their erotic power over him to induct him into rites and practices of a satanic intensity. More traditional pleasure is provided by Robert J. Hughes's closely woven first novel, Late and Soon, about the art auction business in New York today. It is told from the point of view of a woman whose husband has left her for another man. Now, years later, she becomes friendly with her erstwhile rival, who has in turn been abandoned for a hotter, younger fireman. There are Jamesian delights in the beautiful language and ironies and nuanced psychological observations that Hughes has devised.
I think there is a real phenomenon here, the arrival of a whole new generation of gay writers who've come along to fill the shoes of their predecessors who died too young in the 1980s and '90s. These newcomers are unknown even to most gay men, who are too busy going to the gym and cruising on the Net to read. Whereas being cultured was once the entrance fee for being gay, now the gay community has dumbed down like the rest of the population. But just as the underappreciated American poetry scene is the most vigorous in the world and includes a dozen major figures, everyone from C.K. Williams to John Ashbery, from Louise Glück to Yusef Komunyakaa, in the same way the current gay literary moment is quietly, almost invisibly adding brilliant new names to a canon that is unknown except to the happy few.
Okay, I am so ready to piss people off. 'Cause I've heard it all before--Felice Picano bemoaned how gay men were the greatest artists of an entire generation and were struck down by AIDS before their time in the unfortunately forgettable Like People in History
. And what irritated me then as now is that I've read the work of some of those representative "greatest artists," and, really, the most noteworthy thing about a lot of these guys' lives and literature is that both are over. Hate to be so blunt about it, but it's true.
Moreover, the gay literature genre at large is blighted by heavyweights (Andrew Holleran, Alan Hollinghurst, and author of the article above Edmund White) who managed to capture a specific moment of history for a very specific group (white, urban, affluent and/or overeducated, decadent) in a literature which effectively alienates any reader who for whatever reason happened not to be there or is not wholly informed about the culture and history beforehand. (I'm oh-so-glad that you're wondering if there might possibly be more to life than a dozen anonymous sexual encounters each week. PLEASE. Get over yourselves.) In short, if the world someday changes beyond recognition, their books will not be widely read and beloved. They (especially the two "Holls") failed to achieve memorable human universality in their works. Instead, they built a defining and definitive wall around their own. Sure, they had a good reason for doing it that way, but let's not delude ourselves after the fact with regards to the lasting implications.
Granted, the young writers that White is claiming as his generation's heirs are doing a much better job at writing for inclusivity than White and his kind ever did (though they do not necessarily constitute the best young writers "out there" overall--the quality, surprise surprise, varies). As such, I find the "the kids are going down the drain" attitude in the article to be profoundly counterproductive. Sure, group solidarity and support from the gay community at large would be great, but remember: The better these writers speak to their niche, the less they are going to speak for everyone else. And it's "everyone else," not Edmund White's own "white, urban, affluent and/or overeducated, decadent" AND claustrophobic circle, that will be the arbiters of greatness this time around.P.S. And why are all the writers mentioned in the article 1) Western and 2) Caucasian??? Why does so-called gay literature always seem to equal white American/European male in the minds of the self-proclaimed highbrow set?