In Richard Canning's intelligent and sensitive conversations with a dozen contemporary gay male novelists, Gay Fiction Speaks, as the title proclaims, speaks. But I wonder if anyone is listening. Or, more precisely, I wonder if as many people are listening as a decade ago. I'll come back to that but, first, if gay fiction speaks, let's find out what it's saying.
Canning, who teaches literature at Sheffield University in England, has wisely chosen a broad range of writers to interview. His roster includes popular storytellers like Felice Picano and Armistead Maupin, the author of the best-selling multi-volume Tales of the City series, as well as such serious middlebrow novelists as Edmund White, Andrew Holleran and England's Alan Hollinghurst, and even the best of the gay avant-garde writers, Dennis Cooper. His oldest interviewees are 74-year-old James Purdy and John Rechy, 67, author of the landmark 1963 gay novel, City of Night; the youngest are David Leavitt and Patrick Gale, both in their late-thirties, but each with half a dozen books published.
Between them all, they've produced most of the remarkable burst of gay male fiction of the last three-and-a-half decades, ever since "the love that dare not speak its name" created a political and literary movement that its critics claim just won't shut up.
What gay fiction's practitioners have to say is partially shaped by the questions Canning asks. Understandably, a lot of the queries¨probably too many¨have to do with the techniques and mechanics of writing: third person vs. first person, handwritten drafts on foolscap pads vs. computers, morning writing vs. night owl writing. All that's okay, but for the general reader, I suspect it wears a bit thin after awhile. Ditto for questions dependent on readers being thoroughly knowledgeable about the minutiae of the books being discussed.
There's also a predictable amount of beefing and carping, usually about publishers, editors, and other midwives of the literary trade. Again, some of this is informative as gossip, but the empty boasting by John Rechy about his place in literature, or James Purdy's crotchety complaints about his obscurity, tend to grate. Even the urbane Edmund White hasn't quite gotten over the moment when an innocuous and innocent photograph on the cover of his 1982 breakthrough novel, A Boy's Own Story, inspired a million-dollar lawsuit against his publisher. Other writers, notably Maupin, Picano and Cooper, are rather more generous about their experiences in the marketplace.
But Gay Fiction Speaks becomes interesting when the writers talk about how they see the world¨both that of the gay community and the larger one¨and their lives as artists within different milieux. Ed White, for example, who lived in Paris for some 15 years, remarks, "Descartes said everyone should leave his or her country and move to some other country because by doing so, you invent a life that's entirely chosen." In such a "chosen" life, "you are morally accountable for every part of it in a way that's even more vivid to you than it would have been otherwise."
Allen Gurganus, the author of Plays Well With Others, a powerful novel about AIDS, also focuses on the writer's responsibility, but from the perspective of being gripped by life, rather than choosing it. "I think every writer worth reading is chosen by some sponsoring subject," he says. "Millions of people just went down to a disease¨and are going down as we speak! More specifically, thirty or forty adorable friends and lovers¨cranky, gorgeous people, gifted beyond reason, died in my company. What to make of this?" he urgently asks.
"This brings us back to the function of the artist," chimes in Felice Picano, whose Like People in History and The Book of Lies are broad canvasses of both gay life and the literary world. Picano retains a childhood insight of looking at the work of Picasso and being struck by its almost destined character. "This is what an artist does," he recognized. "An artist does IT, whatever IT is... without being able to control it. He cannot help doing it... I'm not being humble; I think I'm skillful and technically adept. But I'm the medium this has chosen to use."
Dennis Cooper, on the other hand, says that his authorial aim in his novel Guide was "to create a kind of stratosphere of searching, wandering, revved, nonjudgmental thoughts... as a way of locating it squarely within the...somewhat psychotic context that my work requires."
Cooper, whose darkly elegant writing has been compared to both Jean Genet and the Marquis de Sade, is the one writer here who is bluntly critical about his confreres. "The huge majority of so-called gay literature is incredibly provincial these days," he says, adding, "or when it's 'reaching out,' it's so middlebrow¨intellectually soft and barely artistic." Too much gay writing, Cooper says, is "goody goody, nicey nice, feel-our gayness fiction."
But nasty or nice, the question of who's listening to gay fiction speak has become pertinent in recent years, as gay bookstores close or turn to selling erotic videos. And in general bookstores, as Edmund White noted in his novel The Farewell Symphony, "Now gay fiction was a commodity assigned its two shelves in a few stores, and no heterosexual would venture to browse there...The category of general literary fiction was vanishing, and its disappearance showed that the new multiculturalism was less a general conversation than rival monologues."
White is pointing to the double-edged sword that hangs over gay writing. On one side of the blade, there's something to the notion of "the end of gay," a phrase used with increasing frequency. On the other, there's the decline of art in the face of globalised entertainment.
The gay movement is gradually being transformed from a pressing political struggle to something more closely resembling an ethnic group that runs the annual pride parade. While gay political organizers are in no immediate danger of running out of useful work, it's the case that there's now an entire generation on the scene that has only known a world that includes public homosexuality.
Gay fiction is no longer a primary source of cultural information and meaning for young or old gay men. In fact, I can't remember the last time somebody urgently asked me, Have you read so-and-so's just-published gay novel? But a lot of people did inquire if I'd seen Queer As Folk, the popular British gay TV series, and I assume that tells me something about what people regard as important.
There's a bigger problem, one that goes well beyond gay fiction. Truth to tell, not a lot of people are asking each other if they've read any sort of book at all lately. That's because the presence of art, with its complexities, is diminishing in a marketplace that offers dumbed-down entertainment in its stead; books become secondary to flashier media. Or as one friend dourly quipped, "These days books have less intellectual credibility, because intellectual credibility has less credibility."
But you can't blame interviewer Richard Canning for any of the dangers of Damocletian swords. He's doing his bit. And his Gay Fiction Speaks demonstrates that not only do gay novelists talk, they also have something to say. ˛
Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in Vancouver, and is the author of several books dealing with homosexuality, including Buddy's (New Star, 1991), Then We Take Berlin (Knopf, 1995), and Autobiography of a Tattoo (New Star, 1997). His most recent book, co-authored with John Dixon, is On Kiddie Porn (New Star, 2001).