Register Tuesday | September 18 | 2018

Queering the Canon

The success of gay literature and the virtue of labels

When The Line of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize last autumn, few newspapers could resist noting that it was the first “gay novel” to be so honoured. As a writer and homosexual, I felt pride—but was unsure why. Was I happy for Allan Hollinghurst, the book’s author, who was finally getting his due? Was I thrilled for gay people everywhere, who could rally behind this £50,000 victory because it was doled out to one of our own? Or was I pleased with mainstream society for realizing that there is extraordinary merit in literature previously dismissed as gay?

All three, I guess. While Holling-hurst’s win was a watershed moment, it was also a statistical inevitability. He has, after all, been nominated for this prize before (for The Folding Star), and, with the number of literary-minded homosexuals living in the Commonwealth, there was little doubt, at least to me, that one of them would eventually write a book that could not be ignored.

We’re a long distance from the nineteen-thirties and forties, when W. H. Auden refused the “gay” label because he did not want his talents to be clouded by his sexuality. We’re also a long distance from the post-Stonewall era of the seventies, when gay writing was, as a genre, coloured by the political aggressiveness of the gay-rights movement. Nowadays, “gay” books don’t necessarily have to deal with issues of discrimination. In fact, as gay themes become less taboo, there is less pressure on homosexual authors to offer explicit scenes of sex, saunas, cottaging and coming out—the literary equivalents of screaming, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”—unless they are creatively useful. Gone are the poncey, pseudo-effeminate characters of yesteryear, most of whom had fates shaped by an unwritten rule that gay characters must suffer enormously, then die (think Aschenbach of Death in Venice or Basil in The Picture of Dorian Gray). Awareness of classic gay narratives has already been established, and clichés about gay life are becoming more complex as homosexuality is further integrated into mainstream culture. Today’s lesbians, for example, are more likely to see their reflection in The Serpent’s Gift than in The Well of Loneliness.

This can, of course, be credited to the successes of the gay-rights movement. But just as important, if more superficial, is the Will & Grace-ification of mainstream expectations. Gay literature has risen to the challenge of its new, diverse audience. Last year, I contributed a story to a gay anthology, Fresh Men, in which editor Don Weise called this a “bright new era” in the genre, which offers “new perspectives and refreshing takes on old themes and traditions.” The book is populated by protagonists that are straight, women, closeted or celibate. Reading through it, I found myself constantly surprised by the kinds of stories now considered “gay,” to the point where I felt my own work wasn’t edgy enough.

I find this freeing. As legendary editor George Stambolian wrote in his 1988 anthology Men on Men 2, “The term ‘gay fiction’ refers not only to an impressive body of work but to the liberation of a complex subject, and an entire community’s right to free use of its imagination.” And now, in 2005, gay literature is in the process of that liberation; it can be defined as any writing that draws on homosexual experience—from STDs to drag to stereotypes—to make its literary point.

Is that it, then? Are we indeed, as author Bert Archer has argued, at the “end of gay” as an identity? If gay literature, circa 2005, can be defined so broadly, then why classify it at all? Should we not chuck aside the categorizing that pigeonholes our books, preventing them from reaching that aforementioned broader audience?

Absolutely not. Look online: Internet sales are based around the idea that books can be categorized—even the unclassifiable are classified under headings like “miscellaneous” and “other.” Such labels carry denotations of their own, but they exist because they have to. One of the quirks—or dare I say advantages—of the virtual marketplace is that although everything is funnelled into retail pockets, a book with more than one selling point can appear in numerous places. While the aforementioned anthology only appears under five of Amazon.com’s subject headings, The Line of Beauty finds its way into eleven. The more ways we categorize books, it seems, the more irrelevant the categories become, and the more readers we can reach.

And we should trust our readers. They may not be unaffected by the labels that retailers put on books, but they are aware of the limited value such labels carry. I can’t resist offering the example of Oprah’s Book Club, which slapped the same TV sticker on books as diverse as She’s Come Undone, Anna Karenina, A Fine Balance and Sula. Quite frankly, Ms. Winfrey’s taste isn’t that bad, but that’s beside the point. You could print any endorsement you want on the cover of Sula, and it wouldn’t change the fact that it’s a good book. The same goes for calling The Line of Beauty a gay book, or calling The Naked and the Dead a straight book. The categorization doesn’t cheapen it, the customers do—but only if they allow themselves to be swayed. I have faith that most readers don’t.

There are other advantages to the genre system. I’ve been advised to avoid being pegged a “gay writer”—not because that’s how I identify myself, but because this can be used as an excuse to criticize me, limit me, or worst of all, ignore me. This is the same concern that parents of gay children have: that their kids’ lives will be made harder because of the label. The point is well-taken, and no doubt the consequences are real, but the label has also given certain people an excuse to seek me out, to read my work and to include me. Publishers, editors, and publicists all need to find a hook to sell their products, and one of mine is that I am gay.

My homosexuality, in other words, is now a marketing tactic. This is par for the course today, now that most talk about literature is sparked by marketing tactics. This used to make me uneasy, but I’ve since recognized that one has to start somewhere. Margaret Atwood’s first book, The Edible Woman, was labelled “feminist”; Hunter S. Thompson was branded a “gonzo journalist”; Thomas Randall’s The Nymph and the Lamp, which started out as a Harlequin book, is now on Canadian literature syllabi from coast to coast.

The labelling tactic is just a beginning—rarely do discussions stop there. The ploy itself is to get people to read, and once a book is read, the way it’s been superficially branded becomes far less important. Yes, sometimes a label can dictate the context in which a book is approached, though that’s not always a bad thing. It may keep some readers away, but if someone is going to read a gay book or none at all, I hope they read the gay book.

But where do you draw the line? There must, I think, be grounds for your typecasting—the categories must exist for a reason. I’m reminded here of those people who shake their heads at gay pride parades. Where’s the straight pride parade? they say. True, it seems that anyone with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie can organize a parade, but the gay versions exist because there is a need for people to participate in them. It’s that simple.

The same applies to books. As long as there are readers willing to specify their sensibilities as qualified pockets of interest, products will rush in to prey on them. Is there fat fiction? Car-owner fiction? Mother fiction? Librarian fiction? Disabled-women’s feminist fiction? Well, as it turns out, there is: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology; Car Tales: Classic Stories About Dream Machines; I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother; In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians; With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology.

Classification gets books into the world. Once they’re out there, we must have faith in ourselves and our fellow readers to seek out the wheat, criticize the chaff, and find excellence in places we may not expect. Good writing offers something for everyone. I’m a gay man who can see my world reflected in straight writing—just as straight readers can see themselves in gay writing, from Death in Venice to The Farewell Symphony.

This is precisely what makes Hollinghurst’s book so important: it does not compromise its inherent sexuality in order to succeed as a broad, accessible, poetic novel. The Line of Beauty is a profoundly gay book that follows Nick, a young Oxbridge aesthete, through gay scenes that exist beneath the bloated, bourgeois crust of Thatcherite London. In Hollinghurst’s descriptions, everything is equal: while a young pianist is a “cardiganed sadist,” AIDS writes “its message of terror and exhaustion” on a victim’s face; while Margaret Thatcher is “clumsiness transmuted into power,” sodomy is “as interesting as it is delicious.”

More than anything else, this is a book that shows what gay literature can do. Queer themes are used—and used effortlessly—to construct a detailed portrait of an era. The reckless hedonism of some gay characters is juxtaposed with the reckless hedonism of Thatcherites. Nick’s preoccupation with beauty, another gay stereotype, collides with the era’s need to demolish gorgeous old buildings in the name of progress. Even the way homosexuality itself is buried behind polite strength and choreographed timidity becomes a metaphor for Englishness—“defiant sensitivity,” to borrow one of Holling-
hurst’s phrases.

The author also does something remarkable for gay literature: he jettisons some of its most annoying clichés. His descriptions of parents, for example, are not bitter or charged with blame. Gone are the caricatures of silently suffering fathers and mothers gripped in denial. Here, they have a muted nuance, a presence that is at once subdued and thought-provoking. They are minor characters, but complex ones, described as people in themselves, not in relation to the homosexuality of their child.

This melding of gay and straight is not limited to The Line of Beauty. In fact, the trend is best reflected in short-story collections like Vestal McIntyre’s You Are Not the One and Adam Haslett’s You Are Not a Stranger Here. Both books feature stories with straight characters, and where characters are gay, their sexuality is understated—homosexuality, like height or hair colour, is a trait that needn’t always bring attention to itself. Another example of this trend is the cross-Canada reading series Wilde About Sappho. From behind the WAS podiums, I saw audiences that were neither ostensibly gay nor pigeonholed. None of the events took place in gay neighbourhoods; they were held precisely where they should be: in institutions devoted to presenting and examining our cultural fabric, like the University of British Columbia and the National Library in Ottawa.

And so, gay literature has come to this point—it has its criteria, its characteristics, its self-awareness, its themes, but enjoys a presence in most sections of the literary world. Its audience is expanding beyond the limits, both physical and mental, of gay ghettos. The Line of Beauty affirms the presence of a very rich category: specifically gay but universal. And when you think about it, that’s a pretty great category to be in.