As gay fiction flourishes in an increasingly tolerant atmosphere, a certain literary parochialism has set in. Michael Ratcliffe travels the road from "Dorian Gray" to "Mike and the Marines"by Michael Ratcliffe / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
In 1958, when I was supply-teaching in Manchester, I bought and devoured an anonymous novel called A Room in Chelsea Square, whose shocking pink jacket would still pulse like phosphorescent candy on a porn bookstall today. Published by Jonathan Cape, it was not porn, but the seedy tale of a provincial journalist who fell among decadent queens and aesthetes and was corrupted with the earthly treasures of London’s cultural world, before rejecting them (the queens, that is). It was supposedly the work of a famous novelist and said to be disgracefully philistine, even homophobic. But as I was gay, about to become a provincial journalist and already turned on by the earthly treasures of London’s cultural world, whatever shock I felt inside the pink covers was more than tempered by sheer curiosity: this was hardly the sort of thing that happened in Cheadle Hulme. The next time I was in London I made sure I had a good look round Chelsea in the vague hope that corruption was being handed out, free, through the sash windows and glossy doors. Now that I know that the author was not, after all, famous, but a journalist named Michael Nelson, and that the three central figures were based on Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender and Peter Watson, owner and funder of Horizon magazine, it seems less than earth-shattering; but at the time it chirped like a bright, gaudy little migrant bird just before dawn. For it was almost dawn. Today, gay novelists such as Alan Hollinghurst (The Swimming Pool Library, 1988, Vintage) and Neil Bartlett (Mr Clive and Mr Page, 1996, Serpent’s Tail) describe the 1950s in Britain as one of the blackest times for homosexuals since the imprisonment and death of Oscar Wilde. There were hundreds of vicious arrests, sentences and suicides before and after the Montagu trial in 1954; and fear of blackmail was endemic-as it remains today, for those who still feel that being gay is something they must hide. But it was the wretchedness of these cases and the anger they caused that brought forth the reforming Wolfenden report of 1957. Nelson originally wrote his novel under the title A Room in Russell Square, and that is where, 30 years later, some of the most tender and erotic scenes of Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library take place. The hero is William Beckwith, a 1980s young man of private means. A narcissist and predator, Will is the gay Don Juan, and like his model a passionate romantic. Hollinghurst’s gift is to allow no prescribed distinction between fucking and falling in love-both are happening in the room at the top of the Russell Hotel. With The Swimming Pool Library, British gay fiction had grown up to the point where it could be as sexually explicit as it needed. That was nearly ten years ago. Gay fiction (by which I here mean gay male fiction) has increased fourfold since then. Originality remains scarce-even Hollinghurst seemed to rein in his ambitions with The Folding Star (1994, Vintage), an overlong tale of sexual obsession-but the sense of a gay history is growing and pluralism triumphs. Visit the gay and lesbian fiction shelves in Waterstone’s and you will find everything from the inspired to the ridiculous, the mousey to the off-the-wall, the respectable to what are known in the trade as the one-handers-roaringly, and on the whole cheerfully, rude. This diversity reflects the paradox whereby many gay men in Britain and the US, more openly accepted in the community than ever before (at least in cities), are building their own hedonistic culture and robust microeconomy outside it. In Britain, we have moved from the closet to the monocultural ghetto in one short generation. In addition to established figures such as Gore Vidal, Francis King, Aldo Busi, Paul Monette, David Leavitt and Edmund White (all to be found under general fiction but fine-targeted on the ghetto market, too), today’s gay fiction embraces gay paramilitaries and space-troopers, the rescue of lovers from Shining Path guerrillas in Peru, the truth about Queen Elizabeth (a man), the retelling of Death in Venice from the boy’s point of view, Ivy League adultery at Thanksgiving, and God help us, the debauching of Vietnamese pirate slaves. Most of this is transient and derivative, but in Hollinghurst and White gay fiction has two of the sharpest and most heartfelt novelists writing in English today, and in Busi a witty, one-off anarchist whose gayness gives him the fierce detachment from the dafter aspects of Italian society he requires. San Francisco’s Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) is the generous master of serial urban comedy and irresistible, low-fat prose. Gay Men’s Press, founded in 1980, publisher of Peter Tatchell, the Thatcher-rattling Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin and a short, universal coming-out novel called The Milkman’s On His Way which has sold 27,000 copies, survives after many vicissitudes with more than 170 titles in print. But Neil Bartlett apart, the best gay authors are with the big publishers-Faber, Viking (Penguin), Little Brown (Abacus) and Random House (Chatto)-and marketed for the broadest possible readership. That readership remains conservative. Two of last year’s most successful new titles are Eric Shaw Quinn’s Say Uncle (1995, Penguin) and William Corlett’s Now and Then (1995, Abacus), which made it on to Hatchard’s bestseller list. It is not hard to see why: both are archetypes. Corlett’s hero, sexually frozen by the trauma of his great love at public school 30 years earlier, is the kind of miseryguts some Brits can never have enough of. In Say Uncle, a shrill, sentimental take on Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis’s camp classic of the 1950s, the monstrous Michael brings up his orphan nephew on a diet of aggressive gags, prize-winning cheesecake and sensitive hysteria. People bought this for the beach because they were missing Roseanne. Many of the corniest, horniest titles on the shelves are imported from imprints such as Badboy and Starbooks Press in the US. These follow their own short cut conventions of narrative clich? and arousal with the meticulous predictability of baroque opera. Briefs strain, meat throbs, nuts churn and balls are “lightly furred.” In Eric Boyd’s Mike and the Marines (1995, Badboy), one of the most popular titles last summer, there is a fuck on almost every page. Each guy who joins the corps is identified first by his state of origin (had there been 50 boys, Boyd would have covered the flag), then by the length of his penis, and finally by the cheerfulness with which he submits to the new faith that buddy-fucking is not only good for you, but good for Uncle Sam. The unsleeping libido of Boyd’s hero (Minnesota, eight and a half inches), allows the gay citizen to fulfil all his fantasies while doing the state some service; but none of these moaning studs feels a thing after they shoot. No risk to the imagination is incurred: seen one bubble-butt, seen ’em all. Homosexual pornography is as old as pornography itself, but homosexual literary fiction-readable by anyone’s auntie, coded for those in the know-is a Victorian phenomenon, compelled by the repressive amendment to the law on sexual conduct in 1885. After that, there was always a “secret” reading-canon of inspiration, whose components would change with fashion and time. I was too young to have plunged into Compton Mackenzie’s Vestal Fire, Forrest Reid’s Uncle Stephen or Blair Niles’s Strange Brother in search of kindred spirits, but by the time I picked up Michael Nelson’s little pink book, I had read Plato’s Symposium, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Death in Venice, Norman Douglas’s South Wind and all of Ronald Firbank, Isherwood and Forster (save his openly homosexual novel, Maurice, which stayed unpublished until 1971). Like all my contemporaries, I was in thrall to the more or less heterosexual Evelyn Waugh, revelling in the indomitable bugger Ambrose Silk and the fallen angel Sebastian Flyte. Graham Greene I never read then: no comfort there. The one writer whose novels I bought in hardback as soon as they came out was Angus Wilson, who was about as openly gay as any prominent British figure could be in the 1950s, and in old age a leonine campaigner for homosexual rights. Brilliance and discretion combined to protect him. Still unfashionable five years after his death, despite a biography, the advocacy of Anthony Burgess and Penguin’s perhaps premature attempt to reinstate him, Wilson demolished nonsense with a dazzling intellectual swagger, giving heart to many. Some of the most uncompromisingly gay writers-Orton, Genet and Burroughs-have entered the mainstream of modern classics; it would be odd if Wilson, who wrote as a broad novelist of English social comedy, did not. Yet, as closet doors throughout the 1980s and 1990s have been booted open from the inside, a deliberate detachment has set in. Maupin and White are unusual among modern male gay novelists in writing, like Wilson and Forster, as if they were as interested in women as men, and may even like them better. Homosexuality remained a criminal offence for men in England for a decade after Wolfenden. Wilson apart, the blowtorch of liberal persistence passed to the US. In 1957 James Baldwin published Giovanni’s Room, the most convincing novel about a male love affair since Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1948). Giovanni’s Room was a big success, both with those starved of empathetic new fiction and the wider public. It stands up well today for its picture of Paris in the 1950s and for the honesty with which the narrator records his emotional cowardice towards both girl and boy. As a gay novel, however, it is neither positive nor very brave. In sending this wretch’s barman lover to the guillotine for the death of a man who provokes him beyond bearing, Baldwin condones the convention whereby homosexuals are perforce likely to come to a bad end-cholera, brain haemorrhage, the river, the revolver in the hotel drawer. The convention is far from dead. Sympathetic audiences, including many gay men, find it easier to accept a weepy ending than the prospect of fought-for happiness. Aids has made this all too easy, but even in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral the gay life and soul of the party has a heart attack at the reception, with consequences for the sale of Kleenex and Auden’s poetry that have passed into retailing legend. Writers between the wars rarely attempted to describe the sexual act. If they had a go, like Lawrence, we often blush for them now, and posterity may do the same for us. Perceptions of sexual experience and how we should record it change all the time. “Nothing is more obdurate to artistic treatment,” wrote Forster to Siegfried Sassoon as he revised Maurice in 1920, “than the carnal, but it has to be got in… everything has to be got in.” There was not, in the end, much carnality in Maurice, or much sex on the page until the 1960s, when gay writers such as John Rechy (City of Night) and Burroughs (The Naked Lunch) simultaneously entered the courtrooms and the international avant-garde. Before that, you had to imagine sexual activity for yourself, and often a gay writer’s sexuality, too: it was only with A Single Man (1964) that Christopher Isherwood stopped fan-dancing behind the sexually neutral mask he had presented with such cool and complete assurance in Goodbye to Berlin (1939). The most obvious difference between the late 1950s and today is that few gay writers under 60 would now choose publicly to deny being gay. They also write about sex in a different way. Not surprisingly, those who have emerged as the sexiest writers are the best writers, too; the ones who avoid short cuts and (thank you, Eartha Kitt) take time. The author of Mike and the Marines, for example, feebly describes the thin line of hair between the navel and the pubes as “a faint trail;” but for Alan Hollinghurst’s hero, a connoisseur of danger and temptation, it is a “fuse.” Only writers with a resonant imagination will do justice on the same page to the full physical, ironic, emotional and referential complexities of sex: Now he was straddling my chest and his cock was sliding over my lips. A second later, he’d swung around and we were sucking each other, lying on our sides, Romulus and Remus before the wolf arrived to nurse them. In the hall light that came in through the open door I could see the red veins in his translucent scrotum, autumn leaf, and I looked up the crack of his ass. My mind reeled in a drunk waltz back and forth between my cock and his, between getting and spending. Then he said, “Why don’t you stick it in me.” I said, “Okay… ,” with a trace of hesitation. “I’ve never done this before,” he said. “Neither have I,” I lied. “But maybe it’s done like this,” and I folded his strong legs back, ploughing into them as a lineman digs into his opponent’s shoulder. His calves hooked over my shoulders. His legs, long and firm in their black stockings of fur, felt cool. He was like a trick bottle that must be turned at a queer angle for it to pour, but then it pours freely. Since he had been built to stand perfectly still under a general’s glance, he knew how to take orders, even silent ones. (Edmund White, The Beautiful Room is Empty, 1988, Picador) All this at a fraternity founders’ night in Michigan. Mike the trick bottle straightens out of his queer angle and goes back to his girlfriends, while the unnamed narrator resumes his promiscuous life and ends up at the New York Stonewall riots of 1969: “We rushed down to buy the morning papers… But we couldn’t find a single mention of the turning point of our lives.” The cold truth of the world’s indifference to gay inequalities became clear -a small civil war began. It was a war of the cities; today’s gay fiction is usually urban fiction. It rejects a familial landscape largely peopled by tiresome siblings, uncomprehending fathers, and mothers who are variously battered, complaisant, or always on the telephone with recipes for their sons. American gay writers, haunted by the march of Aids through their address-books, feel this rejection keenly and advocate the strengths of their new, extended gay family. This can become as suffocating as the family it replaces, but in Maupin’s six-volume Tales, at least half the characters are not homosexual, and welcome the new alignments and harmonies anyway. Most European gay writers, less hung up on citizenship and the state, are more absorbed in the time-honoured themes of class, beauty, lovers, the city that enfolds them, and their own place within its walls. White’s The Beautiful Room is Empty conforms to no stereotype of the American gay novel: it is neither facetious nor agenda-bound. His trilogy of autobiographical novels is completed next January with The Farewell Symphony (Chatto&Windus), and he remains an introspective aesthete who lives, like his compatriots from the 1920s, in Paris. Despite this, he has become, with Maupin, a kind of guru in gay publishing, whose endorsement of new titles is much sought after. I am not sure why White calls Felice Pecano’s Like People in History (1995, Abacus) “the gay Gone With the Wind” when the gay Gone With the Wind is clearly the one Margaret Mitchell wrote. But Pecano has written the best new American gay novel I have read this year. Like People commands a sweep of public and private history across gay American lives between 1954 and 1991 with a lack of solemnity that is rarely smartass, a measured pace and clear texture that hold up for 500 pages, and a common sense that keeps sentimentality at bay. “Grow up, Alistair,” says narrating Roger to the cousin whose fortunes he exasperatedly shadows from stylish adolescence to a flamboyantly Roman death from Aids, “It’s not all pain and stuff. It’s mostly attitude and costume.” Just so, and no less moving for that.