Is there anything left of "gay discourse," and could heterosexual authors be contributing to it?by Philip Hensher / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
What literary critics and academics normally mean when they talk about “gay literature” is a work written by a gay or lesbian writer, which discusses gay subjects and is primarily directed towards a gay audience. If a work is written by a gay writer but does not discuss gay themes, and is not directed towards a gay audience, does that count? Probably not, or Hamlet might be regarded as gay literature (at least by the “Shakespeare was gay” school). On the other hand, mysteriously, that sometimes does seem to be a sufficient criterion. The Importance of Being Earnest may plausibly be included in the category. Secondly, if a heterosexual writer addresses homosexual themes, but not primarily for a gay audience, does that suffice? Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat takes on a gay subject, but does not seem to me to count; nor does the lesbian sub-plot in Little Dorrit (in which Tattycoram elopes with Miss Wade). Thirdly, there is a large body of work produced by heterosexuals, without homosexual references, which is nevertheless predominantly appreciated by homosexuals. For this category, we have the term “camp,” a term so problematic I will avoid it altogether. All the same, the films of Douglas Sirk, the novels of Ouida or an opera like Rosenkavalier can plausibly be included within a discussion of the homosexual aesthetic.
We can carry on, inconclusively, with permutations of these elements-creator, subject, audience. The musicals of Stephen Sondheim are written by a homosexual and appreciated by a largely homosexual audience, but do not address homosexuality. Gay art? The paintings of Caravaggio are homosexual in subject and their creator was homosexual, but they do not have a predominantly homosexual audience. The novels of Mary Renault are mostly about male homosexuality, were written by a lesbian and read originally by a mass audience. Now they are read predominantly by homosexuals. Gay art? You begin to see the problem. Yet, if we took only the writing which fulfils all three criteria, the bulk of it would be pornography.
So this is what the standard definition of gay literature is: something without pornographic ambitions, written for and by homosexuals about homosexuality. EM Forster’s Maurice, written before the first world war but only published after his death, falls into this category. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, subject of an obscenity trial in 1929, must be considered, and perhaps also the novels of Ronald Firbank. WH Auden, in the 1930s, sometimes addressed this coterie audience exclusively. There is a line in one of his sonnets, “to lie flat on the back with the knees flexed,” which only a homosexual would recognise as being a reference to passive sodomy.
Before the second world war, such writing as existed was curiously relaxed about the subject. Maurice has a happy ending; Auden is somewhat abstruse on the subject, but uninterested in drawing a moral from either direction. In Firbank’s Cardinal Pirelli or Baron Corvo’s The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, sexual obsession between men is presented without explanation or apology-that would come later.
After the war, what we start to find in quite large numbers are books written to demonstrate a particular moral thesis. In the 1950s, a large number of novels were produced in which the homosexual predicament is explored. These are, almost without exception, of two types. In the first, we are invited to draw the conclusion that the homosexual condition is deserving of sympathy, and not punishment. In the second, the homosexual commits suicide. I don’t want to go into this dreary oeuvre; in neither case do the alternatives of self-hatred and special pleading seem of much interest 40 years after the fact. It was not until the 1960s that anyone started to express the view that homosexuality is merely ordinary. Joe Orton made this point in his production notes for Loot, and things, slowly, began to change.
With the decriminalisation of homosexuality, this attitude began to spread. Larry Kramer’s Faggots or Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band appear old-fashioned now, but their refusal to apologise encapsulated a mood. Homosexuals still had to endure mainstream representation from the likes of the 1980 film Cruising, which cast gays as a race apart, with rituals and habits as remote and grotesque as those of the Chinese imperial court. Other signs were more positive. Armistead Maupin’s popular series of books, Tales of the City, was determinedly upbeat in its view of gay life in San Francisco.
There are six books in Maupin’s series and, in the middle, a huge fact had to be taken into account. In the early 1980s, HIV began to change the whole tenor of a well-established body of work. The gay novel started, overwhelmingly, to fit two genres. The first was the Aids novel, in which a group of friends slowly dies, with deathbed scene succeeding deathbed scene, all expressed in a luxuriating sentiment not witnessed since the Victorian novel. The second, which I find barely more readable, is the coming-out novel. The best of these was Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story; but the favourite subject of the gay novelist quickly became the story of an isolated and confused teenager who comes to accept his sexual preferences and grows into a well-balanced adult. They remained oddly separate, these genres. We loved our deathbed scenes. We loved, too, sleazily reading about an 18-year-old boy’s first blissful sexual experience.
When I was younger, gay novels were mostly produced by gay publishers, such as the Gay Men’s Press, and sold in gay bookshops, such as Gay’s The Word in London, Les Mots ? la Bouche in Paris or Prinz Eisenherz in Berlin. That has changed. Every big bookshop now has a gay section; gay novels have spread into the mainstream-the first to do so was probably Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-Pool Library in 1988, but it has been followed by many others which are directed towards a gay readership but by no means limited to it. On the lesbian side, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit performed the same trick. Gay literature, in my initial definition-written by gays, about homosexuality, for a gay readership-has become big business, and has shed all sense of apology and predictable moralising.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this apparently happy story, I have serious reservations. Gay literature, on the whole, means very little to me and to explain why I must talk about my own books. Everyone who has met me since I was 16 or so has known, fairly quickly, that I am homosexual and if they do not realise, I am civil enough to point out the fact. It saves time and embarrassment, and if I am talking to someone who wouldn’t want to talk to a homosexual, I certainly wouldn’t want to talk to them. All my novels except the first contain gay relationships; it would be peculiar if they did not, since that is largely the world I inhabit. Yet I am not generally considered a “gay novelist.” My books may have a lot to say about individual homosexuals, but almost nothing about the homosexual condition. They are about other things: one is about British politics when Margaret Thatcher fell from power, another is about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and my new one is about the first Afghan war.
The coming-out novel is not one which reflects my own experience. I understood early that I was gay. I have encountered little hostility and, as far as I can tell, no psychological traumas. It is a similar story with Aids; I am unfit to address the issue because I was extremely lucky. My generation came to sexual maturity after 1981, and we knew about Aids from the start. The British government took a sensible attitude to the coming catastrophe and gave good advice in the face of much moral horror. Other governments in Europe chose to recommend monogamy, with terrible results. The British response was this: have as much sex with as many people as you like, but always have safe sex. Consequently my life has not been touched by Aids as much as I would have predicted. No close friend of mine has died of it and, at most, five acquaintances have.
Most of the books which would fall into my mainstream definition of “gay literature” have one more thing in common. They are, to use a term which we literary critics sometimes resort to, rubbish. But does this mean that when a novel, gay in theme, written by a gay author, rises to a certain level of literary quality, it stops being “gay literature?” I don’t want to be conceited, but I feel that I am not a gay novelist; for two reasons. Firstly, I write about serious issues of politics. Secondly, I am generally considered to be a serious novelist. And yet, on some level, I feel that I am a gay novelist. I feel that a notion of the gay novel which excludes me is too narrow.
The bigger question is this: is there a gay discourse? Do gay writers have access to ways of thinking or presentation which are different from those of heterosexual writers? It is said that Hollywood film producers used to employ the formula that a writer was “strong on character, weak on plot” as a euphemism. We’ve been here before in a different context, with the endless debate about what “feminine discourse” might be. There is gay slang, of course, which once was extensive enough to constitute an entire argot, called Polari, but that is not the same thing as a literary gay discourse.
Such a thing may be indefinable, but there are two external social factors which I think influence the gay writer’s habits of speaking and writing. The first is that, until recently, homosexuals had to be circumspect about large parts of their lives. They grew used to speaking in indirect and ambiguous ways. This is an invaluable habit for a novelist-think of the ways in which Jane Austen’s characters have to circle around the question of desire. Homosexuals are often acute observers of the speech of others. If you are interested in whether the boy who works in the next office might be batting for the same team as you, then you will listen for clues and observe his behaviour in a way which heterosexuals wouldn’t need to.
The second factor sounds like a clich?, but contains some truth. Homosexuals are more accustomed, I think, to verbal hostility than heterosexuals and develop a certain pattern of response and defence. This often takes the form of the bon mot, the verbal put-down, the inventive response. Homosexuals characteristically develop habits of the quick, ironic exchange. It is not surprising that many gay novelists are skilled in constructing these sharp exchanges and, although it may prove a limitation, it is a technique not to be underestimated. Outside the Sonnets and Jaques’ frustrated passion in As You Like It, there is little in Shakespeare which gives one the sense of a gay writer-his interests are too large. But there are also the flashy exchanges between Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing, where you can hear the practised patter of the bitchy queen, never at a loss for words. Few homosexual writers can resist this.
But are these skills going to disappear? As gay writers have lost the need to proceed through innuendo, how else might they exercise their wit? I haven’t needed such tactics. I’ve never troubled to be secretive, though secrecy in others interests me, and I have fine-tuned the habit of close listening. Last week, at a party, a woman asked me if I was married, and I said what I normally say: “No, I’m homosexual.” I’m not good at ambiguity. Nor is the old-fashioned skill of the devastating one-liner much in demand. I’ve probably been insulted on the score of sexuality fewer than half a dozen times in my life and have never troubled to respond with anything more than “oh, fuck off.” Not exactly Oscar Wilde.
So, if there is such a thing as “gay discourse,” it is changing. When I look at recent gay and lesbian novels, it is difficult to see what, precisely, they have in common apart from the depiction of a particular social world and the declared sexual preferences of their authors. Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate is a lyric novel, inspired by Eugene Onegin, and perhaps in his subsequent, exclusively heterosexual novels, one may detect the sense of the sexual outsider in the persistent theme of love unfulfilled at the last, or love misdirected in the cause of duty. Alan Hollinghurst’s three novels are Jamesian social comedies, walking the fine line between luxuriant metaphorical growth and vulgar lewdness with assurance. Jake Arnott writes gangland thrillers of unusual elegance, exuberant in their descriptions of both violence and sex. Sam Lock’s novels are dry, faintly sinister exercises in bohemian nostalgia. Paul Golding’s The Abomination was a poisonous public school story, returning to the long-lost notion of decadence and vice with almost unreadable gusto. These are five contemporary novelists with little in common.
Perhaps, to put it more positively, authors who can be seen as writing gay literature are widening their subjects, and writing about homosexuals because of their views on politics, or because they might rob banks or, in fact, do anything but represent the fact of their sexuality. That is clearly going to broaden the concept of gay literature, possibly to the point of dissolving it altogether. Thirty or 40 years ago, the gay novels of Francis King or Angus Wilson were accompanied by the inevitable code-words “sensitive” and “witty.” When we talk about gay writers now, we will, it is true, still be considering a witty exquisite like Paul Magrs, but also writers who could not have existed 30 years ago. There is the journalist Peter Wayne, for example, who has chronicled his extraordinary life in Prospect: a crack addict, an armed robber and a homosexual in the grand tradition of Genet. Wayne’s writing is impressive for its utter refusal to apologise for any of his extraordinary feats of seduction and criminality. We have come a long way from sensitive novels about public schoolboys falling hopelessly in love with younger boys. And we must recognise that a heterosexual writer may have as much to say about the “gay condition” as writers whose biographical credentials are impeccable. Philip Pullman’s Whitbread prize winning novel, The Amber Spyglass, includes an unforgettably intense portrayal of a sexual obsession between two male angels, a more powerful contribution to gay literature than most books written by gay authors.
The increasing openness of gay life has perhaps diluted the characteristic virtues of gay literature to the point where it becomes meaningless to speak of such a thing. But, in another area, this openness has led to a flourishing of literary endeavour. Gay biographers and bibliographers are recovering great areas of the past. Gay and lesbian authors who, in previous times, found it difficult to speak openly or find a readership are being unearthed and celebrated. Virago found and republished a number of remarkable lesbian authors. Sylvia Townsend Warner has been restored to her rightful place as one of the most interesting novelists of her time, although the lesbian motif in her books is subdued and dubious. Brigid Brophy, Jane Bowles, Howard Sturgis, EF Benson and Edward Carpenter are probably more popular now than they were in their lifetimes. Biographies of lesbian and gay men have found a large and appreciative audience: Kate Summerscale’s The Queen of Whale Cay, Peter Parker’s life of JR Ackerley or Philip Hoare’s of Noel Coward place their subject’s sexuality where it belongs, at the centre of their existence.
I find these contributions to “gay history” at least as valuable as the best of contemporary gay fiction. They have enabled us to read the greatest works of the past from a gay perspective. The influence of feminism has allowed women to read the classics in ways different from those of 50 years ago. Similarly, we have started to read Jane Austen, the Bront?s, Henry James and others, with a new sensitivity to the possibility of homosexual desire. This can only be enriching. It makes us see a layer of meaning which otherwise might have been ignored. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Magic Mountain, The Ambassadors: these are different books to the ones we were reading 40 years ago. Proust is now at the absolute centre of the literary canon in a way which was formerly inconceivable. The sense of a shared sexual desire has also led to an interest in foreign cultures, such as medieval Islam, when homosexuality was considered a proper subject for the highest forms of literature. A gay reader of the secret gay classics will see ways in which narrow definitions of gay writing may be escaped from and recognise homosexuality in a novel for what it is-as rich as heterosexuality.
Edmund White once described Joseph Conrad as the antithesis of gay discourse. I could not disagree more. His story The Secret Sharer is one of the classic homosexual statements. One day, a gay writer will produce something comparable to that: a book about homosexual desire which understands the full range of human motivation, which is as interested in the mechanics of steering a ship by night as the mechanics of the sexual acts. As gay literature broadens, I feel that book may be on its way. But I also suspect it can never be as suggestive as the books which talked about homosexual desire before the first world war. Even a book like John Buchan’s Greenmantle, filled with the unresolved tensions of electric desire between its male heroes, seems a grander statement about the fact of homosexuality than the frankest, most enlightened contemporary gay fiction.
So, I both want and do not want to be regarded as a gay novelist. And I both want and do not want an idea of “gay literature.” At present, the description of a writer as a “gay novelist” is an inevitable downgrading; when a critic describes a writer as a “great gay novelist,” it sounds almost like dismissal; that is to say, not necessarily a “great novelist.” One’s ambition as a novelist rejects the qualification. I look forward to the day when books like mine can be considered “gay novels” too, simply because they are the work of a thinking gay writer and include the unremarkable fact of homosexuality in their range of interests