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…