Hear ye, hear ye, court is in session…
I just read Andrew Holleran’s novel Grief. It’s the first novel I can think of that talks about what it’s like to be gay and what straight society calls “middle aged.” Which in gay society is basically, “whatever sexual attractiveness you had has, like the elves of Middle Earth, taken ship and Gone Into The West.”
Honestly, it’s the first “gay novel” I’ve read in years. By which I mean, a novel about being gay, which is a very different animal from a “gay romance.”
A romance is a trope-adhering fiction. In a gay romance, it’s one in which the main characters happen to be gay. In all successful romances, the genre requirements in play at the moment of its creation are upheld – for instance, since “new adult” came along, it’s necessary that both characters have Wounds and Dark Secrets that their scowling beauty conceals. The main male character (preferably both of them in gayrom) must be possessed of a sexy form of employment, preferably requiring a uniform, or at least an expensive suit. There is a “you must be this tall to ride” standard for men of approximately six foot two. Any backstory or character development is not only unnecessary, but is often discouraged by the number of two star reviews a book with “too much” of it will receive (he said, from experience).
And, most importantly, the romance novel is about the relationship, more than it is about the individuals in it. A romance is constantly violating the “Bechdel test.” Alison Bechdel once said her rule about what movies she would and wouldn’t see was basically, it had to have two women in it who spent time together onscreen talking about something besides a man. The romance novel, for the most part, is about either the two main characters together, or apart and talking to someone else about the other and/or the relationship. If you don’t do this, you’ll get reviews that say “the mains were almost never together on the page.”
(Ironically, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice would probably receive a two star review, as there are all manner of things going on it that have nothing to do with Elizabeth and Darcy, nor are those two very often found “together on the page.”)
Where might you draw the line between what’s Gay Romance and what’s Gay Fiction? We’re capitalizing now, to talk about them as different things with different goals, and to refer to their existence as separate Amazon categories. Almost every Gay Romance is a bestseller in both categories.
I’d say scope is the divider. Most lives include “romance,” but most romance novels dial in only on the narrow portion of time in those lives between “They met” and “They married.” Most literary novels avoid this entire section of time – many of them are about a “marriage under the microscope,” about everything that goes wrong later, after the HEA. (Way too many, actually; it’s like you can’t get your MFA without a Raymond Carver-esque tale of a crumbling marriage.)
Andrew Holleran’s novels are distinctly Gay Fiction. They are about being gay, the life that a gay man lives outside the context of any romantic relationship. His first novel, Dancer from the Dance, is one of the greatest novels ever, period. It’s about being gay before AIDS, and his latest book Grief is about being gay after it (“after AIDS” being a condition dependent on sufficient income and good insurance). Neither book is a romance, and the one relationship embarked on by Malone, the main character in Dancer, ends with enough mutual disillusion to qualify it for one of those “microscope” stories.
What romance delivers is escape. What fiction delivers is realism, at least compared to how much of that you get in romance. In the case of Gay Fiction, it’s truth – the truth about gay men’s lives. Gay Romance gives its audience what they dream of, but, as gay men, only Gay Fiction gives us what we need.
I’m 53 years old. I had an episode recently, when a hot young guy at my gym, who I’d been staring at for some time, actually looked back, with a grin of acknowledgement, a message that yeah, I see you checking me out, that’s cool.
And I totally froze, indescribably upset. As long as he hadn’t made eye contact, I could let my imagination run away with me, planning the wedding. But once he acknowledged my existence, well, then it was either let the fantasy run wild and put the bunny in the cookpot, or squash it in a bitter session with multiple bottles of wine.
And then I was angry at him – why can’t you just ignore me like all the other hot young dudes! Why do I have to feel all this now, when I’ve finally established a quiet life without feelings!
And I had no context for these feelings, just a sense that I didn’t want to go back to the gym, didn’t want to see him again, didn’t want to upset myself again. And I just didn’t know how I was going to get around that and get back to the gym without dramatically changing my schedule or something.
Then I read this passage in Holleran’s book, from the POV of a man in, roughly, his 50s or perhaps even early 60s:
One afternoon, when I was leaving the National Gallery, a bearded man coming up the steps with a camera slung across his shoulder fixed his eyes on mine – a glance so longed for, it plunged me into a kind of anger, so that by the time I got home, and blurted out what had just happened to my landlord, it sounded more like a mugging. But he understood exactly. “What were you supposed to do?’ he said. ‘Stop and turn around and say, ‘Are you in a hotel?’ I don’t think so!”
And at that phrase, “a glance so longed for, it plunged me into a kind of anger,” the hairs stood up on my neck. I wasn’t alone. This wasn’t something that just happened to me, this wasn’t just “my” feeling. Someone had spoken for me, for the first time in fiction in a very long time. I wasn’t the only older gay man with this conflicted sense of desire and futility.
When I was young, and being gay was still “disapproved of” by the overwhelming majority of Americans, my only recourse to Gay Fiction was on our family trips to San Francisco. On which, oddly enough, my parents were content to let a sixteen-year-old boy wander the city for the day, while they did whatever adult things they were going to do (no, not that). Then again, this was 1979, and children had not yet been put on leashes and bubble-wrapped and forbidden to leave the house without an embedded GPS tracker.
The only trouble I got into was (and I gave this experience to Cal in Different People) visiting TRO Harper Books on Powell, where I found the just-released paperback version of Dancer, huge great stacks of the Bantam paperback on a table, the way the latest Patterson would be stacked up today. And of course I snatched up a copy, stashing it once home in a drawer, hidden even deeper than my cigarettes.
There was also a bookstore on Castro, just up from the Sausage Factory. (No, that was a pizza place. Seriously.) That bookstore had about three shelves of “Gay Literature,” which was about all the books about being gay, fiction and nonfiction, in print at the time. I pretty much bought every one of those books, almost all of which were from Avon or some sub-imprint. (I had money as I’d been working since I was 14, having lied about my age to work in, yep, a bookstore. Again, those were the days when 14 year olds could do that kind of thing.)
Those books taught me as a kid what “being gay” was, or was going to be, when, like all the others, I’d made the journey from rural exile to the Safety of The City.
And since then, there have been many “young adult” books that let kids know they’re not alone, that it’s okay. But, until I found Grief, I can’t think of one that’s been written for “old gay adults.” That has an expression of what it’s like for us, those of us who’ve, startlingly for our demographic in the age of AIDS, lived long enough to find ourselves in an emotional donut hole, both alive and alone, most of the people we collected in that key “building lifetime friends” era now long gone to their graves.
When you look at the Gay Fiction section on Amazon, the bestsellers and the new releases aren’t really Gay Fiction, not as gay men have known it for decades. They’re Gay Romances. They’re not really about the lives of gay men, not the way that Dancer or Grief is. There are rarely any signposts in a Gay Romance that show us how to live, how other gay men are living and how we can learn from them.
I wish that some Gay Romances, the ones that are just fantasy, were not also classified as Gay Fiction. Sometimes this happens because the author selects Gay Fiction as a BISAC Code, sometimes because the author puts “gay fiction” in their keywords, and sometimes probably because Amazon just shoves ‘em in there. There’s no fatwa being issued here, just an “I wish,” so don’t get your knickers in a twist. People are going to classify books the way they’re gonna, and it’s too bad.
But the question is, even if we took Gay Romances out of the Gay Fiction category, would it really make a difference? Would there suddenly be an onrush of Gay Fiction getting noticed? Or are they just not being written anymore…and why?
Gay Fiction, fiction not necessarily by, but most definitely about gay men, is a mostly moribund genre. (I’ll leave lesbian fiction for someone else to tackle.) It’s depressing to look at the “Also boughts” for a relatively new title like Grief and see titles like City of Night, Buddies, The Swimming Pool Library, Faggots, Giovanni’s Room… In other words, novels written many decades ago. And to realize, hey, when was the last time a work of Gay Fiction really made a big literary splash?
And why? You can’t blame homophobia, as much as Larry Kramer would like to. Is it because young gay men, at least once they leave the “YA” reading market, have no interest in reading about “being gay”? Is there just not much left to say about it after you’ve achieved independence, that’s much different than life in the big city for anyone else their age? Is it just that (the perennial favorite) “young people don’t read books anymore”?
Mainstream literary fictions like A Little Life feature gay characters, and nobody blinks. Gay characters in movies are no longer destined to die or be killed. In the 70s, Vito Russo’s book The Celluloid Closet had both a Filmography, a list of all movies with gay characters, and a Necrology, a list of all the movies where the gays died. Gay Fiction with a capital G and a capital F was necessary back then, when all gay characters were created from the distorted POV of a straight culture.
So. What kind of Gay Fiction do we need now? Nope, we don’t need any more novels by gay white men about escaping the sticks for the Big City, where they get nice jobs in publishing and summer on Fire Island. We’re full up there.
I think what we need is a novel from a gay person in Uganda, for instance, a story of a gay man or lesbian who sees Rick Warren and Joel Osteen and their “prayer warriors” invade their country, whipping up homicidal hysteria against the “family destroying” gays. How do you live with that, or do you? What kind of “great migration” might there be now, of gay Africans who must escape the tyranny that American Evangelicals have brought there? What is that experience like?
Or more novels like Grief, about getting older in a subculture devoted to youth and beauty. How do you let go, as most characters in that book are unable to do, of the desire for a young, beautiful lover, and find someone to be happy with?
Or novels about what it was like to grow up in an African-American “churchy” household during the 2004 elections, when gay marriage was whipped up into the Great Satan?
There are lives that never have any romance, but they’re still interesting. There’s still resonance in those lives for the rest of us.
Me? I’m guilty of writing Gay Romance. I have two cats to feed. And they’re addicted to crab. Lump crab, the rotten little bastards. I need to make money writing, because I Ain’t Never Goin’ Back to Cubicle City, Mister, and I know where my bread is buttered. I insert my gay experience, the elements of Gay Fiction, into my books, but yeah, they’re Gay Romances. Backstory aside, they are framed by They Meet and They Marry.
Gay Fiction is not a profitable career, nor is it likely to become one. It’s more like being a poet, one best suited to those with day jobs or grants or employed spouses or a willingness to (and the good health to be able to) live on the financial margins.
But we need more of it. And it would be nice if Gay Romance could step aside and let Gay Fiction have its place in the sun.