In search of that “Great Gay Novel”

"Oh crap, not another lovely sentence..."

So after my Complete and Utter Demolition of Garth Greenwell’s assertion that A Little Life is the “great gay novel,” and after Declaring in Said Demolition that such a novel would not be “yet another tale of rich people in Manhattan,” I put my money where my mouth is and ordered Beijing Comrades, a novel about the gay experience in China, and two more set in the Middle East – Guapa and God in Pink. I’ll be sure to Weigh In here when I’ve read them.

Frankly, my interest in these books doesn’t come from an affection for the secret words of power, like “inclusivity,” and “diversity,” and “visibility.” It comes from a place of…boredom. I’m bored with the same story by the same people over and over. Gay fiction is just as guilty of generating Pringles rather than Kettle Chips as any other genre.

And the lion of gay lit, Edmund White, just said the same thing:

There are so many great topics to write about, but people keep harping on the same — coming out, or unhappy love stories.

Interviewer: What would you rather see?

I think gay villains would be interesting. For a while people were worried about writing gay characters who weren’t good role models. But it seems to me gay villains would be an interesting subject — like an older gay couple exploiting a 20-year-old boy. You never read about that. We’ve also had an awful lot about well-to-do white men. We haven’t heard a lot about minorities.

And it’s not just the Pringleism of the plots or the subjects. More than that, I’m overwhelmingly sick of the whole MFA-program style. You know. What a critic once called “the cult of the sentence.” The kind of writing that’s invariably referred to at least once on the back jacket blurbs as “luminous prose.” In other words, it’s highly likely that the book really is, as Rick Moody said, in an admiring tone, “all about the sentences.”

There’s a tedious sameness to most serious fiction, and that’s all thanks to said Master of Fine Arts writing programs. Students are taught to imitate Raymond Carver, or Ann Beattie, to write New Yorker stories in which nothing much happens until the “tiny epiphany” in the last paragraph – nothing too big, now, that reeks of plot, the enemy of the MFA style. Plot is to this genre what “trade” and “filthy lucre” were to Victorian gentlemen of means. Heaven forfend you read on to see what happens, and fail to linger on a highly polished syntactical gem.

And it’s a pity that there are some really talented writers who fall victim to this style. I was reading a novel last year, Fourth of July Creek, and really enjoying this tale of a social worker in rural Montana…and then, suddenly, there was a chapter that was so tonally different from the rest of the book, so blatantly slavishly written to MFA house style, that it was obvious what it was: a stand alone piece the author had engineered for a writing workshop, a piece that the teacher and other students had all nodded at, cluck cluck, lovely sentences. It was the standard issue “crumbling marriage” set piece, and it was so ineptly jammed into the book that all I could think was that the author just couldn’t let go of it, after all that programmatic praise. If he’d been true to his novel, to his plot, he would have jettisoned it. But he just couldn’t. No doubt he’d been told it was his best work. And it ruined the book for me. I couldn’t go on, the whole flow was shattered, it was such a round peg in the square hole of the rest of the book.

So what I’m really looking forward to in these novels from Iraq, and China? I’m looking forward to reading a book by someone whose resume reads like this…

Saleem Haddad is a writer and aid worker. He was born in Kuwait City to an Iraqi-German mother and a Palestinian-Lebanese father, and has lived in Jordan, Cyprus, Canada and the U.K. He has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and other international organisations in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Egypt. In addition to writing, he currently advises international organisations on humanitarian and development issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

…and not like this: “So and so went to college and then got an MFA and moved to New York and worked on an influential little magazine. He lives in Park Slope with his husband and their Shar Pei, Edward Gibbon.”

I’m hoping to find an actual fresh voice, one untainted by admission and graduation from the White Bread Institute For Luminous Prose. And, yes, a new plot, a new story, and most definitely a place and a life that’s a whole new world to me.

3 Comments on In search of that “Great Gay Novel”

  1. Yes, Muffy, it must have an underlying conceit that belies the subject matter– balls— “You MUST read this book!” Ummm–no I must not 🙂 I don’t read pretentious bullshit 🙂

  2. I totally get where you’re coming from. I feel that way about a lot of gay romance so I don’t expect much different in gay fiction. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack when I read a phenomenal book. I hang onto the author for dear life. There are so many writers who go under the radar (you included) who SHOULD be read by more people because they write characters that are deep. Their style completely draws you in.

    Sidenote, I was totally going to recommend Beijing Comrades to you but then I was like, “Hmmm would Brad really want to read this?” Ha! Turns out you do. YOU DO.

    • Yeah I found out about it by accident, reading a blurb about it in The Week Magazine. And that product page led me to the other two books. I’m looking forward to something fresh!

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