The State of Gay Fiction

9.7.2009

By Out.com Editors

Last year we asked gay and lesbian writers to submit stories no longer than 4,000 words for our first annual fiction contest. Agent Ira Silverberg, author Dale Peck, and editor Don Weise selected this year's winner, David Baldwin, from more than 300 entries. The first and second runners-up were David Christensen and Rakesh Satyal respectively. We gathered the judges together to discuss the state of gay fiction.

Ira Silverberg: We've read around 300 stories between us for this contest, and what stood out to me was how present the coming-out narrative was in these submissions. Yet it's not so present in our lives anymore. We grew up reading them, looking for some reflection of our own angst, but in publishing the coming-out novel has been pushed into the young adult category. Now it's kids who are reading them, not the adults.

Dale Peck: I disagree. I was on a panel with five gay young adult authors and there were 30 to 40 people there, the youngest of whom was, at minimum, 25. At one point I asked the audience if they all read young adult novels, and literally everyone in the audience raised their hands. Then I asked ask how many read gay adult fiction, and maybe five raised a hand. What they really wanted was the coming-out story, which remains, for whatever reason, the primary gay narrative for them.

Don Weise: I was in Fort Lauderdale for a gay literary event where it was almost all older men in their 70s. Over and over I got the coming-out story, like, 'I was married to a woman, I have three daughters, and at the age of 50 I realized I couldn't do this any more. And then I met Joe, and we've been together 20 years and we've moved here to retire.' I've never met so many men with that same story, and all partnered to men with the same story.

DP: Most of the submissions with a coming-out theme are set in the past. You can see the same thing in successful gay movies of the past three or four years. Most of them are set back in time -- whether it's Brokeback Mountain or Capote -- when gay identity was more constrained but also more defined. As a gay audience we have a very hard time representing our life in the present, so we look back to this moment when it was all very clear.

DW: But I wonder to what degree all so-called minority fiction is set in another time. One of the few examples of a book that deals with contemporary gay adult life I can think of is Christopher Bram's Exiles in America, about a long-term gay couple that get involved with a straight couple. It takes for granted the world I live in.

IS: I think Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood did that too.

DP: But when you look at the difference in reception between Flesh and Blood and The Hours, Flesh and Blood was the least noticed of his books.

IS: And the gayest of his books, or at least the fruitiest.

DP: When we do attempt to represent our lives in the present day one of two things happens -- either it's absorbed by mainstream culture, a la The Hours, or it's marginalized as gay and of interest only to a narrow subset of people. I've always found the public embrace of The Hours really interesting, in the way that the book's homage to Virginia Woolf elevated it above a gay novel in some way. Also, the gay character in that book has AIDS, and at the end he throws himself out a window. I think that resonated hugely for me, in terms of an unconscious desire -- among not just straight people, but also gay people -- to have AIDS go away. And to some degree having AIDS go away also meant having that kind of gay go away.

IS: I think the nature of the disease has changed, and thus the representation of the disease has changed. The fact that we're not dying in the same numbers makes us safer for the dominant culture because we don't represent the pariahs and tragic figures we once did. And I do think there's been a change in our fiction, if there's such a thing as 'our fiction,' because it's not as edgy, brutal, and fraught with the kind of deep existential and moral issues that we were grappling with as we were coming to terms with the crisis.

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