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 years 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: Weve 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 its 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 its 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 couldnt do this any more. And then I met Joe, and weve been together 20 years and weve moved here to retire. Ive 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 its 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 Brams 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 Cunninghams 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 its absorbed by mainstream culture, a la The Hours, or its marginalized as gay and of interest only to a narrow subset of people. Ive always found the public embrace of The Hours really interesting, in the way that the books 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 were not dying in the same numbers makes us safer for the dominant culture because we dont represent the pariahs and tragic figures we once did. And I do think theres been a change in our fiction, if theres such a thing as our fiction, because its 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.
DP: Well, were all of the age to remember that gay life emerged into the national forefront with the AIDS crisis, and for all the horrible things that AIDS did it also made gay people a visible presence in American life for the first time. But oddly enough, when AIDS passes into the realm of manageable chronic illness gay people seem to have slipped back into the margins. Although we are visible everywhere we are never visibly potent. I do get extraordinarily frustrated, more with television than print, when a three-minute sex scene between a man and woman is deemed integral to the plot, but if there are gay characters theres a kiss and then fade to black. Obviously we have more power than ever, but you just run into these glass ceilings all the time.
DW: I think straight people dont know how to market gay and lesbian writing, but even if they did, the press itself does such a horrible job of giving equal attention to gay writing.
IS: This is where I get a little confused. If I think about Dale, Michael Cunningham, Sarah Waters, Colm Tibn, Dennis Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis -- there are any number of men or women through the past 10 or 20 years who have really gotten the attention of the mainstream media because their work is interesting and provocative. I think we havent been completely marginalized. I think the mainstream embraces what it wants within any subculture, but for me the question is: What is gay fiction? If Im reading a Michael Cunningham book does that mean Im reading a gay book or a Michael Cunningham book?
DP: Thats the big problematic question. The novelist Sarah Schulman sat me down before my first novel came out, and she said, If you are so lucky to be interviewed by mainstream press, you are going to be asked, Are you a gay writer, or are you a writer who happens to be gay? And she said, Once they ask you the question, youve lost. Its just a lose-lose question.
IS: There was a moment in the late 80s or early 90s when there was a lot of acquisition of books by gay men and lesbian writers by mainstream publishers. It felt as if our voices, diverse as they are, were being heard. But we kind of got slotted into the whole multicultural phenomenon that is Americas understanding of culture. We were just one more marginalized group.
DP: One of the funny by-products of the Internet is that in a country of 300 million people you realize that small communities are comprised of relatively large numbers of people. If you have an efficient means of marketing to them you can write something that is exclusively gay and sell it to that 20- or 30-million strong population out there. But at the same time it does become a self-perpetuating phenomenon of separation. And I dont think thats how we live our lives.
IS: Well, if you spent a week in the Pines you might feel differently.
DP: At the same time, the Pines is not really where I want to go for a vacation. I go to the Pines and suddenly I feel fat and ugly, whereas anywhere else I feel healthy and fine-looking.
DW: You raise a really good point, because I often dont see gay fiction that lives in the bigger world I live in. On the other hand, I dont often see gay fiction that lives in the little ghetto that I sometimes live in. Somehow the gay world that gets represented in gay -- with a capital G -- fiction is often that slim, very light, inconsequential side of our lives. And, gay or straight, its the thinness that bores me.
DP: If this conversation reflects nothing else its clear that assimilation or mainstreaming is far from over. Certainly as a writer, I think thats what our job is supposed to be -- to document that process, and locate it on a spectrum of past into future.