The State of Gay Fiction

9.7.2009

By Out.com Editors

DP: Well, we're 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 there's 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 don't 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 T'ib'n, 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 haven't 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 I'm reading a Michael Cunningham book does that mean I'm reading a gay book or a Michael Cunningham book?

DP: That's 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, you've lost.' It's 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 America's 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 don't think that's 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 don't see gay fiction that lives in the bigger world I live in. On the other hand, I don't 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, it's the thinness that bores me.

DP: If this conversation reflects nothing else it's clear that assimilation or mainstreaming is far from over. Certainly as a writer, I think that's what our job is supposed to be -- to document that process, and locate it on a spectrum of past into future.

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