Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Writing On Writing - Part 13

In 1991 I attended my first William Inge Festival. The honoree that year was Edward Albee. It's no secret that he is gay, but you really can't tell that from the plays that he writes. His best-known play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is about two married couples, and he doesn't throw in any apparent gay theme or subtext. (Scholars and dramaturgs may debate that, but that's not what this discussion is about.) So I asked him at a panel discussion whether he saw himself as a gay writer or a writer who happens to be gay, and what he saw was the difference between gay literature and literature with gay characters. Mr. Albee's answer was typically epigramatic, but he said he really didn't think much about it, but if he had to choose he'd say he was a writer who happens to be gay, and the difference between gay literature and literature with gay characters depended on who was reading it.

It occurs to me that I should ask myself the same question. If I go back and examine the work that I've produced, especially that which has seen the light of day either on the stage or on the screen -- computer screen, that is -- most if not all of them have gay characters or gay subtexts and themes. Does that make it gay literature? I suppose, but I wouldn't want to pigeonhole my writing any more than a black author would want his or her work categorized as being strictly for a black readership or J.K. Rowling would want the Harry Potter series to be considered just for children. I write about gay characters for the obvious reason that I am gay and I write about what I know. I don't see the world strictly in terms of my sexuality, but it does play a part; at times more deeply felt than others. Being gay, though, isn't the end-all and be-all for me, and it isn't for my characters. Bobby Cramer is gay, but he's not the only gay character in the novel; he's surrounded on all sides by straight friends and the straight world. In Small Town Boys, most of the characters are gay but it's not all about the gay world, and there's no overt depiction of sex (sorry, readers of STB; if you're waiting for a graphic description of gay sex, it's not going to happen). There is a lot more to being gay than just who you sleep with.

Apparently I'm not the only author who sees that gay literature isn't just for queers anymore. There was an article several weeks ago in the New York Times Book Review about the demise of gay/lesbian bookstores because gay-themed literature has gone mainstream. I remember one bookstore in particular in Albuquerque called Sisters' and Brothers'. They have a wide selection of books, magazines, gifts, and music. The books were a mix of everything from classic literature with gay characters, like E.M. Forrester's Maurice and Mary Renault's The Charioteer, to more contemporary works like Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and the Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin; books you'd find at most mainstream (i.e. Barnes & Noble) bookstores. Their shelves are crammed with many good books of all genres -- mysteries, detective stories, and comedies, and non-fiction topics as well; history, biography, psychology, spirituality; just about every topic you'd see in a mainstream bookstore, but all focused on the gay life. (I hate the term "gay lifestyle." That makes it sound like a decorating choice. It's life, period.) Of course there were also the erotic fare; collections of short stories that were just long enough to inspire the desired reaction, and just plain porn like Saving Ryan's Privates or some such. Hey, it's marketing; the store knows what sells, but you could see that it was suffering the same fate as nearly all small independent bookstores and the only thing keeping the doors open was the stuff that couldn't be sold in a megamall bookstore. They also made a point of welcoming straight customers; one way of getting to know someone is by seeing what it is they read and write about.

It's ironic that a bookstore that set out to be both a resource for a niche audience and a place for educating others is now a victim of its own success: the mainstreaming of gay literature. What was shocking a generation ago is now the stuff of sitcoms, and if I ever attempt to sell Bobby Cramer or Small Town Boys, I hope the publisher will not think of them as gay stories; they're stories with characters who happen to be gay by an author that happens to be gay as well. I'd like to see them on the shelf at Barnes & Noble one day -- and at Sisters' and Brothers' too.

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