On New York Magazine’s “Books in the New York City Canon”: Uhh, Where Are The Gays?

08Apr08

In which The Gay Recluse again laments the suffocation of the gay voice in American literature.

If you’re like us, when you scanned through the list of books included in New York Magazine‘s recent “New York City Canon 1968-2008,” you had one reaction: wtf! where are the gays? In every other format, gays are represented in numbers that are fairly typical, if not stereotypical: film (Todd Haynes); theater (pretty much everyone — “PME” — with a special feature on Tony Kushner); art (Andy Warhol and Keith Haring); television (the Robyn Bird show); architecture (Philip Johnson); classical music/dance (Franco Zeffirelli/PME); even pop music (Suicide — ? — and Magnetic Fields); there are others, of course, scattered throughout — we have listed only the most obvious.

Yet in books, the closest we get is Susan Sontag, who while perhaps one of the more brilliant thinkers of the dark ages post-war era must also be remembered as one of the hugest closet cases ever. (So may she rot in hell — kidding!) On the “literature” side of the equation, the list is filled with the usual suspects: Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Don Delillo, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth (Zzzzzz), Jay McInerney, Michael Chabon and other straight guys (Zzzzzz) who while possibly “gay-friendly” (in the case of Chabon) are as a rule assholes ambivalent at best about the gay story, and in any case cannot be said to have ever written in a gay voice. The most tedious of these authors ignore the question entirely, which does admittedly have the benefit of ensuring a quick burial of their works in the sands of time.

But! Where is Andrew Holleran? Where is Dancer from the Dance, the one book that more than any other describes the beautiful, urban (and devastating) decadence of the 1970s and miraculously (if unconsciously) foreshadows the greatest and most compelling tragedy of New York City in the last forty years, namely the death of 100,000+ (mostly gay men) from AIDS? Or if not Holleran, where is Edmund White? Or Michael Cunningham? Or David Leavitt? (or David Sedaris!) Or Rick Whitaker? Or Sarah Schulman? Or anyone else who has written about New York City through a gay lens (which to be included in “the canon” should at least tacitly address AIDS, in the same way any serious work of literature these days must somehow acknowledge 9/11)?

While the lack of diversity in this list (meant to represent what is arguably the gayest city in the world) begs the question of what was blinding the editors (or critic Sam Anderson, who wrote the piece), our point here is not to lambaste New York Magazine; particularly when — ironically enough — in the same issue they feature a very compelling article about Ramon Torres, a once-renowned AIDS doctor who is now basically a homeless crystal-meth addict (and HIV-positive). Rather, we lay the larger portion of the blame on the publishing industry — and of course, the cultural tendencies it reflects — for the continuing suffocation of the gay voice in American literature, just as we did last fall in response to several articles in The Times.

Perhaps we were too earnest to be taken entirely seriously when we first said it, but nothing in the intervening months (and we have read a fair number of books) has changed our fundamental opinion that we are living in an seriously wounded and diseased era in which we have barely begun to acknowledge the traumatic impact of what we (as a culture!) endured as a result of AIDS (and still do!). That this is reflected in lists of books such as the New York Magazine Canon is obvious; like so many others we have seen, it perpetuates distortions and ignorance; if you read it, we encourage you to so do with a rueful laugh and a bitter smile at the sad impulses on display.

The truth is in our hands: we, too, have a history of oppression and a corresponding literary tradition that should be included in lists of the New York City Canon! We already have our Toni Morrison, and his name is Andrew Holleran! To fight for our civil rights is one thing, but it is equally if not more important to fight for our literary voice in a culture that belongs to us as much as anyone else; our stories are here within us, we shouldn’t have to beg to have them recognized, or apologize to have them told.

–The Gay Recluse, November 2007

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4 Responses to “On New York Magazine’s “Books in the New York City Canon”: Uhh, Where Are The Gays?”

  1. 1 Kelly

    TGR–
    In terms of diversity of voice, your list of gay writers addressing new york is missing one thing–WOMEN! and it is very clearly missing Sarah Schulman. I haven’t read her recent work, but her late 80s early 90s work is 100% gay NYC. and totally awesome.

  2. Thanks, Kelly. Guilty as charged! I recognize that I’m totally lacking on the gay/female side of things, and appreciate the recommendation. My real gripe is the failure to include Holleran, whose book is really the defining work of a generation and deserves to be recognized as such. That said, I’m happy to amend the post and will do so immediately (blogging–yes!)


  1. 1 Inquiring Minds… / Queerty
  2. 2 / Jossip

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