On the New York Times 2008 Book List: Notably Straight

28Nov08

In which The Gay Recluse ponders gay marriage literary equality. (Ed: we accidentally published an earlier version of this piece with a lot of unfinished crap at the bottom — please disregard in favor of the below!). UPDATE: please check out this post for gay-oriented 2008 book recommendations from those better informed than us!

Last November, we published an essay on the suffocation of the gay voice in American literature, and not much has happened in the past year to change our opinion of this bleak, dreary landscape. The New York Times Book Review recently published its annual selection of notable books for 2008, and although we’re not familiar with all of them, as so often happens when confronting such lists, we were struck by an apparent lack of anything on the fiction half of the list — characters, themes, authors — that could be considered even remotely gay. Similar observations hold true for Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani‘s respective top-ten lists.

[A few preliminary notes/disclaimers: On the non-fiction side, there is a biography of Rudolph Nureyev, whose relatively unapologetic and well-documented appetite for men and death from AIDS makes the issue impossible to ignore completely (this is somewhat akin to real gays we sometimes see on reality teevee, which are so different than the usual stereotypes offered up by the networks, see e.g., every show ever made except maybe Six Feet Under!); in terms of the fiction list — our primary concern here — it’s possible that some of these books do in fact deal with gay subtexts and themes (and if so, we’d like to hear about it!), but we could not glean anything along these lines from the capsules included.]

Which — i.e., this lack of “gay” — is kind of telling, given the range of other topics and themes we encounter while glancing through the list, e.g., we find authors confronting racism and ethnic stereotypes and politics and war and crime and terrorism (9/11!) and suburban/domestic ennui and the usual host of marriage/love problems. While all of these are admittedly compelling (or can be, in the right hands), we cannot help but ask: “If we were an alien coming to earth and knew nothing about humans except for these books, would we have any clue about the existence of homosexuality?” In this case, sadly enough, the answer is no, we wouldn’t.

This begs the question of wtf why, which in turn suggests three possible answers: 1) gay themes don’t really lend themselves to literature, 2) gay themes are less important than all of the above, and so we shouldn’t be any more disappointed not to find them covered here than we would if say, we were passionate about golf and found no novels on the topic in any given year; or 3) whether important or not, there were no outstanding works of fiction published in 2008 dealing with questions of gay identity.

As to whether gay themes are appropriate to literature, to say they are not would seem quite plausible if you were relying on the post-war American literary canon, because hey, there’s nothing gay about it, so it couldn’t be that important, right? This of course is casuistry; beyond obvious reference to literary masters both near (Michael Cunningham, Andrew Holleran) and far (Marcel Proust), there is a case to be made that homosexuality is the most universally reviled trait in the history of humanity — cutting across class, ethnicity, organized religion, gender and nationality — and thus the perfect window through which to examine well, pretty much anything, or at least anything related to a fundamental understanding of who we (collectively) are, which is certainly one plausible purpose (or at least effect) of fiction. (And we would go so far as to say that writers who ignore this do so at their peril, and that their works will be dismissed and forgotten as epitomizing the unenlightened tendencies of the dark ages in which we now but perhaps will not always live.)

Moving on to the importance of question number two, beyond the obvious hey-we’re-gay bias we bring to the table, we cannot help but look at the national socio-political-economic landscape of the past twenty years or and wonder if the issue of homosexuality — as much as race, class or gender — has not defined (albeit in many cases, in a largely unconscious manner) the national “dialogue” in ways that have had disasterous effects on all of us. We think back to how Reagan and Bush actively ignored the holocaust of gay men that took place on their watches, and then we observe the manic behavior of our country under the Clinton and Bush II administrations — the economic frenzy, the ascendancy of Moral Politics, the embrace of the sickeningly masculine culture of SUVs and rigidly stereotypical gender roles in Hollywood movies, etc. etc. — and we wonder if, at least in part, this could not be attributed to the failure of our country (outside of a few marginalized communities, obv) to truly acknowledge what happened twenty years ago, much less grieve or examine it in a meaningful way. Maybe it’s just us, but when we consider New York City, we are often left with the sense that there’s still a pervasive grief that hovers over a city where something like 100,000 people (mostly gay men) died, many at a brutally young age; it’s the skeleton in our closet that nobody really wants to talk about because it’s painful and depressing, but our guess is that until we address this in a broad, public forum, we will continue to be srsly fucked up in ways that both are and aren’t obvious.

As gay forces mobilize in the fight for marriage equality (or as we like to refer to it, civil unions for all), there seem to be practical implications to the sadly straight state of American literature in 2008, namely in the startling lack of stories (by which we mean the literary fictive kind) upon which this movement can turn for solace and inspiration; where, for example, is our James Baldwin? Sure, there are big gay filmmakers on the cultural landscape, but isn’t there something a little unsettling about throwing money at an industry where out gays cannot be considered for leading roles? Where we have to rely on Sean Penn — who omg was willing to “play gay” — for distribution? Whatever the case with movies, the desperate fervor with which these crumbs are gulped down by the gays suggests a strong demand that is largely unmet in the literary context.

Moreover, what books offer that movies do not is the ability to present characters as multifaceted, complex distillations (or reflections) of the kind of people we meet in the real world, i.e., those who do not conform to stereotype and generalization. Relevantly, this includes depictions of gay sex! Because high-minded notions of equality to the side, it’s also important for some significant percentage of the population — i.e., certainly more than could be said to exist now — to understand that cocksucking and assfucking (and whatever gay ladies do) are — or can be — equally valid means of sexual expression, as much as anything our straight peers might want to entertain among themselves, even if it leads to procreation. Bottom line: to be successful politically, we gays need to fight the “ew” factor, and having straights pretend on film is more of a disorienting spectacle than an honest depiction of this fairly serious aspect of our humanity (i.e., something that both separates us and brings us together, to be kind of “Hallmarky” about it!).

Except all of that said — and most depressing of all for us to consider — we have no obvious candidates for inclusion on the sad NYT “notably straight” list. It’s not like we’re outraged that ______, the new novel by _______, in which issues of gay identity are eloquently explored in the context of ______, was left off the list. (But if we’re missing something here — and it’s possible, because we’re not professional critics — please let us know!) The point it, it seems like a ridiculous state of affairs that there are not at least a handful to pick from every year, and we find the absence of gays no less startling that we would if the same were true of women or ethnic minorities. Until we see these books written and accepted (i.e., both critically acclaimed and commercially successful), and in a consistent, regular manner, there will continue to be a somewhat grotesque quality to how we’re viewed by those on whose good will (at least in part) we depend for the political reform we seek.

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