From an interview with Jonathan Kemp:
David Leavitt has suggested that gay books and bookshops are a relic of the past and no longer relevant or needed by the gay community. What do you think? How important do you think it is for us to continue to actively support gay books and authors?
I don’t think gay readers should only buy gay authors, or only books about being gay, but I don’t think straight readers should think gay books are only for gay readers, either. I’d rather think about what we, as readers, get from any writer’s work. Reading is still one of the most intimate things we can do, ‘curling up with a good book’ sounds almost sexual! So I think we need to read widely to find those books or writers with whom we want to curl up. I think gay authors can perhaps provide moments of identification with a gay reader, but hopefully there are other things going on to stimulate the reader.
Leavitt is wrong, gay bookshops can provide a crucial role in the community, and hopefully not only in the gay community. Gay’s the Word is much more than a bookshop, for example. Visibility is crucial.
One author, Abdellah Taïa, whose work we discussed in 2013, said, ‘ I believe that books help us to live. When you read a book or a poem it connects you to something new inside of you or it confirms some premonition you’ve had. Using my books as a cultural instrument in the fight for freedom, for individuality, is something I’m very happy to do. Since I come from a world where individuality doesn’t exist, where homosexuality is still considered a crime, where you don’t completely own your body, and where you can’t speak freely, it’s the least I can do.’
Finish the sentence: A good book starts with…
A good storyteller.
It ends with…
“While a person’s sexual orientation is not the sole basis for their life, it is an integral part of who they are and of what they create…. Our sexual nature is at the core of our being. It informs not only how we live, whether openly or in some form of hiding, but how we perceive ourself, the world, and what we create.”
Help these boys build a nation of their own. Ransack the histories for clues to their past. Plunder the literatures for words they can speak. And should you encounter an ancient tribe whose customs, however dimly, cast light on their hearts, tell them that tale; and you shall name the unspeakable names of your kind, and in that naming, in each such telling, they will falter a step to the light. For only with pride may a man prosper. With pride, all things follow. Jamie O’Neill (?– ), Irish novelist. From At Swim, Two Boys (2001).
If the conclusions of so many gay novels seem inadequate, the reason may be that gay writers have not yet created a myth which is not tragic, which does not follow the received heterosexual conception of gay man’s fate. Without some integrating myths that will help bring together the sexual world and the familial world, the gay novel would be forever fractured, divided against itself, without a satisfactory resolution. David Bergman US literary critic. From Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature (1991).
The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there – all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth. And until we do that, and until we organise ourselves block by neighborhood by city by state into a united visible community that fights back, we’re doomed. Larry Kramer (b. 1935), US dramatist, novelist, activist. From the play, The Normal Heart (1985).
Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a narration, an axis of innumerable narrations. One literature differs from another, either before or after it, not so much because of the text as for the manner in which it is read. Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), Argentinian philosopher, short story writer, poet, critic. From “For Bernard Shaw” (1952).
The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper – whether little or great, it belongs to Literature. Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), US novelist. From a letter to author Willa Cather (published in 1896).
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), British novelist, short story writer, and playwright.
For a different viewpoint, from City Boy by Edmund White:
Poirier was cordial enough but soon began to tongue-lash me for the duration of the meal, furious because I’d said I thought there was such a thing as gay fiction, even gay poetry—worse, a gay sensibility!—and that at the very least works by gay people could be read in a special light, to illuminate them. Richard was enraged that I would even propose to isolate gay writers from the literary mainstream. He had a rough, gravelly voice, a strong, virile face, and one eye that wandered, and he relentlessly pursued his thought without ever smiling. I felt as unprovided with arguments as I had when I’d told Maitland Edey about feminism.
Frankly, I couldn’t see what the big deal was with the idea of “gay literature.” I said, “Well, there’s no reason the same text can’t be read from several different perspectives. It’s just that for us gay writers now, it’s fun to—”
“Gay writers!” Richard thundered. “I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. It’s obscene!”… “But things do change,” I said confusedly. “There are always new movements in fiction, aren’t there? The word novelty is contained in the word novel. Why not have a gay school of fiction? Is there any harm in that? At least it’s exciting and new.”
“Exciting! But it’s a betrayal of every humane idea of literature. Have you never heard of universalism?”
Now, all these years later, when “gay literature” has come and gone as a commercial fad and a serious movement, I can see his point. It’s true that as a movement it did isolate us—to our advantage initially, though ultimately to our disadvantage. At first it drew the attention of critics and editors to our writing, but in the end (after our books didn’t sell) it served to quarantine us into a small, confined space. Before the category of “gay writing” was invented, books with gay content (Vidal’s City and the Pillar, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Isherwood’s A Single Man) were widely reviewed and often became bestsellers. After a label was applied to them they were dismissed as being of special interest only to gay people. They could only preach to the converted. The truth, however, was that gay literature was every bit as interesting and varied as straight literature….. There was a moment, before the market became saturated, when an ordinary straight first literary novel could be expected to sell five thousand copies—and a gay literary title would sell seven thousand. For a long while gay readers had a greater hunger for books than did the ten-times-larger straight public for heterosexual literature.
“In the 5os, if you wanted to be gay and you lived in a big city, in order to have your ticket of admission into gay life, you had to like the opera and read lots of books, and you had to be cultured.”
Another sigh. “Now it seems you just have to go to the gym a lot.”