What is a Gay Novel?

Posted on March 20, 2016
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Now that both the Publishing Triangle and the Lambda Literary finalists have been announced, it’s a good time to ask the question:  What makes a novel gay?  Gay characters?  A gay theme?  And does the author have to be gay?

The so-called “gay novel,” first attracted national attention when Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story made the New York Times Bestseller list in 1982.  A Boy’s Own Story had a gay narrator, a gay theme and an out gay author.  It was also masterfully written and many today consider it to be the “great gay novel.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that things have gotten more complicated in recent years.  Many gay authors are no longer “writing gay”.   And some of the best queer novels are written by strathe-publishing-triangleight authors.  When I chatted with Bernardine Evaristo at the 2015 Publishing Triangle Awards, she told me that when she learned her novel, Mr. Loverman  was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, she was certain it wouldn’t win.  When I asked, why? she replied:  “Because I’m not gay.”  Fortunately The Publishing Triangle disagreed and awarded her the prize.

John Irving’s In One Person is arguably “the great gay novel”, although “bisexual novel,” is probably a more accurate term.  It tells the story of one bisexual person’s survival.  It is exhaustively researched and brilliantly written.   And in 2013, Lambda Literary awarded In One Person, the “Bisexual Literature Award”, even though Mr. Irving is straight.

This year, queer readers are presented with yet another quandary.  2016 saw the publication of Hanya Yanaghihara’s A Little Life–a novel Garth Greenwell boldly proclaimed to be “the great gay novel”.  But what makes it gay?  Gay characters?  Yes, but “bisexual” or even “questioning” might be more accurate terms.  A gay theme?  Debatable.  And as to the sexuality of its author…  Well, this queer reader would like to believe we’ve reached the point where that just doesn’t matter anymore.

But how ellogo-mobilese can we explain the absence of this great novel from any of the Lambda finalists lists?  Is it possible that the sexuality of its author–or more accurately the lack of information about the sexuality of its author–prevented A Little Life from being a finalist?  Or must a “gay novel” be gay themed in order for it to become a finalist?  We will probably never know the answers to these questions.

Fortunately the Publishing Triangle got it right this year.  A Little Life is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.

The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on April 21st.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 6th.  Click here for a complete list of finalists.

 

 

 

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a Good Old-Fashioned Gay Novel.

Posted on February 3, 2016
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Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is a good, old-fashioned gay novel.   In the tradition of Edmund White,  Mr. Greenwell tells a very personal story.  And like Mr. White, Mr. Greenwell doesn’t shy away from sex.   Sexuality isn’t incidental to this book; it is central.

What Belongs to You tells the story of an American school teacher’s relationship with a Bulgarian hustler named Mitko.   Mr. Greenwell’s writing is at his best in the first part of this novel.  Here he precisely–and often amusingly–describes Mitko’s almost childlike appreciation of the smallest material things and his seemingly genuine  affection, which can be turned on  like a faucet with the prospect of cash.  Early on we learn that the narrator is breaking an unwritten self-imposed rule not to pay for sex, as much from sexual ego as from economics.  But the narrator succumbs to Mitko’s charms.  The reader isn’t entirely sure why.  In fact, the underlying question in part one becomes, why?  Why does this seemingly normal, out, gay, middle class American with friends decide to become involved with a twenty-two year old hustler with only a seventh grade education?

In part two, valuable insights about the narrator are revealed.  Here a series of flashbacks reveal a troubled, deeply unhappy childhood.   We learn that his father was a serial philanderer.  We learn how his first potentially meaningful same sex relationship was shattered by fear and heterosexism.  And ultimately we learn that his father–driven by homophobic hatred–abandoned him.

And yet this central question remains unanswered.  Perhaps that’s for the best.  After all, there is something that is ultimately mysterious about the human heart.  And good literature explores it.

Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You is published by Farrar Straus Giroux.

A Little Life is Like No Other Novel.

Posted on November 30, 2015
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9780385539258_custom-d9f99efb706cdce0a72e0930a8e3bb72ac393f76-s400-c85To paraphrase Tolstoy, great novels are not all alike.  Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, for example, is like no other novel.  It is an epic novel that follows several characters over decades.  But what sets A Little Life apart is the depth of its characterizations.   The characters in A Little Life are fully realized, complex and not at all predictable.  They are also interconnected completely.  Co-dependency isn’t a dirty word to them.  When a childless couple decides to adopt a grown man, it isn’t entirely surprising.  Though approximately the same length as The Fountainhead, A Little Life is the anti-Ayn Rand novel.  In Yanagihara’s world, no man (or woman) is an island.  A Little Life is the story of how people not only depend on each other, but beyond that, how they are shaped by and even defined by each other.

At the heart of this story is Jude, a brilliant man who is tormented by a horrific childhood.  His response to this is to cut himself:  to literally take a razor blade to his skin and watch it bleed.  It is to Ms. Yanagihara’s credit that this queer reader found these sections to be almost too painful to read.  On several occasions I actually found myself looking away from the book.  Her detailed descriptions are grisly, ghastly–as they should be.  A Little Life isn’t exactly an easy read, but this queer reader found it to be compelling and, near the end, almost impossible to put down.

Ms. Yanagihara doesn’t serve up a cliched happy ending here.  For while A Little Life is about how some people can help each other, it is also about how some people can harm each other deeply.  And sometimes that harm is irreparable.

Needless to say, Queer Reader strongly recommends this novel.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is published by Knopf.

 

On the Anniversary Of QueerReader.com

Posted on July 31, 2015
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This month, QueerReader.com quietly celebrated it’s seventh anniversary.  It’s a good time to take stock.

When this website was launched, there were literally LGBT bookstores from coast to coast.  A Different Light had branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Washington DC had a gay bookstore, as did several medium-size cities across the U.S.  And New York’s historic Oscar Wilde Bookshop was still going strong.  Or so it seemed.  No one I knew then was predicting that within a few short years they would all be gone.

There is no doubt that the landscape of queer literature is changing drastically.  For one thing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define.  Some of our best gay authors are no longer “writing gay.”  And the two best queer novels were written by straight authors:  John Irving’s In One Person and Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman.  Queer Literature today is fluid, unpredictable, but in many ways the quality is higher than it’s ever been.

Last year was an exceptionally good year for queer fiction. The jury is still out on this year.  But for those who continue to proclaim the death of Queer Literature, consider this:  Next year will see the publication of new works by Christopher Bram, Garth Greenwell, James Magruder, Patrick Ryan, Bob Smith and Edmund White.

So stay tuned.

The Publishing Triangle Gets It Right–Mostly.

Posted on March 12, 2015
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On Tuesday, the Publishing Triangle announced the finalists for their annual awards. As Queer Reader has noted before, 2014 was a surprisingly good year for queer fiction–making the task of narrowing it all down particularly difficult.  For the most part The Publishing Triangle has gotten it right.  The best novel of the year, Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman, is a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.  And Michael Carroll’s Little Reef is a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction.  This queer reader would also have liked to have seen James Magruder’s Let Me See It on one of these lists.  And I have already noted the Publishing Triangle’s–and the Lambda’s–tendency to pass on more commercial titles like Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen and Armistead Maupin’s The Days of Anna Madrigal.  But this is not a time to quibble.  This is a time to celebrate.  Being cited as a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award is indeed an honor in itself and Ms. Evaristo and Mr. Carroll should be congratulated.

The Publishing Triangle Awards will be announced on Thursday, April 23rd at the New School Auditorium, 66 West Twelfth Street, New York City at 7:00 pm.

UPDATE 4/23/15:  Tonight it was announced that Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT fiction.  Click here for the complete list of winners.

On the Lambda Awards’ Tough Choices

Posted on March 5, 2015
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The Lambda Literary Award Finalists were announced yesterday and this year they had some tough choices to make.  In a particularly strong year for fiction, there were bound to be some worthy books left out.  But let’s start first with what they got right.

Michael Caroll's Little Reef is superb.Michael Carroll’s Little Reef is a superb short story collection.  In the last story in the book, “Unsticking”, the narrator sees his own mortality in the mirror of contemporary youth culture.  It is a haunting story which improves with a second and a third reading.   But this is by no means the only excellent story in this book.  The highly autobiographical, “Admissions” tells the story of the narrator’s fiance’s climb back from a stroke.  It is a beautiful, honest and true story.  In “First Responder”,  a gay man becomes close to his straight brother after he assumes the role of his brother’s helpmate.  It is an unapologetically queer story and it is also flawless.  All of the stories in this collection are very good.

Sadly, the Lambdas somehow missed several superb books:

First, James Magruder’s Let Me See It, which is the most unlikely of books:  a short story collection that is also a genuine page-turner.  It is a journey through two decades of queer history.  And a must read.

It is also hard to understand how the Lambdas passed on Armistead Maupin’s The Days of Anna Madrigal:  the final volume in his Tales of the City Series.  This book is, in this Queer Reader’s opinion, the best of the series.

Not every critic appreciated Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen, but this queer reader found it to be surprisingly wise.  And Mr. Cunningham’s most New York novel to date.

And now we come to the best novel of 2014:  Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman. It is the story of Barrington:  a septuagenarian West Indian man who has finally reached the decision to come out as gay.  Told from the perspectives of both Barrington and his wife, this book is at once lyrical and surprisingly entertaining.  The result left this queer reader completely satisfied.  It should be noted that Mr. Loverman was published in the United Kingdom in 2013, so there may have been some confusion about its publication date.   For what ever reason–this great queer novel was largely overlooked in the United States.

In such a strong year for queer fiction it is a shame that the Lambda Awards don’t separate short story collections from novels, but that’s the way it is.  More troubling is the Lambda’s–and the Publishing Triangle’s–tendency to pass on the more commercial titles.

The Lambda Literary Awards will be announced on June 1, 2015 at The Cooper Union Hall in New York.

UPDATE 6/2/15:  Last night the winners of the Lambda Literary Awards were announced.   Click here for the results.

2014 Was a Surprisingly Good Year for Queer Lit.

Posted on December 31, 2014
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Here’s something you might have missed:  2014 was a good year for Queer Lit.  It began with the publication of The Days of Anna Madrigal:  the final volume of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series.  Then came Edmund White’s warm-hearted Paris memoir, Inside a Pearl.  A superb new novel by Michael Cunningham.  The American publication of Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman.  Debut fiction from Michael Carroll and James Magruder.  Add to this the reopening of Giovanni’s room in Philadelphia and it ends up being a surprisingly good year.

James Magruder’s Let Me See It is Exceptional.

Posted on November 4, 2014
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James Magruder’s short story collection, Let Me See It, is exceptional.  Mr. Magruder is a master at dialogue.  His stories are perfectly constructed.  And he has a literary style that is all his own:  minimalist, yet peppered with telling details  But what sets this collection apart is quite simply the way these stories are arranged.  By presenting them in this particular order Mr. Magruder traces the narrative of two gay men over twenty-one years. The result is the rarest of books:  a short story collection that is a genuine page-turner.

In the first story, “Tenochtitlan”, we are introduced to Elliott:  a boy who finds himself longing for a Latino classmate.  His gradual discovery of his own queerness parallels his questioning of his family’s arbitrary prejudices.  This is a classic American short story–complete with a climax that is both logical and shocking.

In the second short story, Elliott’s cousin Tom appears. Tom’s gradual queer awakening includes the realization that one of his main aspirations is to be the first in his family “whose given name you had to guess at because it wasn’t stitched onto a shirt pocket.”

As the book progresses these stories–and these characters–become more sophisticated.  So it is entirely appropriate that the last story, “Let Me See It,” is the most complex.  It is also the best.

Reading this collection of short stories is a journey through two decades of queer history.  It is a journey that is interesting, frequently humorous and surprisingly poignant.  I don’t want to reveal anymore, lest I give away too much of the ‘plot’ of this surprisingly suspenseful short story collection.

James Magruder’s Let Me See It is published by Triquarterly Books.

John Lahr’s New Tennessee Williams Biography is Insightful and Disappointing.

Posted on October 13, 2014
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Queer readers have waited a long, long time for the definitive Tennessee Williams biography.  Mr. Williams took a stab at it himself with his Memoirs, published in 1975.  But Memoirs, while a thoroughly entertaining read, was self-serving and not entirely accurate.  Dotson Rader’s book Cry of the Heart was a very personal account of Mr. Williams and this book succeeds on this level–although only accounting for his later years.  Maria St. Just’s Five O’Clock Angel brought out the surprisingly fun side of Tennessee Williams, but this is a limited account–essentially a volume of letters with some often humorous explanations from Lady St. Just.  Lyle Leverich’s semi-authorized biography, Tom is superb, but this book covers only Mr. Williams’s early years.  (A second volume was planned, but Mr. Leverich died before it was completed.)  And now here comes John Lahr’s book:  Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.  With unfettered access to Mr. Williams’s papers and eleven years in the making, this Queer Reader had hoped this would be the definitive Tennessee Williams biography we all had been waiting for.  Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a while longer.

Mr. Lahr begins the book with an exhaustive description of the opening night of The Glass Menagerie–skipping over the famous Chicago preview and the first thirty-four years of Mr. Williams’s life.  There is a logic to beginning the book here, because that night was the beginning of what Mr. Williams himself called, “the catastrophe of success.”  As Mr. Lahr points out, this was literally a rags-to-riches story–for Tennessee Williams and his entire family. The truth is, after the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie–and the movie deal that soon followed–Tennessee Williams was “set for life.”  But the following years would bring several more Broadway hits and after that, many failures.  What drove Mr. Williams to continue writing–even after his plays were no longer successful–is the central dramatic question of this book.

For over a decade, Tennessee Williams believed that only Elia Kazan could make his queer plays into Broadway hits.  Mr. Lahr’s description of these years is the best part of the book.  And it’s a reminder that the theatre is truly a collaborative medium.  One wonders, for example, if A Streetcar Named Desire would have been a hit if Kazan’s and Williams’s first choice for Stanley Kowalski–John Garfield–had been cast.

As he did in his superb Joe Orton biography, Prick Up Your Ears, Mr. Lahr shows great empathy for the long-suffering (queer) spouse of the fabulously successful playwright.  Throughout the nineteen fifties, the man who had been by Tennessee Williams’s side was Frank Merlo:  a short stocky Sicilian-American man who knew all the stage hands by their first and last names.  Although he couldn’t type, Tennessee sometimes referred to him as his “secretary.”  When someone asked Frank what he did, his answer was much more direct:  “I sleep with Mr. Williams.”

Something happened to Tennessee Williams after Frank Merlo died of lung cancer at the age of forty one.  Mr. Williams says as much in Memoirs.  Whether this was genuine grief or just an addict’s need to justify his drug use is an open question.  There is no question that after 1962 Tennessee Williams became addicted to uppers, downers and even regular injections from a man called Dr. Feelgood.

And it is here that Mr. Lahr disappoints.  For it is here that his respect for Tennessee Williams morphs into a disdain that borders on contempt.  While it is difficult to justify the actions of a drug addict, Mr. Lahr doesn’t seem to try to understand them. Over and over again Mr. Lahr takes sides against Mr. Williams.

When Tennessee Williams joins forces with Norman Mailer and others to protest the Vietnam War, Mr. Lahr dismisses it as “radical chic.”

When Mr. Williams comes out on the David Frost show–just months after the Stonewall riots–Mr. Lahr dismisses it as “coy.”

The world Tennessee Williams inhabited in the nineteen sixties also seems to appall Mr. Lahr.  He dismisses the legendary off-off Broadway production of “Small Craft Warnings” in a few lines.  And even erroneously (and offensively) refers to the star, Candy Darling, as a “drag queen.”

Near the end of the book, Mr. Lahr even throws in a gratuitously vicious Gore Vidal quote:  “…I don’t think he (Tennessee Williams) loved anybody, but himself.”

But in the end it would be Mr. Williams who summed it up best:  “We’re all sentenced to solitary confinement in our own skins, for life.”

John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is published by Norton.

UPDATE 10/15/14:  Today it was announced Tennessee Williams:  Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh is a finalist for the National Book Award.

Mr. Loverman is Sublime.

Posted on September 15, 2014
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Bernardine Evaristo’s novel, Mr. Loverman is the story of Barrington:  a septuagenarian West Indian man who has finally reached the decision to come out as gay.  His ever-shifting, highly complex situation is told from the perspectives of both Barrington and his Pentecostal Christian wife, Carmel.  In another time, their voices might be referred to as dialects.  But Ms. Evaristo goes deeper.  She doesn’t just write how these characters talk; she writes how they think.  And it is here that Ms. Evaristo displays her genius.  For through her sure-footed, sometimes lyrical prose, she unmasks the patois of their souls.

For much of the novel, the narrative zig zags from the present to the past, as Barrington’s history is revealed.  We learn how Barrington came to marry his wife and how they ended up making their home in the East End of London.  We also learn of Morris, the man who becomes his lover and who Barrington hopes to get up the nerve to leave his wife for.  This first half of the novel doesn’t so much feel like a “coming out” novel as a “staying in” novel.  Indeed, it isn’t until the second half of the novel that the central dramatic question–namely:  will Barrington come out?–is, at last gradually, organically answered.  To reveal any more of the plot would be a disservice.  Suffice it to say that Ms. Evaristo has some surprises in store.  And what starts out as a superb character study becomes a well-plotted page-turner–leaving this queer reader completely satisfied.

Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr. Loverman is published Akashic.

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately this is not the first time Queer Reader has been late in reviewing a book.  Once again, this tardiness should not denote any diminished enthusiasm for this title.  Quite the opposite.  This is the best novel Queer Reader has read in years.

UPDATE 3/10/15:  Today it was announced that Mr. Loverman is a finalist for the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

UPDATE 4/23/15:  Tonight it was announced that Mr Loverman won the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

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