The End of Queer Reading as We Knew it: On the closing of A Different Light Bookstore.

Posted on April 30, 2011
Filed Under Deep Thoughts, Queer Lit News | 1 Comment

I’m old enough to remember a time when literally everyone I knew regularly visited a bookstore named A Different Light.  I am actually referring to the first New York location–on Hudson Street.  That store functioned as something of a drop-in center.  I, myself, would go there several times a week to pick up a copy of The Native or OutWeek or maybe even Christopher Street.  I would also regularly thumb through the pages of The Gay Times, which was flown in from London and which I couldn’t actually afford to buy.  I’d usually check to see if the books I wanted to read had made it to paperback yet.  But mostly I would go to chat up whoever was there including one of the employees who I happened to have something of a one-sided crush on.

The recent announcement that the last A Different Light Bookstore–in San Francisco–will soon close has me struggling to make sense of the history of it.  Re-reading Edmund White’s excellent memoir, City Boy, I was reminded of the fact that A Different Light was part of a coast-to-coast phenomenon.

In the seventies some fifty gay bookstores opened up across the country.  This was the era before the big chains such as Barnes and Noble.  Suddenly, in the bars in every small town lots of small, free gay publications we’re being handed out that would reprint syndicated book reviews.  It was all pretty tacky, but undeniably grassroots.

By the nineteen-eighties gay bookstores had matured–as had queer lit.  Titles by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Armistead Maupin and Patrick Gale were selling briskly.  Perhaps the AIDS crisis had made the community more serious.  Or maybe we were just hungry for exposure to well-rounded gay characters–characters which were almost entirely absent from popular media.

But as Mr. White reminds us, the term “gay literature,” also had a downside:

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 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 Pillar, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Isherwood’s The 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 varied as straight literature.

For a variety of reasons American cityscapes now find themselves almost completely devoid of gay bookstores.  There are a few notable, fabulous exceptions–Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia comes to mind–but the gay bookstore phenomenon seems to be a thing of the past.  It is, however a huge mistake to say that queer lit is dead.  Mr. White himself is an amazingly prolific author of quality literature–both fiction and non-fiction.  He recently informed me that he has completed yet another novel:  Jack Holmes and his Friend.   And I understand a memoir of his Paris years is forthcoming.  Andrew Holleran continues to write–his last novel Grief, was excellent.  Armistead Maupin’s latest Tales of the City book was my favorite–so far.  I loved Stephen McCauley’s latest novel, Insignificant Others.  Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a must-read. And Sebastian Stuart’s The Hour Between is sublime.

The closure of yet another gay bookstore saddens me.  But it would be a mistake to think that the disappearance of gay bookstores necessarily signals the end of gay lit.  I have written before about the long-term effects of the digitization of books. But it is perhaps social media which will in the long run have the most impact.  Mr. White wrote of distributing reprinted book reviews in bars in the seventies.  Today we have the power to distribute thousands of reviews all over the world through the internet–including social media.

Edmund White’s City Boy is now available in paperback and Kindle.

Bloomsbury.

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