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.” Four years earlier, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance was published and many also consider this book to be “the great gay novel.” Of course, gay novels, in one form or another have been published for many years. Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle are just a few examples. But prior to the nineteen-seventies, the term “gay novel” was rarely used and certainly wasn’t a tool for marketing. Nevertheless, by the nineteen-eighties, several gay novelists emerged. Among them: Christopher Bram, David Feinberg, Patrick Gale, David Leavitt, Scott Peck and John Weir. All of them were out gay men writing about gay characters in novels with gay themes.
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 straight authors. 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 over several decades, including the years of the AIDS crisis. 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.
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.
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 else 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.