The All-American Gay Novelist Patricia Nell Warren Punctures Stereotypes about Gays

By Philip Kennicott Music Critic Of The Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

The All-American Gay Novelist Patricia Nell Warren Punctures Stereotypes about Gays


Philip Kennicott Music Critic Of The Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


EVEN most large-chain bookstores now have a gay-and-lesbian section, discreetly sandwiched somewhere between "feminism" and, say, "spiritual/philosophy/self-help." It was not always the case.

When Patricia Nell Warren, featured speaker at the Human Rights Campaign Fund dinner this coming Saturday, published her gay novel, "The Front Runner," in 1974, the horizons of gay literature were decidedly narrow.

Those who realized that their sexuality differed from the mainstream, and who wanted to find kinship through literature, were forced to hunt and gather in a vast desert of respectable silence. There were books, usually by authors so successful or accepted by straight literary criteria that the stray homosexual representation was tolerated. The great literary critic and novelist, Andre Gide, had published "Corydon," and "The Counterfeiters." Complementing the sophisticated and idealized heterosexual romances of E.M. Forster was his posthumously published "Maurice." The great African-American writer, James Baldwin, had produced "Giovanni's Room." One could buy these novels without attracting too much suspicion. Under the cover of literary acceptability, gay men avidly searched out these novels and other works for the rare frisson of reading about people vaguely like them. But between a handful of these novels, and an elicit corpus of pornographic literature, there was very little to found. The unabashed romance novel, such as one finds lining the walls of mainstream bookstores, was virtually nonexistent. And, with rare exceptions, the vast majority of "gay" literature was wrapped up in another era, different places and different sensibilities; indeed, much of it was so removed from contemporary gay life as to make the self-consciously liberating term "gay" a bit of a stretch. Same-sex desire was something that happened illicitly in Morocco, or on the Left Bank, or in idealized ancient worlds; gay life was a modern, urban and political phenomenon. Warren set out, purposely, to break with that past. "So often gay people saw themselves tied into the artistic, bohemian, or cafe society," says Warren, from her office in California. "These stereotypes were still in use when I was writing the book. All gay men were like Oscar Wilde, it was all about urban culture." Warren made a self-conscious decision to write the "all-American" gay novel. "I want to write about essentially ordinary people," says Warren. "Gay culture is so rooted in our cities, but of course there is gay non-urban culture. I grew up in ranch country, and I wanted to write about an aspect of culture, an everyday, almost Norman Rockwell, quality that had been ignored." Warren, an avid long-distance runner, turned to that great avatar of American masculinity, athletics. Her novel deals with an Olympic track star who falls in love and has a relationship with his coach as he prepares for a successful gold-medal bid. Not only was the book about a gay relationship, it dealt frankly with a sexual bond between an older coach and his college-age trainee. If the "Front Runner" broke with the sophisticated literary mold, with its layers of tortured introspection, it also depicted the problems of gay people as fundamentally external, not internal. The hatred, conflict and pain, in the "Front Runner," almost always comes from the outside; it is a story of oppression, not internal loathing. As such, it came as a shock to sympathetic readers, many of them struggling with their own sexuality. Frank Siano, a member of the HRC board of governors, remembers the impact of the book clearly. "It was probably the first book I had read that had a positive image of two gay men," says Siano. "The attitude at the time was that there could never be a real relationship between two men, no talk of love. One never saw the power of two men to influence each other positively, to help each other achieve what they set out to do. …

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