Gay Literature, beyond Rebellion

By Leland, John | International Herald Tribune, February 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Gay Literature, beyond Rebellion


Leland, John, International Herald Tribune


In his new work "Eminent Outlaws," Christopher Bram surveys recent American gay literature and concludes that the era is passing when its authors were outlaws.

Eminent Outlaws. The Gay Writers Who Changed America. By Christopher Bram. 371 pages. Twelve. $27.99.

What makes a book a gay book, or a writer a gay writer? Walt Whitman, for all his sizzling erotic verses about men, insisted to the end that he was interested only in women. Gore Vidal, who has made no secret of his attraction to men, writes sparingly about gay characters and has asserted that there is no such thing as a homosexual, only homosexual acts. James Baldwin's novels typically repose on bookstores' African-American shelves, rather than their gay and lesbian sections -- even "Giovanni's Room," which centers on a relationship between two white men.

Christopher Bram, who calls himself a gay novelist (his "Father of Frankenstein" was the basis of the movie "Gods and Monsters"), assumes the task of herding the gay American male writers who emerged after World War II into a coherent history, beginning with the coded innuendo of Tennessee Williams's "Glass Menagerie" in 1944 and peaking with Tony Kushner's luminescent "Angels in America" in 1991. In between, Mr. Bram writes, a growing stream of gay-themed novels, plays and poems, some bolder than others, prefigured or hastened sweeping changes in the culture at large. "The gay revolution," he writes, "began as a literary revolution."

As the title suggests, "Eminent Outlaws" is mainly a reverie for a time past, seen through a romantic lens. No one would think of a gay writer now as an outlaw, at least until David Sedaris starts robbing banks. Even the category of the gay novel or play, once embraced as a liberating break from the closet, now seems more a straitjacket. In a 2005 essay in the New York Times Book Review, David Leavitt celebrated the emergence of "post-gay" fiction, in which sexual identity, while important to the characters, neither defines them nor drives the plot. While Allan Gurganus's best- selling "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" features love and embraces between two men, it is not a gay novel in the way that, say, Christopher Isherwood's "Single Man" or Larry Kramer's "Faggots" is.

Mr. Leavitt and Mr. Gurganus make only token appearances in "Eminent Outlaws," with little or no discussion of their work. Ditto for William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, John Rechy, Terrence McNally, Craig Lucas, Paul Monette and Paul Rudnick. Burroughs appears as a "boyish would-be writer" notable mainly for his friendship with Allen Ginsberg; Mr. McNally is a love interest of Edward Albee "who later became a playwright himself."

James Purdy, Reynolds Price, Dennis Cooper, Augusten Burroughs and E. Lynn Harris do not appear at all; nor does Mr. Sedaris. John Cheever appears only in passing and without reference to his bisexuality, which surfaced in Cheever's memoirs. Lesbians are largely absent because, Mr. Bram writes, they deserve their own book.

Instead, Mr. Bram uses a small cast of writers to draw a "large- scale cultural narrative" in which literature played a uniquely transformative role. Starting with the first great thaw -- circa 1948, the year of Truman Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and Gore Vidal's "City and the Pillar," both featuring explicitly gay characters -- books that openly discussed gay life showed teenagers in the hinterlands that they were not alone and pushed discussions of homosexuality onto national television and into the mainstream press. …

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