Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reflections on a Run: Gay Fiction

A month ago to the day, I was opening up Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and beginning a foray into gay literature, which concluded last night with the end of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. I undertook the challenge of reading the books because, having only what I then perceived as minimal experience with gay fiction, It seemed a necessary step for me to take.

I think perhaps the most striking discovery about the experience is perhaps the least surprising; that a label does not necessarily dictate thematic subject. I had a perception (and thereby a fear) that the fiction (I think maybe because so much African American literature concerns itself with societal condition) would surround common ideas, and more or less reiterate them.

Additionally, I've always had a particular dislike of identity fiction. In the context of literature that speaks to/about a specific minority of people, it makes sense. It fosters a misguided (though not necessarily bad) sense of community; Can establish pride in an aspect of your identity that you might not have but I had always thought there was a certain polarizing effect to identity literature as well. It divides a population into boxes; these people and those people, as it were rather than a universal "Us". Not on an entirely conscious level perhaps but to the extent that certain stories are perceived as more "For" someone than others.

So, to get back on track, it was surprise for me to find that gay fiction wasn't constantly, or at least obsessively, concerned with notions of personal acceptance, and living honestly. Certainly these proved to be pivotal topics in Maurice and Giovanni's Room, and I would expect also in the other pillars gay fiction, but even in these you find more universal thematic concerns. The subjects were as diverse as the deification of mankind in Memoirs of Hadrian, to how denial manifests itself in our efforts to cope with tragedy in Mysterious Skin. However, It appears also and likely by nature, to be a foreword progression.

Forster's Maurice, written at the beginning of the 20th century, was the most concern specific novel I read. While it is a humanistic novel, much like Forster's other work, its focus is almost entirely on a homosexual man struggling to accept his sexuality in a time and place that didn't. It's the sort of novel I had expected to encounter. By the time of Giovanni's Room in the 1950s, concern specific ideas seem to have been minimized: There are still notions of self and societal acceptance but in comparison to Maurice, they have been shrunken down to serve more universal notions. With Mysterious Skin and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, concern-specific notions are in complete service of greater ideas, elements serving story rather driving it.

It may seem strange that I was surprised by that, but I was. Ultimately, this feeds into the point I made earlier, the feeling that identity fiction is divisional. I think that the new reality is that it is: Writers seem less and less inclined to classify themselves by their identity; they don't want to be a Woman/Gay/Black/Asian/Indian/Latino author, they want to be a writer. Toni Morrison and Amy Tan may be some of the last (possibly despite claims, I'm not checking for what they've said, but looking at their subjects) identity specific authors. We're reaching a point, I believe, that identity literature can only retrospectively be a subdivision. The need to present identity specific literature is passing; those stories have been said, in some cases to exhaustion, and the need now is to disassemble the barriers that make "Us" and "Them" without losing the expression that was striven for.

This run of fiction at least did that for me. It has allowed to me appreciate identity literature, and at the same time recognize why I had disliked it to begin with. Specific concerns can still be expressed but they must be done so in the service of a greater concern, generally speaking. There will always be exceptions based on necessity.

This run was a fantastic experience. It has a way of shaping up to be a self-taught class; between the books, the blog, and wikipedia for biographical and historical information is adds up about right. I'm looking forward to another course, as it were. I even have some ideas. I also wouldn't be surprised if I eventually came back to gay fiction for another set, as five books is hardly exhaustive.


  1. Interesting. I would have probably entered such a "course" with the same expectations as you, so it's also a little surprising for me to hear that that wasn't necessarily the case. I also tend to dislike identity fiction, particularly of the African-American variety, though this may be because of the slew of it I was assigned in high school. You were oppressed! We get it! Ugh. (That isn't to say learning about the experiences of the oppressed is bad, but sometimes I felt like the white majority was apologizing for the past by assigning a crapton of black literature dealing with racism.)

  2. It's funny that you say that. My high school didn't assign much African American fiction but racism (which is to say White people oppressing Black people) and also the Holocaust were discussed to the point of desensitization and apathy. It's possible my feelings had sprung from that as well.

    It's difficult not to assign it to guilt as any alternative justification would require myriad of other identity-specific works. The Joy Luck Club. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Maurice or Giovanni's Room.

    I do wonder if the same would be applicable to African American literature, I'm woefully under read in that as well.

    If you get the chance, you might want to check out Kavalier and Clay. It's about the Golden Age of American Comics. Very enjoyable book.