Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gay fiction needs more than sex and coming out

Saying of the week:
"You gotta dance like nobody’s watching, dream like you will live forever, live like you’re going to die tomorrow, and love like it’s never going to hurt." -- Meme Grifsters

For my second read of 2008, I selected a book that has been sitting on my shelf for several years but never gotten around to reading: Paul Lisicky’s, Lawnboy. I have not quite finished the book so I will not include a review in this posting. But in reading the story, it has made me ponder a great deal about what I like, and don’t particularly like, about gay fiction, and I’ll share some of those thoughts.
Like the first novel I read this year, Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein, Lawnboy is a coming of age story, a story about fumbling through firsts -- first time away from home, first kiss, first fuck, first love -- and attempting to define one’s self in a postmodern world. Wild Oats is about a straight boy, Lawnboy about a gay one, so by contrasting the two, I inadvertently gained a perspective of how gay stories differ.
The experience has reminded me that much of gay fiction, not only Lawnboy but many others I’ve read, is predominately about being gay, that is, the “gay experience” -- gays dealing with the trials and tribulations of being a persecuted minority and all that entails. Also, several novels I’ve read seemed more concerned with presenting gay sex than anything else. Of course, most of these novels I’m talking about have a plot, but it is often a very thin one, merely a vehicle to carry the gay theme or sex. The two most notable examples of this type of fiction are the:
1) coming of age story (coming out and dealing with family, friends, getting laid)
2) the romance (the main character spends most of the story trying to get mister right, or wrong, in bed.)
The one impression that I’m feeling about these kinds of stories are that I’m so over that category of fiction. It’s been done and redone so much that, for me, it’s simply time to move on. It seems to me that gay people, like so many others, want to celebrate their differences, want to feel like they’re in a special, privileged club. But the more I study people, the more I’m convinced that we are truly all the same, dealing with the same issues. So the kind of gay fiction that I’ve come to prefer are the stories where the main characters are grappling with important life issues, life and death circumstances, and they just happen to be gay, which adds to their depth as a character and my interest in them.
The most notable example of this kind of fiction that I can think of is Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours, which deals with what constitutes a meaningful life, coping with grief, and transcendent longing. Even though the majority of the principle characters are gay, their gayness is never really pushed as an issue.
(As an aside, a published author in my online writing/reading group recently made the comment that Cunningham’s flowery prose is what won him the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. The statement merely confirmed my suspicions that this particular writer, along with a sizable number of gay readers, has little appreciation for complex and invigorating plots, depth in characters, or an appreciation for skillfully handling significant issues using masterful prose.)

At the same time I was exploring the issue of my needing more complex stories with gay characters, I received an email by a leading gay e-publisher, rejecting my submission of a novella. The reason I bring it up is that the chief editor raved about how much he enjoyed my story. He claimed that the reason he rejected it was because it is primarily about a gay Native American who helps a grisly old rancher to die with dignity. The romance between the Native American and the rancher’s grandson was a small yet important side story. So the editor told me that if I made the romance the primary story and included some hot sex scenes, they would jump at the chance to reconsider the story for publications. My bad for not doing better research about the publishers needs, but it made me stop and wonder if most gay readers are really that shallow.

Admittedly, my first novel being published in July by Zumaya Publications, Island Song, deals with several gay issues -- getting over the death of a long time partner, coming out, gay bashing, alternative families, even a few sex scenes -- however its main theme is one of a universal struggle that I won’t give way here. And perhaps that’s why I’m ready to move on from novels that deal with only gay issues and sex, I’ve written about them and now my writing is, hopefully, moving on.

I would love to hear from anyone with similar or contrary points of view. This is a topic I’ve only recently begun to think about and would love to explore further with the input of others.

As for a book review, I recently finished Breaking Back.

Breaking Back By James Blake

Breaking Back is James Blake’s autobiography about a year-long period of his life when he had to overcome crushing adversity. In 2004, just as Blake was fighting his way into the top echelons of men’s professional tennis, he fractured his neck (sidelining him from the sport). During his recovery, he lost his father to cancer. Then, only months after his father’s death, Blake contracted zoster, a rare virus that paralyzed his face and threatened to end his tennis career.
His story is an intriguing reflection on the nature of tragedy and a very real testament to the human spirit, and our ability to overcome heartbreaking obstacles. The prose is nothing to write home about, and it sometimes feels a little too sappy, but it is an engrossing read and a worthwhile one.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed, only because I was hoping for something slightly different. Since I am completing a novel about the trials and tribulations of a gay tennis pro coaching a teenage, straight tennis player on the men’s pro tour, I was hoping to gain insights into what goes on behind the scenes of pro tennis tournaments. Unfortunately for me, there was precious little of that information in the book. It really centers on Blake’s time away from the tour and spent more time dealing with family issues rather than professional one. Still, it kept my interest throughout. It is not, however, a book I would recommend to someone who is not an avid tennis fan, mostly because the tennis jargon would confuse people not familiar with the game.
And for those of you wondering if the rumors are true about his being gay, I can only say that he didn’t mention a girlfriend once. I found that odd considering he mentions all his other friends, repeatedly. So the possibility is out there. We can still hope….

1 comment:

Lanaya said...

People should read this.