When my book, Pretending to Say No (Penguin), was published in 1990, I faced the inevitability of bad reviews with stoicism. Since my stories flaunted drugs, prostitution, underclass crime, and middle class decline, I expected harsh reprimands from the mainstream press. From alternative presses, I expected better, if less invested, reactions. And of gay publications, with their quite specific political agendas, I was wary.
My predictions about the mainstream and alternative presses proved true. My subject matter made The Kirkus Review squirm and left The New York Times feeling a little queasy. But the New York Press and the L.A. Reader gleefully took the wild ride to underworld haunts and off-limits drugs. As for the gay presses, I had been all wet. Almost every review was positive.
Still, I couldn't rest easy with the gay reviews. There was an unspoken consensus in all of them about what was at stake in my book and in literature--especially gay literature--in general. Those who liked the book struggled to identify a healthy moral position. There simply had to be good intentions in the presentation of characters who lived at risk and for pleasure. What is more, the line I had crossed as a white, educated writer into the realm of the nonliterate underclass had to be quickly justified, before it began to seem like slumming or exploitation.
All of the enthusiastic gay reviewers did work hard to exonerate me. Mostly they built a kind of apologetic liberal ideology around the writing. If the book was about bad, i.e., unproductive, people, it was only to shed light on the tragedy of their oppression. And if my drugs- or money-for-sex scenes seemed so real you could smell them, I was merely making a heroic effort at importing nightmare realities into the living room as a moral object lesson.
Now, four years later, I must admit that my principal motive in writing about junkies and street prostitutes was the tremendously validating attraction I felt for them. A review of my book by novelist Dennis Cooper in The Village Voice went so far as to praise me for being old-fashioned-- the kind of gay male writer--like Rechy or Burroughs or Genet--who revels in the idea of the homosexual as degenerate and outsider. More up-to-date types, he wryly observed, preferred healthier and more politically aware protagonists.
The comparison with Rechy, Burroughs, or Genet was overly generous but nonetheless telling. For no gay-themed literature of today has come close to their passionate identification with the Other. The possibility that we are living in a postmodern age where invention and originality are becoming anachronisms does not account for the yawning gap that separates the work of the old masters from the new gay writers. Why does a book like City of Night, written more than twenty-five years ago, still envelop us in its cosmography, whereas a book like Dancer from the Dance, written about seventeen years ago, already reads like a period piece? In City an outcast's desperation articulates a whole illicit pleasure world. But in Dancer, disco fraternity-mentality hedonism slinks toward disenchantment.
In many cases, the problem with gay literature today is its narcissistic preoccupation with the definition of gayness. Over and over again it tries to invent a normative reality for gays. This is a direct result of the very prizes gays have strived for: acceptance and identity within the larger community.
It may seem grudging and perverse of me to claim that gay rights are ruining gay literature. But what I myself have always valued in homosexuality is it's outsider status--the same gift and curse that allowed the Jew an important role in western history and elected him to serve as intellect, critic, and victim over several centuries. It is, after all, freedom from the herd for which true identity searches strive --regardless of that herd's moral superiority or good intentions.
Initiative and uncontrollable events have brought gays closer than ever before in modern history to being accepted. The struggle is far from over, but media-watch groups, legal advocates, and lobbyists--all backed by middle class money--have won increasing clout. AIDS, which is a disease of the blood, has managed to infiltrate blood ties. In many cases it has caused formerly rejecting siblings or parents to open their arms with new-found understanding and compassion. Though I am not suggesting that the prize is worth the price, I do believe that AIDS is the only event in homosexual history that has managed to penetrate the family circle. Our family members and the world at large have more information about homosexuality and gay life styles than ever before.
Can we resist the temptation to misuse our new notoriety? What are the consequences of a strengthened gay or lesbian identity? It is my pessimistic opinion that successful groups founded on stable definitions of identity are by nature exclusive. To survive they must close their ranks and narrow their perspective of outsiders. To keep groups stable, members must give up cynicism, criticality, and rebellion. This is why the troublemakers had to be changed into the misunderstood or into lost souls by the reviewers who felt they nevertheless supported my book. And this is why some gay literature has become mired in the same themes and narrative techniques that are found in the suburban literature and urban bourgeois literature that is so prevalent today.
It was precisely Genet's years in prison, and his unabashed libidinal attachment to them, that allowed him to equate incarcerated sexuality with Catholic sainthood. It was Rechy's total alienation from the city of daylight that allowed him to construct a fantastic night city. And it was Burroughs's chemical dependencies that led him to the discovery that biological and social programming are equally totalitarian.
The theme of alienation is not yet dead in contemporary gay literature. At its worst, it rears a meek head at weddings, faculty teas, or diplomatic functions, when the new validation suddenly goes awry and everything gets unreal. At its most daring, it somersaults through promiscuous posings and sado-masochistic "play." Its campiness still takes delight in unmasking so-called social realities. But camp has cleaned up it's act. It's said goodbye to the outer fringe --the bull dyke bouncers, bisexual junkies, hipsters, thieves, and whores of the older books by Rechy, Burroush, and Selby.
These older characters couldn't follow gays into their new empowerment, even as their real-life counterparts still roam the streets. Occasionally, these abandoned ones make brief reappearances in gay books as bashers, or as unpleasant closet cases. Yet what has their exile from the homosexual imagination done to gay sensibility?
It is time to ask why the portrait of the queen Georgette in Last Exit to Brooklyn, written by a straight man in the nineteen fifties, still has more kick than the most daring portraits of sexual philandering and viral tragedy in the current age. This is an especially relevant question because Georgette and the other characters in Last Exit to Brooklyn are hopelessly poor, and her world is one we wouldn't care about unless someone with the heart, the craft, and the guts rear-kicked us into it.
Today's meditations on gay identity avoid that world with the best of intentions and the most high-minded rhetoric. No one points out that identity politics were a luxury that we postwar babies were able to nourish in an atmosphere of affluence. Let's face it, the last street people seen working for gay rights were prostitute-queens throwing rocks at police cars in front of the Stonewall. Now fake titties and wigs are no longer considered survival gear. They're a tongue-in-cheek performance cliche or a clever way to party. However, there still is, whether we like it or not, a certain level of society where homosexual identify can't be sifted out and defined. Hunger, homelessness, or drug addiction always take precedence over the struggle for identity. There is a certain depth of need or disorganization at which a person will stick it in anybody or let anyone at all stick it in. Gay writing lost its urgency and immediacy when it stopped portraying this radical consciousness of deprivation and exile. It also tacitly forswore a large part of its innately ethical position.
Is there, then, any gay male writing that continues to carry on the standard of disaffection, risk-taking, and-- dare I say--degeneracy that so enlarged our insights and emotions? There is, but it is not written by homosexuals alone. The rare contemporary strain begins with the defunct Paul Rogers, whose 1983 novel Saul's Book, about a middle-aged con artist and a junkie hustler, won him the Editors' Book Award before he was murdered by the "son" to whom the book is dedicated. It includes the scatological excesses of Samuel R. Delany, whose massively pornographic novel Mad Man, about race crossing class in an age of AIDS, published in 1994, was strangely ignored by critics at large. It has been broadened by Dennis Cooper, whose macabre suburban "X-rays" reveal the blood and guts underneath all that smooth vitamin-infused California skin. And it has been enriched by a superb collection of stories by a straight man, Buddy Giovinazzo, whose sketch of a drug-addicted queen in Life Is Hot in Cracktown rivals portrayals by Selby.
We are in a time of emergency, when most insist on the absolute necessity of a unified front among those who call themselves gay or lesbian. I suggest instead that we reconsider the nature of the various liberationist discourses--what they compel us to say and whom they compel us to leave unspoken. Being homosexual is still about sex and about difference and about loss. Our greatest resource, even in this age of AIDS, remains what it always was: our desire. That desire may be our only line through class barriers, to a new solidarity with the degenerates with whom we once shared the denomination. Especially now--when eroticism has resumed its chant of danger and death--let's darken the rhythm of our rhetoric.
"Is There a Gay Male Fiction," copyright Bruce Benderson 1994, all rights reserved. The copyright holder is solely responsible for rights and does not hold online service responsible for violation thereof.