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Two significant critical assessments of gay literature, published in New York just weeks apart, illustrate the continuing gap separating the works of lesbian and gay novelists from the embrace of the mainstream publishing world.
On June 7 the Publishing Triangle, a Manhattan-based organization made up of lesbians and gay men in the publishing industry, released its ranking of the 100 Best Gay and Lesbian Novels. Compiled by a jury of 14 judges, all of them authors or editors, the list encompasses centuries of works, from the explicitly homosexual to novels the judges described as “coded.”
The top two are classics of pre-Stonewall sensibility: Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Others were written by leading novelists of our day: Dancer From the Dance by Andrew Holleran (number 15), Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (29), Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram (51), and Rat Bohemia by Sarah Schulman (59). Many of the titles stretch well back in time, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (64) to Henry James’s The Bostonians (27).
The number 34 slot on the top 100 went to British author Alan Hollinghurst’s brilliant first novel, The Swimming-Pool Library. Published in 1988, the novel focuses on the lessons a young aristocratic gay man learns about history–his country’s and his family’s–from his relationship with an older genteel homosexual.
The May 31 edition of The New Yorker includes a review of Hollinghurst’s latest work, The Spell, written by John Updike, the novelist, poet, and critic who is quite nearly the embodiment of America’s literary establishment. Updike’s essay raises the fundamental question as to whether gay literature has any general value at all.
“Nothing [in The Spell] is at stake but self-gratification,” Updike writes. “Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family.”
Charles Flowers, a cochair of the Publishing Triangle, told the New York gay newspaper LGNY that the purpose of the 100-best list is to “celebrate and educate, and to show that gay people have always been writing great literature.” The task before the Triangle would seem to be even more fundamental than that. After a decade in which unprecedented numbers of openly gay and lesbian novels have found their way into print, hostility toward our work–and indeed our lives–is alive and well, even in the rarefied atmosphere of The New Yorker.
Updike opens his critique with a dismissal of Hollinghurst that seems like an echo from earlier, less enlightened decades: His novels “are relentlessly gay in their personnel, and after a while you begin to long for the chirp and swing and civilizing animation of a female character.”
But Updike’s principle quibble is not specifically with Hollinghurst, who he says writes “beautifully. His eye for nature is keen and tender . The psychologies of his numerous heroes are shrewdly traced.” Updike’s real beef is with gay men themselves.
Drawing on catty remarks about women made by one of the characters in Swimming-Pool Library, Updike attributes misogyny to gay men in a categorical way you might think a heterosexual man would show more humility about.
In fact, Updike himself holds a quaint and thoroughly stereotypical view of women’s impact on culture. “Quarantined from female rhythms and scruples,” he writes, “the [gay] male sex drive functions at fever pitch.” Updike betrays an almost juvenile fascination with but repulsion by the fact of anal sex: “A meticulous exterior eye surveys the particulars of gay life; our noses are rubbed, as it were, in the poetry of a love object’s anus.”
And Updike seems wholly uninformed on the issue of gay parents. “Paternity is an unsettling anomaly in this population,” he argues. Later he complains that when Hollinghurst writes about gay father Robin and his gay son Danny, “the complications of being a homosexual father are but lightly described.” This is social criticism more in line with Dan Quayle’s attack on single motherhood in Murphy Brown than the serious thinking of a Harvard-educated Pulitzer Prize winner and the youngest man ever inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
I’m not familiar with the fine points of Updike’s politics or his views on the culture wars of recent decades, but I have to say, I expected something better from the guy. The work of his I know best is Rabbit Is Rich (1982), the third of a series of novels chronicling four decades in the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a onetime high school athlete who goes on to own an auto dealership on Philadelphia’s Main Line. By typical American standards Rabbit is a success–he went to the right schools, lives in the good neighborhood, has a family. Updike observes this world in rich and compelling detail: Although it’s a fairly elite universe, it is certainly not without problems. Marital unhappiness, infidelity, serious conflicts between generations, and spiritual nagging about the meaning of it all fill the book.
In fact, it could safely be said that Updike has been America’s best chronicler of upper-middle-class suburban adultery. His 1968 novel, Couples, was featured in a Time magazine cover story, “The Adulterous Society.” The magazine wrote, “Adultery, says Updike, has become a kind of ‘imaginative quest’ for successful hedonism that would enable man to enjoy an otherwise meaningless life.” Updike is a man clearly of the world he writes about–when he left his wife in 1976, he moved in with the woman he would later marry–but his vision does not seem clouded by his closeness to his subject. He is an unrivaled observer of upper-middle-class social mores in America.
Updike is considerably less successful in seeing beyond his own Main Line Philadelphia world. The lives of the characters in A Swimming-Pool Library are, in class terms, much further from mine than those of Updike’s, yet I was drawn into Hollinghurst’s novel like few others I’ve read. Hollinghurst is unfailingly candid to the point that might make those looking out for the “image” of gay men uncomfortable about the randomness of sexual possibilities among gay men.
Hollinghurst’s characters cross class boundaries far more easily than Updike’s. Since I first read Hollinghurst, I have thought that my appreciation of him might be based in part on our being the same age. That sense increased while reading The Spell. Robin and Danny, gay father and gay son, are 46 and 22, respectively, and they each become involved with men in their mid 30s. Far from touching on the “complications of being a homosexual father but lightly,” Hollinghurst was absolutely keen in detailing the generational rifts among gay men, not merely father and son.
Updike uses a very telling phrase when he comments that Hollinghurst writes “with the avidity of an anthropologist gone native.” For Updike, gay male culture is that world apart–bereft of the “civilizing animation” of women, who provide “rhythms and scruples” for heterosexual men, even if they choose from time to time to assert their prerogatives of infidelity. He discovers us as an indigenous people, like one Margaret Mead might have unearthed 60 years ago. Updike’s most condescending voice comes in his closing statement: “Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society’s circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the isolated, disquieted human condition with a special bleakness: He must take it straight.”
Purists might argue that literature, like any great art, should never be reduced to ranking of the top 100. I am not unsympathetic to that perspective, but I also recognize the fact that even people with Updike’s intellect and sophistication continue to have so little curiosity about the reality of gay people’s lives. If the Publishing Triangle’s picks have any impact on improving the appreciation for the insights and artistry of gay and lesbian literature–even if only within our own community–that improvement will have justified the effort.
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