Books Features

No prefix required: how gay writers came of age

Douglas Murray refuses to mourn the death of the gay novel

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

At the turn of the last century, when Private Eye was still funny, the magazine ran a review of a new novel by Edmund White. It did so under the brilliant rubric “How to write a gay novel”. For anyone who was familiar with the genre, the analysis was cringingly accurate.

Several criteria were identified. One was that the main protagonists must be not only gay but wealthy. And wealthy in ways that are never really justified, as though being gay always carries some financial endowment. For instance, the wealth of one of the characters might be explained by the fact that he (always he) had written a coffee-table book about Louis Quinzième furniture, and that allowed him to throw dinner parties at his elegant Parisian apartment where ormolu and duck eggs glittered in the candlelight.

Other criteria were more base: most obviously that the protagonists must be exquisitely refined in their tastes everywhere other than in the bedroom, dockyard or bathhouse. In other words, the genre ran off a number of already stale tropes, all of which now seem as distant as the humour of the magazine that ribbed them.

That genre emerged from a lineage of others. First among its forebears was a list of works which included a tricky novella by Thomas Mann and some late-nineteenth-century fiction from England and France. All these works embedded one notion above all, which was that gay fiction was about people who were doomed and unhappy: a fiction which only came about because the law made the fiction a reality.

Gay fiction was about people who were doomed and unhappy because the law made it a reality

Still, there was a delay of sensibility even in the works which were regarded as forward-looking for their time. In Giovanni’s Room (1956) James Baldwin seems only able to justify his chosen subject matter by making his protagonists doom-laden (on that occasion including a murder and an execution). Whatever happened in gay fiction — Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar is another example — the characters could be gay only so long as they were punished for it. Then, in the wake of gay liberation, there was a burgeoning of gay literature of a new kind. Thanks to Edmund White and a few others, gay fiction for a time became absorbed by the “coming-out” novel.

Pioneers of the genre (clockwise from top left): James Baldwin, Edmund White, Hanya Yanagihara, Alan Hollinghurst

If everybody is said to have a novel in them (more correctly a memoir) then gay men and women had one novel above all: which was that they all had (perhaps still have) a story of their realisation that they were different.

As well as White’s A Boy’s Own Story (1982) there was David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) and so many other coming-out novels that the genre soon lost what interest it originally had. There were only so many variations on the theme before the whole story became a cliché. The thing that broke that cliché was also the thing that nearly broke everything else.

As the Aids crisis ripped through a generation of gay men, the fiction which aimed to write about them suddenly had a black lining. Some novels written just before the plague are now memorable for their heady — perhaps disconcertingly heady — atmosphere. Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, set in pre-Aids New York, now reads like one of those novels of the last Edwardian summer before the war: a whole generation of young men living through a moment in which they do not know what we the reader know.

Where gay fiction and history were then ghettoised, today most of the contents have melded into a wider tributary

Just as the coming-out novel had taken time to come up and come down, so the Aids novels took a while to find the right moment to be written. Fortunately for him, Edmund White was on the scene again, with his (to my mind missed opportunity) The Farewell Symphony, which formed the third part of the autobiographical trilogy started by his coming-out novel. Other works, including Felice Picano’s Like People in History (1995), found a way to weave the plague into a grander, narrative sweep in which the gay characters who featured in the novel also miraculously noticed and featured in the rest of the world around them.

But in time the Aids novel also became a cliché. Edmund White did it best in one volume with The Married Man (2000). But for me Senseless by Paul Golding (2004) finished the genre. By this stage the gay novel as a novel of exquisite young men being felled by (or narrowly surviving) the plague had become as much a writing prison as the fated, doomed, unhappy homosexual novel of pre-legalisation times had been. There was no way to write around the crisis, but it meant that it hung over the genre decades after Aids was brought under control, though not ended.

It is noticeable that most of this work was led by American writers. But it is also noteworthy that it was a novelist from the UK who didn’t just break through in the ordinary literary sense, but in the psychological sense too. Alan Hollinghurst’s first novel, The Swimming Pool Library, may have been set in 1980s London but the shadow of pre-Wolfenden times hung over what slightly clunky plotline existed. Like Holleran, the novel’s appeal lay in its heady pre-Aids atmosphere, when everything seemed to have been thrown off and the shadow had not settled.

However, in his subsequent novels Hollinghurst had a different trajectory from his American counterparts, and a broader one. Although he wrote one not very successful novel of modern gay life, The Spell (1998), Hollinghurst has otherwise spent his careful energies on grand-scale period pieces.

Famously this included the Thatcher era in his Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty. But otherwise Hollinghurst has spent his career looking backwards. His two most recent novels, The Stranger’s Child (2011) and The Sparsholt Affair (2017), are masterpieces of fiction — gay or other categorisation aside — only made uncanny by the fact that the second novel so closely tracks the first. Hollinghurst has occasionally made noises about wanting to write novels without any gay characters, an ambition he hasn’t yet achieved.

It seems that his main interest and skill now is writing sweeping historical works in which the central characters happen to be gay. But the experience of being gay understandably detains somebody of Hollinghurst’s intelligence less than do reflections on being human and our forever thwarted efforts to make sense of the process of time, loss and memory.

If the gay novel as a genre has come to an end, there shouldn’t be any special sadness

Other people have taken the classic period of gay life (including the Aids crisis) and woven it into fictions of their own. It is significant, perhaps, that the most successful and widely read “gay novel” of recent years — A Little Life — is written by a woman, Hanya Yanagihara. Otherwise the genre seems to have dispersed itself into the wider pool of fiction as a whole. Edmund White’s new novel, A Saint from Texas, is about two sisters from the American south. It isn’t such a surprise. White’s fiction and non-fiction of recent years seemed to be re-treading the same ground in a way that suggested White (a compulsive scribbler) may have been written out. City Boy (2009) retrod his memoirs and Our Young Man (2016) at times read as if the author could barely be bothered to fully sketch the archetypal gays he was writing about.

It is tempting to see this turn as symbolic of a wider shift. And if the gay novel as a genre has come to an end, there shouldn’t be any special sadness. Its fate has been the same as that of the terrifying, morose, sexy “Gay” section that used to exist in mainstream bookstores. Where gay fiction and history were then ghettoised — parked there by gays and straights alike — today most of the contents have melded into a wider tributary. You would no more expect to find Hollinghurst in a special interests section of the fiction department than you would expect to find Yanagihara there. And if a gay section does still exist in certain bookshops — as it sometimes does — what should they do with non-gay writings like the latest offering from White? What wins in such a tussle: the subject matter or the sexuality of the author?

There are people who would like a return to that segmented, sectionalised view of gay literature, as some people from the same “studies” schools wish to do with authors who happen to be black. It is a mistake. We all own Baldwin now. He doesn’t belong — and never did — to a “black writers” or “gay writers” section — just to “writers”. Full stop, no prefix required. The gay writers who railed against that notion have dwindled in their turn, as it became clear that the “gay” bit was more important to them than the “writer” element. And that is fine. The river of literature is broad as well as deep and allows some of its contents to wash up on the banks just as contentedly as it allows others to flow fully into the main.

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