Monday, March 26, 2007

Putting Gay Fiction Back Together

In an afternoon of blissful book browsing this weekend I came across an essay by K.M. Soehnlein called “Putting Gay Fiction Back Together” in the 2005 collection Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, edited by Kevin Smokler. Soehnlein had some interesting things to say about the state of gay fiction. He started with the familiar background of the Violet Quill (New Yorkers like White, Holleran and Picano) and the 'next wave' including Cooper, Leavitt, and McCauley (not that I see much in common with them) through the boom and bust in gay publishing of the 90s. Recent trends are towards niche-y anthologies of erotica on the one hand and mainstream successes who avoid sex at all. He mentions David Sedaris, but I also thought of Gregory Maguire. An interesting quote from Sedaris: "On the lecture tours, you say the word 'I' when you read out loud, and people would imagine me having sex. It is not pleasant for people to imagine me having sex." Well, he clearly means it isn't pleasant for (straight) people to imagine him having sex (with another man). Still, I wonder if he's right--Sedaris is rather cute in a nerdy way. I'm not much of a fan of Sedaris' writing, which I find bland and satirically off-target (though I think his sister's a hoot), and this quote seemed particularly revealing.

At any rate, Soehnlein goes on to discuss Michael Cunningham as the most successful gay writer of a kind of middle way (neither sex-phobic nor sex-obsessed), an assessment which probably still holds up even after the somewhat disapponting sales and reviews for Cunningham's latest, Speciman Days. Even more interesting, he singled out three recent titles for particular praise:
  • At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
  • The Practical Heart by Alan Gurganus
  • Through It Came Bright Colors by Trebor Healey
I'd never heard of Healey, and I've been embarassed to learn only recently how talented and important Gurganus is. In fact, Soehnlein elsewhere singles out Plays Well With Others as a kind of masterpiece that didn't get the attention it deserved, hitting around the time gay publishing took a nosedive. I'd been planning to read the Gurganus, and now I look forward to it all the more.

I recommend Soehnlein's essay and note that he's a very well-reviewed novelist himself, most recently publishing You Can Say You Knew Me When. Another book for the tbr pile.


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