I’ve read that the gay novel is dead, the category a ghetto, the niche an anachronism, and I realize, as a would-be novelist facing the maw of the computer screen, that I’m supposed to care about that kind of thing.

But I don’t. Which is not to say I’m being willfully naïve. I am also a freelance magazine writer living in New York City and no breathing species on the planet better understands the economic imperatives of this particular moment in publishing. I have the ramen to prove it (andtoes that would make Tamara, the pedicurist/confessor whom I haven’t seen in over a year, recoil in horror).

It’s just—what else would I write about? You’ve heard the maxims: write what you know; show, don’t tell; etc., etc. And, well—I’m gay. I don’t have much raw material for a YA vampire series or a zombified historical fiction, and no offense to parties concerned, I’m not interested in that sort of thing anyway—not that there’s anything wrong with them, of course.

Besides. You can’t focus-group imagination. Market research demography is a creativity buzz kill. I am what I am. I write what I write. And the vein I currently mine runs deep and pretty damn queer.

When I started working on my novel, Monarch Season, almost two years ago, I really had no choice. What came out was necessarily gay. I didn’t think about marketing it as a thriller or a romance or some other piece of genre fiction (I still don’t fully understand what the hell that means, by the way), nor did I seek to examine its eventual place in some broader homosexual canon (god, I cringe even to type that word). I didn’t set out to write anything more ambitious than 1,000 words. And when those first 1,000 words came, and steadily, grudgingly kept coming, I was so bowled over by the miracle of it that to stop and suddenly look down would have invited free fall—suspension of disbelief, meet reality. The splat would have been heard all over Chelsea.

So I wrote what was all around me: the aforementioned gayborhood and its corresponding summer colony on Fire Island, where I was spending much of my weekends.

I know, dollface, I know. I’d roll my eyes, too. Believe me, I’d roll my eyes. You wouldn’t see my stupid pupils for five whole minutes. It’s been done before, I hear you. I’ve also read those books. They’ve given me goose bumps—the goose bumps I always get when reading a book that enthralls me. And not just the ones that reflect my own milieu, but also the ones that render a different world accurately, that catalogue the bits and pieces that make it real, no matter how foreign to me: the cold potatoes in the chipped farmhouse sink, the black scorpions hidden in the dusty scrub.

And so there I was at the beach, greased up in SPF 8, waging a war of attrition with a million grains of sand, when it occurred to me: I didn’t have to do anything more astounding than accurately record a slice in the lives of the sunbathers dotting the surronding dunes. Because while the places and people portrayed in the books already written are in many ways still the same, they are also different in ways I think are important.

For one thing there’s not much hand-wringing over sexual identity going on in the Manhattan–Fire Island circuit, I’ll tell you. And I can’t remember the last time a gay man bothered to tell me how he came out. Many of the people boarding the ferry embody the punch line of that William Haefeli New Yorker cartoon: “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re used to it.” I’m not saying they’re apathetic—they donate, they march for marriage, and the sound of Sarah Palin’s voice can be relied upon to make their ears bleed. I won’t argue that this brand of agitation is equal to standing up to a cop while clad in wig andthree-inch heels or handcuffing oneself to the White House gate in the name of millions dead, because that’s not really the point. We live in different times. Thanks to all those people who did all those heroic things, the men on that ferry revolt in the only way such a populace in the historical brew that is 2010 could—meaning, like every single one of us, they are a product of their environment.

And as products of that environment, they were never really amused by the antics of Will & Grace. And okay, sure, I think they understand the benefit of Will & Grace, the gays on TV, woo-hoo, another boundary busted—but that sitcom wasn’t really written for them. The laugh track was dubbed for another audience entirely.

Sue me if I don’t see anything wrong with writing something specifically for them. I think they deserve it. Even if that makes me unrealistic, or delusional, or forever doomed to my ramen noodles.

To judge from current conventional wisdom, writing professionally, especially a novel, in this climate, in this economy, in this day and age, is practically an act of madness. It’s a leap of faith, a shot in the dark, one chance in a million. But it seems to me that it’s always been, no matter what story you have to tell—gay or straight, white or brown or black, male or female, whatever. I don’t know that I’ll always write gay anymore than I know I’ll always have scrambled eggs for breakfast. But writing for me is not a lark. Neither is it some mysterious art brewed from a cauldron in the dark. It’s part craft, part discipline, and a hell of a lot of practice. I have no choice. Thank god. I have no choice.

Previously published in Publishers Weekly.

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3 Responses to “Beyond ‘Will & Grace’”

  1. 19 May 2010 at 6:41 PM #

    Okay, are you kidding me? I gather you don’t do much reading. There are some great books out there that have nothing to do with “hand-wringing over sexual identity.” I suggest you go to Amazon.com and start pulling up some authors. Josh Lanyon is a good example. Excellent writer especially of gay mysteries. His characters are not set in gay resorts. They’re usually everyday people set in the usual (or even unusual) conflicts of life and they happen to be gay. Another wonderful writer is Tamara Allen. Her novel Whistling in the Dark is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It concerns characters in New York City right after the WWI. It’s a sweet love story about a couple of guys who happen to be gay and who happen to fall in love in a world that hasn’t yet heard of Stonewall. Another historical gay novel is Frost Fair by Erastes set in Regency London. It’s about a man who inherits a struggling printing business and how he finds himself and the man he loves. Poppy Z. Brite has written some great horror novels like Lost Boys that feature characters who are gay, though their sexual identity is not the main theme and it doesn’t need to be. No gay resorts, no gay bars even, just life happening to gay people. A few tips: novels that are only about coming out stories are boring, novels about hustlers on Fire Island are boring, novels about a bunch of queens in a gay bar are boring. Think outside the box. Yes, write what you know, but there are ways to do it without falling into the old cliche traps. Make your character a free lance journalist working in New York, barely making it but finding a really great guy. Then the great guy has a flaw, maybe he’s not what he appears to be. A murderer, a spy, a guy leading a double life with a wife and kids, an FBI agent… The sky’s the limit my friend. Don’t worry about being the next Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling. Write what feels good, what you know and what’s interesting/exciting/intriguing to you and your readers will follow. Believe me there’s lots of us out there who are looking for the next great gay novel because we like reading about characters like ourselves. People who are living life and just happen to be gay. We’re not struggling with coming out but it’s still not an easy world to live in. I think you need to quit listening to (and perhaps get rid of) the naysayers in your life and just write.

  2. 21 May 2010 at 12:52 PM #

    I think gay literature needs less coming out stories, and above all, needs less stories about handsome white gay guys who seems to have it all–great job, great friends, great looks, etc. But then don’t really; their problem is they can’t find true love. Sure, this is “writing something specifically for them,” “them” being the imagined demography of a white gay public, (ignoring gays of color and lower classes and genders [there are gay FtMs…]), but I find such literature cliched and weak.

    What I think gay literature needs are voices of people who are not found at Fire Island or P-Town or San Francisco. These stories have been told and continually sold because publishers believe they’ve found the model consumer. Instead, we need stories with people who have no way of ever getting to these gay “meccas,” or rural queers who have to get up in the morning to work, or that ugly guy on Manhunt who just knows he’ll end up alone no matter what he does, or that gay FtM who is afraid of walking alone in city at night, or that gay guy who’s afraid to go home because he’s afraid his boyfriend might hit him again, or maybe (as Brad mentions), the lives of people who happen to be gay, their stories focusing on other stuff, like class, race, ethnicity, citizenship, etc. There are too many stories to focus on being gay and finding love.

    This article, I felt, should not have been about gay as a literary fad, the way an agent might say that you shouldn’t write gay because it doesn’t sell. Instead, it should have commented on the need for gay literature for to change in order not to be cuckolded into literature for just gay people.

    What gay lit needs the most is more voices. We need less template stories, those fairy tales with happy endings. We need to kill the gay novel–if the gay novel means white gay men having sex and finding true love at the end. Perhaps we’re afraid to write anything else because we’re afraid people will say–“See? Being gay is not fun!” something along the lines of early gay novels in which publishers had to force a suicide at the end to make it acceptable. I understand the reluctance. But the result is a redundancy in gay literature, the silence of minority voices, and in the end, not a very exciting literary scene. We need to move on beyond Will and Grace, beyond just being happy and gay. And while, as you said, we’re not “standing up to a cop while clad in wig and three-inch heels or handcuffing oneself to the White House gate in the name of millions dead” anymore, but now do we wanna get stuck just being gay? Gay doesn’t sell because the story is the same; gay will sell if it will tell other stories because gay or straight we all want compelling reads.

    All I’m saying is: post-gay.

  3. 21 May 2010 at 2:09 PM #

    “We need to kill the gay novel–if the gay novel means white gay men having sex and finding true love at the end.”


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