Daniel Mendelsohn: Beyond Borders, Beyond Identities
”I learn things when people write intelligently about my books. That’s what you want as a writer, you want to be taken seriously and you want to be read intelligently. You can learn from an intelligent review—not necessarily a ‘positive’ review.”
Waiting for the Barbarians , the latest collection of essays by Daniel Mendelsohn, covers a broad swatch of the writer’s critical territory. Having established both his contemporary voice and classical eye over the past twenty years, Mendelsohn presents many of his recent thoughtful and brow-raising critiques in this single volume published by The New York Review Books—dissecting the nostalgia that vaulted Mad Men into the sphere of cultural phenomenon, chronicling the hubris that felled Julie Taymor’s tenure at the helm of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and sectioning these selections under the headings “Spectacles, ” “Classica,” “Creative Writing, ” and “Private Lives.”
In a conversation with Lambda Literary, Mendelsohn discussed his comments that have been much discussed in the literary press of late: the role of the critic, the future of publishing, and his look at the gay luminaries Susan Sontag, Edmund White, and Alan Hollinghurst.
I’d like to start by talking about books as artifacts for you. What is it like to release a book of collected works versus an article that will appear in a periodical? Does it have a different feel?
Publishing a book is very different. Even if it is stuff you’ve already published, it is a different feel if it’s between hard covers. Part of the reason I publish collections is because there are things that you’ve done that you want to be preserved and accessible. It’s a kind of throwback to a kind of thing I was used to growing up as a reader—that people like Gore Vidal, whom I read very avidly when I was growing up as a reader, every few years he would collect his stuff and that’s how you have it. Of course in those days, there was no internet, so you couldn’t just say, “Oh where’s that article by Gore Vidal?” You couldn’t do that, and now you can…. I write for a living. Every time I’ve published something, I feel like that’s a thrill that you never get over. It’s different obviously when it’s a periodical, because the next week it’s in the trash, so it feels more evanescent. I like to publish collections because it’s a way of representing that part of myself as a writer and giving it the appearance of solidity and permanence that’s a book has, which is different from how it feels when it’s in a magazine.
I wanted to get that out on the table because there’s been a lot of talk about how criticism can be presented, how it is packaged or presented. Now there are three mediums for criticism to appear: the Internet, books, and periodicals. Would you say there’s a hierarchy?
I don’t think it’s a hierarchy. I think it’s just different. Our feelings about these mediums are functions of who we are and the culture we came out of. Personally I never feel like I’m publishing something if I’m publishing it online. It doesn’t feel published to me. I know it’s out there, I know people are reading it, but for me, because I’m just old enough—of the last generation of print media people, people who started their writing careers as print-only people—print feels more real to me. I know it’s irrational, but that’s how it feels to me; so I like to see things in print. I did this huge piece [online] for the New Yorker this summer, “The Critic’s Manifesto,” which was like 4500 words, and it had a big reaction, people were responding to it, but it just doesn’t feel the same as when I can hold it in my hands. That’s irrational, and I recognize it as irrational, but that’s part of who I am. It’s like, my mother doesn’t use cell phones, because she was not trained, it’s not part of her world. So that’s just it. Then again, I’m happy to be published anywhere, as long as they pay me.
Readers seem to want to pit critics against novelists and reviewers. In a reality TV artificial environment, like say The Real World, who do you think would be the fan favorite—a critic, a reviewer, or a novelist?
I have no idea. It just depends on who the person is. Critics are funny characters. I think people love novelists because they think they’re creative, and critics are perceived to be parasitic on other people’s activities. I don’t believe that. I think criticism is potentially just as legitimate a literary genre as any other kind of writing. Writing is writing. But I don’t know what people think in the abstract of writers—critics vs. novelists vs. memoirist or any kind of writing. I think it depends on what you write.
What is that impulse? Why does the literary world want to pit critics against writers?
Well critics are writers. I think that my point has been that critics are not just carrying out a negative agenda. Critics are trying to illuminate texts that they find interesting, and to educate readers. I have a friend, who’s also an editor, and he always says that “criticism is a service industry.” Really your job is to illuminate whatever it is that you’re looking at—movies, or books, or novels, or non-fiction, whatever it is. And because you’ve done the homework, and you’re sharing your impressions—now, they’re your impressions and people might not agree with that—but you have to lay groundwork of what you’ve learned about the writer, the other books that they’ve written, you’re the one who has to synthesize it all. I don’t think the relationship between critics and the people who create the works that critics criticize is necessarily antagonistic. I don’t think it has to be that way. I’ve learned from people who write; after all, I’m not only a critic, I also write other kinds of books. I learn things when people write intelligently about my books. That’s what you want as a writer, you want to be taken seriously and you want to be read intelligently. You can learn from an intelligent review—not necessarily a “positive” review. I think most serious writers want to be better writers. I think smart writers learn from all different sources. I’ve learned things from people who’ve reviewed my books, both positively and negatively, and sometimes you agree with them and you realize “Oh, well maybe I need to do something differently.” Part of the problem right now is just the circus-like atmosphere of much online discussion—not necessarily a circus like atmosphere, but sometimes—conversations feeding on conversations. People fire things off in the heat of passion. Then that feeds to the general aura of it being a gladiatorial event. That’s not how I see what I do, and that’s not how I see my relationship to the people I write about.
Referring to the new collection of essays, do you think your audience still has a taste for the classical myth that you engage with Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark [the Julie Taymor musical]. Were you really excited to put those essays forth because you felt like you really had an audience that would be able to digest that information?
I think people are interested. Certainly that has been my informal feeling, judging from feedback. People are interested. People always want to know why the classics are classic, whether they’re still applicable, so obviously because of my background, it’s a thing that I invoke when I think it’s appropriate. I think it’s a good way to think about what went wrong with Spider-Man [the Musical]. I’ve always found that people respond very strongly to these classical pieces. I’m never going to stop writing them because it’s interesting to me. But I would say that most of the time when you’re writing, you’re really not thinking about your audience, you’re thinking about yourself. In the sense that, when I write about something, it’s because I’m trying to figure out what it means for myself. And if people benefit from that, great. But I’m not packaging things for an audience. I’m just working things out in the way that makes sense to me. And, look, people, at this point in my career, know I have this background, they know it’s how I look at the world, and they’ll either like it or not. And they’ll think, “Oh, he’s doing that classics thing again and I wish he would stop” or not…but that’s what I write about. I write about what’s interesting to me.
I feel like a part of the conversation around criticism vs. reviewing is that people get this muddy sense of the critic operating to serve them, and they forget that you’re working to put a piece of art through your own grinder. You’re just allowing them to see the process happen.
All writing is really like that. I mean novels are like that, novels are written by people who have a story they want to tell. And they’re not trying to package it to a certain group. If it’s a good novel, it will mean something to everybody. That’s the difference between a good novel and a mediocre novel. So, I am who I am, I write about what’s interesting to me. I’d like to think that my thinking out loud benefits the reader to perceive things that she or he might not have thought of alone. I learned a lot from reading critics when I was growing up. I didn’t know anything, and I lived in the suburbs. I didn’t get to go to the opera, the theatre, or plays, or anything. But that’s how you learn things.
Can you tell us a bit about your childhood, in Long Island?
We grew up in a bedroom community about 40 minutes by train from New York City, out on Long Island, Nassau County, a very typical suburb. My dad was a scientist; my mother was a school teacher. It was a pretty ordinary suburban place and childhood. There was “the city” beckoning, and that was always understood as the place where [we] wanted to end up. Certainly for people like us. Other people who I grew up with stayed on Long Island, that’s the life that they chose. Certainly, our parents were very well-read, they encouraged us to be readers, to listen to music, to do interesting things, so in that sense they were trying to prime us to think beyond the confines of suburban life. But they chose the suburban life, they were very happy.
They were natives of New York City?
They both grew up in the Bronx.
In The Elusive Embrace you said that you grew up “seething, and afraid.” I was really curious about that phrase.
Well because I was a gay boy, so you knew that you weren’t like other people. It was a very different world when I was growing up in the 1970s than it is today. It was inconceivable that you would be out in high school. Inconceivable. I mean, you’d be taking your life in your hands. Not literally, but you would make yourself a target. And one was already a target, because people aren’t stupid, if you were one of the faggy kids, you were a target. So I was afraid, but not even afraid of other kids who would beat me up, or dump my books, or whatever it was that they did to torment you—call you names, which all happened anyway. But, just afraid of these feelings, which you didn’t have a knack for, you didn’t know if you were a freak, there were no external correlatives, there were no TV shows, no movies. It was a whole other ball game from the way it is now, you felt incredibly isolated. It was very lonely. There was no internet, you couldn’t go to chat rooms, you couldn’t find other gay people. Every person that you met in high school, you were wondering “could they be gay, could I talk to them, could I come out to them?” But you were filled with these incredible feelings, of passion and romance. You wanted the same things everybody else wanted, but you didn’t know if you were ever going to get it.
Alex Ross did a write-up on David Halperin’s How to Be Gay recently, and it was interesting for me to think about a gay adolescence giving a person early access to a critical sensibility. I wondered how you thought those two identities might have played off of one another in your own life.
Well, there’s no question…I mean we’re going to have to paint in broad strokes. “The gay sensibility,” the traditional gay sensibility, the sort of Oscar Wilde pose, superior, ironic, knowing all of the secret codes, is both practically useful for the closeted gay adolescent because most of the world is telling you that you’re shit, certainly other kids are—again, this has changed a lot, but in my experience this was the case—so to think that you actually belong to this secret, wonderful club of glamorous, exquisite people who know things that nobody else knows is a very powerful enticement when you are a young person. So in practical terms this idea of having a “gay sensibility” is, I think, very appealing. I think also intellectually it is appealing, too, because the gay knowingness and irony and the sense of access to special codes and secret knowledge that is part of the gay sensibility is also an intellectual tool. I’ve always said that my formation as a critic has a lot to do with the fact that I’m gay. I was doing an event with James Wood a couple of years ago when my first collection came out and somebody asked me, “Do you think your being openly gay for so many years as a writer influences your criticism even when you’re not writing gay things?” And I said yes because you’re trained as a gay person to smell bullshit a mile away. You know when people are bullshitting because you’re bullshitting so much yourself, just to get by; so you know when people are faking it. And that is a kind of tool that comes in very handy as a critic. You’re always looking for the secret hidden patterns, the secret codes that will unlock something for you—because that’s what you’re trained to do as a gay person. So I think I’m always a gay writer in that sense because the tools that I acquired just from being a gay person are necessarily the tools you need as a critic.
On that note, your Sontag essay interrogates her work and maybe her unwillingness to allow her gay identity to inform her output.
I obviously have great admiration for her work, but I do think it’s fascinating that in a person for whom knowledge was so important—a kind of exhaustive, hungry, appetitive acquiring of knowledge, knowledge of everything—that her self- knowledge seemed to be so partial. And finally you have to wonder, as I put it in the piece, why she cares so much about Bosnians but not about Lesbians? I don’t take her to task. It’s her life, and as I said, we all form our public personae in different ways, and I can’t say, “Oh, you should do this, or you should do that”. But there is an incoherence intellectually at work here—there are all these evasions. People will often say, of these semi-closeted public figures, “Well, you know, it’s an open secret”. Well, I’m sorry: this was 2001, or whatever it was, and that doesn’t wash anymore. I did the same thing to Anderson Cooper. I wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, and It’s like, “Oh, well everyone knows I’m gay.” Well, you know what, it’s not good enough anymore, unless you come out and you say it. Because that is the culture that we live in. We live in a public culture. And just to have people in East Hampton knowing you’re gay is not the same as being out.
What does it mean to have to declare oneself in that way?
I’m not saying anyone has to do anything. But don’t pretend that you’re out when you’re not. People have to live the way they live. I’m not saying that there’s a rule of life for Anderson Cooper or Susan Sontag. But don’t pretend, don’t use this line, “Oh, it’s an open secret.” It’s not good enough. If you’re out, you’re out. It means everyone knows you’re out. It means people who watch you on TV know you’re out. And their response is always, ” Oh, but my sex life is a matter of privacy.” Absolutely. I agree. But sexuality is not equal to sex life. I don’t want to know what you do in bed. God knows. But being gay, the fact that this is who you are, should be no more private than being straight. It’s just part of who you are, it’s like having dark hair, or shaving your head.
In a recent interview, you said some of your ideas about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections changed after re-reading the book while preparing to write on his collection of essays. I wondered if anything similar had happened after Alan Hollinghurst responded to your critique in The New York Review of Books [in which Mendelsohn argued that Hollinghurst’s portrayal of Jewish characters was a Victorian cliché]? Or if you felt like something had gotten lost in that conversation?
I thought that I was very clear from the beginning. I thought I was pretty clear that I don’t think it’s about anti-Semitism, I think it’s about a kind of reflexive way of thinking about a group. The example I always use is the criticism of Woody Allen over many years, that there are no black people in his movies in New York City. Do I think Woody Allen is a racist? I don’t think he’s a racist. I just think he has a set of attitudes that are colored by who he is, how he grew up, his milieu, and he just doesn’t see black people. So, do I think Alan Hollinghurst is an anti-Semite? No, absolutely not. Everything I know about him suggests that he’s an incredibly cultured, sensitive person. I’ve been extravagantly admiring of him in several reviews that I’ve written over the years. I just felt a little whiff of—I don’t even think it’s conscious in a way, it’s just like,”Oh, those mysterious, inscrutable Jews.” They just don’t leap off the page except as a kind of shadow of a character. That’s all I wanted to say, that’s all I said. I just wish he would lose that set of habits. It is a long, strong tradition in British fiction, in British literature and British culture. In his Line of Beauty, for instance, the Jews are the right-wing, rich, Rothschild-like family who’s supporting this right-wing politician; it’s like Trollope. I thought I was very clear. Whatever you think of my criticism, I am not shy about saying what I think. I mean if I thought he was an anti-Semite, I would’ve said so.
Did the larger point about The Stranger’s Child get lost in the fracas surrounding whether you were accusing him of Anti-Semitism?
I don’t think so. I think that if you read that piece—that’s why I put this whole thing in a footnote originally, because I didn’t think it was that important, but it was something I wanted to raise a flag about—I think the review stands, as a review of the book, and the real point of the review is him as a gay writer having shifted his priorities and orientations, which I think can happen. That I think is really interesting.
Is there a gay writer who has remained consistent throughout his or her career? I know you’ve said that it’s difficult to maintain interest in whatever got the author notice in the first place.
Well I think it’s interesting. Everything is conditioned by the circumstances. So to have written books that were as in-your-face about gay sexuality—at a very high literary level—as Hollinghurst’s first couple of books were, at the time he was writing them, was a striking gesture. The culture has changed too, so it’s not such a big deal now. It’s not just Hollinghurst changing, it’s the culture that’s changing. So, you do the same thing 25 years later, it’s not such a big deal. I do think it’s an interesting thing—it’s not a gay or straight thing—it’s a thing that many writers do in their careers, which is you start out with your thing, your thing that identifies you, your special thing, that’s fueling your desire to write, and for most of us, that becomes the song that you sing. And great writers can keep singing that song and it’s always interesting. Most writers keep singing that song and then it starts to become less interesting because the culture has moved on, that moment has moved on. I don’t think it’s necessarily a gay thing. It’s not even a criticism really. It’s just interesting to see this guy who was so out there, and now it’s all about decor. But look, that happens.
You’ve worked as both a reviewer and a critic. As the publication landscape has shifted, do you feel like criticism has moved toward the space of academia, where it’s harder to play to a general audience?
No, I think with the proliferation of online sites and forums for opinion-mongering, quite the opposite is true. I think more “ordinary” readers, in the neutral sense of that word—people who are not professionals—are interested in discussions about literature, so I think [criticism] is actually being taken away from the academy. The academy looks more and more remote, like people talking to themselves, than ever before, if anything.
I want to read you a quote, by Zadie Smith. She says, “Non-fiction is so much easier, so of course, it’s so much more enjoyable to do–”
Don’t even finish the quote. I don’t even know what that means. No writing is easy. If anything, I always think that fiction must be so much easier than writing nonfiction. I have written two “narrative nonfiction” books and I would say it’s easier to write fiction, since you’re not tethered to, you have no obligation to, reality. I think it’s much harder to have to make something that’s creative and interesting and has literary texture and narrative interest and yet is bound by the confines of what actually happened. I wish I could sit there and make up whatever comes into my head.
And that’s what you say Sontag lost sight of as well. That she didn’t recognize the value of the non-fiction she was writing.
She was writing literature as a non-fiction writer. She thought, as many people still do, that to be a writer means you have to be a novelist, which I find very amusing, particularly in this day and age where the literary landscape has shifted and evolved in so many ways and now there’s all these proliferating competing genres—memoir, which is now a major genre in the publishing scene, narrative nonfiction, all kinds of stuff, essays. I don’t know how people can still buy into this ridiculous, antiquated notion that the only really “literary” activity is writing fiction. I think the novel is over. It’s so clear to me that the novel is a genre that has reached its final stages, there’s nothing else to do, it’s all been done, the experiments, the this, the that. Naturally people will keep writing novels because it’s fun, and it’s a form you’re sentimental about. But you could certainly make an argument that the novel has now been eclipsed by the memoir as the pre-eminent form of literary self-expression just now—or certainly as eminent as the novel. I just think our attachment to the novel is, in some sense, a sentimental notion; and as a critic, but also as a writer, you have to be aware of the reality of the terrain that you’re in. The fact is that most writing is non-fiction writing.
You said that you never aspired to produce fiction, but do you think novelists and critics can go between the disciplines?
I think it is more common that a very good novelist, Zadie not least herself, can be very fine critics. I think people whose orientation is essentially critical, who write primarily as critics, have a harder time being novelists. I don’t think that’s a rule, I just think that’s probably a fair summary of the available evidence. Being a critic is not a day job, it is an orientation to the world. Your orientation to reality is to analyze, break it down, figure it out, and present your findings. That’s how you do things, and that is where you live as a writer. And being a novelist, I’m sure, is a different orientation to the world. I just think these things are different. I think all comparisons are invidious. I think it was John Banville who was interviewed in some French magazine about me, and he said something along the lines of, “Oh, well his writing is so interesting, and his criticism is so sharp, but it would be nice to see what he could really do as a writer, with a novel.” And I’m just like, “Yeah, and it would be nice to see what you could do as an Abstract Expressionist.” The sort of fallacy that everyone is gearing up to write their great novel is just a kind of holdover prejudice from a different era.
Well, but I think some of your colleagues fall prey to that sentimentality, no?
Well, who is interested in genre? Barnes & Noble is interested in genre because they have to figure out where to put your book in the store. Why bother? I write narrative nonfiction that incorporates lengthy analyses of literary texts as part of the fabric of the book. It’s just what I do. I don’t know what the name for it is. I don’t know if it has a niche in the Barnes & Noble worldview, but it just is what it is. These people wrapping themselves in knots trying to give a name to what they’re doing, it’s not interesting to me personally what the “name” is: a piece of writing is a piece by whichever writer produced it. Period. That’s what it is.
Which do you feel more trepidation publishing, a piece of criticism or a memoir?
I don’t feel trepidation about anything. If I did, I would be in a different business. Never. I think it’s exciting. I can’t wait to publish things. Whether it’s a periodical piece or a book. No, I don’t feel trepidation.
That has to be the mark of a tremendous confidence. Do you recognize it as such?
I don’t think it’s about confidence. This is what you do when you’re a writer. It’s the natural expression of who you are in the world. I have these ideas and notions, and I write them down, and people publish them. And they pay me. And it’s my profession. It’s a profession. It’s not something I do to please myself or to impress people. And so my confidence comes from the fact that for the past twenty years people have paid me very well to do this.
Can we use that as a launch point to talk about the economics of your industry? Because I feel like there’s a conversation happening behind talk of who gets to publish. At a certain point, literary people seem to believe institutions are needed to validate a writer, their right to speak. I’m curious to hear you talk on the economics of the business, and how that informs the way that you speak, or even that it gives you license to.
I started as a writer in the last days of purely print publishing. And there were many magazines, and if you were starting as a freelance writer, as I did in 1991, you just scrabbled around selling pieces to magazines. And I was lucky because I published my first piece in December of 1991. And then throughout 1992 I worked as a culture columnist for QW. And then in 1993, I started writing for Out, when it was quite new, and they paid me. And that’s why I just don’t think in these terms of economics or confidence. It’s a job that I do. I don’t know what the economics of house painting are, either…you do a job, you do it well, people pay you. The better you do it, the more people notice, the higher you get paid. It seems very clear to me. And so, in 1994 I had a book contract for The Elusive Embrace. It was just sort of a natural progression. It was just because I happened to do a thing that people were willing to pay me for. I don’t think I would’ve been a writer if I didn’t get paid. I mean, I would’ve maybe written in secret notebooks, but I have to make a living.
But you have to be approached by your students [at Bard, where Mendelshon teaches] who come to you with a romantic, inflated idea of the literary community that you’re a part of and represent. How do you respond to that enthusiasm?
People who want to write, write. They will find a way to write. And people who are interested in the business, in literary life—my advice to everyone who comes to me for advice is never go to book parties. Because people have this idea that that’s what the literary life is. The life of an actual writer is you sit at home and nobody’s looking and you write, and you read, and you write. And that’s what you do. You cannot make a career out of being a guest at book parties. I guess you can, but at some point it’s going to come out in the wash that you’re not that good…. Things are different now, look, I recognize that, so I don’t know what the economics of the business are now. I am aware that I couldn’t have the career that I’ve had if I started writing now. I don’t know what these online places pay, or how you can make a living out of that. As I keep saying, I’m the last generation of people who came of age in a print- only world, so the idea is you write articles, you get attention, more and more people use you, you go to better and better publications, then you write a book, it gets some notice…It’s not about your “confidence” in you, it’s about other people’s confidence in you. And publishers give you sums of money to write books, then you write a book, and it does very well, and blah blah blah, and then you’re earning royalties and that’s how it happens. My career would be really different if I were now 31 years old. I don’t know, I might have a blog, but I don’t know how people make money having blogs.
So what happens to this culture that you’ve cultivated, this thing that may not have the energy to continue beyond you?
I don’t know. I just hope I won’t live so long. I mean that’s my retirement plan basically, to die before this becomes a real problem. [laughter] Obviously, there will be publications. It’s all changing underneath our feet, obviously. But I don’t know what it’s going to be. I hope that there will continue to be people who want to pay me to write the things that I write. Because not everybody can do it, it’s a skill.
The thing concerning the Edmund White essay that’s really hard for me to parse through is, from a person who has written memoir, it seems that your critique is that White divulges too much.
Well, the problem for me… I don’t know him, I have nothing against him, by all accounts he’s a darling person, I just don’t think he’s a very good writer. I have never thought he’s a very good writer.
His fiction or memoir?
Anything. I think he has written some good things, but I think he’s a kind of mid-level writer who was able to have a career that was disproportionately important to his actual talent because there was a gay niche where a mediocre writer could flourish as a significant figure. And that’s it. And I just don’t think there’s a need for that anymore. I think we’re past that as a culture—past where we need to glorify second-rate writers as great figures because we don’t need a niche anymore.
But every cultural group has that sort of niche, right?
Yeah, there’s no question. It’s not like this is some pernicious thing that he planned. He benefitted, and more power to him. I’m not begrudging his success. I just read this book, which I thought was a crappy book, that City Boy. I thought it was lazy, it was sloppy, and I don’t think it told me anything of particular interest about gay experience, except the passages that I isolated, which I thought were striking and fun. But I represent a different tradition, intellectually and literarily, which I framed in the piece as his conflict with Richard Poirier. And it’s not like I’m some closet case. I wrote a whole gay memoir which is extremely explicit about gay sexuality, my own sexuality. I’m not hiding anything. I just think this is not the entirety of my life. My homosexuality is not something that I am ashamed of in any conceivable sense, I am totally out. I just think to make a part of yourself into the whole of yourself is doing a disservice to yourself as a person, and I say that as someone who lives a totally, fully gay life. But there’s other fish in the sea.
But it seems like you’re criticizing two writers away from opposite poles: Sontag for not divulging enough, and White for divulging too much.
All adult life is about striking balance. “Nothing in excess,” as the Greeks said. I chastise White for making the gayness into the totality of his worldview, but I chastise Sontag for being insufficiently acknowledging of her sexuality. So it’s about balance. I’m totally gay, but there are other things in the world that are interesting; and yet I would never deny my sexuality. I just think perspective is what you want.
Other than Hollinghurst, are there any gay writers that you love right now?
Well I just don’t think of…that’s not how I classify. And it’s funny because at the beginning of my career when I was writing for a lot of gay magazines, there wasn’t a coming-out novel that I did not review. I have read every crappy coming-out novel ever written. But again, that was a genre that was important at the time. It didn’t matter if it was good or not because you needed to be reading that stuff. It was incredible validation. But you know, validation stops being a useful literary standard after a while. It needs to be good, after a while, it can’t just be confirming of your identity. We should outgrow that. And I think we have.
So let’s talk about gay sensibility, Wilde, that old sensibility. The question is: Do you even need it anymore? What do you have to be ironic about? You’re living in a co-op with your husband in Greenwich Village. You’re part of the dominant culture. And that’s the really interesting question right now: is it coherent to maintain the outsider mentality, the subversive mentality, that has traditionally been part of the gay outlook, when in fact—admittedly, this is a small echelon of the culture we’re talking about—many gay people can get married now? Just what do you have be ironic about, what do you have to be edgy and subversive about? You’re in the mainstream. If you’re getting married, you’re in the mainstream, I’m sorry. So where is your irony? What is your irony about? And this is not a specifically gay issue, this is a traditional problem of assimilation. Can you still hang on to what makes you special, even as you assimilate? What are the cultural products that are being produced by a culture that is at that moment of both assimilation and wanting to still be special? What happens to your cultural profile when the political and social circumstances that created it have started to dissipate and dilute? And I want to make absolutely clear, I am not naive about the extent to which people are still oppressed, especially people of color, especially women. I’m not stupid about that. But increasingly, a significant chunk of the bourgeois gay population is now just about as advantaged as any other part of the bourgeois population, so the questions is, what makes you different? That’s what I find interesting–can you be both different and the same, at the same time?
So then what does all this mean for the future of gay literature?
The book that is only meaningful to the gay reader cannot be a great book. It is precisely the gay book’s ability to be interesting to a straight reader that makes it a great book. What makes Things Fall Apart a great novel is the fact that it can say something to me, a middle class white person in the USA, that is meaningful and rocks my world. If it only speaks to its black audience it is a more limited book. What makes literature literature is precisely its ability to go beyond borders, beyond identities. That’s why I always hated, to come back to our issue with being a critic, when there’s a book by a Chinese novelist, you give it to a Chinese reviewer. And I think, “No, that’s exactly wrong.” If the gay book speaks to the straight person powerfully, then it’s really something. If it’s just to make you feel better, then it’s just a form of self-help, even if it’s a novel. Then it’s really a self-help book. That’s not to say we don’t need them. I was reading the Ed White in my 20s, A Boy’s Own Story, all those things. Because you needed something to identify with. But that’s not what literature is. What makes a thing literary is precisely its ability to speak to readers who are not identical to its writer.
Photo: Daniel Mendelsohn Photo credit Matt Mendelsohn