Am I a gay writer?
I usually recoil from having my writing defined by my sexuality. But a recent blog post here has given me pause for thought.
Too narrow a window? ... Gay's The Word bookshop. Photograph: Sarah Lee
I am the author of a book featuring a gay main character and was recently asked in an interview if I considered myself to be a gay writer. My first impulse (after realising the question was not meant literally) was to pontificate. I answered along the lines of "I don't want to be pigeonholed ... my book isn't geared towards any specific readership ... I hope it has something to offer everyone". In other words, the usual crap.
It was only a few of days later, after reading Justin Gowers' blog about the dearth of published gay fiction, that I began to feel guilty about the river of truisms I had instinctively spewed at my hapless interviewer. It was not that what I'd said was untrue exactly, but rather that I hadn't even properly considered my answer before I gave it. It occurred to me that maybe it wasn't even my place to figure out whether or not I should be labelled a gay writer. But in rejecting the term, what was I saying about the validity of gay as a specific genre - and indeed why had I automatically assumed that the genre was limiting?
Ideologically, there ought to be no shame in being branded a writer of gay fiction: in fact it should be the opposite. As pointed out in many of the postings in response to Gowers' blog, gay writing is a difficult genre to define, but is nonetheless one that has attained considerable literary kudos, with luminaries that include Jake Arnott, Alan Hollinghurst and Sarah Waters (I categorise these authors thus a little hesitantly, since I don't actually know whether they object to the term or celebrate it - or care one way or other).
On the flipside, it can hardly escape anyone's attention that there is no "straight" genre, or at least that if there is then it needs no label because it encompasses everything but gay - and sometimes even that. It makes one question what good all this endless compartmentalising does anyway. Isn't that why Stephen King gets upset about not being taken seriously? Why, it's almost enough to drive a writer into an anarchic frenzy - screw those fools who feel the ridiculous need for a system of classification in order to navigate their libraries and bookstores!
Anarchy aside, if I'm totally honest my real problem is that I have one eye perpetually trained on book sales. Given my precarious position as a first time author, the last thing I want to do is rock the boat by discouraging potential readers: who cares if they end up deciding the only thing the book is good for is propping up tables? So long as they've bought it. But is it really ethical to mislead the non-gay into buying my novel by waxing vague about its genre?
Still, if I'm really going to be that mercenary about it, my position probably ought to reflect the places my book has so far got the most reception: it is the gay-oriented magazines and papers that have shown the greatest interest in it. And since it is notoriously difficult for new novelists to get reviews and attention, if for no better reason, I think I'm going to define myself out of gratitude. So do I be a gay writer? Hell, yes.
Britain does not publish enough gay fiction
Gay books with the potential to sell to a mainstream audience are the only ones UK publishers seem interested in. We could and should do a lot better.
Not enough on the shelves ... Gay's the word bookshop in London. Photograph: Graham Turner
Andrew Holleran's latest novel, Grief, has failed to find a British publisher highlights, for me, the problem Britain's publishing industry has with gay fiction.
Holleran's first novel, Dancer from the Dance, an instant gay classic, was published by one of this country's most distinguished literary imprints, Jonathan Cape, back in 1979 and remains in print today. Grief received ecstatic reviews on publication in America and beat The Night Watch by Sarah Waters to win the 2007 Stonewall Book Award for literature, but no British publisher wanted to take a punt on it.
Holleran's latest novel is a quiet book, unlikely, perhaps, to set the cash tills ringing, but I am still at a loss to understand why it was passed over by UK publishers. Nor is this a one-off. The Lying Tongue by Andrew Wilson, whose biography of Patricia Highsmith was shortlisted for a Whitbread prize in 2003, was rejected by every mainstream British publisher before finally being picked up by the an independent (Canongate). Yet the novel had already been sold to Simon & Schuster in America, notched up a clutch of foreign sales and attracted interest from several movie producers by the time Canongate made their offer. That Wilson found a British publisher at all was due largely to the perseverance of his heavy-hitting literary agent, Clare Alexander.
Why are so few quality gay-themed novels published every year in this country? It isn't because there aren't gay men in positions of influence within the British book trade. And yet when I worked in publishing, I noticed that gay men would pass on gay books crossing their desks. My late boss, the literary agent Desmond Elliott, rejected a manuscript titled Better to Reign in Hell by Dennis Pratt. It was subsequently published by Jonathan Cape in 1968 under the title The Naked Civil Servant.
American publishing houses such as St Martin's Press, Carroll & Graf, Suspect Thoughts Press and The Dial Press are bringing out books by promising, exciting gay and lesbian writers like Matt Bernstein Sycamore, Patrick Moore, John Weir, Patrick Ryan, Bett Williams, Glenn Belverio and Barry McCrea. In this country, you are more likely to discover exciting new gay writers in the blogosphere, or in queer literary magazines like Chroma, than on a publisher's list.
British publishers, it seems, are only interested in gay writers who will cross over to a mainstream market. But American publishers have shown that gay publishing can be a potentially lucrative market. The Back Passage by James Lear, the nom du porn of British author and journalist Rupert Smith, was turned down by every British publisher before it was snapped up by an American publisher, Cleis Press. The Back Passage, and Lear's follow-up novel, Hot Valley, are currently at numbers one and two on Amazon UK's lesbian & gay bestsellers list.
Perhaps it is wrong to lay the blame for the lack of gay and lesbian titles available to bookshop browsers at the feet of publishers, however. I think it's true to say that we get the books we deserve. And sadly most young gay men today are more likely to read celebrity airhead Paris Hilton's Confessions of an Heiress than a generation-defining novel like Holleran's Dancer from the Dance.