A young acquaintance of mine who's not yet a writer recently made a comment about the book of a young acquaintance of mine who is finally a writer, saying "the book is a successful example of gay fiction" - which naturally got me thinking! What is gay fiction? What constitutes a successful example of the sub-genre? If it's just the presence of lots of men in close homoerotic relationships, we'd have to include everything from Gilgamesh to The Lord of the Rings - so it can't be that alone.
It seems to me all gay fiction has one thing in common: consciously or unconsciously, it mirrors some aspect of what it's like to be gay at the time it's written. The challenges, the fears, the pleasures, most often and most effectively the neuroses ... all these things are reflected, distorted, blithely discarded, exaggerated in an attempt to give gay readers someplace to go with the part of the reading desire that wants to identify with some image of themselves.
(That desire - to find a place in a book that comfortably resembles a place inside you - actually animates a great deal of fiction, of course; the genres that cater only to that can rightly be called escapist and gently barred from the highest ranks of literature, since those ranks are reserved for books that attempt - again, successfully or not - to sow discomfort in the reader. The best reading is, after all, telepathy - with all the disruption and self-annihilation that implies)
So it must be admitted - even by those of us who like the sub-genre - that most gay fiction is purely escapist these days: boy meets boy, boys get it on, boys rest for a few minutes, boys get it on again, straight boy tormentors get either tormented or boy-seduced, boys get it on some more, etc. The amazing thing about this deplorable state of affairs, the thing that no scoffers should allow themselves to forget, is what a triumph it is for gay fiction to have reached the point where it can be mindless fun. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to find a book like Dorm Porn or Cowboy Lovin' (or Beantown Boys) in a mall bookstore; fifty years ago it would have been a crime. Today, a gay boy lucky enough not to live in a bigoted (i.e. rural) area can walk into such a bookstore, hand over the money he earned turning tricks, and buy - over the counter, as it were - a wide selection of books that present him, at long last, with pure gay escapism. Many Bothans died to bring us to such a point - it's not a thing to be lightly dismissed, however silly the actual content is.
The journey to that point - where both escapist titillation and deeper, more thoughtful reflections are possible in the light of day - is a 20th century thing. The twenty-three centuries before that were far too thick with religious prohibitions and social stigmata for any Western writer to risk an open reflection of gay desires or problems. You have to go back to fourth century Athens to find men openly loving men and suffering no bigotry for it (and jumping forward to the 20th century, you could find that same lack of neuroses in the magnificent novels of Mary Renault, which got away with it by being set in that time The Last of the Wine may very well be the most idyllic portrayal of gay love ever written); after that, it's the rack and the stake and psychology and 're-education camps' ... until Stonewall, Tales of the City, and Brokeback Mountain. Until now.
Even as recently as 1970, most gay fiction found it unimaginable that gay relationships could be legal and open - but there was one famous trailblazer who at least imagined they could be happy. Gordon Merrick's exuberantly written, erotically charged novels would look like anomalies no matter when they happened, but coming as they did at the very beginning of the so-called sexual revolution and claiming all the freedoms of that revolution for homosexuality, they often seem nothing short of revelatory. In 1970 Merrick published The Lord Won't Mind, the first of his books to feature his perfect gay couple, Peter and Charlie. The boys first meet in this book, at the leafy, accepting home of an eccentric (Merrick code for 'loves the gays') aunt, and they've no sooner shaken hands than they're up in their bedrooms, stripping off each other's clothes and pounding away. Merrick's endless descriptions of sex are hugely entertaining for their unflagging enthusiasm, but the real appeal of the books - especially in 1970 - was in their free, healthy attitude toward it all, perfectly captured by Peter and Charle's first post-coital conversation:
"Haven't you ever done anything like this before?" he [Charlie] asked. Peter rolled his head on the pillow in negation, his eyes still closed. "My God, I can't believe it. With your looks, I should've thought everybody would be falling all over themselves after you."
Peter opened his eyes. Tears were in them, and a reluctant, ambiguous plea. "Have you done it before?" he asked.
"Well, sure. Hundreds of times."
"How did you know I was - Did you know it was going to happen with us?"
"I didn't know. I thought it might. I hoped it would."
"I guess I did too, from the minute I saw you, but I tried not to think about it. You're going to have to show me. I don't know how to act. You're going to have to teach me everything."
"That won't be any great hardship," Charlie said with a chuckle. "Just do anything you feel like."
To put it mildly, the world of Charlie and Peter was an utterly unattainable dream for most gay men in the 1970, and to be fair to Merrick, things don't stay quite so perfect for our heroes in later chapters and later books. The specter of bigotry isn't entirely absent from Merrick's books, but confronting that spirit directly, dissecting it, simply isn't on his agenda as a writer. He's more concerned with giving his readers great heaping helpings of wish-fulfillment, sunny days and infinite orgasms with hardly a social restriction in sight.
What a different world presents itself only eight years later, in Andrew Holleran's rightly venerated gay fiction classic Dancer From the Dance! This is surely the greatest novel about unfulfilled gay yearning ever written, with Malone, its beautiful, doomed central character standing in for every key frustration of the age. Holleran's book is a quintessential New York novel, and all through its pages, we get glimpses - glimpses of the kind New York endlessly provides, then and now: handsome businessmen on their way to work, whole lives repressed beneath their cookie-cutter features, swaying pretty boys staggering happily home at dawn from a night gyrating away at dance parties in the city's secret corners, perhaps that one young guy with the evocative face, sitting on a park bench as you crane your neck to see him through the window of your crowded passing bus. Holleran takes us inside the hollow, tortured life of one of those glimpsed young men, Malone, as he at first tries desperately to be 'normal' (i.e. straight) and then abandons himself to the downward whirl of the city's sexual underside. Needless to say, Malone himself is full of yearnings - always for something simpler than he is:
"Isn't it beautiful?" Malone would exclaim as we drove past the girl doing handstands on the lawn, a young woman walking a flock of children down a dappled sidewalk. "Why don't we take a house here next summer instead?" But he knew we wouldn't, and he knew he wouldn't, for even now the drums were in our blood, we sat forward almost hearing them across the bay, and the van raced on through the streets so that the driver could hustle back for another load of pleasure-seekers, so bent on pleasure they were driving right through Happiness, it seemed, a quieter brand of existence that flourished under these green elms. We kept driving right through all that dappled domesticity, like prisoners, indeed, being moved from jail to jail imprisoned in our own sophistication. The truth was the town reminded Malone of his days at boarding school in Vermont; the sight of a football arcing across a green wall of woods made him sigh with a passionate regret. He always looked like a student who has just come in off the playing fields, eyes glowing from an afternoon of soccer. He always looked like that, even in the depths of a subway station, on the dingiest street in Manhattan.
There's plenty of light in Dancer from the Dance but no warmth; this is nostalgia without sentiment, the careful, loving remembrance of unpleasant things. In writing the great pre-AIDS gay novel, Holleran was forever memorializing a setting in which empty carnality was the only substitute available for all that dappled domesticity the narrator affects to scorn.
Shift forward nearly forty years, and what do you find in bookstores? A new series from Running Press called "M/M Romance" - historical romance novels set in a wide variety of time periods (but not, so far, fourth century Athens) featuring love between men ... almost Running Press' commentary on the lack of societal challenges facing such love in contemporary American settings (if this is indeed their rationale, they need to spend more time in Anytown, U.S.A., where there's still plenty of challenge in two men openly loving each other). It would have been perversely pointless to publish such books in 1970, or 1950 - why take a cultural impossibility and compound it? But now, when every high school has a GLBT "alliance" and half the states in the country favor legalizing gay marriage, there's a certain element of dramatic excitement derived from setting stories in ages where homosexuality was almost invariably punished with death.
These "M/M Romances" (an unfortunate series title, not only because it looks weird but also because no male/male passion in the history of the world has ever burned as hot as male/M&M's passion, and what's the point of reminding your readers of that fact, except to make them hungry?) are strongly written and fairly well researched. The one set during the English Civil War has some howlers, but "False Colors," set during the so-called "Georgian Age of Sail" in 1762, has been more soundly fact-checked. It's the story of prim, straitlaced John Cavendish, commander of the HMS Meteor, who begins to have passionate feelings for his Lieutenant "Alfie" Donwell and fights those feelings for convincingly-portrayed cultural reasons. The book's author, Alex Beecroft, lets his nautical metaphors rather sweep him away during some of the stormier interpersonal scenes, but on the whole the characters ring true, especially over-rationalizing Cavendish, who encounters Alfie after the latter has been imprisoned and almost lets his desires overcome his discretion:
Jealousy provided a thousand bitter words. You didn't give me a chance! You were gone before I had time to think. You knocked down the foundations of my world and then disappeared! What did you expect of me? And more base than that - a petty cry of pain of which he was ashamed, but could not silence: Do you know how much I've given up for you? Swallowing, he pushed them back down into the darkness, concerned instead for the man before him. Alfie's every gesture spoke of endurance, empty of joy. He stood patient in the limpid light, quiet, placid as a horse well broken to the bit. Words died on John's tongue, inadequate.
There was no prudence in the way he worked his fingers into Alfie's fists. When they opened, obediently, he lifted them, one after the other, to kiss the palms. Pure folly, a risk to name and fame and life itself, but oh, it felt so right. He hauled down the false colors under which he had been sailing all his life, and exchanged them for true.
As you can see, we've skipped right over Andrew Holleran and circled back to the over-the-top lush confessionals of Gordon Merrick. Only False Colors isn't painting an idyllic picture of what can't happen in the present day (where, in the modern British navy, Cavendish and Alfie could probably have a shipboard wedding) - it's taking us back two hundred years so its story of gay love can feel illicit and dangerous again. It's hard to know whether or not to call that progress, but one thing is noteworthy: when Running Press first distributed these books, they were coded for the normal, sprawling Romance section of retail bookstore chains. Weeks later - no doubt after vocal commentary from customers and bookstore staff - several of those stores moved the books into the expected ghetto for such fare, the dimly-lit recesses of the Gay & Lesbian Section ... but for a while there, the respectable soccer-moms of Columbus and Grosse Point were seeing sultry Commander Cavendish right alongside their ravished heiresses. And that is a kind of progress.