How Queer Literature Lost and Found Its Next Generation of Talent
The past couple of decades of queer literature haven't made a huge impact. Monday's Lambda Literary Awards are the latest sign that's changing.
This Monday, the 29th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, honoring the best works of LGBTQ literature to emerge over the previous year, will be presented in New York. And amid growing evidence that queer literature is experiencing a renaissance of late is a subtle, but notable, aspect of the list of finalists: A preponderance of titles from large, mainstream publishers.
Where independent book publishers have greatly outnumbered larger publishing houses in nominations in years prior, mainstream publishers like Penguin and Houghton Mifflin abound in 2017. Literary fiction powerhouse Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (FSG) has three nominations in the Best Gay Fiction category alone.
Considering the inroads queer characters and storylines have made in Hollywood, one might expect major publishing houses to have been well ahead of the trend. But the past twenty years have produced only a handful of LGBTQ-themed books to cross over into the mainstream, and that's at least partly due to a failure of major publishing houses to nurture a new generation of LGBTQ novelists. Arguably, the most important LGBTQ novel of the last five years was written by a straight woman: Hanya Yanihagara's A Little Life. And while the strong reception of recent releases like Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You and Darryl Pinckney's Black Deutschland is certainly cause for optimism, it's hard to make the case that they represent a thriving, mainstream state of LGBTQ literature, one that can really shape a national conversation.
Where are the current crop of authors who have done that in decades past—our Edmund Whites or Jeanette Wintersons? Both are still releasing work today, but it's hard to point to a new wave of queer writers who are having the same kind of impact (or careers) these elder writers have.
Greenwell—who declared A Little Life to be our generation's great gay novel, and whose What Belongs To You is up for this year's Best Gay Fiction award on Monday—told me that he and other queer writers he'd talked to could confirm the idea that "the big publishers are now showing a willingness to take risks, and a kind of faith that queer books can find a large audience." But he's also spoken out in the past about the factors that make queer writers themselves unwilling to adopt that label.
"It was right at the moment when I started studying literature, in 1999 I think, when that horrifying John Updike review of Alan Hollinghurst appeared in the New Yorker, that basically just said that gay lives are not worth writing about because gay people don't have children," Greenwell said. "And I know from talking to queer writers of that generation that that did kind of stop them from doing the work of making novels of what it feels like to be a queer person today."
Too many LGBTQ writers, according to Greenwell, were told to avoid writing explicitly about gay themes, or otherwise they'd be "ghettoized."
"This is a metaphor we really have to stop using," Greenwell said. "It's a disgusting metaphor, so ignorant of the centrality of queer literature in the western tradition. If there's a gay ghetto, then that's where Proust is and James is. Thomas Mann and Alan Hollinghurst, Virginia Woolf and Jeanette Winterson are all there. Darryl Pinckney is hanging out there, and there's where you want to be, with James Baldwin and those kind of people."
Tony Valenzuela, Lambda Literary's executive director, emphasized that if any reluctance to cultivate queer work exists in publishing, it comes from the industry's elite. "For better or worse, the majority of gatekeepers in mainstream publishing and media are straight," he explained. "Every year, there are a few breakout/crossover books and authors. But I'd argue there could be many more as we take more positions of power and influence, and as we become more of the gatekeepers."
Greenwell has spoken extensively about how the LGBTQ community's political and cultural gains have, ironically, had the effect of stifling many queer writers, causing some to censor themselves in a culture that today sees little value in the "otherness" of queer lives. As a result, those othered lives are underrepresented in popular American fiction—perhaps by an America that doesn't care to understand them, a point D'Addario made back in 2013, and one Valenzuela emphasized when we spoke.
"It's absolutely true that gay and lesbian families are at the top of the hierarchy of queer cultural representations today," he said. "America has a very narrow understanding of who we are, how we live our lives, how we define family. This means that our stories, our books yet to be written, are rich with potential for freshness, for telling stories that haven't been told yet."
Another issue to consider, at least as it pertains to gay male fiction, is the AIDS crisis, which decimated both a generation of authors and the audience of readers most receptive to them.
"There was this extraordinary generation of talent that was very nearly wiped out. To be a gay writer my age does seem like writing into a void," said Greenwell, who was born in 1978. "That's an exaggeration—there are important writers that have continued writing, but it is kind of extraordinary that you can count those voices on your fingers."
Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of FSG, has worked with many prominent gay writers in his career. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was the least likely to take issue with publishers themselves—but he, too, looked to the monumental toll of AIDS in explaining the disparity.
"If you go back to the era pre-AIDS, there was a much more open discussion of difference and transgression," he said. "I think the AIDS crisis shut that down in certain ways. I always look at it this way: there was gay liberation in the late 60s, and then there was ten years of that. AIDS came along and shut that down, and it's only now that a new generation that doesn't have AIDS breathing down their necks in the same way is arriving at a new kind of freedom."
All three hoped this freedom would be something a rising generation of LGBTQ writers could take advantage of, allowing them to explore the more idiosyncratic and radical elements of queer identity and offer up more diverse perspectives on what it mean to be queer today. Greenwell was quick to highlight exciting recent translated works and stories set far from New York or San Francisco, like The End of Eddy , from French novelist Édouard Louis, about growing up queer in the working class, LePen-favoring town of Hallencourt, and How to Survive a Summer by Nick White, a novel about being queer and attending ex-gay therapy in rural America.
But Greenwell thinks much of the next generation of queer talent may lie beyond fiction, too. "I think that most of the exciting poetry being written today is coming from queer writers of color," he said. "Also essay writing—queer nonfiction is having an exciting moment. It makes sense to start thinking about a 'new queer essay' that might be epitomized by Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts and Brian Blanchfield's Proxies and writers like Hilton Als. It's an exciting mode for me, this kind of writing that blurs the boundaries between criticism and memoir and cultural commentary and philosophy."
The strength of any literature can only be measured by the breadth and diversity of voices it embraces. In the sense that queer writers are now reaching beyond the usual motifs of coming out and acceptance, and encompassing a fuller intersectionality of sexuality, gender, race and class, one hopes this new generation will broaden our concept of what "mainstream" writing is, and stake a larger hold in the global cultural landscape.
Eric Sasson is the author of "Margins of Tolerance" and the forthcoming novel "Admissions." Follow him on Twitter.