Wednesday, April 11, 2012

REPOST: Literary Identity

From an early age I have been interested in fantasies and epics, in the surreal and the fractured. The kind of books and stories the quiet kids read. I think this might be because, growing up gay, I felt more of a kinship with that genre of book than with the books I was being assigned to read in school. (The Old Man & the Sea? I’d rather not.) As a young’un I would much rather have lived in Middle Earth than in Middle America. For me Oz wasn’t just a slang term for Australia. In Middle America our heartless woodsmen rarely went in search for what was missing.

Still, as I got older and my thoughts became oft distracted by romantic urges, even the beloved fantasy lands of epic narratives began to lose their appeal. There were no gay characters in fantasy fiction at that time. At least, none I was aware of. I understood that to read the type of adventures I wanted to read and to meet the type of characters I needed to meet, I was going to have to create them all by myself. And so I did, if mildly at first. After all, one does not jump into a gay relationship, fictional or not, without looking around to see if it’s safe.

In my earliest attempts at writing, discretion was the key. I wanted a buffer in case my stories were discovered by my Jehovah’s Witness parents. Rather than boldly stating ‘these guys are in love,’ I learned to insinuate and imply. (Though, even as early as three I had a distinct and rather peculiar fascination with my body, as evidenced by the pornographic graffiti I had scribbled in the pages of the Holy Bible. Oops.)

Like most young gay people of my age in Middle America, I was starved for representation and looked for it everywhere. (I was crushed when I discovered the lead singer of Concrete Blonde was a woman and “Joey” was not, in fact, a gay love song. Oh, my poor little heart!) I did not identify with the characters whose adventures I was reading in the academically regulated books at Southwestern Jr/Sr High School. Sadly, though, I never really expected to. As a gay youth I assumed I would always be on the outside looking in.

The first time I can remember connecting to a book in a deep personal way was John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, which remains a favorite of mine to this day. I saw through to what the straight kids didn’t and to what the teachers would never discuss. I saw the love affair in that book. I recognized it and felt the pain. It was a beautiful experience. It was…cathartic. Yet there was never another book assigned in my pre-college education that dared to confront, or even tip-toe around, the same sex issue. Tennessee Williams wasn’t mentioned once in class. I still wonder what the hell that was about. I mean, it’s Tennessee fucking Williams!

My reading outside of school was a different matter. As I got older and less frightened by the rules of a confining religion, I became more daring in my reading choices, from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to Anne Rice’s…well, Anne Rice’s anything.

And then there was James Purdy. His work, beautiful and horrific, written in a style that still makes me marvel and grin, taught me that great writing did not need to stay in between the lines. More importantly for me at the time, Purdy’s work – especially Narrow Rooms and In a Shallow Grave – showed me that a gay romance could be just as sweeping as anything written by those depressed Bronte sisters.

My reading soon sped off into all different directions…all different gay directions, that is. Michael Cunningham, Jamie O’Neill, Geoff Ryman, Maria McCann. I started writing in an attempt to be published myself and my world opened even further, giving me the opportunity to talk to writers I had read, like Hal Duncan, Rick R. Reed, Ruth Sims, Dorien Grey, and Douglas Clegg.

There was a time I became so impressed by what has come to be tagged as “gay lit” or “M/M fiction” that I refused to read anything else. I decided that all my life I had been forced to read fiction that was, more or less, aimed at a heterosexual audience and now that I was able to make my own reading decisions I was going to be a very exclusive reader. I didn’t need Grisham or Dan Brown or any of those straight behemoths. All I wanted to read was gay, gay, gay! And, unlike the film world, I discovered the literary world has never been left wanting when discussing sexuality, from Thomas Mann to Gore Vidal to that naughty bad boy pervert Jean Genet. I filled up my library with books about or for gay men and women. And it was – is – a fabulous library!

Still, I knew I was missing out on some good stuff by my prejudiced reading habits. It took a few years, but eventually I started to read the hets again. I even picked up some Stephen King, something I had vowed never to do for the simple fact that everyone else was doing it. And while I do enjoy the occasional novel by a straight writer, maybe even with a straight lead character, I prefer the books I read to have at least one gay character, and this one gay character must not be the chief bad guy. (You hear me, Orson Scott Card?)

So, I’ve come full circle with my reading habits. I’m back on my fantasy kick again. Only now, the lands I’m visiting – both my own and those of other writers – come to even brighter life because the inhabitants are more diverse than ever. It’s wonderful, too, when a reader writes me to tell me how they have been moved by something I have written. The thought that maybe, in some small way, I have had an influence on someone…well, that’s just about all a writer can ask for. That and a spot on a college syllabus.


  1. Diversity is the key. Diversity is Life. Period.
    As always, moving and great.

  2. you exert a profound influence on a lot of people through your writing, none of whom are reading your work because it's required - as it would be on that syllabus (be careful of what you wish for)

  3. Thanks, fellas!

    Bill, Good point.

  4. Very cool to see your list of writers/influences. I can definitely identify. My own trajectory was very similar, right down to the "I don't need to read straight writers ANYMORE!!!" period.

    And how great was "As Meat Loves Salt"?

    Again, this was a fun read. It's always fun to see how a writer came to be what/who he is. :D


  5. Thanks, Benji! "As Meat Loves Salt" was absolutely haunting. Just amazing.