Columns > Published on March 2nd, 2012

Does Gay Writing Deserve Special Treatment?

The 2011 short list for the Man Booker prize – the UK’s main literary award – ruffled a few feathers. Mainly this was because the chair of the judging panel, Dame Stella Rimington, had the nerve to suggest that readability was one of the main factors in deciding who made it onto the list and who didn’t.

The shudder which ran through the British literary elite was long and profound. Literature is like medicine for the cultural bit of your soul. It shouldn’t taste good. Big important prizes deserve big important books. So what if no one actually enjoys or understands them?

That’s how the arguments ran. Dame Stella took it all on the chin. She used to be the head of MI5. She knows how to kill a man in fifty different ways (probably including the use of a poisoned umbrella). She wasn’t going to lose sleep over a few agitated journos griping about books.

But in amongst the general gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes, another article made a quieter but perhaps more penetrating point. Paul Bailey, writing in the Guardian said this about the short list: ‘The absence of very good books by avowedly gay authors strikes me as odd.’

He wasn’t the only one to notice the absence of a particular gay author. Alan Hollinghurst, who won the Booker in 2004 with The Line of Beauty, made the 2011 shortlist with The Stranger’s Child but wasn’t among that controversial final six. Many commentators believed this book and not Julian Barnes’ Sense of an Ending should have won. But Bailey’s point was more general. No gay authors on the shortlist he said. This is odd.

It’s hard to tell from this single sentence exactly what Bailey meant. He could have been suggesting that the panel deliberately excluded gay writers from the short list. That would be discrimination and it’s more than just odd. It’s illegal. So I’m guessing that Bailey was hinting at something else. He was trying to say that the Man Booker panel should have made sure that at least one gay writer got onto the short list just because that writer was gay.

Now when it comes to trying to combat social disadvantage, most of us get that positive discrimination has its place. Turning back the tide of years of prejudice can require radical action, sometimes in the form of requiring institutions to set and fulfill a quota. To that end, there are literary awards which are specifically aimed at promoting gay writers. Britain has the Green Carnation Award and the US has the Lambdas. In 2009, the Lambies, which had been open to all writers, regardless of orientation so long as their work addressed an appropriate theme, became restricted to only LGBT authors. Some commentators applauded that decision. Others felt it meant that what you wrote about was less important than who you slept with. My question was how ‘bi’ you had to be to apply. Full sex? Impure thoughts? If the latter, I could fill in the application form with a clear (if not clean) conscience and so, I’m guessing, could many others.

But what difference does it make if a piece of writing has flowed from the pen of a straight or a queer? Hollinghurst said of his work ‘I’ve always tried to write books which began from the presumption of the gayness of the narrative position.’ Translated, that means, he wants to write about a world where being gay is as natural as being straight. The gayness of his main characters is incorporated into the story, rather than being the story. It’s an aim Hollinghurst seems to have succeeded in. When The Line of Beauty won the 2004 Booker, the chair of that panel said that the fact it was a ‘gay’ novel, never even came up in the discussions. The book won on its own merits: not because the panel wanted to make a statement about homosexuality, but because it was the best book on the list.

Isn’t this how it should be? The trouble with promoting a special interest group is that it’s only a short step away from there to ghettoization. Gay writers are aware of this danger. When accepting his Lambie Pioneer award last year, Edward Albee said, ‘I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay. Any definition which limits us is deplorable.’ Hollinghurst admits to ‘chafing’ at the gay writer tag if it implies that’s the only interesting thing about his writing. The hugely successful crime writer Val McDermid says ‘we lesbian writers are far less obsessed and defined by our sexuality than the straight world might think.’ Bookstores agree. The practice of separating out ‘gay’ books and putting them on a different (higher) shelf stopped years ago (although Amazon does offer gay writing as a genre choice). In that respect LGBT writers can think themselves more fortunate than writers from non-white ethnic groups who still might find their books sitting together in a friendless huddle, while all the white-authored books get to play together.

The opening of the closet means we’re no longer so avidly curious to see inside it. These writers have the luxury of producing work in a time when being queer is, while not a non-issue, less of an issue than at any time in the past.

But there’s a contradiction going on here. Gay writers want awards which are dedicated to their particular group. They feel their writing needs to be promoted and behind this lies the assumption, unspoken, that without the efforts of the Lambies or the Green Carnation, LGBT writers would have a tougher job selling their work to the mainstream. At the same time, well known gay writers ‘chafe’ at the idea that their books be neatly slotted into that category. Their concern is the opposite: that being labeled as gay will mean that their readership becomes restricted or that this is the tag that will forever be attached to their work. Take for example, Bret Easton Ellis’ reluctance to define his sexuality because, ‘if people knew that I was straight, they'd read [my books] in a different way. If they knew I was gay, 'Psycho' would be read as a different book.’ The shelf for gay writing might have been removed from the bookstores, but these authors worry that it still exists in the public mind and that they will end up segregated on it.

The right reaction has to be that of the Booker Committee when it picked Hollinghurst’s book to win. When it comes to writing, sexuality is irrelevant. Orientation is irrelevant. Plenty of writers have demonstrated this very point by quietly going about their trade and racking up very respectable sales without their choice of bedpartner troubling much the mind of the person clicking the mouse and adding their books to the basket. Tom Rob Smith, author of mega-best seller Child 44; Sarah Waters, whose novels Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and Affinity have all been adapted for the screen; and Emma Donoghue, author of New York Times Book of the Year Room are not coy about their sexuality, but it’s equally not the first subject that comes up in a conversation about their work.

A noticeable feature of these three writers is their relative youth. Waters and Donoghue are now in their forties, Smith only in his thirties. The opening of the closet means we’re no longer so avidly curious to see inside it. These writers have the luxury of producing work in a time when being queer is, while not a non-issue, less of an issue than at any time in the past.

If the author’s sexuality is rapidly approaching irrelevance, there’s still the issue of subject matter. We might be uninterested in the author’s orientation, but doesn’t writing which is specifically gay-themed still require the leg up of special treatment? The public might not care what an author gets up to in the sack, but they might not be ready to hand over money for a book where the main characters are gay, or so goes the logic. More to the point, the publishing industry, the reviewers and the cultural promoters might pass over ‘gay’ books in favor of works which appeal more directly to the sensibilities of the reading public. Again, Hollinghurst says something apposite here about his latest work ‘...I wanted to write for a readership outside the ghetto,’ and it’s true that The Stranger’s Child, while containing gay characters is, to a marked extent, less ‘gay’ than either Line of Beauty or any of its precursors. Does this mean that the gay ghetto exists and that the only way writers can climb out of it is by ‘gaying down’?

Possibly, although as Hollinghurst also says, the writer’s job is to make all experience accessible to the reader. It’s as much a question of the skill of the author as the mind set of the buying public. The success of his own work demonstrates that we’re willing to accept characters and situations which relate to the gay experience, just in the same way that we can ‘get’ the worlds of characters who are stronger, smarter, less moral, poorer, richer, prettier, lighter or darker skinned or even from a totally different planet than us. In the world of the imagination, nothing is different, nothing off limits. Singling out gay writers by giving them a guaranteed seat at the prize table, the way Bailey hints the Booker committee should, deprives them of an author’s most important challenge: to take their world view and translate it into a story which touches us all.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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