April 29, 2009

The Violet Quill Reader, Edited by David Bergman (St. Martin's Press 1994)

The 20th Century was dotted with literary groups (Bloomsbury, Stein's Paris Circle, the Harlem Renaissance, etc.) Many of these influenced the course of literary history; all were dominated by gays and lesbians. (Yes, all--check the rosters, if you don't believe me.) The Violet Quill met only eight times between 1980-81, yet it was the first official group created with the express aim of writing to and for a gay readership. The seven men who comprised the VQ--Felice Picano, Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, George Whitmore, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley--all met in a personal capacity before throwing in their lot as a literary "movement."

Published 13 years after the official "disbanding" of the group, The Violet Quill Reader contains work by all seven writers, including a formerly unpublished story by Cox, who produced little and died young (as did Grumley, Ferro and Whitmore), as well as letters and diary entries detailing the group's short-lived formal activities. By all accounts, the group shared a basic political outlook (gay liberation theology), but not an aesthetic one. Their work does not constitute a school of any sort, apart from that of being written by and for gays in what is now loosely called "the post-Stonewall era."

Bergman has carefully shaped the book to reveal the evolution of the writers before, during and after the group (only Holleran, whose famed Dancer From The Dance was among the first best-selling pieces of Gaylit, seems to have come to the group with his style fully-formed), as well as to frame their work in an historic context. It opens with White’s wonderful firsthand account of the Stonewall Riots, and some early letters of Holleran and Ferro not long after the two met at a Writers' Workshop in 1965. It ends with Holleran’s tribute to Ferro, following his death to aids in 1989.

While the work no longer seems revolutionary (Whitmore's The Confessions of Danny Slocum, for instance, reads like very slow literary foreplay, and White’s Nocturnes for the King of Naples is nothing more than self-indulgent "poetic" gobbledegook), in its day much of it was revelatory. Under the group's influence, individual members began producing far more notable work and were considered among the most successful gay authors of their generation. And while much of it covers familiar territory (coming out, facing discrimination, living with aids), a good deal of it remains powerful: the excerpt from Whitmore's Nebraska is gripping, as is the one from Ferro's last work, From Life Drawing. There are some memorable short pieces as well, like White’s intriguing An Oracle, and the droll Whitmore short story, Getting Rid of Robert, a "biographical" work that threatened to tear the VQ apart.

While the amount and the quality of work produced by individual members differs greatly, the group's collective influence on GayLit has been huge, and its value perhaps only now beginning to be recognized. The remaining members, White, Holleran and Picano, are to be honoured by the Lambda Literary Foundation with the 2009 Pioneer Award next month. And though with hindsight the VQ may seem to have been a movement whose time had come, we owe much to those who marched before it became entirely fashionable to do so.

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