October 6, 2009

Recently, a friend asked if I referred to myself as a gay writer or just a writer. Given the recent kaffufle at the Lambda Organization, I thought it highly topical. Here's what I wrote back:

I do not refer to myself as a gay writer, though I don't mind if other people do. Shakespeare has been called a gay writer by many people (including me, and precisely because of that "pride by association" you refer to), so of course I'm fine with it, but the public perception generally is that contemporary gay writers write largely about gay people and gay issues, which is somewhat true in my case, but, more importantly, that we write only for a gay readership. It's the latter category I want to avoid being placed in, because I feel I write for everyone.

On a basic level, being called a gay writer can limit an author's readership, and I don't want to be limited in that way because I think I have things to say to many different people. For the very same reason, it puts us at an economic disadvantage, as well as placing us in a category of writer that often gets overlooked by award adjudicators. I don't think there's ever been a gay or lesbian novel up for a Governor General's Award, for instance. In Britain, in 2004, Alan Hollinghurst won the Booker Prize for his "gay-themed" novel, The Line of Beauty. I believe that was a first in almost forty years of prize-giving. Times are changing, yes, but some of us are starving in the meantime, when we aren't being overlooked.

Right now, in the US, a huge controversy is raging in the ranks of the Lambda Award people on whether or not to allow the entry of "gay-themed" books by non LGBT authors. Whoever wins an award gets a huge boost to his or her career, so the question is whether or not the Lambda Foundation wants to further the careers of non-LGBT authors who, presumably, make money on their non-LGBT books and can be eligible for non-LGBT awards. A very valid question. But what do you do about the recent phenomenon (and it is a big phenomenon) of straight women who write male/male romances? They spend their time writing books intended for a gay readership (authors like E. Annie Proulx, who write an occasional gay-themed work like Brokeback Mountain, are less common.) Do we turn our backs on these non-LGBT writers who happen to contribute a lot to the gay community, but also happen to stand outside it, biologically-speaking? It's another valid, and very tricky question.

On the one hand, the foundation was established by gays/lesbians with the intent of furthering gay/lesbian culture. (Interestingly, a group of lesbians broke off from this group to found their own awards, feeling they were being overlooked by the men.) But on the other hand, you could just as easily ask what happens to a lesbian author who wins an award and then has a sex change and becomes a straight-identified man? Will they take back her/his award?

As for bookstores, I would like my books to be in the gay and the regular sections, simply to increase my chance of having them considered by a potential customer. As ridiculous as it sounds, there are still people who would never be seen browsing an LGBT section in Chapters, or anywhere else for that matter. We're still fighting all that ignorance and prejudice. (The bookstore categories, presumably, are there to guide customers to the kind of books they're looking for, not to marginalize any particular "type" of writer, but it happens anyway. It's human nature in one of its lowest forms--nothing new.) For that reason in particular, however, I would prefer my books be read for what they are and classified afterwards.

Miles Davis said, "I'll play it first and say what it is later." I couldn't agree more.

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