Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall by Les Brookes
Where is gay culture going?
[Note: Non-fiction studies of this nature do not fit well into the ‘star-rating’ criterion. Therefore I have not assigned stars.]
Forward: The conflict between assimilation and radicalism that has riven gay culture since Stonewall became highly visible in the 1990s with the emergence and challenge of queer theory and politics. The conflict predates Stonewall, however—indeed Johathan Dollimore describes it as “one of the most fundamental antagonisms with sexual dissidence over the past century.” How does gay male fiction since Stonewall engage with this conflict? Focusing on fiction by Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, David Leavitt, Michael Cunningham, Alan Hollinghurst, Dennis Cooper, Adam Mars-Jones and others, Brookes argues that gay fiction is torn between assimilation and radical impulses. He posits the existence of an internal one, a struggle in which opposing impulses. He aims to show the conflict as an internal one, a struggle in which opposing impulses are at work.
About the author: Les Brookes is an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, tutoring in twentieth-century literature. Previously Brookes taught at Anglia Ruskin University, where he also gained his doctorate. Brookes has written for Overhere: A European Journal of American culture and given papers at Warwick University and the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies.
Review by Gerry Burnie
To answer those questions regarding why I would read and review such a work as this, let me say that I have an abiding interest in what it means to be gay; where it has emerged from; and where it is going from here—or, in this case, from Stonewall (1969).
I should also point out that Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall [Routlidge, 2009] was originally written as a PhD thesis, so it is necessarily academic in nature, and not for everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, it raises some interesting and thought-provoking issues from a rational perspective. Mainly, whether gay culture has achieved what it wants (wanted), which is to be accepted, and should abandon radical, pre-Stonewall politics to melt back into the crowd. Or whether there remain sufficiently threatening, revisionist elements that require the need to be political in new and post-modern ways.
Having said all that, I’m not certain Brookes has answered these issues directly. By that I mean that I literally don’t know if, in 200-plus pages of academic debate, there is an opinion offered one way or the other. The problem (for me) was the arcane language which, I suppose, is to be expected from an academic paper of this nature. Nonetheless, it seemed somewhat obscure even after that was taken into consideration. Viz:
“Genet’s [Jean Genet, “Our Lady”] concern with authentic selfhood, with identity as disguise, emerges in his attitude to the masculine-feminine binary structures and treatment of sexual stereotypes.” And,
“To reduce this alternative to “decadent hedonism” is to ignore the wider implications of Wilde’s [Oscar Wilde] aestheticism, which … subsumes many different kinds of subversive impulse within its metaphoric allusiveness.”
For sociologists and English majors, however, this has to be a seminal work. Brookes has chosen a formidable list of writers to sample, and has then delved deeply into their various approaches to gayness. Indeed, it is almost an anthology of their writings. This is what he set out to do, and in that regard he has achieved his purpose.
To me, however, the most interesting section of the book comes near the end in an interview between Brookes and Edmund White (1996), author of Hotel de Dream (2007); The Married Man (2000); The Farewell Symphony (1997), etc. In it White makes some observations that are particularly worthy of note.
For example, when asked why all his works were about “initiation,” he had this to say: “So much gay fiction is really about initiation, whether it be into gay society or into gay sex or into the adult world or into the recognition of oppression or prejudice.”
On egalitarianism (quoting De Toqueville): “Since all human beings are naturally snobbish, in a democracy the signs of rank will be much more sinister and complicated than they are in a straight forward aristocracy.”
When asked to answer one of his critics who complained that White’s novel A Boy’s Own Story contained no discussion of “the usual difficulties of gay youth.” He states: “I think the last objection comes from an earlier period when gay critics tended to feel that gay fiction should be in some way representative of the tribe. There was a feeling that you were always a spokesperson for your people.”
Finally, and for me once again, White’s most interesting observation came when he was discussing American “consumerism” in which everything is quantified, “In terms of number of inches of penis, number of years of your age, number of dollars of your income. You were just a kind of sum total of all these figures and obviously, on some scales, you were inevitably sinking.”
Plus ca change.
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