I’m pleased to have Prism Book Alliance reviewer, Ulysses Dietz, at our round table discussion on gay literature today.
Ulysses grew up in Syracuse, New York, where his ‘Leave it to Beaver’ life was enlivened by his fascination with vampires, from Bela Lugosi to Barnabas Collins. He studied French at Yale, and was trained to be a museum curator at the University of Delaware. A curator for thirty-four years, Ulysses has never stopped writing fiction for the sheer pleasure of it.
Kevin: As you were growing up, where did you find gay literature?
Ulysses: I grew up in the 60s and 70s…there was no gay literature. Closest I came was reading Mary Renault’s Last of the Wine, which included two men as a couple as part of ancient Greek culture. When I was in boarding school as a teenager, Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band was available in print. But otherwise—nothing.
Kevin: We’ve seen a lot of authors write gay romance, but we’ve also seen a lot of authors been mistaken for gay romance writers when there’s no evidence that their books are romance. Why do you think this is?
Ulysses: I think people confuse gay lit with gay romance. Gay lit can have romance in it; and gay romance can be literate and literary. But they’re not the same thing, because it’s the intent of the author that matters. And, more crucially for me, gay lit has to be written by LGBT people. Gay romance as we all know, is still largely written by straight women, although more and more gay men are joining as authors. Now, I’m making up my own parameters here, but I think I’m entitled. Gay romance follows a formula and has a specific set of rules. Gay literature and literature with gay characters are two separate things and neither is romance. I would say that the best gay romance can indeed be gay literature (but, again, only when written by an LGBT author).
Kevin: What trends have you seen emerge in GLBTI writing?
Ulysses: I think LGBT writers are more interested in presenting worlds where LGBT characters are simply there, presumed, rather than struggling for identity. Clearly, the coming out struggle, family troubles, etc., won’t ever fade away, because those are issues that still have not disappeared from our world. But gay people are so much more visible in the world today that they can simply “be” without their gayness being the centrepiece of the story.
Kevin: What trends have you seen emerge in the romance genre? Is the genre being reinvented?
Ulysses: I’ve read over 800 m/m novels, and I think the trend in some areas is to focus more on the context—the characters, their full selves, and less purely on the romance itself. The romance is always crucial to the narrative, but it’s not the whole story nor the whole point of the story. Plus I think m/m writers are beginning to push against the rules, to deal with issues (fidelity, identity) that come from gay lit. Plus, I think there is a trend away from obligatory sex scenes in romances, where the emotional and psychological development of the characters is more important than sex.
Kevin: What excites you about modern GLBTI literature?
Ulysses: Visibility. I know that’s an old-man thing (I’m 60); but I stumbled into m/m literature because I was desperate for a sense of simply being seen. I wanted stories about LGBT folks in the world. 95% of mainstream literature has either no LGBT presence at all, or very minimal, tangential references to LGBT folks. What really excites me about LGBT lit is that it’s there, it’s available for me (and for young people who follow me) to read.
Kevin: What topics, character types and situations are discussed now that weren’t around ten years ago?
Ulysses: What I think is new in the last decade is the notion of LGBT folks (and that’s including trans, genderqueer, etc.) as happy, successful, triumphant—and not just as struggling, isolated, and unhappy. It used to be all about struggle, now it’s more about struggle and overcoming struggle—winning, achieving happiness, having agency in the world.
Kevin: And what topics have dropped from gay lit these days?
Ulysses: Coming out stories are still pretty prevalent, at least as an aspect of a lot of books (because coming out as gay is not the same as coming out at work, coming out to strangers, coming out in a new town, etc.—coming out is something no gay person ever stops doing: it just ceases to be quite as terrifying in a world where one is visible). What has disappeared is LGBT folks killing themselves out of despair, being defeated, being helpless in the face of a hostile world. Not that trouble and hostility are gone from gay lit and romance, but the defeat has given way to victory.
Kevin: As a reviewer, what else would you like to say about gay fiction?
Ulysses: Mainstream literature and publishing and authors and reviewers are every bit as resistant to LGBT books, whether romance or literary, whether by LGBT authors or straight authors, as they used to be. Straight audiences (particularly male) still don’t want to read about LGBT people and don’t care about LGBT stories, while LGBT people are expected to support and read mainstream (i.e. straight) lit and romance as much as we always have.
Plus, LGBT authors continue to feel compelled to write books without any LGBT content in them in order to appease the gods of the marketplace, and to seek sales and readership among the majority straight world. We continue to erase ourselves to please the dominant culture. I regret that, even if I understand it. And, I won’t read books by LGBT authors that don’t have real, central LGBT characters or content.
And, most importantly, the internet has made it possible for a child of stonewall in New Jersey’s suburbs (me) to have conversations with authors around the world—such as you, Kevin, in Australia. I think that’s a miracle of modern technology. Our community is global, literally and literarily.
Thanks to Ulysses Dietz for taking the time to answer my questions. On a personal note, I love being critiqued by this reviewer. Between the lines he offers great advice and insight to the writer.
And again, the invitation for you to comment is open. Please share your thoughts below.
Next week, Lethe Press founder Steve Berman joins us.