Saturday, August 22, 2009

Straight Proust

Shelf Space
On Qualities and Locations of Queer Literature
by Lonely Christopher

What is queer literature? I think this is an important question and a stupid one. In the “gay fiction/non-fiction shelves at Barnes and Noble” sense, “gay lit” is a minoritizing concept. I have never plucked a title off the “gay fiction” shelf; to do so seems unfortunately tacky (considering my snobby bias re the quality of writing that is typically relegated there, possibly correlative to chick lit). About the only text I’ve taken home from the “gay non-fiction” shelf is Epistemology of the Closet. In that book, Sedgwick discusses “the contradictions […] internal to all the important twentieth-century understandings of homo/heterosexual definition,” which include “the contradiction between seeing homo/heterosexual definition on the one hand as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority […] and seeing it on the other hand as an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities[.]” But, of course, we have all read Epistemology of the Closet --- which is why I find it so queer the issue of themes of non-normative sexuality in creative writing is treated with a minoritizing disdain, in casual conversation, by my closest friends. I am not arguing against the organization of texts by subject --- without which Mr. Dewey weeps and I get confused at the library --- but it’s undeniable that a social stigma is attached to what is essentially the ghettoization of queer writing. Notably, reputable queer authors do not usually languish in the “gay fiction” section: you’ll probably find City of Night and the oeuvre of Burroughs in regular literature. Although the pessimistic view might be that those guys became institutionalized enough to receive honorary-straight status, which comes with admission to the grown-ups table; just as reasonable, and more positively, it might also be that important literature is important literature. We’d love to claim the latter the case here in our progressive day. So why is it, then, that certain of my peers continually express concern that I am running the risk, in foregrounding queer themes in my own work, of losing their interest by esoterically going gay? I posit the answer relates to a kind of latent homophobia that’s ubiquitous in contemporary literary discourse. Despite familiarity with all the trendy texts of queer theory --- Sedgwick, Butler, Foucault --- straight-identified writers and readers (that I know) can’t help finding queer material in literature kind of boring and gross. Although I don’t feel comfortable organizing myself under the cultural rubric of the “gay” construct, my non-normative sexual identity (or: queerness) still came with implicit subscription to a rich and fascinating gay canon of creative texts and critical perspectives. My interest in certain dimensions of art and theory (that is, the gay dimensions) presupposes my access to queer tradition. I had to struggle out of a stuffy heteronormativity before I learned to love queer culture. This is the result of the minoritizing influence built in to normative discourse, which sets apart anything articulating a strong queer perspective. (Such values also make you straight until proven otherwise, so many queer boys and girls tend to be raised straight, which retards them culturally.) I mean to say: queerness isn’t implicitly just for gays, but cultural hegemony ignores this and enforces ghettoization. So friends squirm when my writing swerves into fag land. Most of what I’ve been doing for about a year results from a project of queer investigation. Previously, the attention of my creative writing has been more scattered. When peers began to notice the unfamiliar direction my work was heading in, the reaction was almost unanimously suspicious (turning negative). There was an audience for my chamber drama Gay Play when I staged it last year --- but when I wrote a sequel, kids started worrying. When I ended up with Gay Play 3, some reactions were outright hostile: I was turning into a “scene queen.” The primary response I’ve been getting is that I shouldn’t write about queer themes all the time because that runs of risk of making me a “special interest” writer. A friend recently complained over the intellectual poverty of art about same sex relationships; I pointed out my unpublished novel focuses on a straight married couple. He said, correction, he didn’t like any art about romantic relationships --- we went home and watched a Woody Allen movie, which we enjoyed. That is an irony of straight discomfort with queer lit --- it doesn’t go both ways: queers don’t seem to have much of a problem with appreciating all the fine heterocentric art in the world. In fact, I quite love Woody Allen, for example, even though I do not relate at all to his hetero treatment of love and sex. Weirdly, a whole bunch (most?) of the heroes of the normative canon, which have become the favorites of my straight peers, are total homos. I have another friend who used to really want to erase that unfortunate detail. When we were young we were crazy about Rimbaud. Despite the whole Verlaine fling --- which, you know, gave us some pretty good poetry --- and the evidence Arthur had a kept boy when he quit the writing game for business, according to this friend Rimbaud wasn’t “technically gay” because he doesn’t fit neatly under the contemporary gay construct; thus, his sexuality is unimportant in the consideration of his work. Next came Proust, which my friend tried to prove was actually straight because he wrote so well about heterosexual relationships and penned a few flowery letters to his women friends. Never mind, you know, the overwhelmingly queer bent of In Search of Lost Time or any of his fancy gay love. It went on like that --- I think Whitman came next --- although this fellow is very intelligent and his attitude might be different now. I think Sedgwick makes an important case for reading literature from a queer perspective, which is a practice often considered useless, extraneous folly by even those straights who’ve read Sedgwick. When arguing defensively against the validity of queer perspectives in art, my straight friends often resort to a few stances exampled in Epistemology of the Closet. The list of possible attacks is sort of lengthy, but it’s worth representing here in full: “1. Passionate language of same-sex attraction was extremely common during whatever period is under discussion --- and therefore must have been completely meaningless. Or 2. Same-sex genital relations may have been perfectly common during the period under discussion --- but since there was no language about them, they must have been completely meaningless. Or 3. Attitudes about homosexuality were intolerant back then, unlike now --- so people probably didn’t do anything. Or 4. Prohibitions against homosexuality didn’t exist back then, unlike now --- so if people did anything, it was completely meaningless. Or 5. The word 'homosexuality' wasn’t coined until 1869 --- so everyone before then was heterosexual. (Of course, heterosexuality has always existed.) Or 6. The author under discussion is certified or rumored to have had an attachment to someone of the other sex --- so their feelings about people of their own sex must have been completely meaningless. Or (under perhaps somewhat different rules of admissible evidence) 7. There is no actual proof of homosexuality, such as sperm taken from the body of another man or a nude photograph with another woman --- so the author may be assumed to have been ardently and exclusively heterosexual. Or (as a last resort) 8. The author or the author’s important attachments may very well have been homosexual --- but it would be provincial to let so insignificant a fact make any difference at all to our understanding of any serious project of life, writing, or thought.” To Sedgwick, this puritanical outrage at the canon being reconfigured along queer lines evinces, beyond sheer homophobia, a hegemonic ignorance necessary in sustaining the established order: “Don’t ask; You shouldn’t know.” There is the additional fallacy of misunderstanding the divisions between popular and literary writing when it comes to queer texts (like mine). My treatment of queer themes, its centrality in my recent work, gets conflated by friends with the production of the low paperbacks shoved out of the literary discourse to languish on the dusty “gay fiction” shelf. Thus, writing about queerness at all is the same thing as writing for the supposedly non-critical popular gay audience (and we know they don’t even read, pity). The situation is probably a little different right now in China, where the first two Gay Plays are being published and staged. The communal homophobia doesn’t seem to have been internalized and caked over with organized defenses there as it has here stateside. When casting the English production of Gay Play 2, I’m told it was impossible to convince noncitizens (expatriates and the like) living locally to participate because of the social fear that, I guess, ultimately implies the punishment of deportation for subversive activities. In climates of more direct sociopolitical repression, any conception of queer literature is disallowed from validation or even existence; in cultures of internalized homophobia the dominant critical discourse substitutes in the government’s role in authoritarian censorship. When it comes to the troublesome attitudes of my friends here in the US, I think I should make an important distinction clear because it’s probably not terribly considered from a straight perspective. Straight writers focus on themes of sexuality frequently and sans compunction --- this is because sexuality is fascinating and complex. A straight-identified writer has implicit access to her life of experiences parsing the complications of sexuality from her own vantage. This fundamental catalog of conceptualized sexuality is obviously available to the gay or queer-identified writer as well. There’s something else, though, that influences the queer writer, problematizing and inspiring his work: his subjugated position in a heteronormative social grammar. There is no aspect of the queer subject that’s structurally inherent (thereby inalienable) in our literary or social formations. This is evidenced in how a queer writerly focus is so easily suspect: there is no right to a gay literature within the intellectual framework we operate in as artists. A straight writer writing straight work writes literature; a queer writer writing queer work writes queer literature, which doesn’t exist. Maybe, to restart, the question is, rather: What should queer literature be? Does it belong outside the normative canon, within it qua subspecies, or should there even be a designation distinct for it at all? I know the gay canon did form outside normative discourse --- it had to because of where its subscribers were: the institution of the closet. I suppose I’d like to see something suggested by the “universalizing view” identified in Sedgwick: a queer literature different from the established and ghettoized gay canon, something that’s not as minoritized but in active conversation with our normative canon. When somebody picks up a volume of Proust from the “literature” shelf, for example, she understands the text simultaneously as a great novel and a great queer novel. I like the duality there. A critical engagement with queerness in treatments of literature is undeniably important --- not only from a gay perspective, or from wherever I’m located personally, but for all writers and readers of creative texts (that’s us). Queer has value. As Annamarie Jagose writes, “Queer is not outside the magnetic field of identity. Like some postmodern architecture, it turns identity inside out, and displays its supports exoskeletally."


Greg Afinogenov said...

Man, these "friends" of yours must be real pricks, huh?

Jules Cole said...

Lonely Christopher:

Why does "gay literature" have to be labeled as such in the first place? Why can't literature simply be LITERATURE? Does not the very act of labeling, by its own merits, demean the value of what it tries to describe, whether it be so called gay fiction/non-fiction, or straight fiction/non-fiction???

Why not let letters be letters?