‘Today the artist is a saint who writes his own life’

Edmund White on the genre of gay autofiction

Gay liberation began in 1969 with the Stonewall Uprising in New York, but it did not produce a significant literature for another ten years. To be sure, essayists (Hocquenghem in France, Tripp in America, Altman in Australia) had begun in the early Seventies to write theoretical works about homosexuality; but fiction had to wait until 1978 to make a major impact.

At that time emerged a new gay fiction which is still flourishing today. The defining characteristics of this fiction are that it is unapologetic, that it is addressed primarily to gay rather than straight readers, and that it conceives of homosexuals as an oppressed minority group rather than as victims of a pathology. Less theoretically, this new fiction has commandeered new bookstores, new publishing houses and even new magazines to review it. In New York, where the phenomenon is at its most advanced, an organisation of gay people in publishing counts several hundred members and hands out an important literary prize every year. In universities around the US there are departments of queer studies; Harvard publishes a gay and lesbian review; the Beinecke library at Yale houses an important collection of contemporary gay and lesbian literary archives; the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at City University of New York, headed by the celebrated historian Martin Duberman, has become a bastion of this dynamic new movement, but Duke University is also celebrated for its department of queer studies, headed by the redoubtable Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Lesbian fiction has from the very beginning – except when it was entirely separatist – been associated in the US with the feminist movement. Only a few lesbian novelists – Jeanette Winterson in Britain, Rita Mae Brown in the States – have become ‘crossover’ writers with a mass-market audience including, presumably, many straight readers. Perhaps a few more gay male writers – Paul Monette, David Leavitt and Armistead Maupin in the US, Alan Hollinghurst, Paul Bailey, Adam Mars-Jones in Britain – enjoy this crossover status.

International comparisons, however, can be misleading, since they disguise the very different ways in which each country is culturally organised and politically structured. In Germany, where no major self-identified gay writer has emerged in the twenty years since the death of Hubert Fichte, gay fiction is considered to be little better than a joke, usually a dirty one; there may or may not be a more pronounced homophobia in Germany than in other European countries, but I suspect the differences are more reasonably attributed to the fortuitous absence of ‘out’ gay novelists of the first rank. When the brilliant Fassbinder was alive, for instance, and Werner Schroeter more active, one could have spoken of a distinguished gay German cinema, despite Fassbinder’s lack of interest in male homosexuality as a subject (Fox and His Friends is his only gay film about men).

France represents a different social configuration. There are many outstanding gay writers – Dominique Fernandez, Tony Duvert, Renaud Camus, as well as several who have died in the last decade, such as Hervé Guibert, Guy Hocquenghem and Gilles Barbedette – but I’m sure none of these writers except possibly the militant Fernandez would accept the label ‘gay writer’, although all of them have written primarily about aspects of their own sexual identity. I don’t even bother here with those numerous writers such as Angelo Rinaldi and Hector Bianciotti who write only occasionally if quite convincingly about homosexuality.

What is striking is that none of these writers, not even those most concerned with gay subject-matter, was willing to attend an international congress of lesbian and gay writers held in London some years ago; in fact all of them, with the exception of the lesbian poet Geneviève Pastre, responded angrily to the invitation and denounced the ghettoisation of literature, which the French contingent conceived of as a loss of freedom. Whereas most English-language writers perceive the evolution of openly gay fiction as progressive, in France the same label is treated contemptuously as reactionary and belittling. Nor can the French attitude be dismissed as closetedness or as a case of ‘Latin’ bellafigurisme, since in Italy, at least, gay writers such as Tondelli and Aldo Busi have gladly accepted the label. No, France is a country in which at least the illusion is maintained of an open, civilised communication among all the elements of society; the strong push towards secularism, at least as old as the Revolution, has always militated against special interest groups of any sort, whether religious or ethnic; literature and the ‘genius of the French language’ have been defined, for at least three centuries, as universal. In France there is no black novel, no Jewish novel and certainly no gay novel, although a black Caribbean writer such as Patrick Chamoiseau can win the Goncourt and many French writers have been Jewish or homosexual or both.

In Britain the situation seems to be located somewhere between the extremes represented by the US and France. High culture in general and gay culture in particular enjoy more visibility in Britain than in the States; it was British television, after all, that made a series out of Tales of the City, that featured my own biography of Jean Genet on a South Bank Show and did a filmed version of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit; now British television is filming Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library. American television would never initiate such programmes, which are replayed in the US after midnight and only on obscure cable channels with names such as ‘Bravo!’ This American invisibility will become only more marked given the current political climate and the Republicans’ hostility towards National Public Radio and public television, not to mention homosexuality, virtually the only common enemy hated by all the disparate elements making up the Right now that Communism has vanished.

In Britain an out gay fiction writer, Adam Mars-Jones, can be named the film critic of a major national newspaper, and another gay novelist, Alan Hollinghurst, can be the deputy editor of a leading literary journal and be nominated for the Booker Prize. I suppose it’s symptomatic of British attitudes that The Folding Star would be classified by Water-stone’s both on the shelf for literary fiction and on the shelf for gay fiction. In France no bookstore would have a shelf for gay fiction and in America no gay novel could be classed with general literary fiction – or, as the shelf is now labelled in the States, ‘Proven Authors’.

The ghettoisation of gay literature in the English-speaking world, and the refusal in France to acknowledge the very existence of gay fiction, have been two equally effective if opposite strategies for disguising the fact that gay literature does exist and that it has been central to the evolution of ‘autofiction’, one of the main tendencies in Continental literature. All too often, even when sophisticated English-speaking critics discuss French fiction, those works that are labelled ‘gay’ are the minor ones; whereas the truth is that a great 20th-century tradition in France is based on autobiographical fiction by gay men who have written at least to a substantial degree about their gay experience. I’m thinking of Proust, Gide, Cocteau, Jouhandeau and, in our own day, Hervé Guibert and Tony Duvert.

Perhaps because I live in Paris I can already imagine hearing the outraged whispers. I can recall that when I was working on my biography of Genet, my French publisher (and Genet’s), Gallimard, was terribly worried that I’d turn my subject into a ‘gay writer’. This fear arose not only from my reputation as an apologist but also because in conversation I’d once casually referred to Rimbaud as a ‘gay poet’, which had profoundly shocked my editor.

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