Gay writers have been passing for centuries. From Shakespeare’s sonnets — now widely believed to be addressed to a man — to the deceptively simple romances of E.M. Forster, an author’s personal experience of desire has often been morphed on the page in order to turn homosexual reality into heterosexual fiction.
I venture to say that the phenomenon continues in these supposedly more enlightened days, if only for mercenary reasons: Write a book about straight people and you increase your chances of publication and sales. (If you want to be daring, throw in a gay character or two, but only as the hero’s sidekick.) Write one about gay people and count the number of doors slammed in your face.
I learned that lesson the hard way. My first novel, Chemistry, whose main characters are all gay, was rejected by more than 50 agents. While each agent believed the book had merit, their most common excuse for turning it down was that they lacked the “passion” for the subject needed to sell something in today’s tight marketplace. Eventually I gave up on the agent path and started going directly to publishers on my own. When I approached Haworth Press, which at the time specialized in gay fiction, I received a contract on the basis of 50 pages.
I can’t exactly blame the literary establishment. Publishing is a business, after all. The hesitation to publish gay-themed books is based on the assumption that the majority of straight readers won’t be interested. While gay people have been reading about them for years, with little complaint, straight people are evidently less willing to return the favor.
The irony is that even my savior, Haworth, surrendered to market pressure a year or so later, when they canceled the imprint under which they had published Chemistry — not because it was gay, but because it was fiction. In a culture obsessed with “reality” TV and memoir, the market for works that dare to admit they’re made up grows ever smaller. But that’s another, much sadder topic, suitable for an entirely different essay. For now, suffice it to say that I was fortunate to have Chemistry picked up by Lethe Press, which this year also published my second novel, The Heart’s History. (And yes, that one’s about gay people too.)
Several years ago, when my first short story was published, my late father couldn’t make it beyond the first paragraph. Dad just couldn’t get past the opening image of two men in bed, so he never even reached the heart of the story. And neither, he implied, would anyone else who hadn’t already lived that scene for himself.
After my father’s awkward reaction to that first story, I put my writing into the closet, at least as far as my family was concerned. I kept writing, and I kept writing on gay subjects — because that’s what I know, that’s my truth — but I never shared it with them. And on those rare occasions when I managed to get something published, I didn’t tell them. They knew I was gay, and they knew I was a writer — but because I lived 3,000 miles away and because nothing I wrote ever found its way into a publication they were likely to read, my parents were quite safe from having to face either of those facts.
Skip forward a bit: same situation, different set of characters. When my second story was accepted by a magazine — a gay magazine — my boyfriend at the time came over with a bottle of champagne to celebrate. After toasting my success, he sat back and, still smiling, ventured a suggestion. “Why don’t you write a story,” he said, pausing with an odd mix of anxiety and suspense, “for the mainstream?”
My political hackles were immediately raised. Was this a conspiracy? Had my parents gotten to him? What was the mainstream, anyway, and what did it have to do with literature? Was I supposed to write for some idealized middle America — a husband and wife with 2.4 children and a white picket fence? What’s wrong with putting my real life on the page? Nobody tells Toni Morrison to write about white people.
But I knew what he meant. He was thinking about my career. If I were to make it as a writer, he thought, I’d need to appeal to a larger audience — that elusive “mainstream.” And at least in his worldview, the mainstream doesn’t want to read about us marginalized types — me and Toni Morrison. The mainstream wants to read about ... the mainstream.
My boyfriend’s advice was the artistic version of the cliché that every parent seems to use when you come out of the closet: “I accept you, dear; I just worry about the reaction of other people.”
In Tom’s ever-so-practical opinion, the solution to my career woes was to write about straight people. After all, he suggested, homosexuality was really just a backdrop for my work; it wasn’t the overriding theme. If my themes were universal, couldn’t I explore them through stories about heterosexuals? Why risk antagonizing 90% of the population and thereby immediately reduce my potential readership? There goes all hope of the New York Times best-seller list, not to mention a window display at Barnes & Noble.