This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we'll feature intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discuss everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.
Our first featured conversation was between Violet Quill members Edmund White and Felice Picano.
Today, we're featuring Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn, both novelists and co-hosts of "The Dinner Party Show," an internet radio show launching later this year.
Rice published four New York Times best-selling novels by the age of thirty, and was a contributing columnist to The Advocate for six years. He received a Lambda Literary Award for his second novel, "The Snow Garden." He is currently at work on his first supernatural horror novel.
Eric Shaw Quinn grew up in and escaped from small towns throughout the South. His is the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Say Uncle," and together with superstar Pamela Anderson, he penned the novels "Star" and "Starstruck."
Below Rice and Quinn discuss gay sensibilities when writing, "straight acting" gay men, the limitations of the "gay literature" label and more.
Christopher: Mr. Quinn, you are gay and a writer. Why?
Eric: Why are you talking to me like this? We've been friends for ten years.
Christopher: You said you wouldn't be difficult today.
Eric: You haven't even told me what we're doing. How can I be difficult?
Christopher: The Huffington Post has asked us to have a conversation for their Gay Voices section --
Eric: Well, we both have gay voices so that's a good idea. Are you recording us?
Christopher: Yes, but the recording will be turned into a written transcript, which will be heavily edited to make us both sound thinner and more tan.
Eric: Excellent. I haven't started my holiday diet yet.
Christopher: I'm guessing what they'd like us to do is have a very dense, largely theoretical exchange about the entire notion of queer literature in general.
Eric: Oh. Do I have to stay awake for it?
Christopher: No, you don't. I'll be happy to take over and have you say all sorts of glowing things about what an inspiration I've been to you and the tremendous impact I've had on your work.
Eric: I'm awake.
Christopher: Great. In all seriousness, I thought we could talk about how we define a "gay book" and how we define the term "gay writer"... if we can define them at all.
Eric: Well, the great challenge to the gay community in coming together has been that we are ten percent of everyone. We are ten percent of Republicans. We are ten percent of Catholics, ten percent of black people, and ten percent of Jews, Arabs and so on. So for all those groups to come together as a community we must first overcome all of the barriers that separate all cultural groups in the entire world. And that's virtually...
Eric: Well, I don't know if it's impossible but it certainly hasn't been achieved yet by the rest of the world. For instance, I can't imagine that my first novel, "Say Uncle," which is about a gay man from South Carolina who gets custody of his nephew, would be all that relatable to an Iranian or Arab gay person. The only thing I share in common with all other gay people is my sexuality. So how can one book appeal to all gay people when we're broken up into so many smaller groups? In fact, the only work that could meet this requirement would seem to be pornography because it's focused entirely on sexuality, and sexuality is the only thing all gay people have in common.
Christopher: I also think, though, that stories in which the main character is being actively persecuted on the basis of his or her sexuality can achieve this end. Your novel "Say Uncle," for instance, opens with a gay man being taken to court by his deceased sister's homophobic in-laws because they're trying to prevent him from getting custody of his nephew. The same was true with my first novel, "A Density of Souls" -- Stephen, the main character, was being bullied, ostracized and even sexually abused on the basis of his sexuality.
Eric: Right, you're talking about shared experiences between gay people. But if we talk about those, we inevitably end up discussing experiences gay people share with people who aren't gay. We start talking about people. Getting back to the ten percent thing, gay people are probably only ten percent of those folks whose in-laws are trying to take away their baby, whatever their reason. I think the commonality to look for here, the thread that might tie all gay writers and their work together is really perspective. More specifically, a unique perspective gay writers might have which comes through no matter what they're writing about.
Christopher: The perspective of the outsider? A lot of people use the term queer literature to describe that position.
Eric: Sexually marginalized. Or "sexual suspects," as John Irving would say. That's the name of Jenny Field's book in "The World According To Garp."
Eric: Can I be divorced from my gay sensibility when I'm not writing about gay characters? Maybe not.
Christopher: That's what I'm dealing with right now with my novel "The Heavens Rise." One of the major characters is gay but his experience in the novel... he's not dealing with sexual persecution. It's not about his romantic life. It's about him trying to unravel the mystery of his straight friend's disappearance, which he believes to have been a murder. And it's about his current friendships. So does his simple presence in the narrative make the whole affair a "gay novel"? Is everything he sees or relates to the reader going to be colored by my own perceptions of myself as living outside of the mainstream?
Eric: I've heard it posited that the predominance of gay writers who work in television gives almost all of television a kind of gay sensibility, even though the subject matter might not be gay at all.
Christopher: Well, we can't discuss this topic without exploring the tremendous anxiety that comes up in writers around this issue because they feel like it imprisons them in the marketplace.
Eric: Well, it's the label that does the harm, not the perspective. Is Somerset Maugham labeled a gay writer? Is Oscar Wilde? Are any of the other gay or likely gay writers? Have they been re-branded in this marketplace as gay writers?
Christopher: OK. But what about more recent novels, where the label has been applied and it seems to have taken to great effect. "Dancer From The Dance," for instance, by Andrew Holleran. You and I both read it recently and we both loved it. Are we willing to call that a gay novel?
Eric: Honestly, at this point, it's almost historical. It's also a fascinating character study. And yes, it's about gay characters and written by a gay author so it has the bi-fecta if you will …
Eric: ...but I really don't know. To be honest with you, I've just never liked the label at all. When "Say Uncle" came out, I told my editors, "This book is about family. And the gay family is just one of many households that are being put up side by side in this book."
Christopher: An example you and I bring up all the time is the matter-of-factness around the character of Kevin's sexuality on the TV show "Brothers & Sisters." The entire series wasn't about his family reacting to him being gay. He was just part of the group and he received equal time.
Eric: I loved that! They didn't marginalize what it is to be gay. They didn't say, "The experience of gay people is completely and entirely separate from that of straight people." I'm a member of this family just like each of you, but I add a certain spice to this blend.
Christopher: Matter-of-factness, and integration. Right. But getting back to the gay books. Is the gay book label just a warning to straight people? Is it really just a description of a certain straight reader who might be blocked by the presence of a gay character or a gay storyline? Is it just a way of saying some straight people will be too distracted and challenged by their reactions to these elements to experience the full range of your work?
Eric: I don't know. I think it's mostly about marketing, to be honest with you. I mean, when gay literature first exploded onto the scene, there was a benefit to the label because of the shock value of it. But now it's this left over marketing term that's lost its value. The response I get from publishing to some of my work has been based on a reaction to how ineffectual the label has become, as opposed to what I've actually written. They say, "Oh, that category's not selling anymore so I'm not even going to consider the content of your book." Especially in regards to the historical novel I wrote recently, which draws on the Bible and has incredibly topical and controversial stuff in it. The manuscript was just dismissed out of hand by many because it's a "gay book" and "gay books aren't selling anymore." Look at what's happening with young adult novels. There was an article this week in Entertainment Weekly about the YA craze. Now, suddenly everything is YA because that's what's selling. So are we going to go back and re-classify "Oliver Twist" and "Nancy Drew" as YA novels and re-issue them accordingly? You're a greater reader of YA novels than I am. Would you say those classic books have much in common with today's YA hits?
Christopher: They don't at all. In fact, most of the YA novels that are succeeding currently are paranormal or dystopian Sci-Fi. They're more connected to adult suspense fiction than Charles Dickens.
Eric: Right. Then wouldn't it be just as disingenuous to go back and re-classify "Brideshead Revisited" and Somerset Maugham's work with a marketing label invented to sell more contemporary books about gay lives that were popular in the 1980's?
Christopher: Maybe so.
Eric: But ironically, I see a new benefit for the label now that the entire marketplace is changing so dramatically. When a book is tagged with the gay label now, that makes it easier to find in cyberspace, where more book sales are happening all the time. So maybe as a marketing term, it will regain some of its use.
Christopher: What I hear you saying is that the gay fiction label comes with a bunch of limitations. But gay perspective is rich and rewarding and full of possibilities for a writer.
Eric: Yes, but I'd be reluctant to define gay sensibility too strictly. In each case, it would include and be informed by an individual's personal background. My gay sensibility is informed by my growing up in the segregation-era South before the advent of AIDS. Because an enormous portion of my peer group was dead by the time I was thirty years old, my feelings around death are probably dramatically different than those of my mother, for instance. And that would be a part my gay sensibility. But it certainly wouldn't be yours.
Christopher: Because I am much, much, much younger than you.
Christopher: So our origin stories are changing and so our perspectives once we mature are diversifying. That's what I hear you saying. We are currently the civil rights issue of our age, but people are engaging the issue of gay rights in a way that they weren't just ten years ago. As homophobic as their policies may be, every Republican candidate for the presidential nomination right now has been pressured to utter some version of I respect gay people or I have gay friends or If I had a gay son, I would love him, even as they come out against gay marriage. That alone is proof that there's been a tremendous advance over where we were a decade ago. So a gay writer who's just a little bit younger than me won't depict anti-gay bigotry in exactly the same way. Their coming of age story will be different than yours or mine. But I'm very resistant to this idea that as we gain acceptance, we lose our gay perspective entirely. Or that we're all being replaced by straight-acting gays. When the reality is that there are straight-acting gays, and gay-acting gays ---
Eric: I just hate that concept! I just think that is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.
Christopher: Straight acting?
Eric: Yes. Straight acting! Really? So you have sex with someone of the opposite sex? Because that's really the only definition of straight acting there is! How can you be a straight acting gay man if you're having sex with men? I'll tone it down for our gentle readers here, but if you're having oral sex with another man, then straight acting is over. Because I know plenty of straight men who are way more effeminate than many of the gay men I know. What people are describing when they say that is the degree of feminine characteristics in a man, which has nothing to do with straight or gay. Unless you consider Pamela Anderson --
Christopher: -- who you wrote two books with.
Eric: I did. Thanks for the plug. So Pamela, as many of us know, was famously depicted having oral sex with a man and she's straight. So if I, a man, have oral sex with other men, I'm acting like Pamela Anderson. Does that make me straight acting? That's the insanity of that notion. And on that note, the books I wrote with Pam were incredibly sexual and incredibly heterosexual, and I wrote them. So are they gay books? Or are they mainstream books? They were certainly treated as mainstream books.
Christopher: Just the term mainstream can be a lightning rod for a lot of gay people. There's great fear about gay people becoming too mainstream. But I've always thought the term mainstreaming doesn't necessarily mean that we lose our unique sensibilities; it means our sensibilities become included in what everyone considers mainstream.
Eric: This is the next big challenge for the gay community. We saw it in West Hollywood politics in the last city council election. There are certain members of the community who have succeeded in what is essentially a second-class, sexually segregated subculture who do not want to have to compete in the bigger pond.
Christopher: Succeeding on your merits as a decent human being as opposed to just your sexual desirability -- is that what you mean?
Eric: Yes. Your number of sexual conquests may be a great source of validation in a second-class sexual subculture, but they're not considered the same marker of success once you get outside of that subculture. There's nothing wrong with having a lot of sex. It shouldn't be a big deal at all. But once you enter the mainstream, it stops having the same value that it would in a world no bigger than a dark bar. Outside, the questions become, what kind of friend are you? What kind of employer are you? Are you good to your employees? Are you intelligent and well educated? Are you contributing to the world at large? As opposed to, do you look hot in a Speedo? Can you always pickup at the gay bar on Saturday night? Those things are great, but they're not the same values in the real world; they are only values in the roach motel. In the recent city council elections here in West Hollywood, I learned that the idea that we had become a destination for families -- even our own gay families -- terrified large segments of the community. I was stunned. Suddenly, after years of people driving around West Hollywood with bumper stickers that said HATE IS NOT A FAMILY VALUE, my gay neighbors were screaming, "I don't want to be overrun by family values." As if it were preferable to be banished from the entire concept of actually being a family. Or having one. I think the question the community is going to have to face is: "Do we want a place at the table or do we want a separate table?"
Christopher: So what does that mean for our writing?
Eric: I think it's a rich vein for writers to mine. The conflict will be less with the world at large. The real fight will be inside of the community.
Christopher: I've been saying that for a while now. And I really do feel like, after my first novel, I shifted from gays-against-the-world to gays-against-gays, particularly in my third book, "Light Before Day", and boy-oh-boy, did I get some negative responses! When the hero was gay, and all of the villains were gay too, some of my readers got downright hostile with me. But I love exploring the internal struggles, the strife inside of the community, because I am at heart, in love with the libertarian idea that we can police ourselves when it comes to certain issues. I don't think all the progress LGBT people need to make can be accomplished in that way, certainly not when it comes to marriage equality. But I think a big chunk of it can, more than most of us assume. But in terms of writing, it's very possible to have a gay villain without making their gayness the source of their villainy.
Eric: Right, well, you've brought us back to the idea that sexuality is just one aspect of a character. It's the same problem with trying to define a writer as a gay writer; it's a very narrow band of information. To reduce a character to just one characteristic is very limiting, so why would we treat a novel in the same way. It would be like saying "Is this a blue-eyed novel or a blonde novel?"
Christopher: Exactly. Well, Eric. Thanks for staying awake.
Eric: Sure. And remember you promised to edit this to make me sound more tan.
Christopher: What kind of tan? Real tan, or spray tan?
Eric: Now you're just being difficult.
Christopher: After all, being tan is just one aspect of your overall personality. So to define you as a tan writer would be a very limiting way of --
Eric: Get out.