Is AIDS Literature Dead?

Does anyone read fiction about AIDS anymore? The years when HIV/AIDS ravaged gay America, with no good treatment or cure in sight, are now over, and with them the decade of remarkable writing by gay men (and those close to us) that chronicled that time. I was in Vancouver in 1996, when the success of antiretrovirals in clinical trials was announced at the International AIDS Conference; we danced in the streets like our parents and grandparents had on V-E day. But the celebration was soon followed by a precipitous decline in the reading audience for the horror we were living through then and, for some of us today still.

The best stories, novels and memoirs about AIDS published in the decade of 1985-95 were written by men who were soon to die of it, insuring their silence. Paul Monette (The Last Night of the Watch), Allen Barnett (The Body and Its Dangers), Christopher Coe (Such Times), David Feinberg (Eighty-Sixed), Bo Huston (Horse and Other Stories): all are gone. Other great writers of those days are alive but have turned, out of frustration with the publishing industry's resistance to AIDS or with the need, post-trauma, to write of other things. Rabih Alameddine (Koolaids: The Art of War), Dale Peck (Martin and John), Geoff Ryman, (Was), Colm Toíbín (The Blackwater Lightship), Sarah Schulman (Rat Bohemia), Andrew Holleran (The Beauty of Men), and so many others are still active but have new themes, as well. For a younger generation of queer writers the theme of the moment is now transgender people, which is thankfully not as necessarily and inevitably as tragic a tale as ours was.

Some good work on AIDS/HIV continues to trickle out, but it is mostly found in anthologies from small presses or, even more ephemerally, on the Internet. Survivors of the worst days, such as publisher and author Jameson Currier (Dancing on the Moon), work hard to keep the catastrophe of the late-20th century before us. But mostly what we see, if anything, are revivals of the repertoire: plays like Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and Tony Kushner's Angels in America, both of which increasingly feel like period pieces, relegated to reruns on late-night cable or performed amateurishly in community theater.

I worried that my own novel about AIDS and gay men in Seattle in the early 1980s, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House (Booktrope Editions, forthcoming), was 30 years too late. Who wants, I thought, to relieve the times before a test, before the drug cocktail, before Truvada? But then again, no one says such things about Holocaust literature, our monuments to the greatest catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century. Our appetite for that seems insatiable. How is AIDS different, when it has claimed even more victims? Perhaps it is because we have not learned this lesson: Retrospection brings with it more insight, and the theme of unaccountable death and dying requires re-examination by generations of writers and readers nowhere near the actual scenes of destruction in neither time nor space. I learned this was true when I was researching Japanese fiction that deals with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Long after 1945, Japanese readers too young to have known the war would use literature to live through the trauma, empathetically, on their own. The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House is the story I want to leave with others about the years when, as Andrew Holleran once put it, New York was "ground zero" for American gay men.

AIDS writing is not dead. It lives on, but in unexpected places. Much of the best AIDS writing has been done by writers neither gay nor male. My students have discovered truth in the poems of Tory Dent ("Black Milk"), a straight woman who died of the disease; Thomas Gunn ("A Blank"), a gay man who died of everything but AIDS, left poems behind that speak clearly to those who watched friends, family and lovers die precisely of that. But AIDS is also where it is not obvious at all. Last month I happened to sit next to Arianna Huffington on a flight from Seattle to JFK. We watched the same inflight movie: Still Alice, the recent film in which a younger woman played by Julianne Moore is diagnosed with early Alzheimer's. Arianna was moved by the film, and so was I. But though I didn't say it aloud, I could not help think that a film in 2014 about a terminal disease and how it takes not only one life away, but those of the family around her, is a film told with a careful sensibility cultivated by three decades of the real-life story of American families similarly destroyed by AIDS. This is how it will play out, I thought: We may not read much about AIDS in future, certainly not once a new plague descends upon us, but what we do read of inexorable death caused by diseases we either fear or do not understand will, for a very long time, be conditioned by the first decade of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. and around the world.

In The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House, a young man sure he is infected with the virus tells an even younger man that the future is unknown but their past is certain. The duty of AIDS writing today has to be record all the details of the past before they are forgotten, willfully or otherwise; and to make clear the lesson that the future is still unknown to us, and may bring things that the remembered horror of the past 30-plus years for gay men will help conquer that future when it is again someone's present.