Saturday, February 26, 2011

What is American gay fiction?

Profiting from the findings of some recent scholarship, we can discern two radically different categories of modern American gay-male fiction.

The first may be termed the Genteel Tradition. Books in this vein have the following characteristics. The writing, though often only fair to middling in quality, follows the conventions of the literary standard, eschewing “taboo” words and colloquialisms. Sexual explicitness is either nonexistent or very rare; in the latter case it is generally disguised by metaphor or indirection. Attitudes towards same-sex love are rarely enthusiastic, though they may be mildly approving or neutral. Books in the Genteel Tradition generally appeared in hardback, issued by respectable mainstream publishers. Paperback versions, if any, appeared later.

For a long time bien-pensant opinion held (and largely still holds) that this is the ONLY tradition worthy of notice. But there is an alternative strand.

That other tradition comprises the Pulps. These books were carelessly written and often poorly edited, if edited at all, They appeared in cheap, poorly printed editions. Usually described in blunt street language, sex is omnipresent. While the settings may be tawdry, the approach is frankly hedonistic. Sex is good, and the more we get of it the better. Most of these works, of course, first appeared before the inception of AIDS in 1981.

As I have noted, for a long time, the pulps were not considered literature at all, but recent studies by Michael Bronski, Drewey Wayne Gunn, Susan Stryker and others have made a serious case for them In his 1982 bibliography (see REFERENCES below), Ian Young included many of these items (anticipating a unified field theory, which remains hard to achieve).

1. The Genteel Tradition

At the outset stands a certain body of veiled or ambiguous work by such writers as Herman Melville, Henry James, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Bayard Taylor. Yet James B. Levin, a leading authority on the subject, holds that A Marriage Before Zero (1889), by Alan Dale (pseudonym of Alfred J. Cohen). ranks as the first real American gay novel. The novel portrays the plight of a naive young woman who rashly weds a gay man; he refuses to consummate their union and carries on with another man.

Reflecting the difficulties of publishing on gay themes, the following two specimens by Prime-Stevens and Fuller were (and remain) obscure. Stemming from the first decade of the twentieth century is Imre: A Memorandum (1906) by Edward I. Prime-Stevenson (1868-1942), an expatriate who wrote under the name of "Xavier Mayne." Privately printed at the writer’s behest in Naples, the novel recounts the main character’s passionate friendship with a Hungarian soldier.

The end of World War I presented opportunities for somewhat greater freedom on our native soil. Bertram Cope's Year (1919), by Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929). The novel portrays a young college instructor as he is pursued by several characters, including some women, an older man, and a school friend, who comes to live with Cope in mid-year. Not published abroad, Bertram Cope's Year was nonetheless rejected by every publisher and had to be issued privately at Fuller's own expense.

By contrast Strange Brother (1931) was actually published by a mainstream publisher, Liveright. This novel stems from Blair Niles, a respected woman author and scholar. Portraying a platonic friendship between a heterosexual woman and a gay man in New York City, it looks forward to the current cable television hit “Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.”

In 1933 Mark Scully brought out A Scarlet Pansy. James B. Levin writes: "while giving us a clear picture of the public side of the gay subculture, Scully is also showing that this is a world inhabited only by those men and women who have given up any hope of social acceptance. To his credit he does this with humor and satire." Hugh Hagius has argued that Mark Scully is the pseudonym of Robert McAlmon, a noted author and publisher of the so-called Lost Generation in Paris.

A Lost Generation setting also occurs in Richard Meeker’s The Better Angel (1933). Only in the 1990s did Forman Brown (1901-1996), a noted puppeteer who worked in Los Angeles, identify himself as the author.

After World War II Gore Vidal came forward with his This City and the Pillar of 1949. Much reviled at the time, the novel was also much read. Standing at the opposite pole from the stereotypical sissies of the time, Jim Willard is a tennis ace. The pivotal event of his youth was a single sexual experience with his best friend, Bob Ford. After many travels in the gay world, Willard manages to reconnect with with his friend. But things go badly: the tennis player murders his friend. (Later Vidal modified this ending,)

Quite different is Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964). Written by a transplanted Englishman living in Santa Monica, the narration concerns a writer and professor in Southern California who had enjoyed a rewarding relationship with his male partner, until that partner is killed in an automobile accident. In 2010 many became familiar with the story through the film version starring Colin Firth.

These few typical examples serve to give an idea of what has generally come to be regarded as mainstream gay-male fiction. Today this tradition thrives in the work of such careful writers as Christopher Bram, Michael Cunningham, and Edmund White.

2. The Pulps

The countertradition reflects a curious union--the not-so-mystical marriage of Paris and Tijuana.

The Parisian connection derives from Obelisk Press and its successor Olympia. The British writer Jack Kahane founded Obelisk in Paris in 1929. Kahane took advantage of the fact that English-language books published in France were not subject to censorship. His list mingled smut and serious work, with the former serving to subsidize the latter. Kahane issued five books by Henry Miller at a time when his novels could not be published in the US or Britain. He also released work by Anis Nin, Cyril Connolly, and Lawrence Durrell. After Kahane died in 1939, the task was taken up by his son Maurice Girodias, who renamed the enterprise Olympia Press. All these books appeared as quality paperbacks, and are not pulps as such.

Much less respectable were the scabrous “Tijuana bibles” (also known as bluesies, eight-pagers, gray-backs, Jiggs-and-Maggie books, jo-jo books, Tillie-and-Mac books, two-by-fours,and fuck books). They enjoyed a clandestine existence in the US from the 1920s to the early 1960s. The typical "bible" is 4 by 6 inches, with black printing on cheap white paper, and eight pages long. Some were illustrated with crude pornographic drawings in comic-book style.

Most were probably run off by mimeograph in basements and garages, but a few were actually produced in the Mexican border town of Tijuana. This location helps to account for the later emergence of nearby San Diego as a place of publication of explicit pulps.

During the mid-sixties a series of legal challenges established the right of American publishers to issue sexually explicit works. At first benefiting writers like Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, these changes unleashed a flood of new erotic work, whose general character was decidedly demotic, not to say pornographic. The bibliographer Tom Norman records thirty gay paperback books published in 1965, but over a hundred in in 1966.

With most of the titles being openly pornographic, they came from small, marginal presses, such as the Guild Press, Greenleaf Classics, and the Gay Parisian Press, rather than from mainstream publishers. Some typical titles are Mad about the Boy by Jon Marsh; Run Little Leather Boy by Larry Townsend; Sherbet and Sodomy by I. V. Ebbing; Summer in Sodom by Edwin Fey; Gay Whore by Jack Love; and When in Rome Do . . . by Phil Andros. Needless to say, all these authors' names are pseudonyms.

There were also more ambitious works, with several related titles appearing in sequence to build reader interest. For example, Victor J. Banis published a series of erotic spy parodies of a popular television show under the general rubric of The Man from C.A.M.P. In a class of its own is the Song of the Loon trilogy, a kind of gay version of The Last of the Mohicans by Richard Amory (Richard Love). Generally well regarded were the Dave Brandstetter mysteries written by Joseph Hansen, a gay activist living in Southern California.

Poorly printed and generally marketed in the one- or two-dollar range, these books were generally discarded by the purchasers after reading. Today some have become rare and fetch good prices. One pulp writer has ruefully mused that a single copy of one of his books now costs more than he was paid for the original manuscript. A few of the more notable titles have been reprinted to meet a growing demand. Some of the purchasers seem to be older men, who wish to recapture the experiences of their youth, but there are new readers as well.

Alongside this popular interest, a kind of scholarly subdiscipline has arisen, recording and reevaluating the pulps. One can sample this scholarship in the excellent collective volume edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction (2009). These new studies challenge the conventional wisdom that the Genteel Tradition ranks as the only form of the gay-male novel worthy of consideration.


Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual Hero in Contemporary Fiction. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs, Merrill, 1977.

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Bosman, Ellen, John P. Bradford, and Robert B. Marks Ridinger. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Literature: a Genre Guide. Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2008. [lists some 1000 items, mostly of popular literature]

Bronski, Michael. Gay Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin Griffin, 2003.

Büssing, Sabine. Of Captive Queens and Holy Panthers: Prison Fiction and Male Homoerotic Experience. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990.

Cardamone, Tom, ed. The Lost Library. New York: Haiduk Press, 2010.

Dynes, Wayne R., and Stephen Donaldson, eds. Homosexual Themes in Literary Studies. New York: Garland, 1992.

Garber, Eric, and Lyn Paleo. Uranian Worlds: A Guide to Alternative Sexuality in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. 2nd ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.

Gunn, Drewey Wayne. The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film: A History and Annotated Biblography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

_______________ ed. The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. Albion, NY: MLR Press, 2009. [centered on the apogee of the pulps, ca. 1966-1980]

Levin, James B. The Gay Novel in America. New York: Garland, 1991.

Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1992.

Norman, Tom. American Gay Erotic Paperbacks: A Bibliography. Burbank, Calif.: Author [?], 1994. [list of 4,471 pulps published between 1954 and 1992]

Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theatre from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1978.

Stryker, Susan. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001.

Young, Ian. The Male Homosexual in Literature: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1982.

__________. Out in Paperback: A Visual History of Gay Pulps. Toronto: Lester, Mason & Begg, 2007.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out the brand new Broadview edition of "Bertram Cope's Year," edited and with an introduction by UCLA professor, Joseph A. Dimuro. This edition contains the original reviews of the novel, passages from Fuller's diaries and other works, and a lost addendum to the novel that was recently discovered at the Newberry Library.

7:02 AM  

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