Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Novel Yet Written

After New York's decision to legalize gay marriage last week, I put a call out here and on Twitter for some good novels about long-term gay relationships, something that really rolled around in the kind history, silences, bonds, and complications that arise in a multi-decade relationship (I was thinking then of something along the lines of Ford's The Good Solider or Salter's Light Years).

And while many excellent books were suggested, nothing really fit the bill. The three most recommended were Isherwood's A Single Man, Cheever's The Falconer, and Proulx's short-story, "Brokeback Mountain." Like I said, all exceedingly fine novels and would recommend them all.

But these are not books about domesticity, in fact they are quite the opposite. They are about loss, forced proximity, and separation respectively. What I am looking for is the chronicle of a life lived together, with all that entails. Perhaps such a book exists, but a few hundred lit nerds had a hard time naming it, which is telling in itself.

Then The New Republic suggested that a desire to see such a fully-formed representation of life-long intimacy might be misguided: does feel a little reductionist to complain about the lack of great fictional gay love. For to do so suggests that there’s something essentially different about love between people of the same sex that can’t be communicated—even metaphorically—through a depiction of a heterosexual relationship. And that runs counter to the equality movement’s resounding and resonant argument that homosexual love is no different in kind from heterosexual love, and ought to be legally recognized in the same way. This is a truth that by now feels self-evident. As a straight woman, my only access to homosexuality is imaginative, through the medium of art. In the best of these works, it’s the idea of love that is paramount, not the particulars of who does what to whom.
(Hat tip to Bibilographing via Book Lady's Blog for pointing this out)

This it seems to me is a necessary, if misguided, point. First, while Franklin wonders if it is "reductionist" to posit a difference between homosexual love and heterosexual love, she fails to see that the deeper reductionism happens when she suggests that "the idea of love" transcends cultural differences of all types. Using the same logic, we might suggest no man need ever write about say, parenthood, because there are plenty of books about motherhood and isn't it all just parenting anyway? Or we don't need any representations of Asian-American life because we have plenty of fine African American novels. 

I am exaggerating for effect here, but my point is that in arguing for sameness, even if toward a just end, we push aside the real possibility of difference. I can't imagine, for example, that something isn't lost in transposing a gay relationship onto heterosexual characters. For example, how does a heterosexual have any access to understanding the kinds of social pressure that would have been exerted on a committed gay couple over the last 30 or so years? What does that do to a couple? Does it make their relationship stronger? More intimate? More fragile and in need of protecting? I have no idea, but I would guess that a skilled writer would want the full warrant of representing such a relationship, without a fictional beard of heterosexuality. 

There are other reasons fully-realized gay romances should not be cloaked or otherwise transfigured. If the culture wars of the last 40 years have taught us anything, it is that representation matters. To see yourself in the news, in art, in politics, and in power is irreplaceable. My own interest aside, sophisticated, complicated, and diverse representations of gay love would make a difference in how our culture thinks about gay people. 

They don't have to be the same. Gay relationships don't have to map onto heterosexual relationships. Arguments based on sameness are effective rhetorically, but they are not arguing for true tolerance, tolerance that can accept and withstand even real difference. 

Maybe it would be the case that artistic representations of long-term gay relationships would look and feel largely the same as those of heterosexual relationships, though I doubt it. Maybe such depictions would give as another way of understanding, to quote Carver, "what we talk about when we talk about love."

But without those stories, we simply don't know.


  1. The only long term gay relationship with all the ups and downs I can think of right now is the relationship between the gay chefs in Poppy Z. Brite's mystery fiction series, the liquor books, as they are affectionately called. The first book is called Liquor and the chefs create a restaurant where liquor is in every recipe, which has nothing to do with the murders/mystery and everything to do with the two chefs. Theirs is a very long term relationship.

  2. This was a powerfully moving post, and a fair answer to the article in New Republic. Thanks for posting.

  3. I think the mystery genre is pioneering this issue right now.  "Mainstream" gay/lesbian fiction was focused on coming out stories then on AIDS for many years.  The great literary gay domestic novel is yet to be written.  

    We saw what it might be like on "Six Feet Under" which featured two men in a long term relationship during the course of the show's five or six seasons.  We even got a glimpse of their future in the show's final episode.  We're seeing it now on Modern Family.    Terrance McNally's play Love, Valour, Compassion has at least one couple in a long term relationship among its ensemble cast.  But I can't think of a novel that fits the bill.

    Thanks for bring this topic up.  I wonder if the novel you're looking for is soon to appear, now that so many of us are settling down to married domesticity.

  4. Wuthering ExpectationsJune 30, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    Why was Alan Hollinghurst dismissed?  Why is it meaningful that none of 16 commenters mentioned Edmund White (see The Married Man, in particular)?  You have read James Baldwin's Another Country, I suppose?

  5. You hit the nail right on the head. Things shouldn't have to be viewed as 'the same' as something we're already familiar with in order to be accepted. The point is to acknowledge the differences and embrace them. Even relationships within similar groups are going to be different. My heterosexual marriage is likely quite different than those of my counterparts. There are so many books about heterosexual relationships represented in so many different ways. When you asked for suggestions for books representing long-term gay relationships, I was really depressed that I couldn't come up with any that really gave you what you were looking for. That was really telling. Thank you for posting this.

  6. I haven't read A Married Man, but it looks like it might be what I am
    looking for. Buying that right now.

    As for Hollinghurst, I've only read A LINE OF BEAUTY and it isn't really a
    candidate. From what I can tell of his other novels, there are many
    interesting relationships, but not any that fit the profile I am interested
    in. And I have read ANOTHER COUNTRY, but again, the relationships there
    don't quite fit either.

  7. Wuthering ExpectationsJune 30, 2011 at 11:50 AM

    Why does the French section of  Another Country not fit?  It is entirely domestic.  Is it your arbitrary "entirely about" rule?

    Or is it the multi-decade rule?  A Married Man may not meet that arbitrary criterion, either.  

    Did anyone mention a single lesbian work - Alison Bechdel, etc.?

  8. *fistpump* great, great post. I'll go in with jamesbchester and say recent tv contains a few long term gay relationships (the US version of Queer as Folk could be added to his list).

  9. Yes. I want a full-length treatment. I don't know if that's arbitrary or
    not; I think a long-term relationship is hard enough to capture in 300
    pages. Shorter treatments always seem slight and incomplete.

    There was some talk on Twitter about considering ORLANDO by Woolf, though
    the qualifications abound there as well. I've read Alison Bechdel, but
    another of my arbitrary qualities is that this be prose fiction.

  10. I saw your tweet but couldn't think of anything that I would consider under those yes, somewhat arbitrary guidelines. The long-term gay relationships I can think of in the few books that came to mind were tangential to any main story line.

    I won't address the article because you do so very well, but I will say regardless of what they seem to feel about long-term gay relationships in literature, if there are none, or if they always take a back seat to hetero relationships, then aren't we prizing heterosexuality and not "love" as an abstract idea? I'd argue "yes," which is why I think it's troublesome.

    However, I would also argue that as an American I am woefully uninformed on translations, though I do seek them out. And indeed, marketing may be partly to blame. There are so many, many books, and we cannot know about them all. Are there books like this out there that simply don't get coverage?

  11. There is also Christopher Isherwood's novel, A Single Man. Although the novel is about the single man, there is a considerable amount about the man with whom he lived for years, their conversations and the protagonist's grief over his partner's death. I found the novel riveting, and I believe that almost all Isherwood's novels focus on homosexual relationships. Sorry, but I haven't read that much about lesbian relationships, as far as I can remember, but there is the relationship between two female characters in Fried Green Tomatoes by Fanny Flagg that drives the plot and focuses on the relations around the two women. Although it is never stated, there is a definite lesbian quality about the unconsummated, if you will, relationship that is central to the novel.

  12. As always, fantastic and thoughtful rebuttal to an... interesting... article. I'd agree with what Picky Girl says especially, about how if love is so universal then why do we only ever see heterosexual relationships and have to infer that gay ones are the same. Shouldn't we see fairly equal numbers? Sadly I have no good recommendations but I hope you find some good ones and post about them!

  13. B @ SubtleMelodramaJuly 1, 2011 at 2:15 PM

    Hmm...that's interesting. Certainly, when I think of homosexual relationships, it's easier to bring things like Jeanette Winterston and Haruki Murakami to mind - that is, the lesbian relationships. I do believe that Zoe Strachan's new book (released 14th July) is about a gay relationship.

  14. You do not exaggerate at all.  This love thing may be the same, that is love between two gay people may bear all the known hallmarks of love between two straight people.  However, the interaction of the gay relationship with society is fundamentally different from the straight relationship's interaction with society.  Afterall, that is why there is a gay struggle for equal human rights.  So no, and like you so rightly point out, there is no  "sameness".  And straight people who are sympathetic to the gay cause must not impose a sameness on everything in our attempt to fight for and promote equality.  This is what makes your query about fictional depictions of long-term gay relationships so interesting.  Because I do not think that the fictional gay relationship landscape is going to look like the fictional straight relationship landscape. Because (and maybe) authors will concentrate on the social and "struggle" aspects of gay love/relationship in society. But like Picky Girl suggests, it might be an issue of marketing. And maybe we are looking at the wrong genre. It's a bit like African literary fiction; even love in African literature is rarely about love.  Your query is certainly several books ahead of its time. That is, if that particular book is ever written.  Or perhaps, one has to piece together the existing narratives (those works suggested to you) to arrive at some idea of an "artistic representation of long-term gay relationship".  BTW, what is this need that some folks have to reduce everything to a Jane Austen novel? Thought-provoking at always.  Thanks. 

  15. I just finished reading David Levithan's adult novel, The Lover's Dictionary, and I was thinking of these posts of yours the whole time. Although it is made clear that the narrator is male, I'm fairly certain that the "lover's" gender is never specified. I think that the book really shows that regardless of gender, relationships, in the long term, go through the same cycles of ebb and flow. However, I am also sure that the kind of novel you are referring to, would add something to the literary landscape.

  16. I was just listening to the Guardian Books Podcast and remembered your post.  Max Schaefer's Children of the Sun sounds particularly good.