Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Price Is Right

I finished reading Reynolds Price's memoir Midstream, and there's one other thing I want to vent about.  He argues that human beings need to tell and hear stories, that his own writing "constitute[d] an irresistible expression of an entire family's need and delight", then concedes a "minor third question":
... if the complexity of your experience had left you with an overpowering need to deliver yourself of your written stories, then why did you -- a queer man -- produce stories, long and short, about more conventional men and women -- the kind who married and produced both you and your brother as their immediate offspring?

Since I've spent the remainder of my writing life in deep narrative concern with just such people -- though there are at least queers-in-the-making in my stories from as early as "Troubled Sleep" which I wrote in '58 -- I can affirm that it's been my general desire to write about the kinds of people who comprise the huge majority of the human race, the kinds of people who've likewise been the majority of my kin, friends, and loved ones.  And does it need saying that the greatest homosexual writers have done the same -- the poems of Michelangelo and Auden; the novels of Melville and Proust, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, not to mention the plays of Tennessee Williams among a good many others? [59-60]
I believe that writers don't usually choose their subject matter, it chooses them, so I don't think they have to justify why they write one story rather than another, or about some people rather than others.  In the end what matters is the story.  But when a writer justifies himself in such bad faith as Price exhibits here, I feel an overpowering need to point it out.

First, his exemplars are badly chosen.  Michelangelo wrote many poems about his love for Tommaso Cavalieri.  I don't know how many poems Auden wrote to males, because he generally hid behind the ungendered "you", as in his "Lullaby."  Melville put erotically-charged relations between males into several of his novels, including the explicitly marriage-like bond between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick.  As for Proust, it's absurd of Price to cite him, given the prominence of homosexuality as a subject in the Recherche, including one whole volume, Sodome et Gomorrhe.  Virginia Woolf wrote about heterosexuality and families ambivalently, but she also wrote a novel-as-love-letter to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando.  Forster put queerness into most of his fiction from the start of his career, and it's widely held that the inhibition he felt about making it the central theme led to the writing block of the latter part of his life.  Williams also put queer characters and themes into his plays, and even more in his stories.

Second, one could say of most of these writers that they felt a great need to write about queer characters as well as heterosexuals, a need that led them to strain against the limits that respectability, publishers' hangups, and legal censorship imposed in their day.  Despite his mostly heterosexual subject matter, Williams for example was constantly pilloried by homophobic critics who accused him of putting secret backwards homo messages into his work, as they did with Edward Albee.  Plays with unmistakably gay content had been shut down by the New York police, and queer fiction and poetry had often been banned.  It doesn't make a lot of sense to represent queer writers' focus on heterosexuals as unconstrained choice, especially in the first half of the twentieth century.  Is it coincidence that The Source of Light, the first of Price's novels to feature a gay male interlude, was published only after his mother was dead and he'd gained tenure at Duke?  Maybe so.  But I'm not convinced.

Third, there's a larger artistic issue here.  There's nothing wrong with writing about characters who are like "the huge majority of the human race," though that disingenuous phrase hardly describes white middle-class Southerners.  If that's the kind of people Price felt compelled to tell stories about, then that's the kind of people he should have told stories about.  (I think he equivocates: he started to say in that passage that he felt the need to tell stories about the people he knew, but he decided he had to validate them by claiming them as the majority, which they aren't.  But they don't need to be.  If he admitted that, though, he'd have had to admit the validity of telling stories about queers.)  What constitutes a kind of people depends on where you slice it: heterosexuals probably are a huge majority of humanity; white Americans, not so much.  Price brags about his female characters, especially Rosacoke Mustian, though I was never impressed by them; which reminds me that white heterosexual American males aren't a huge majority of humanity either.  It also seems to me that his gay characters, especially in The Promise of Rest, are carefully held at arm's length, as though the author wants the reader to know that he's not that kind of gay.

Many writers, though, feel an equally compelling need to write about people who aren't the majority, and that's no less valid.  For one thing, as I've often insisted, we are all human, and it's a salutary lesson for many readers to discover the humanity they have in common with people they thought were Other in some way.  Being the weirdo that I am, if I'd refused to read anything but fiction about people like me, I'd be lucky to have read a dozen books in my lifetime.  A lot of likeness is in the eye of the reader anyway: Walt Whitman wrote a good many queer poems, which not a few straight males read and treasured without thinking of them as queer.  Telling stories about your own particularness can be a gift of your humanity to the reader.  Some readers take stories about people unlike them as a door slammed in their faces, but I think they're projecting.  I, and many other readers, take stories by and about people unlike me as an opened door, an opportunity to find out about a larger world than I've known so far, to hear other people's stories.  I don't think Price's fiction is as universal as he evidently wanted to believe; I enjoy his memoirs a bit more, because they have no such pretensions.