Sunday, August 7, 2016

Making Honest Men of Us

The Blogger Formerly Known As IOZ linked to a bizarre essay on gay fiction at the Guardian.  Maybe "bizarre" is too strong: the piece exhibits the same highly selective sense of history that so many gay people cling to, but I still cling to the hope that people will learn.  It seems they never do.

The Guardian titled the piece "It's time fiction reflected gay married life," and that's largely what the writer, Matthew Griffin, is calling for.  After reading At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill's fine novel of teen love during the Irish uprising of a century ago, Griffin says,
... I wanted to know what it was like for one man to love another – beyond initial attraction, beyond the passion of youth. At 18, I probably shouldn’t have been so worried about such things, but I’d read a lot of fantasy novels as a kid which ingrained in me a need for love to endure. I’d seen my parents’ marriage do this, but I needed to know if such a thing was possible for me, even if I’d have to call it by another name. And I needed to know what it would cost.

The gay literature I read in the years after that never quite answered my questions. Much of it is rooted not in the drama of long-term relationships but in the sharp pang of sex, in the search for love in immediate beauty and physical pleasure, often moving from one object of desire to another in quick succession.
As examples Griffin cites Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, and (mystifyingly) Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, which was just published this year and could hardly have disappointed the teenaged Griffin.

Apparently determined not to miss a cliche, Griffin continues:
But the tremendous swell that pushed the marriage equality movement forward is evidence that many gay men want more than a life of sexual freedom and excitement – we want love and commitment and stability, even if we may not all want them in the particular forms our heterosexual friends have created.
He sums up:
Long-term commitment is now a real possibility. This changes the experience of desire, shifting our expectations and the meaning we attach to it. Our literature should account for this.
At least Griffin is clear that by "marriage" he's not referring only to state-recognized liaisons, but to all committed, long-term relations.  But how naive must you be to believe that legalizing same-sex marriage suddenly makes "long-term commitment ... a real possibility"?  On one hand, it was always a real possibility, even in the primitive 1980s; on the other, marriage offers no guarantee that the commitment will last.

One commenter on the article remarked, "You want a book to reflect a particular story, you write it."  Though it's mentioned only as the biographical blurb at the end, Griffin seems to have done just that: his first novel, Hide, will be published next week.  From the description, I'm not sure he's complied with his own requirements and strictures.  That same commenter added, "Literature does not have any kind of responsibility to reflect society, either real or ideal."

I agree with that, but my main criticism is that Griffin's complaint is unfounded.  The key word, I suppose, is "much of it."  True, much gay male fiction has been about "the sharp pang of sex, in the search for love in immediate beauty and physical pleasure, often moving from one object of desire to another in quick succession," but much of it has not.  (And it's not as if "much" heterosexual fiction weren't about the single life, or about courtship ending with the wedding, or about marriages cut short by failure -- the novel of adultery is common -- or tragedy.)  Much gay fiction has been about "the drama of long-term relationships," so much that I hardly know where to begin.  Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels, for example.  Michael Cunningham's Flesh and Blood and A Home at the End of the World.  Robert Ferro's The Family of Max Desir.  Christopher Bram's debut Surprising Myself is about a male couple, as are several of his later novels.  Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner.  Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Catch Trap.  Alan Hollinghurst's The Spell, even if it gave John Updike the vapors.  Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man is about widowerhood, so it probably wouldn't satisfy Griffin, but the dead partner is still present in his absence, throughout the story, and that too is a lesson about the drama of long-term relationships.  I recently read Paul Russell's Immaculate Blue, which is about a male couple's wedding, but it addresses the matters Griffin says he wants fiction to cover; besides, the couple in question were Living in Sin for years before they tied the knot, so they've already been living the long-term drama.  Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders follows a male couple over several decades together, and it's a reminder that long-term coupledom doesn't necessarily exclude sexual freedom and excitement at the same time.  Hell, if we don't limit the list to prose fiction, there's James Merrill's epic poem of life, death, afterlife, and Ouija boards, The Changing Light at Sandover.  Those are just off the top of my head, and I didn't even include lesbian fiction.  If I went over my bookshelves I could list quite a few more.  None of them are what you, or at least what I would call obscure.

So, my first and major objection is that Griffin misrepresents the current and past state of gay male fiction.  The kind of story he demands is and has always been told in some gay fiction; he has, of course, no right to demand that all gay fiction do it.  (I admit that he didn't quite demand that, but then it's not clear what he really was demanding, aside from the actual state of contemporary gay fiction.  Some of the commenters saw the piece as a ploy to promote his own novel, but I don't think so, partly because he doesn't mention it and mainly because the misrepresentation he makes is a staple of pop criticism.  Some of the commenters noticed the falsity of his complaint (at least one, perhaps out of a desire to sell his own kind of fiction, confused stories about marriage with boy-meets-boy romance), but most of them swallowed it whole, and I don't think they were selling anything.

My second objection starts from Griffin's desire to know more about the reality of long-term relationships.  I share that desire, but you won't learn what it's "like for one man to love another" from fiction.  Readers who believe that prose fiction or any other medium will give them reliable information about life will soon be disappointed.  Fiction uses real life as one of its raw materials, but writers aren't bound to depict real life accurately, and they don't.  It's at least arguable that depicting reality isn't what art of any kind is for.  (What it is for is another question, which has no single answer.)  Even when a novel describes a marriage, the description is not an end but a means to whatever artistic end the author is trying for.

If someone wants insight into the process of living for a lifetime with another person, nonfiction is probably a better resource, though it has its own limitations.  We have numerous autobiographical accounts of same-sex marriages, from Jesse Green's The Velveteen Father to Paul Monette's Borrowed Time to Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast to Fenton Johnson's Geography of the Heart.  We have the published diaries of coupled writers -- if Griffin wants an account of the process of two men building a life together, he could read Christopher Isherwood's diaries, which cover most of his thirty-odd years with Don Bachardy.  We have reasonably reliable non-homophobic, un-closeted biographies of gay writers, artists, and other notables who lived in long-term partnerships.  There are also research studies of male couples, starting in the Eighties with Charles Silverstein's Man to Man and David P. McWhirter and Andrew Mattison's The Male Couple, and self-help tomes like Eric Marcus's Male Couple's Guide: Finding a Man, Making a Home, Building a Life.  In sum, fiction and non-fiction already reflect married life, so why is Matthew Griffin unaware of it?