“YOU are beginning a journey, far more bizarre than any excursion up the Nile. You have set foot tonight on a vast, uncharted continent. Do let me take you as far as I can,” whispers Sutherland to a dewey-eyed novice in Andrew Holleran’s gay cult classic Dancer from the Dance as they stand gazing in wonderment not—as one might imagine—at the snows of Kilimanjaro but at the flashing lights and grinding pelvises of that most licentious of fleshpots, a disco somewhere around Ninth and West Thirty-third. He “cock[s] his cigarette holder at a sprightly angle” and continues: “So let us go upriver together as far as we may . . . and remember to ask questions, and notice everything, the orchids and the fruit flies, . . . the ibis that flies across the moon at dusk. Let us go at least as far as the falls. What a journey!”

Indeed. Now let’s be honest. Maybe all of this extreme and utter wickedness, the late hour, the topless men, the boogying in flagrante, is both Africa and Oz to Holleran and to your average reader as well, but to many, Toto, it’s just plain Kansas. With the dozens of small gay presses cropping up everywhere from Connecticut to Wyoming and with an equal number of mainstream commercial publishers duplicating and reduplicating their efforts, “vast” and “uncharted” are misnomers for what may well be minute and well-mapped. When houses like Knopf and New American Library are busy targeting a new readership and hunting down what is—a variety of factors considered—America’s most endangered species, it’s fair to ask whether or not the landscape of this vast, uncharted continent isn’t being cluttered with a few too many Ho Jo’s and Burger Kings and whether its unspoiled wilderness hasn’t even become something of a tourist trap.


IN Men on Men, a new anthology of recent gay fiction, New American Library provides a kind of Club Med in the land of the ibis. George Stambolian, its editor, has gathered short stories and excerpts from novels in progress to give a cross section of various contemporary approaches to homosexuality. Most of these writers are in some way aligned with the gay liberation movement. Their approaches are diverse and resist classification, although in general they reflect an attempt to broaden the discussion of homosexuality and to check the ghettoization of its literature, a surprising feature in light of the fact that fifteen of the eighteen authors represented live in either New York or San Francisco. Here, for example, you will find stories about sex with construction workers, sex with minors, sex with straight Greek men, sex with straight black men, sex with the deaf, along with those about just plain ordinary sex with each other.

If the anthology has any unity at all, it comes from the unlikely source of Michel Foucault. His restless spirit seems to have found its final abode in the minds of the gay intellectual community, from which it periodically issues forth, rattling its chains indiscreetly smack in the middle of many of the anthology’s sex scenes to haunt us with terrifying questions like “What if desire and power take the form of ‘Law’?” and “What if friendship and love are extras tagged onto sexuality to give it a margin of safety, of usefulness based on repressive goals, and the relations between subject and object?”—and this in the middle of something so terribly naughty that it brings a blush to the cheek.

But perhaps the clearest affinity among these otherwise disparate writers (other than their penchant for imported Parisian palaver) is the particular attitude they share towards their reader, an attitude summed up by Stambolian’s assertions in his introduction that in matters of gay fiction he has “the zeal of a missionary for whom nothing is more tempting than a chance to reach new audiences” and that the gay writer’s primary responsibility is to “describe the diverse expressions of gay life.” Reaching an audience, raising consciousness, educating, documenting, “exposing” constitute the implicit agenda for so many gay writers, one that often limits their scope, reducing their fiction to something very much like a tour, a kind of open house, in which readers are invited to clamber off the buses and traipse through the author’s prose like sight-seers. And the writer’s voice itself, shaped to such a large extent by his oppressive sense of responsibility to his audience, by the inescapably public, even civic nature of gay literature, by its extreme lack of literary privacy, is constantly in danger of lapsing into the monotonous cadences of the tour guide intoning the well-rehearsed speech as the various monuments of the subculture fly by past the window. Even when he addresses other gay men, as is invariably the case when he is published by a small gay press, his first impulse is to draw back the curtain on his subject, to exhibit it, to treat it as if it required explication even to those who know this world as well as he does. Gay readers are thus transformed into unwitting and somewhat disingenuous sight-seers of themselves and are led around excitedly to myriad spots of interest—the sandbox, the dog house—in their own backyards.


TWO basic extremes of stylization define the perimeters of gay fiction. Both are essentially forms of tourism—not tourism necessarily in the sense of propaganda, although admittedly many gay writers are skipping like a record on the old party-line of GAY IS GOOD, but tourism in the sense that their artistic shape is determined by a quasi-documentary intention of opening up a window onto a forbidden world, of taking the reader by hand on a walking tour through the faubourgs of Sodom.

Of late, the tour guide par excellence, the reigning queen of the purlieus of the faubourgs, and the near iconic representative of one extreme of gay literature is Andrew Holleran himself. In Dancer from the Dance and the piece anthologized in Men on Men, “Friends at Evening,” he assumes for the subculture the role of the self-appointed court portraitist, by which I mean that all of his works share a basic epic and sociological intention of capturing the image of a whole society. Naturally, a certain amount of distortion is bound to occur when one paints such immense canvases, but this really can’t explain the bizarre cloning of Christopher Street cruising with Barnum and Bailey that throbs in such garish expressionistic colors in his fiction. Characters of extraordinary beauty dash around Manhattan with characters of extraordinary wealth, who are in turn accompanied by characters of extraordinary urbanity and culture, who in turn lead lives of Angst and deep emptiness which in turn lead to fashionable promiscuity, glamorous drug addictions, and chic suicides.

Holleran capitalizes on the perceived exoticism of the subculture, exaggerating its wickedness, its decadence, creating storms of dissipation out of nothing more profligate than a puff of poppers and a Donna Summer song. He is the ultimate master of gay literary tourism, boldly enticing prurient spectators up to the velvet rope and then whooping out, “See the amazing bearded women!” Given that his work is suffused with the self-loathing ideology of the Doomed Queen, her inevitable frustration in love, her enchanting sordidness (coupled with her irrepressible longings to settle down in Scarsdale and play bridge), what is perhaps most astonishing about the whole Holleran phenomenon is the enormous vogue he has enjoyed among gay men themselves. For this is reactionary material, a literature that celebrates gay life with sloppy cartoons of homosexuals as droll eccentrics, quaint grotesques who do nothing more liberated than tie a few brightly colored ribbons to the bars of their cage. With all its glamorizing of a naughty and dangerous decadence, Holleran’s fiction mobilizes armies of gay Uncle Toms.


WHICH may or may not be better than the gay Plain Janes, the mousey demoiselles who, in big pink pom-pom slippers, shamble around cleaning out the closets of the household world of the other extreme of gay fiction. Whereas Holleran exoticizes the subculture, attempting to make it as tantalizingly unfamiliar as possible, the writers of this second most prevalent school, peaceably potting their aspidstras, domesticate it, attempting to make it cozily unthreatening and to induce in the straight reader blinding flashes of deji vu. Moreover, whereas Holleran takes the reader for a walk on the Wildside, the authors of the domestic romance (the genre that, along with pornography, almost exclusively represents the products of the small gay presses) take us on a tour, like those they are said to give in Cuba, of all the nice places and all the nice good gays. Conceived in part as a reaction to the furious hedonism of fiction like Holleran’s, the I-am-a-mouse-and-this-is-my-spouse school details all of the ups and the downs, the happy moments and the sad, the big things and the very, very, very little that go into the meatloaf of the Stable Relationship.

“Before he switched off the light Len noted that Cyril’s nightshirt needed washing,” squeaks Tom Wakefield in his recent Mates, a paradigmatic example of the domestic romance. Earlier in the novel, Len, who wears his heart (as well as his apron) on his sleeve, reports that he treats Cyril’s “underpants with the acceptance of a mother handling a baby’s nappy” and that when he went shopping for vegetables, he recognized that he bore an unmistakable likeness to the onions he purchased: “He resembled them: externally everyday and ordinary, internally rich and individual.” No ibis or vast, uncharted continent here.

Nor in Reunion by another kitchen romancier, N. A. Diaman, whose hero spends much of the novel carefully preparing salads with his paramour or musing over the current issue of Gourmet which he bought “because of the article on San Francisco sourdough bread.” Andrew, the salad-maker, whose fantasies run the gamut from running hand in hand across open fields to running arm in arm along sandy beaches, has conversations with his lover in which they say things like “I’d like us to live together, even buy a house some day” or “Do you think the two of us will stay together?” At times the attempt on the part of these writers to make everything extra-ordinary and normaller than normal creates a distorted, soft-focused image, as if they’d salved the lens of their prose with vase-line; for example, Michael Grumley’s “Life Drawing” (anthologized in Men on Men) in which the hero sees his lover off to work everyday by walking him down the stairs “carrying his little valise.”

The point to be made about this Normal Rockwell side of gay fiction is that its pedestrian texture is not simply an accident of incompetence but a tone that has been deliberately struck. As stylized in its conventionality as Holleran is in his outrageousness, it is the aesthetic outcome of a calculated normalization of homosexual love. Its mediocrity is actually part of a deliberate effort to prove to skeptical heterosexual outsiders, as well as to gay readers, that we do the same things, think the same thoughts, make the same salads, as well as walk the same beaches with the same crashing waves and the same soaring scores.


NOT surprisingly, the ultimate propagandistic moment in this variety of fiction is the act of gay sex itself. It’s here, as the tour guide crowds us all toward the bedroom, that he harangues us most furiously, pointing out all of the ways in which the Goodness, as opposed to the sensuousness, of gay love is being celebrated. Thus, the most private moments in gay novels are also their most public, for it’s here that the writer, at his most pedagogical, his most civic, invites his readers, the tourists, to peek through that keyhole and approve. As the body is refracted through propaganda so that every physical act becomes a moral one, distortions abound, as in the recent Letters from a Great Uncle & Other Stories by Richard Hall, a veteran bedroom tour guide, whose characters “transcend the flesh entirely, bubbling, higher and higher, [their] heads in the stars,” and feel “lust and joy course through [them] in such amounts” that they think their “skin would pop.”

The same kind of exaggerations of the moral import of sex occurs in David Leavitt’s new novel The Lost Language of Cranes, a book that draws on the resources of the two extremes of stylization that  demarcate (not define) the province of contemporary gay literature. Here the furtive anonymity of casual sex and the tea-cozy snugness of the domestic romance coexist in the form of father and son, the former a closeted denizen of Holleran’s lurid demimonde, the latter a liberated seeker of nurturing relationships. Many gay fiction writers often forge a similar kind of morality play from these two aesthetic extremes, a Pilgrim’s Progress that carefully traces their hero’s travels from the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair to the Celestial City, or, mutatis mutandis, from the bathhouse and the disco to the kitchen counter. Typically, the gay protagonist is forced to enroll in the school of hard knocks, a world of glamor, cheap sex, drag queens, drugs, and danger, and then graduate, after a romantic rite of passage, into the world of sourdough bread and the nightshirt that needs washing. It’s a literature caught in limbo between the hell of outlandish grotesques and the heaven of recipes and salads, one twisted and misshapen by its own extreme ideological tensions. In its monotony and its caricaturing of the pleasant and the unpleasant aspects of our lives, contemporary gay literature often makes this particular homosexual malcontent wish in passing that the Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name would—for once—just stop talking.