April 24, 2012

BOOKS: Eminent Outlaws, Christopher Bram (2012)

Here we have a fine overview of gay American literature. To be precise; it's about gay male literature; Bram acknowledges that his focus is specifically on male authors, both because he wanted to narrow the focus, and because he feels less familiar with lesbian literature, which "needs its own historian." As Bram also acknowledges, this is by no means a complete history of gay literature; he focuses on the authors who played the largest roles in the cultural history.

Unlike some books of this kind, Bram's survey does not focus only on novelists. And how could it? You can't tell the story of gay literature in America without including the playwrights -- Williams, Albee, Crowley, Kushner -- or the poets -- Ginsberg, O'Hara, Merrill, Doty.

But of course, we get the novelists as well. The opening chapters focus on writers like Truman Capote, Christopher Isherwood, and James Baldwin, who were writing before there was such a thing as gay literature.

Bram's story progresses through the beginnings of the gay rights movement to 1978, which he calls "the annus mirabilis of gay fiction," when four major novels were published: Edmund White's Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Larry Kramer's Faggots, Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance, and Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City.

(And my god, how wonderful it is to read someone who takes Maupin seriously as a writer instead of dismissing him as a mere purveyor of fluff. Bram gives Maupin the full credit he deserves for the depth of his characterizations, his nimble plotting, and his gift for dialogue. And he makes a strong enough case for The Night Listener as Maupin's best work that I'm tempted to go back and read it again.)

Bram tracks the effects of AIDS on gay literature in the 80s, and the way that the field changed after the mid-90s, as the disease became more manageable as a chronic condition and less of a death sentence.

And through it all, there's Gore Vidal, whose 1948 The City and the Pillar was among the first American novels about gay people, and who continues to be a significant essayist to this day. He would never accept being identified as a gay author, of course, having always insisted that "there are no homosexual people, only homosexual acts."

Bram is clear in his introduction that he is not attempting to create a canon of essential works or authors. But if you were looking for such a canon, you could do worse than to focus on the works and authors highlighted in Eminent Outlaws. It's a lively history of gay literature, and how it has both changed and been changed by the culture around it.

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