Maybe the secret of the fairly high popularity among gay men of this novel is in the publication date, 1986. In fact, I can’t even find a kindle edition of it. Why? Because when gay novels had to be bought in paper format, and, if you dared, read with the cover facing the other passengers on the train or bus, it took some courage to buy them.
I will go back to the publication date, and do a bit of maths…barely thirty years ago. How things have changed in some countries! How much kindle has changed reading habits is hard to say but easy to guess…
A Boy’s Own Story is nothing exceptional: a Bildungsroman of sorts, which portrays a boy discovering he is gay with his experiences on holiday, and clearly accepts his sexuality without much questioning. Where I think Edmund White missed a chance is just here: in 1986, being gay in the UK was still taboo, if not everywhere, at least on the media. Let’s remember that even Boy George, clearly gay now, wasn’t out yet publicly at the time, and his sexuality was only alluded to by his mannerism, and the only public figure who would openly defend gay rights was the one who was meant to become, for good reasons, the greatest gay icon of all time: Queen of Pop Madonna.
Edmund White, I was saying, misses the chance to tap into the emotional turmoil that is discovering that you are gay. Even nowadays, even if you have a supportive family, if you go to a ‘normal’ school (I’d think that things are rather different at Eaton), you still have to face discrimination and bullying, and the horrible feeling of being ‘different’.
Yet White has none of this. What is more, I am not even fully convinced the protagonist enjoys sex with Kevin, and the concluding scene, though politically charged and sensational, is as dry as the Sahara Desert.
The portrayal of sexuality as passionless has, I think, done so much damage to the perception of gay like and identity, as well as to the recent developments of gay literature, especially with the recent boom (and soon to follow bust) of m/m romance, that I believe this novel has been, in some ways, more detrimental than expedient to the gay community.
I read in The New York Times Review that this novel is compared to Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, and I wonder if the reviewer ever read either of the texts: there is nothing more diametrically opposite to Wilde’s heart-rending letter to Andre Gide than White’s novel… Does it make the cut into literature? Just about, more for it’s influence than for it’s literary values.