I have said a few times that there are great authors of gay fiction out there; I think it is fair to draw my ‘short list’ of writers who make gay literature and literature with homoerotic themes great.
This is not a comprehensive list.
How have I selected these living (and writing) authors? I have not done it on the basis of how ‘gay’ they are, in fact, you will see that some of them only touch on sexuality as a theme. I have not done it on the grounds of their popularity, in fact, some are just appearing on the literary scene. I have done it based on their writing qualities, on their ability to create convincing yet innovative stories, on their style, on how courageous they are in ‘pushing literature forward’ and on how I believe, in their different ways, these authors are contributing to the good name of literature with gay themes or characters or books by gay authors.
These are a few authors who buck the trend of ‘disposable’ novels that exploit the recent fascination for gay sexuality to simply sell books. These are authors who write because they love literature, because they are more similar to us readers and enjoy books, thus contribute to developing ways of writing and finding new ways of expressing ourselves and themselves.
These are authors who will stand the test of time, I believe, those that years from now we will be thankful for having read, unlike the many who we will soon forget and shelve in the attic.
The list has no order, the names are given alphabetically: this is not a chart… These authors are not in the silly competition of ‘chart topping’, but in a joint effort to produce good literature.
I shall try to put them in their literary context, not just gay, but mainstream too, and give you an idea of their style and achievements.
So, in alphabetical order…
Both a poet and a novelist, this writer has been the focus of quite a lot of attention recently. We cannot say he is new, as you can find his poetry being published back in 2005, and being a pioneer of the Internet. In fact, on the page count of ‘Between Dreams’, a poem which some regard as a gay classic, I read more than 100,000 readers…
However, he is new to novels, and his first novel, The Road to London continues his journey of experimentation with style and form he started with his poetry, very successfully and creating a unique and ‘hallucinatory’ style in a novel that fuses as remote and improbable elements as music, clubbing, dreams, poetry and art and which has both the vivid colours and flavour of classic literature and the taste and readability of modern fiction.
It appears that most reviewers and critics, as well as readers, have spotted the huge literary potential of this novel: it has been compared to as disparate a classic as Wuthering Heights and The Pilgrim’s Progress, with a plethora of classics in between. What is important, I think, is not so much which classic it resembles, if anything, it resembles all and none, as it is extremely original, but the fact that it is constantly compared to one or more of the great classics we all love. This says a lot. If you read a novel and your first thoughts go to the great classics…well, that does not happen often.
I need to be careful here, as I know the word ‘classic’ can be off putting. When I read the many comparisons to the great, the very top, works of literature, I do not read any implication that this novel is a drag, on the contrary, it seems to appeal to such a wide range of readers, and it is, in many ways, easy to read, surprising and very enjoyable. I think this is the main literary achievement of this author: to make the classics enjoyable and approachable. Even a little quote from scary Ulysses put in the right context, as this novel does, is easily digestible and very meaningful, without having to resort to annotated editions.
The mix of realism and symbolism in the novel creates a beautiful dynamic between reality and dreams, as does the mix between prosaic, sometimes harsh sentences and ‘poetry in prose’. What this novel does to put gay literature on the map? Easy…it simply is great literature, and the fact that the character is gay is, well, fundamental, but tangential.
This, so far less well-known, author plays an important role in mixing metaphor and slang in some of his recent work. There seems to be a trend within gay literature to bring the metaphorical within the reach of the new generation, and this is where John Collins works and the direction towards which his novels pull.
He is an extremely prolific writer, with nigh on 100 works to choose from, but I shall focus on one, as I will for all authors.
Virgin to Life explores the potential of extended metaphors pushing them towards the verge of symbolism, while being an urban gay story, it does not forget the power of words is not in what they say, but what they mean. The language is that of the street, which, in a way, makes it less accessible to many readers, but if a reader only wants to read words he or she knows, then, maybe he or she should not attempt literature at all.
There is, in this novel, a clear intention to talk about universal themes such as growing up and self-discovery through the life of a gay man and his development. Firmly rooted in the Bildungsroman tradition, the literary achievement of this work is to bring such tradition into the contemporary world and into the experience of being gay.
This author has the potential to present the gay experience in a non-stereotypical way, with his use of street language and themes, he represents a reality where gay men are not just either the middle class beaux who dance and shag their lives away in fashionable clothes, nor the improbable shadows of popular legend presented by many m/m books nowadays, rather, he presents a reality where gay men are, in many ways, edactly like many youths of today: frustrated, disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
Robert Dunbar is at the very cutting-edge of experimentation with language, style, form and structure. The first word that comes to my mind when thinking about his extraordinary books is avant garde.
Dunbar is proud of his skills as a writer, and he should be, as he is a very courageous innovator of literature. We, as gay readers, should be honoured to have such a creative and uncompromising author to lead the way into new forms of leaterature. When I say ‘uncompromising’, I mean that it is clear that this great author does not care an iota bout fashion and trends: he writes his own novels, and indisputably his!
The experiments he carries out in each of his novels start at the very root of literature: language itself. So, in Willy, for example, we find a voice slowly getting to grips with the grammar of English, growing as the novel progresses, starting with an incident which at first appears to be insignificant, a graze to the knee, and growing into something much more serious and sinister.
The novel is for me a reflection on how little things that may seem to be irrelevant at first, can in reality influence out life. A quirk of birth, an episode as a child… Being born…well, gay, for example…
Where does he place himself in terms of the literary tradition? Some may see him as a post-modernist, but I would disagree: I feel he is much more along the path of deconstructing Modernism itself. He follows Joyce but he disagrees with him, clearly, in the way literature should lead readers along the path and not throw obstacles into the reader’s journey.
To even be able to argue, in a literary way, with the Great Master of All Modern Literature is an achievement in itself, and we should be, as I have said, extremely proud to have a trail-blazer such as Dunbar writing today.
Fischer is an established author, and has done a lot for the gay community, even if his writings do not necessarily focus on the gay experience. And there is nothing wrong with it! In fact, I see Fischer as (a bit) the contemporary E.M. Forster. Why? For him, homosexuality is one of the many themes he can write about with great ease and accomplishment. His novels demonstrate that he can virtually choose any topic and different genres and give us an original and innovative perspective on them.
Like other writers on this list, he was not born in an English-speaking country, which again, suggests the pattern that Post-Colonialism has penetrated deep into the roots of gay literature. In fact, he was born on the borders with Austria. There is a general trend of excellent European writers who have appropriated the English language much more skilfully than many UK authors and have made it their own favourite expressive medium. Fischer is a leading figure of this trend. I see this as a homage, as an honour, from the point of view of a British (Welsh) critic: English, through our volition, has become the lingua Franca of the world, and our literature must be the literature of the world, which does not mean telling the world what we Brits want to say, but sharing the same literary platform.
The Luck of Weissensteiners is only an example of how this writer can master literary styles and add new perspectives to well-established genres.
It is a novel, broadly speaking a historical novel, based on the horrors of the Holocaust. Apart from great historical accuracy, and with dealing with a particularly poignant theme, this novel does not fall into the temptation of exploiting the theme for sensationalistic and melodramatic purposes. There is an underlying honesty in the accounts in this novel which is difficult to find in texts on WWII. This does not necessarily mean objectivity, nor is a novel meant to be objective, but honest. Please mark my words.
When dramatic scenes occur, Fischer keeps them within the realm of credibility and within the tone of a sorrowful whisper, rather than the loud cry of pain we can find elsewhere. This does not make the pain less penetrating, less strong, but even more touching. It is up to the reader to cry out, not to the characters.
Of course, this novel also reflects reality insofar as the plot is quite complex and complicated, which is what one would expect under such circumstances.
What this author achieves, with this novel, in terms of putting gay literature on the map is to counteract the impression that is so rife out there that gay novels, or novels by gay writers, have to be exaggerated, fantastical and…not credible…moving gay literature one step closer to the door of the mainstream
How can we forget that the ‘Good Uncle of All Brit Gays’ is also an outstanding writer? There is not much I can say about this extraordinary figure that the British (and I suspect worldwide) readers do not know, but I shall start with his acting career…why? You will find out later…
Apart from having given life to the hilarious General (eh, eh, eh) in Black Adder Goes Forth (and who can forget?) he also played the lead role in the film Wilde where our national treasure sustained the role of one of the greatest icons of gay literature ever extremely well, despite the script being poor (this is my opinion, as aphorism after aphorism does not make a good film…)
But the parallel with Wilde do not end on the big screen: maybe because there are many similarities (not only in appearance) between Wilde and Fry, I think our contemporary legend has taken his predecessor to heart. Both, in fact, have a deeply rooted reason for presenting the world through quips and aphorisms that makes their writing, if read in the right light, not just incredibly funny, but poignant at the same time.
Life is presented through the filter of humour to hide, or maybe to highlight (?) the deep sadness rooted at the bottom of the heart of the writers, and of their characters as well.
In The Liar, my favourite novel by Fry, we follow the path of a young gay man through school and beyond. This journey is constellated with witticisms, with funny and light moments, as well as with a real sense of introspection. In fact, I believe this is one of his most autobiographical works.
But why should someone present one’s own life as funny, when we know that fun is only part of it? I feel both Wilde and Fry want to fight against that horrible monster which is depression, depression in its darkest and most dreary form, and humour has always been the strongest weapon at our disposal to counter it.
I don’t for a minute believe Wilde ever really meant that art has no content; if it had been so, he would have avoided content in his works, instead they are often rich in meaning and more often rich in social criticism. What Fry does is turn the ‘Wilde paradox’ on its head and propose not social criticism as the theme of his art, but criticism of himself. In fact, the big difference between Wilde and Fry is that, in order to write The Liar he must have distanced himself from himself. He is not judgemental about his past, but critical, which is a life lesson I wish we all followed.
Roger Kean, an established author, follows in the footsteps of Mary Renault, but of course, with his original touch.
Why do I keep going back to Mary Renault? Because I believe that, like in ‘ethnic’ literature, in gay literature too there is an intrinsic need to ‘re-write’ history including the point of view of the minorities. This is a necessary step towards being accepted in the mainstream, and let’s remember that history and literature are not at all dissimilar…
Roger Kean contributes to the emancipation of gay literature in a very significant way: his novels have gay characters, no doubt, but they also bring forward the structures of historical fiction beyond what we normally expect in mainstream (or straight) novels. Let’s take Robert Graves, for example. He based I Claudius, arguably the most popular historical novel of all time on annual ism and diary writing. This offers an advantage insofar as it allows the reader to be very intimate with the narrator, read his/ her thoughts etc… But it also gives us a main disadvantage: the loss of perspective and the loss of reliability. Kean must have realised that in order to present characters as reliable witnesses, annalism and diaries are not the way forward.
Instead, he makes his narratives more fact-based, more impartial, yet giving them gay protagonists and at the same time telling the world that gay people have contributed to history. This makes Kean the leading historical fiction writer in the gay community.
What is more, he mixes historical fiction with stronger elements of adventure than we usually find, which make his novels extremely pleasurable.
His is the work of a modern illuminator: he adds the missing touches to the history of the world in gold leaf, with colour and entertaining the reader…
Mixing romance, eroticism adventure and thriller elements is not a sin, in fact it is part of the gay experience. What Shire does is provide a perfect formula for successful gay novels. There may not be that many elements of thriller in our life (at least I hope so), but those are necessary for fiction to be…just that..thrilling.
One of the many examples, but in my view my favourite, of how Shire writes successfully, almost making readers forget (and I will come back to this in a minute) that what we are reading is gay fiction is his beautifully entitled Listening to Dust: here Shire shows how his influences, from Poe to Wilde, can work perfectly together to create an explosive novel.
I think he takes a flair for the witty sentence from Wilde, but his witticisms seem to be, at least to me, much more related to universal truths and revelations than to ‘the ways of society’ which we find in the late Victorian writer.
He also knows Edgar Allan Poe quite well, his writing style, as he introduces elements of mystery and thriller with a similar pace and a keen eye on producing an effect on the reader as that which we find in the Father of Horror and Thriller.
Now, back to my previous point (I did say I would get back to it…) Why is it important for readers to forget that they are reading gay fiction? I think this is because, among many straight men, there is a general reluctance to reading anything which has gay themes or characters… Maybe this latent literary homophobia can be won in two ways, one, when the reader actually puts aside all preconceptions and prejudice, two, when the writer allows the reader to forget that the characters are gay, and enjoy the story as if the characters were…well, straight.
This is something all gay readers do most of the time: when I read most of the books I read, I can easily put aside my gay nature and empathise with straight characters. Women seem to find doing the same for gay men more easy than straight men… Thus, Shire’s novels allow those straight men who regard themselves as ‘gay friendly’, but not friendly enough to be reminded that the novel is about being gay, yet just about as friendly as to accept some gay sex if put within the bigger picture of adventure, thriller and suspense, to open a gay novel and start on the path towards finally embracing characters that are not necessarily exactly like them… Maybe, one day they will also realise that no character is exactly like them, but at this stage in gay literature, Shire’s novels are exactly what we need to bring more readers towards our cause…
Wrulf Gunkul VonGlashaus
We should never forget the leading role of poetry in developing new ways of expression: poetry is by nature experimental, intense, and dense, and forms used in poetry can, as I have pointed out about another writer, be then transfers to prose very successfully.
No Quatrains, But Refrains is his latest effort, and I think it is more successful in being ‘poetic’, by which I mean being an ‘exceptional use of the language to convey emotions’, than many renowned, celebrated and mainstream straight (forgive me) UK poets.
The title itself explains that the choice to do away with a fixed structure should not take away from the musicality of the poems themselves. The poems do have a consistent alliterative structure, though, which, I must remind the readers, is a look back at the Anglo-Saxon tradition. There are often unexpected metaphors, that partly remind me of the Metaphysical Poets (maybe I have not pointed out that Adriano Bulla, of whom above, is clearly engrafted on the Metaphysical Tradition, do I start to detect a pattern within gay poetry?). The reason is for me that the contradictions (mainly between the soul and society) that the ‘gay experience’ provides cannot be explained through a Romantic kind of sensibility: the ‘gay world’ is contradictory, complex, and cannot be easily explained through traditional means of expression. This is possibly why I believe gay literature will be the ‘engine of mainstream literature’, if we play our cards right.