Pic: Piotr Bizior
How loyal are you to your LGBT orientation when it comes to picking a good read? Weird thing to ask, I know. Is it even a matter of loyalty? And funny how that old chestnut never comes up for straight readers. Nevertheless, with the launch of our brand new books and literature section, Mamba Reads, perhaps it’s time to take a peek between the covers of what passes today as a “gay book” and see what gives it away? What’s the tell? What pops its closet lock?
My outing of queer literature starts in the most obvious of places: the LGBT-section – or “gender” shelf, as it is known in some parts – of my nearest, reputable book store. If you’re anything like me and most other gay people I know, the last time you’ve nosed through the naughty-shelf was when you perved over the dishy nudes in the latest coffee-table glossy, trying to look ever so inconspicuous and casual. (No wonder store managers banish us to the furthest corner of the shop.) Let’s face it, though, looking for a good book of fiction in thÃ¡t place is something we don’t do very often. We generally get our Dan Browns, our Patricia Cornwalls and our Stephen Kings where the rest of the upstanding citizenry get them: in the fiction section, or from the stacks of dead tree by the door.
That said, when I do – on odd occasions – find myself drawn to the Shelf of Shame, it really doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the booksellers’ idea of a romping good gay read is, does it? Porn. Or to use the rather euphemistic genre name, “homoerotica”. But let’s not kid ourselves: open any one of those soft-bound books with the steamy hunks on the cover and it’s hard to find a page without wall-to-wall references to “man juice” and “glory holes”. It’s book porn. And lesbian books? Barely anywhere to be seen.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no qualms whatsoever with erotica. Or even straightforward porn, for that matter. Whatever floats your boat. But it does beg an obvious question, though: is explicit gay sex all the typical “gay book” is about these days? Perhaps a “gay book” is not even something we’re looking for anymore, now that we’re slowly but surely making some headway – in the Western world, at least – towards greater social and cultural integration? Yes, I know this is Africa and we still have a long way to go, but I’m taking a slightly broader global view here. Just look how many gay characters there are in sitcoms, drama series and films these days. And boys and girls who are not simply there to provide comic relief anymore, but seemingly well-adjusted, well-spoken, middle-of-the-road folks who just happen to be otherwise inclined. And fabulous. They are the characters we identify with. They are who we’d like to be. And they also seem to read what everyone else reads: not necessarily anything LGBT.
“…not a single local publisher has an outright and exclusively LGBT imprint…”
Right then. So about 90% of what you’ll find in your typical gay book section is erotica. The rest of the shelf space is occupied by those coffee table books I mentioned before, better-sex guides and the occasional self-help book that gives advice on anything from relationships to renovations. Sometimes both. But what about gay fiction? What does it take for a piece of narrative art to be classified as queer? Does the protagonist him- or herself need to be an actual friend of Dorothy, or can he or she simply move in the same circles? And what about the plot? Should it be full of the anguish and angst of popping in and out of closets? Or could it – God forbid – be merely about a gaggle of gays having a romp of a time in both gay and straight situations. A Friends, if you will, where Rachel is a transgendered individual and Ross falls in love with Joey. The other three stay straight.
As early as 2003, Martin Arnold asked a few of the same questions in his New York Times article entitled Making Books: A New Phase For Gay Books. (Not the catchiest of headlines, I know, but the guy writes well.) He uses the fancy word “assimilation” a lot, by which he means a blurring of the lines that separate gay books from other genres and, ultimately, LGBTs from the rest of society.
Arnold asserts that “gay fiction has gotten [urgh!] far beyond ‘coming out’ and is sold on the regular fiction racks in bookstores and not as niche; the number of gay and lesbian bookstores has declined.” Then he explores the question of why it is – given this absorption of the LGBT genre into the broader spectrum of literature – that Kensington Publishing, a large, independent book maker, dares to swim upstream by launching a brand new gay division which, incidentally, is still going strong today.
“We are doing entertaining books that are not depressing,” explains the company’s editorial director, Mr. Scognamiglio (try saying that when you’ve had a few doras!), “not about AIDS or suicide, but … positive and uplifting and fun.” Or as Arnold puts it, “‘boyfriend’ fiction: light, lively entertainments neither literary nor erotic, glimpses of gay life, mysteries.” Perhaps even muder mysteries. Phoebe knocks someone off and Monica finds out. Just kidding.
So if they could do it in the States, why can’t we do it here? It’s true: not a single local publisher has an outright and exclusively LGBT imprint. That is not to say that local publishers consciously shy away from producing gay books. There has indeed been a long list of books – too long to mention here – by local authors gay and straight, fiction and non-fiction, about gay issues and gay people, proudly brought out by publishers of Afrikaans and English literature. But no-one has thus far dared to launch an exclusively gay imprint. Why?
Oi! For a thousand and one reasons – everything from global competition, to a relatively conservative and limited market, to import competition to pleading poverty. And one has to understand. Publishers are businesses. They need to make money, and it’s just not a sure thing to hedge your bets on the support of what is, at best, a somewhat flighty and unruly bunch of niche readers. I mean, we can hardly keep a gay club running successfully for longer than a few years without losing interest, never mind an entire publishing house.
The point that both Arnold and I would like to make is that, “in the end it comes down to the story and how good it is” which determines what it is we buy and read. And if the branding “gay” as a genre name eventually returns to its original meaning of something happy, something light, something uplifting and something commercially successful, I would be the first to fly the rainbow flag. And for that reason, Mamba Reads will read widely and broadly. Anything and everything literary goes. We’ll attend book launches and we’ll write reviews in both Afrikaans and English. Contributions are welcome. But every now and again we’ll also pop the Elton Johns back on and wink at the world of books through pink lenses. Just because we can. And it makes us gay.