Special Guest Post: BUT THEN SOMETHING WENT TERRIBLY AWRY: On reading, critiquing, and writing while queer, by Garland Grey

I am a man of singular obsessions. When I find an author I like, I begin collecting everything they’ve ever written. I try to read in chronological order, but will sometimes hold books back for an emergency situation, for the long patches when everything I pick up frustrates and annoys me. These patches can be quite protracted - chief on my list of things I dislike reading are books with dialogue problems. I am a very auditory reader and the shock of “hearing” a character say something that feels false, the Metatron voice of the author, or a string of misconceptions about a particular dialect will ruin it for me every time. I find several authorial “voices” grating - participating in an author’s self-congratulatory appraisal of his or her own writing feels like being asked to hold someone’s pants during an orgy. Me, standing in the foyer, growing ever more impatient, shouting out “Do I need to be here for this?” This is why I shelved The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, why I still haven’t read Paradise by Toni Morrison. I open the first page, start to get pulled in, and think “What if society collapses and you don’t have anything to READ*, Garland?”

So when I’ve read a few books by an author, and they do something shitty, I feel like they’ve been wasting my time. That is why I want to talk about Nicholson Baker. I love Nicholson Baker. I love Nicholson Baker more than I love certain members of my own family. Baker wrote two of my favorite books, Room Temperature and The Mezzanine. In them he writes about the tiniest facets of quotidian experience, with a breathtaking commitment to precision in language. I haven’t liked everything he’s ever written: The Everlasting Story of Nory was a giant drag, especially for a children’s book, and I can understand why his wife doesn’t like The Fermata, a book about a man who stops time and uses this talent to undress women. Fond Memories! Of Vagina!

The attentive reader will notice all the writers I’ve mentioned so far are straight. Most of the words I read are written by straight authors. There are things that bother me about books written by straight people, especially straight men, but my other options are quite limited. Whenever I have a discussion about the dearth of queer writers currently in print, someone is always quick to point out the works of James Baldwin, or the NPR triplets - David Rakoff, Augusten Burrough, and David Sedaris, or two of more famous lesbian writers, Rita Mae Brown, Jeanette Winterson, or Susan Sontag. And while I enjoy the work of some of these people to varying degrees, I can name hundreds of heterosexual white authors in the canon. If I want to read about the richness and depth of the queer experience, my other options are the great old gay authors, who often wrote exclusively about heterosexuals, the works of writers like Armistead Maupin, men writing about the experience of being a gay man living in a Metropolitan Queer Community, and cranky old Gore Vidal.

So I read about the lives of straight people, then comment on them. Because my criticisms stem from a queer reading of the text, and queering the text is subversive, I open myself up to all of the standard criticisms of queer scholarship. We’re either reading things into the text that aren’t there, we’re getting our swish all over the canon, or we’re trying to make a case that your favorite author, the one you love so much, might have been queer or might have written queer themes into their work. Or, as some of them put it, “Sam and Frodo weren’t gay! They were just good friends! Why are you doing this to me LORD OF THE RINGS IS MY VERY LIFE!”

Part of this is a reclamation of queer history. Queer histories are notoriously subject to erasure; someone who didn’t know any better might think that we are a relatively new phenomenon, created in a lab in 1950s San Francisco to fight the Communists. BUT THEN SOMETHING WENT TERRIBLY AWRY. This ignores the fact that queers have been at every battle, every rally, every uprising, every cultural shift since the beginning of recorded history, going back to our primate ancestors. Primates like the bonobos, who pull out ALL the stops when it comes to same-sex mating behaviors. Queers aren’t invisible because the light of history shines around us, we are invisible because it was decided that our existence could only be referred to in code. We’ve been indulging in “The Unspeakable Vice of the Greeks” and “The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name” like some ancient Lovecraftian terror too hideous to countenance.

But another part of this is us playing by the rules of deconstruction. If the author is truly dead, if the text is a matrix of probability - something akin to the smear of an electron cloud - opening itself to infinite interpretations outside of the historical readings and the academic readings, and those terrible readings that treat the author as essentially a brain in a jar (these critics often insisting that the alternative readings tend to ignore the genius of the text, which usually turns into a big fat whine about “demystifying the author’s work” BLAH BLAH BLAH GET A REAL JOB). But when marginalized people try to engage in this process, putting themselves through universities, playing by the rules of scholarship, we are trivialized. All of the sudden the author isn’t dead and he has sent the VOICE OF REASON to your doorstep to tell you why you should help him try to erase yourself from literature. But when you take into account the fact that the queer experience has always been a part of the human experience, that queer history has undergone systematic erasure, and that all through this, people have been writing, some of those books and letters and works are about us. Some of those works are about us, but may not be written about us.

Edward Albee has consistently denied that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a play about four gay men, even though he himself is gay. But even if Albee never sat down to write a play about the queer experience, he undoubtedly drew on relationships of his own, and that makes his play about the queer experience. Those who don’t understand the point I’m trying to make will try to shoehorn this interpretation into a historical reading of the text, which starts us swirling down the “Shakespeare and his Fair Youth” drain, where we are always having to push over some imaginary threshold of queer thematic imagery - that an author must have written a certain number of lines about the queer experience, or there must be this much evidence before we’re even allowed in to explain ourselves. The amount of push back is dependent on the sanctity of the author and the depth of the scholarship already done in the area - claiming that Oscar Wilde might have queer themes is a fairly safe conversation to have, lots of nodding heads all around, but mention queer themes in Hemingway and people begin BLEEDING FROM THE EYES.

So the range of freedom queer scholars and readers have in interpretation is limited. We are largely ignored when we discuss “safe” queer authors like Wilde or Virginia Woolf or Proust. Once we leave our wheelhouse, leave our slice of the canon and start looking for fellow travelers, we are accused of straining the bounds of credulity to “make a political point.”

So, back to Baker. One of the last books I read by Baker was U and I, about his experience as a reader of John Updike. I don’t care for Updike, I think the fact that he went from Harvard directly into writing imbued him with a rich straight white male myopia which, as it turns out, is always what people want to read! Allegedly! Baker’s profile of Updike is really a profile of Baker, about the “Anxiety of Influence” Baker felt while reading Updike’s work, with the prerequisite fanboy squealing about Updike’s intelligence and poise. At one point he states that Updike was "the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose" and then praises Updike for comparing the vagina to the inside of a ballet slipper. EWWW. Maybe not everyone wants to hear a woman’s ladyparts compared to footwear, Nicholson.

During one of the many imagined conversations Baker contrives between Updike and himself, Baker mentions how beautiful Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library is, with the coda that he only really enjoyed Hollinghurst after he got over the revulsion of reading about two men having sex. I have read two of Hollinghurst’s novels, The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty, and he is not perfect. His treatment of People of Color is typical British Colonial Bullshit, even as he is critiquing polite British society’s treatment of gay men, and he is ponderous in places. But he writes perfect sentences. And reading this man, who I deeply respected, prefacing a review of his with the typical “Ewww Gay Sex” straight male reaction felt like a betrayal. Not just because I had read everything I could of his, and really tried to finish Human Smoke, but because of how quickly my reading list would shrink if I applied the same criteria. Can we talk about reading fawning, meticulous descriptions of sex you don’t personally enjoy? Can we discuss the fact that if I elected to only read books about people making the beast with ONE back, I could throw out two of my bookshelves? Almost all of the sex scenes I read are straight sex scenes. I honestly don’t know how straight people function, because from what I’ve read, the act of a penis entering a vagina can crack the world in two. It is apparently the highest bond two human beings can aspire to. Walking into a bookstore or video store while queer is like watching a really well-organized Straight Pride Parade go by. “Read the book about the girl who gets the boy! Watch the movie about the boy who gets the girl! Ohhh, in this one the boy’s wearing a hat and the girl’s a Golem! Such variety!” Heed my words, young poet: if you find a new way to sell Penis + Vagina to straight people, they’ll put your name in lights.†

But at the heart of it, Baker’s revulsion cut to an internal conflict I had been trying to ignore for years: I was avoiding writing about queer characters. And every time the text steered into queer territory, I would remind myself that it would make my work harder to sell. That I wanted a chance to tell larger stories about the human condition, and that if my work was labelled “queer fiction” I’d go largely unread. Slowly the other, more rabidly defiant part of my personality began to encroach upon my writing. Thus, most of my short stories from that era are about heterosexuals in identity crises.

I know, I know - if queer writers don’t write queer fiction, who else will? But it felt shitty that my work would always be less than a straight man’s, that I would be considered a “lesser” writer, that straight men could one day write reviews of my books that amounted to 2000+ words of “I didn’t like the utter lack of Penis + Vagina, but I can’t say that outright, so I’ll say his work didn’t ‘ring true.’” Which is one of those hexes you can put on marginalized writers when your limited experience strangles your interpretation of their work.

I still don’t know how I feel about this problem. I’ve learned not to steer away from queer themes or they snake into the foundation of anything I’m writing and start coming up the drains. I’ve learned that short of changing my name to Butch Samson and conforming to the straight masculine ethic, I will continue to fight for acclaim in an ever-shrinking series of literary circles. Just like female authors, trans authors, and authors of color. And my recognition that this is not uniquely a queer problem makes it seem cowardly to do anything else. I may not be published. I may not ever win any prizes. But at least I’ll have my dignity.

Now, remind me how much a word you get paid to write with dignity? I hope it’s a lot.

*Incidentally, the one thing that has always bothered me about the iconic “Time Enough at Last” episode of Twilight Zone is that they set the main character up to be this massive bookworm, and he spends the first few minutes nattering on about David Copperfield. Wouldn’t he have gotten to that one by then? I mean HONESTLY.

†I recently read Baker’s review of Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star in The Size of Thoughts. Baker wrote the review two years after U and I and it is some of the best criticism of a gay novel by a straight man I’ve ever read.

Garland Grey is a writer from Texas and contributor to Tiger Beatdown, who maintains garlandgrey.com.