Oct 16, 2016

What’s the Point of LGBT Literature?

Lauren Guy speaks to LGBT authors Michael Cunningham and Mary Dorcey about the enduring appeal of LGBT books in a society that's more accepting than ever.

Thibaut Loiez for The University Times
Lauren Guy LGBT Editor

Two writers: one male, one female. One from the Emerald Isle, one from the land of the brave. Superficially, American novelist Michael Cunningham has little in common with Irish writer Mary Dorcey. Yet they are linked by one important attribute: both identify as LGBT. Though our society is growing ever more liberal, with Tumblr pages dedicated to Sherlock fanfiction and representations of queer communities now becoming mainstream, being an out member of the LGBT community is a long way away from a safe position to hold. The shooting of 49 LGBT people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando this summer is testament to the fact that the community remains one under threat and burdened with societal prejudice. Historically, the outcasts of our world have found refuge in the creative arts, fashioning a safe space for themselves in which to explore their identities, grieve their losses, evaluate their positions in society and celebrate their joys. Certainly, it is for this reason that the LGBT literary community has proven to be one of the most compelling and radical, both in and out of the academy.

LGBT literature is widely available and accessible to readers of all ages and sexual orientations, in libraries, bookshops and the dodgiest parts of the Internet, so the options are diverse and endlessly exciting. LGBT writers such as Julie Anne Peters and David Levithan are introducing LGBT characters to generations of young adults and children, allowing them their own space to understand their fledgling identities, while other “highbrow” novelists, such as Emma Donoghue and Colm Tóibín, bring LGBT characters up against more complex themes like self, loss and sexuality in the abstract, which have lessons for all readers rather than just queer ones. We are being exposed to more and more stories that illuminate the lives of alternative protagonists, but this brings with it a need to re-evaluate the community’s intentions. In this sense, there are no better authorities on the matter than two of the world’s foremost LGBT writers.

Cunningham was the first to respond to my email, and I nearly fell off my chair with excitement when I saw his name appear in my inbox. He was prompt and obliging in his replies, but living in New York meant meeting with him was unfortunately out of the question. We settled for email communication. Author of titles like The Hours (winner of the Pen/Faulkner award and Pulitzer Prize), Specimen Days and A Home at the End of the World, it is clear that Cunningham’s work doesn’t only appeal to a niche portion of the world’s readership but is widely read and enjoyed. Although Cunningham’s sexuality deeply influences his work – most of his books involve gay characters – he asserts that it doesn’t define him: “I don’t think my sexuality is the most important thing about me, as a writer.”


I think of my sexuality as more or less germane as other qualities of mine. I’m white. I’m male and identify as such. I’m American. I come from the middle class

One senses that this is a bugbear born from a career possibly full of pigeonholing and easy classification. In his own words, Cunningham resents the way a person’s sexuality can often dictate who they are as a writer: “I don’t like how the word ‘gay’ comes before the word ‘writer’.” He explains that a writer’s sexual orientation is just one part of who they are. While their sexuality may have greater influence during their formative years, it is only one in a list of attributes that describes a writer. “I think of my sexuality as more or less germane as other qualities of mine. I’m white. I’m male and identify as such. I’m American. I come from the middle class”, he told me. So while we could single Cunningham out as a gay writer, we could just as easily single him out as an American writer or a white writer or by any other of his attributes.

Heterosexual audiences may avoid what is considered “gay literature”, thinking that it isn’t relevant to their lives. However, if straight people don’t read books that they consider to be “gay literature”, then surely “straight literature” also doesn’t appeal to a gay readership? Cunningham points out that the whole purpose of fiction is to show readers what it’s like to be someone else. We don’t like to read about someone exactly like ourselves: we have to live with ourselves every day. We like to read about someone else precisely because they differ from us. Cunningham says: “A gay man, anyone LGBT experiences the world and is treated by the world in particular ways. They aren’t, of course, the same for every LGBT citizen, but it seems safe to say they’re generally quite different from the experience of others in the world. An LGBT writer is just about inevitably writing from a different body of experience from that of a straight writer.”

Cunningham tells me about a recent study that showed readers of fiction are habitually more empathetic than those who don’t read fiction. Intrigued, I decide to do some research and find that according to a study carried out by two psychologists, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, literary fiction in which the psychology of the characters is a focal point does produce readers who are better able to detect and interpret the emotions of others. One would hope then that reading about the experiences and lives of LGBT characters would, in Cunningham’s words, make readers “less likely to be homophobic, just as someone Western who has read about Middle Eastern lives is less likely (one hopes) to favour carpet-bombing entire countries”.

It’s entirely possible to write a fascinating, compelling novel about a French guy with a boyfriend and two dogs, just as it is to write a dull one about, oh, a leather daddy raising two children whose slave boyfriend lives in the basement

Yet as we come into contact with more and more characters who are LGBT and become more accepting of the LGBT community, I wonder whether LGBT literature becomes inherently less interesting as it becomes less marginal. This is something that Tóibín has said before, noting that “if you’re French, out to everyone, have a nice boyfriend and two dogs, it’s intrinsically not as interesting”. Cunningham disagrees, arguing that “a story, any story, is as interesting as its writer is able to make it … it’s entirely possible to write a fascinating, compelling novel about a French guy with a boyfriend and two dogs, just as it is to write a dull one about, oh, a leather daddy raising two children whose slave boyfriend lives in the basement”.

We move on to one of Cunningham’s novels, A Home at the End of the World, a novel that challenges our traditional notions of the family unit and love and which was adapted for a screenplay. I ask Cunningham why he felt compelled to tell this story. He tells me that it was written during the early days of the AIDS epidemic – a subject that is close to Cunningham’s heart given that he lived through this period of LGBT history and suffered the loss of many friends. He revelas how many of those affected by the illness were abandoned by their biological families and were forced to create alternative ones: “It was apparent that one’s alternative family, composed of, say, two lesbians, a straight woman and a fashionista, were every bit as devoted, every bit as caring and – yes – every bit as fucked up as any families.” Cunningham wanted to capture these alternative, imperfect families without denigrating or promoting them. In this sense, you could suggest that his novel was apolitical, concerned as it was with the bare bones reality of a time, a place and a slightly different family structure.

So does Cunningham think we should be encouraging LGBT writers to share their experiences in writing? He agrees that it is important to encourage LGBT writers to produce writing that reflects their lived experiences, noting that “LGBT writers are, after all, the only reliable authorities on LGBT life”. However, while he advocates for encouraging the LGBT community to write, he holds one essential caveat: writers should be free to choose their content. No LGBT writer should feel under obligation to write about their lived experiences. Believing that we should all have the freedom to write about lives that are not our own, Cunningham himself says he feels “entirely free to write straight characters, and I defend the right of straight writers to write LGBT characters”. Writing outside of one’s sexual orientation should not seem questionable, given that people write characters of a different gender to themselves, who have a different job, different religious beliefs and essentially a completely different life. While we are often told to write from experience, this experience doesn’t necessarily have to be our own. The only warning Cunningham gives is this: “The farther you go from your own experience, the more careful you’ve got to be to get it right.”

“Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, has been vocal about his support of LGBT books for readers of all sexual orientations.”

In the aftermath of the Yes vote in last year’s marriage equality referendum, Ireland seems to be more accepting than ever of the LGBT community. However, while we may accept the LGBT community, we might not completely understand those within it, and literature could be the solution to this. I query Cunningham on how we can expose society to more stories that reflect the LGBT experience and that can help us understand them better. “That seems to be happening naturally. All the bookstores I know no longer have “gay and lesbian” sections – books by and/or about LGBT lives are shelved with the rest of the books”, he says. Cunningham points out that LGBT books are being considered among others for national awards, citing Garth Greenwell’s explicitly queer novel What Belongs to You as an example. Cunningham attributes the current progress in the recognition of LGBT literature to the courage of an earlier generation of openly LGBT writers, including James Baldwin, Edmund White and Jeanette Winterson. To continue this progress, Cunningham believes we should be encouraging young writers and students to find their voices and “express everything that matters to them, whatever that may be”.

To inspire these fledgling writers and to educate those outside the LGBT community, I ask Cunningham to name some of his favourite LGBT books. “I love Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, just to name two.” He also has respect for Octavia Butler who wrote “remarkable books” about lesbian lives in the form of speculative fiction. Two of his favourite new and emerging LGBT writers include Adam Haslett and aforementioned Greenwell.

Reading forms an integral part of so many of our lives, and there is much to be learnt from picking up a book. As readers, Cunningham believes it is our duty to seek out the most remarkable books we can our lay hands on. Cunningham writes for those who are “primarily interested in the quality of a book – its insights, its originality, its compassion, its rigor”. He doesn’t just write for the LGBT community, and the popularity of his books are a testament to this. Regardless of whether a book is written by an LGBT writer or not or whether it involves LGBT characters or not, to Cunningham a good book is simply one that “illuminates the lives it portrays”.

By identifying myself not only as lesbian but also writing about lesbian romance and eroticism, I broke the deepest taboo we had in our society and was viewed as a pariah by the majority of the culture

The second author I was fortunate enough to get hold of is Mary Dorcey, an author, poet and LGBT rights advocate. Dorcey was extremely busy, given that her new book, New and Selected Poetry, is being released in November. However, she was gracious with her time and managed to snatch a few moments from her busy schedule to answer a few questions via email.

Often declared the first Irish female advocate for LGBT rights, having been an activist from the mid-1970s, Dorcey holds a place within Irish social history that is etched into the very pages of her books. Eager to understand her history, I ask about her experience of writing as the only openly lesbian author in an Ireland that was much more narrow-minded and repressive than the one we live in today. Dorcey tells me that she paid a price for this openness: “By identifying myself not only as lesbian but also writing about lesbian romance and eroticism, I broke the deepest taboo we had in our society and was viewed as a pariah by the majority of the culture.” Not only was Dorcey an outsider, but she was also the subject of discrimination and animosity, frequently finding herself the target of “continual hostility” and “invasive commentary”. However, for those who scorned her, there were also those who praised her – these were mostly liberals and feminists. Whether hailed or reviled, Dorcey finds that for much of her writing career she was treated differently to other writers: “It was impossible for me to be viewed as just a writer like other writers until about 20 years ago.”

Dorcey also encountered difficulties when trying to publish her work. Her first book, A Noise from the Woodshed, was published by Onlywomen Press, a British lesbian publishing company, but even they were reluctant to publish Dorcey’s work out of fear of being identified with it. Dorcey says it took an American publisher, Jessie Lendennie, to reach a breakthrough: “She simply refused to pay attention to the prevailing prejudice of her Irish colleagues.” Dorcey has remained loyal to Lendennie since and has published six books of poetry with her.

It can be easy to cast Ireland, with its traditionally insular and judgemental society, as the main obstacle to the creative expression of LGBT writers. Because of this, I was curious to find out whether Dorcey had better reception outside of Ireland. The answer is a resounding yes. Her poetry and fiction are taught across America, Canada and Europe. “I have toured all these countries many times to give readings without ever encountering hostility”, she says. Once again, one is reminded that last year’s referendum proved how far the country had come over the last few decades. Dorcey says: “I refused from the start to bow to prejudice, to hide who I was or to accept restrictions on my creative freedom. The feminist world supported me, and I always had admiring support from more liberal artists.”

If there is any subject a writer is afraid of, that is the very one they need to write about. Our deep fears and most intense desires are the well from where we draw our best creative work

We move on to talking about how LGBT literature can help those who are struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality. Dorcey believes that this struggle can often come from being ignorant of LGBT life. While novels, stories and poetry, along with cinema and television, can help, Dorcey says major change will only happen as they encounter more LGBT people. She says that “when they get to know individuals who are open about their identity, confident and fulfilled, their attitudes are changed and they become self-accepting”. Tasked with increasing representation and allowing explorations of self, LGBT literature is saddled with a great weight of expectation and often held to high standards. I ask Dorcey about the merit of LGBT literature awards and whether she believes that LGBT literature should be singled out like this. While Dorcey resists anything that perpetuates a kind of artistic apartheid, she does see the benefit of LGBT awards. She says they “help to compensate LGBT writers for the discrimination their work may experience from mainstream society”. Dorcey points out that unfortunately it is often the case that if a writer openly identifies as LGBT, their work will be viewed as inferior and as belonging to a subculture.

Throughout her life Dorcey has been brave and has refused to be silenced in the face of enormous discrimination and hostility. This is a lesson she wishes to impart onto other young LGBT writers: “If there is any subject a writer is afraid of, that is the very one they need to write about. Our deep fears and most intense desires are the well from where we draw our best creative work.” While changing the public narrative around the LGBT community, from its lowest points and highest to its idiosyncratic symbols and analogies, takes a project of a scale and magnitude that we can’t expect of every LGBT novel, it is only through LGBT people openly and proudly accepting their sexuality that change can come about on a wider scale.

Dorcey maintains that “self-confidence and pride radically alter conservative attitudes, most of which are based on ignorance”. She counsels writers to be brave and warned that “it’s a hard battle at times to make space for one’s voice, when it’s the voice of the outsider or the trail blazer”. However, for Dorcey, it is always worth it: “The self-respect, the pride, the joy in self-fulfilment is an immense reward. And the work grows in power every day that we turn our truest face to the mirror.”

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