Edmund White on Gay Fiction
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In anticipation of next month’s 2017 PEN World Voices Festival: Gender and Power, here’s a recording from the 2007 PEN World Voices event “Erotic and Forbidden/Sex and Danger,” featuring Edmund White. In this recording, White speaks about many of the conceptions and misconceptions involved in writing gay fiction. The audio also includes a brief Q & A on how gay male sex squares with the post-1981 world.
Edmund White: I was of the generation who identified being gay with having gay sex, and my generation, which began to publish gay fiction in the 1970s, was primarily addressing gay readers. So we felt no reluctance about being explicit, sexually, in our writing. Of course what we were doing was not the same as pornography, which was an ancient and very well-explored genre, because pornography is one-handed reading and is meant to excite the reader. Susan Sontag pointed out in an essay about pornography that it must follow certain conventions, it mustn’t be too inventive in language, it must obey the rhythm of the act itself, and it’s not literature in any ordinary sense. But for me, sex was always an interesting unexplored subject. Pornography, of course that existed, but sexual realism was new, fresh material. In my first novel, Forgetting Elena, which I published in 1973, it is written from the point of view of a man who has sex with a woman. He’s an amnesiac and has forgotten what sex is. He wonders exactly what they’re doing, and he keeps wondering if this is a thing that everybody does, and do they get in rooms and look at each other intensely and make these sounds and these motions, does it have some ritualistic significance, religious meaning? He doesn’t know what it is, and that was fun for me because one of the basic ideas of Russian Formalism in the 1920s was to defamiliarize, that is to take something that everybody knows and to present it as though you’re from Mars and it’s never been done before. So I tried to do that with heterosexuality in that first novel of mine. In 1985, I wrote another novel, Caracole, which has many heterosexual sex scenes and no gay sex scenes, and my biggest triumph came when an English friend of mine, a heterosexual man, said he’d gotten an erection on the subway while reading one of my straight sex scenes.
Once AIDS came along in 1981, gay writers were encouraged to back off from writing sex scenes. We weren’t supposed to awaken any sense of backlash against gays who were being blamed for the whole epidemic. Gay pundits would criticize gay writers for encouraging the young to have sex, as though a young person needed a $26, hardcover, 400-page difficult literary novel to get the idea that he should have sex. I’ve always gotten into lots of trouble in my books because of my sex scenes. At one time Harper Queens Magazine in England said I was the most maligned man in America, and I’ve always enjoyed that epithet. Just to give you a typical example, I was at the University of Texas around 1991, and I met with their grad students in creative writing, who were not only themselves studying creative writing but were teaching undergrads, and they said, “Well, we tried to teach your book A Boy’s Own Story but we just couldn’t get past the pedophilia.” And I said what pedophilia? And they said in the first chapter. And they said in the first chapter there’s a 16 year old who has sex with a 14 year old. And is the 16 year old supposed to be the pedophile? Oh yes, they told me. And I asked, well that is totally insane, I mean the 16 year old is actually gay, and he’s sort of used and violated by the 14 year old, who just wants to get his rocks off and who is heterosexual, and it seems to me if there’s any exploitation it’s the younger one exploiting the older one. But anyway, there’s only a two year age difference, but this was considered pedophilia. I could tell you, all my life I run into this kind of nonsense.
I think that there are special problems in gay male novels, which is that—I think that it’s usually women readers who object to the, it’s what I call the “cock and ball problem.” That is, if the sexual descriptions are too explicit, it has a way of turning off most women, not all, I hasten to add. I mean, there are even women who like to buy gay male porno films and books. And of course some of the greatest gay novels and sexiest ones, in fact almost all the sexiest ones have been written by women, starting with Brokeback Mountain and going right on through The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren, and all those Greek romances by Mary Renault. But still, I think the ordinary literate, literary female reader seems to have a real problem with gay male sex scenes. That’s enough, just for the moment, I think.