After Outlaws, 2012

It has been a year since I finished writing Eminent Outlaws. There have been new names and developments since then. There are also things I had to cut from the book because of space. Here are a few bits and pieces I’d like to add in a kind of an epilogue to the epilogue.

The chief event is that the last of my first generation of outlaws, Gore Vidal, died on July 31, 2012 at home in Los Angeles, California. He lived a long, productive, amazing life, one that spanned several eras of enormous change. His cool, witty prose helped produce some of that change. Yet Vidal disliked the new gay world he helped to create. He was not happy with the current world of books either, but he had never thought much of Americans as readers.

We are in a time of transition in publishing and good work has great trouble in finding a home. The big houses are reluctant to  publish gay literature in a way they weren’t ten years ago. However, the best work often finds other outlets.

Paul Russell wrote an amazing new novel, The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov about Vladimir Nabokov’s gay brother. The mainstream houses passed on it, but he sold it to Cleis Press, a small house specializing in gay and lesbian erotica, who published it in 2011 and did an excellent job in getting it out in the world.

Bob Smith did an extraordinary comic fantasy, Remembrance of Things I Forgot, a time travel novel that combines science fiction with autobiographical fiction and political satire. This highly commercial, audience-friendly book could only be published by University of Wisconsin Press.

Chulito by Charles Rice-Gonzalez, a terrific debut novel about gay love among “hoodrats” in the Bronx, was published by the new queer press, Magus.

And Personal Saviors by Wesley Gibson, a darkly comic novel about growing up gay in the super-religious South circa 1969, was published by another new queer press, Chelsea Station Editions.

The mainstream houses still publish a few gay authors, of course, but they choose them very carefully: comic nonfiction writers who’ve found a crossover audience—David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, and the fearless Dan Savage—a couple of novelists who maintain big readerships—Edmund White, Armistead Maupin--and some Brits--Alan Hollinghurst, Colm Toibin. A curious development in the past couple of years is the increased presence of gay characters in mainstream novels by straight authors. As I say in the book, we are a great story and any good writer can recognize this. The Art of Fielding, a first novel by Chad Harbach, features a prominent gay secondary character, while the longtime veteran John Irving has a bisexual protagonist/narrator surrounded by gay friends in his newest novel, In One Person. Their publishers hoped they would reach a wider audience than gay books by gay authors. Both novels received lots of attention, although for me the gay life in each lacks weight and authority.

The point is that we have not gone away as a subject, but the opportunities in the mainstream are now reduced, not because of homophobia but due to numbers. Sales figures remain down across the board at a time when corporate publishing requires more volume to turn a profit.

New gay writers continue to appear despite the tough climate. I was able to mention only a few in passing, such as Rakesh Satyal, who published his first novel, Blue Boy, in 2009. Satyal makes a good  example of the new generation.

He grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, but a very different city from Edmund White's hometown. Satyal is second-generation Indian. His parents emigrated in the 1970s; his father was a regional salesman in the food industry, his mother an elementary school teacher. He has two brothers, including a twin. He is a short man with a boyish build, a widow's peak, and a heavy, close-cropped beard.

Satyal grew up in a more sexually open world than White and the other writers here, yet he was as slow in finding himself as the rest of us. He read and loved Tennessee Williams and E. M. Forster in high school (and the first half of Angels in America). He felt he had something in common with these writers, but he did not come to terms with being gay until he went away to college. He attended Princeton, which he found "both homoerotic and homophobic." He studied comparative literature and creative writing, taking classes with Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Muldoon, and Edmund White. He knew he couldn't support himself as a writer after college, so he took a job in publishing, working as an editor during the week and on his own prose on weekends. He also sang in his spare time, developing a gift for cabaret.

He began work on a novel about a gay Hindu boy growing up in Ohio, someone like himself but with different parents and no brothers. Blue Boy mixes the familiar with the unfamiliar, a typical American suburban childhood with the atypical life of an Indian boy who attends a Hindu temple with his family and enjoys putting on his mother's make-up. It's told in a present-tense first-person where the emotions and experience of early adolescence are described in the sophisticated language of someone much older. Twelve-year-old Kiran is as perceptive about the Indians he sees at weekend get-togethers as he is about the caste system of his all-white elementary school.

I have never been able to decide which life of mine is normal, my school-bound American one or my party-bound Indian one. On the whole, I seem to think of my school life as my real life . . . When you are used to expending most of your energy on living with the difference of your skin, it's hard to think of people whose skin is the same as yours as "regular."

Kiran suffers James Baldwin's double burden of a different race and different sexuality, but he remains remarkably cheerful for most of the novel. It's a false cheer that falls apart when he understands how his differences cut him off from everyone. The novel builds to, of all things, a talent show, where Kiran paints himself blue as the god Krishna and dances for his classmates. It sounds comic and entertaining, like a burst of Bollywood in suburban Ohio, but what we actually see is a child having a nervous breakdown. It's an amazing climax to a remarkable novel.

Blue Boy was published by Kensington Books, a small house specializing in popular gay fiction. Five or six years earlier, it would've been picked up by one of the bigger houses, such as HarperCollins, where Satyal himself works. Satyal's agent sent the novel around for a year. Several editors expressed interest but nobody knew how to sell it in the current market.

So good new fiction continues to slip out. In the book I mention Clay’s Way by Blair Mastbaum, God Says No by James Hannaham, and You Are Not the One, by Vestal McIntrye. (Satyal edited McIntyre's first novel, Lake Overturn, for Harper Collins in 2009.) More recently there have been the novels by Paul Russell, Bob Smith, and Charles Rice-Gonzalez. The mainstream media gives these books little or no attention, but the internet helps to get the word out.

Gay print media is going through the same difficulties that all print media is suffering, but the absence is now filled by websites like Queer Reader, Queertype and Band of Thebes which cover gay literature and culture. Lambda Book Report is now an online magazine and more accessible and visible than ever. There are even new print magazines, such as Assaragus, which does a terrific job of getting word out on gay men’s poetry.

Poetry can speak more directly and immediately for many, providing an outlet for new voices. Performance artist Emanuel Xavier got his start in poetry slams, but has gone on to publish his work in excellent books. Recently Rebel Satori Press published a new book of his work, Me No Habla with Acento, as well as reissued and updated his wonderful first collection, Pier Queen, an account of the black and Hispanic banjee boys and hustlers who hang out at the waterfront in New York. (His soliloquies and snapshots of street life read even better now than when the book first appeared fifteen years ago.) Other first-rate recent poetry books include A Fast Life, the complete poems of the late Tim Dlugos (I regret that Outlaws didn’t quote Dlugos’s amazing poem about life on an AIDS ward, “G-9”), and new collections by Scott Hightower (Self-evident) and Henri Cole (Touch).

People like to say that literary fiction, gay and straight, is now in the same place that poetry has been for decades. That might be true, but it doesn't make one feel any better.

Satyal is just one good writer among many. He recently left publishing to work for a branding company in San Francisco that names new products, but he continues to write. He is now working on a second novel, the love story of an Indian man and woman learning the new rules of courtship after coming to America--heterosexuality can be just as tricky to master as homosexuality. He is using sexual difference to write about other differences.

Blue Boy did not get much attention in the mainstream when it came out in 2009, but it was featured in several gay publications and blogs and slowly found an audience. Satyal traveled extensively, giving readings, often supplemented with songs. He is a big believer in the use of music and YouTube to publicize books.

The novel was nominated for a 2010 Lambda Book Award in the category of Gay Debut Fiction.

The awards were presented in the auditorium of the School of Visual Arts in New York in May 2010, during the week of Book Expo, the annual conference for booksellers. Satyal attended. The nominees for Debut Fiction were read out. And Blue Boy won.

Satyal ran up on stage, broke into a big smile, and sang his acceptance speech (to the tune of "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga):

Thank you, thank you, thanks,

For letting me join the ranks.