Editorial: Having Our Say
"Why Do We Need Gay and Lesbian Books?"
Editor Keith Speaks Out
As an editor closely associated with gay/lesbian books, there are two questions that I am frequently asked. One is "What is a gay and/or lesbian book?" and the other, more complex question is, "Why do there have to be gay and/or lesbian books -- why can't there simply be books?" To answer the first question, I usually paraphrase playwrite Robert Patrick and answer that a gay/lesbian book is a book that is primarily attracted to books of its own gender. Less farcically, though, a gay/lesbian book (fiction or non-fiction) is one that explores or relates some aspect of the gay/lesbian experience.
It is the second question, however, that is perhaps the most vexing and certainly the most loaded. The implication of this question is that by referring to a book as being of gay/lesbian interest that it no longer has any importance to the culture at large which, presumably, would be interested in reading the book if only it were not obvious that it was about gays or lesbians. Another, more disturbing, implication is that it would be somehow more important if it only were not about gays and/or lesbians.
It is unimaginable for someone to denegrate Toni Morrison or Ntozake Shange because they chose to write about black characters and their issues or Saul Bellow and Philip Roth because they write about Jewish themes and characters. Nor would anyone deny the importance or quality of their work because of their themes. Alas, as evidenced by the frequency of which I am asked this question, this still isn't true of gay/lesbian writing. Edmund White's National Critic's Circle Award and Paul Monette's National Book Award have done nothing to dispel this popularly held, thoroughly wrong-headed belief. Gay and lesbian voices are as much a part of mainstream of America as are African-American, Asian-American, Jewish-American or any other discrete group and their writings have as much importance as any others.
From John Fox's and Edmund White's fictional explorations of the emotional turmoil of growing up gay in a heterosexual world to Lev Raphael's brilliant expositions on the gay Jewish experience, gay and lesbian voices are among the most varied and interesting to come out of American fiction in the last 25 years. But beyond the mere question of quality, there is the question of why people -- any people -- chose to write about their lives. It is often a matter of validation, recognition, and work that relates to their day to day experience. Others are simply following the old saw about writing about what they know. For gay and lesbian readers, the pleasure of gay/lesbian books can be simply in seeing their lives -- too often ignored -- reflected back at them from the pages of a book. And that is enough of a reason for there to be "gay/lesbian" writing in the first place.