Letter From the Editor

Editorial: Having Our Say

New Releases

Authors On Tour



Gay/Lesbian/Feminist Bookstores Around the Country

The Mostly Unfabulous Homepage of Ethan Green


Reviewing the Reviewers

Discover the Offensive and Shortsighted Book Review that Made Editor Keith Furious.

By Keith Kahla
General Editor, Stonewall Inn Editions

Plato's GarageI've always had a personal policy of never responding to reviews of books that I've published. And in the past dozen or so years, I've seen some astonishingly bad reviews — reviews that deliberately mis-characterize a book, reviews that are blatantly homophobic, and even ones in which the reviewer invents things that don't actually appear in a book and then castigates the book and author for those invented passages (for a prime example of this, hunt down the Kirkus Reviews on Glove Puppet by Neal Drinnan). Yet I've always believed that it does no good to respond to such reviews — an intellectually dishonest review is almost always obvious to even casual readers and my own bias as the editor of the work makes my response suspect to many.

Well so much for policy. One of my books finally got a review that I find so offensive that I can't help myself. In the February 2nd edition of the San Francisco Examiner, Plato's Garage by Rob Campbell was "reviewed." The reviewer opened his comments with the following statements:

The dust jacket of Plato's Garage is basically dishonest, but the book is good. Plato's Garage, by Rob Campbell, projects itself as a series of essays written "through the reflective lens of the automobile in our car-obsessed culture. Campbell's exploration ranges from the Los Angeles he knows, where people are frequently defined by the cars they drive, to the Bakersfield in which he grew up."

What the jacket doesn't tell you, although it easily could, is that Campbell grew up gay in Bakersfield. Plato's Garage is, in fact, a study in gayness, from playful looks at Known Actor Dennis Woodruff and Angelyne of Hollywood to the pain of being diagnosed HIV positive and the nervous breakdown that follows.

You would think in the year 2000 we'd be past the point where a publisher needs to be coy about a book on gayness, as seen through a prism of automobiles. But St. Martin's insists Plato's Garage is nothing more than "a profound and sentimental series of essays that engage readers to view society through cars and their owners."

What follows from this is a disingenuous review that completely mis-characterizes the book, is intellectually dishonest, occasionally incoherent, and simply plain wrong. And, in the final twist of the knife, not so subtilely accuses the publisher of, at best, trying to pull one over on the reader or, at worst, homophobia. Since I was the book's editor, and my employer its publisher, I take great offense at all of this. There is so much in the review that is simply wrong, I couldn't begin to address it here but I do want to make a few points:

  1. I do consider Plato's Garage to be a gay book in that there is substantive material here that addresses the author's own experiences as an openly gay person and his observations as they relate to gay culture. I wouldn't have posted it on the Stonewall Inn site if I didn't. But in the 22 essays that make up the book, perhaps only 25% are focused sufficiently upon what I think could reasonably be referred to as the gay condition. The rest of the book does not. It is precisely as described — a collection of essays that look at life and the human condition through the lens of cars and the role they hold in the lives and imaginations of the people (including the author) he discusses.

    The essay about the Monster Truck show is not "a study in gayness" in any aspect. Nor is the essay "Love Child" (referred to in the review above) — the author's interactions with marginal, odd-ball "celebrities" Dennis Woodruff and Angelyne have everything to do with cars and Los Angeles and absolutely nothing to do with sexuality, identity politics, culture, or anything else that might relate to the gay experience. It isn't possible to read the essay that way and to characterize it as such is dishonest. So, while I believe Plato's Garage is a gay book (and of interest to readers as such) and it is by no means a primarily gay book — much less "a study in gayness."

  2. The implication that the copy written for the book (which I wrote) was intended to mislead readers as to the contents of the book is ridiculous. I spent the past dozen years of my professional life working with gay and lesbian writers and actively publishing gay and lesbian books. By my own rough count, I've worked on over 150 (probably more) gay and lesbian works of fiction and non-fiction in that time and at no time have I or my colleagues ever attempted to disguise the nature of the work at hand.

    St. Martin's Press is the only major publishing house to actually have any kind of gay and lesbian publishing program and Stonewall Inn Editions is the only specifically gay and lesbian imprint at a major publishing house. The reviewer's charge of dishonesty on our part is something at which I take personal offense and regard as bordering on libel. The reason the flap copy doesn't specify the gay content of the book (or the author's HIV status) is that this is not the primary focus of the book.

  3. The paper which published the review — the San Francisco Examiner — has completely ignored (to my knowledge) all of the major gay and lesbian books that St. Martin's has published in the last five years. They didn't review An Arrow's Flight by Mark Merlis (which won the Lambda Literary for Best Gay Novel), The Coming Storm by Paul Russell (which is a finalist for this years Lambda), and they certainly didn't review The Pleasure Principle by Michael Bronski (which if anything could be called "a study in gayness," this would be it). I could go on for pages about the major gay and lesbian books that they haven't deemed worth of review attention.

For a major daily newspaper which has ignored so many major gay and lesbian works in the past to publish an attack on the publisher of those works — especially an attack which alleges an attempt to disguise the gay content of a book — is to merely to rub salt in the wound. If the reviewer and the paper are so concerned with works about the gay experience, why is the only one they review the one with arguably the least amount of actual gay content.

The reviewer is so intent on making his charge that he actually lies about the content of the book. For example:

After a while, Campbell's marriage of car and event is only a pretense. An essay on gayness in Kyoto, Japan, is wrapped around taxis because there's no other way cars would fit in, and a bondage interlude outside Paris makes passing mention of a Citroen, just to keep the car theme alive.

The first essay referred to - "Ghost Taxis of Kyoto" - has nothing whatsoever to do with gayness in Japan outside of two brief references to the author's then-current (American) boyfriend. As for the second one, "Paris When It Drizzles," you can read it for yourself and decide if the reviewer's description is accurate.

It is genuinely difficult to publish gay and lesbian themed books at this particular moment in time. Very few mainstream newspapers and magazines actively review them, many bookstores refuse to carry them (their usual reasons being that their "other customers" will be offended or that they have no gay customers), and, at best, they don't sell in the kind of quantities that suit the publishing model of most major publishing houses. To have a major newspaper in a city like San Francisco publish an inaccurate, dishonest attack masquerading as a review is just one indignity too many to suffer in silence.

Speaking of the difficulties of publishing gay and lesbian books, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get some gay and lesbian books even printed. Most recently, we've had difficulty in getting one of our forthcoming books — Dirty Pictures: Tom of Finland, Masculinity, and Homosexuality — printed. Several printers simply refused to print it because they (or their representatives) found Tom of Finland's work offensive. Or, as it was often phrased, "our workers will refuse to do it."

More than once over the years, a jacket or interior printer has refused to work on one of our books because the cover illustration or the subject matter of the book was one that offended their personal sensibilities. What does that mean exactly? Usually that the book in question was a gay or lesbian themed book. Would the workers at the printing plant actually refuse to work on these books? I don't know for certain. But the people at those plants making such decisions have quite often come back to us and said simply that they won't do the work and the book would offend "the community standards" of the area where the plant is located. And, with Dirty Pictures, it didn't matter that the book was a scholarly look at the effect of Tom of Finland's work on the development of gay culture. It certainly didn't seem matter that Tom of Finland is now widely regarded as a culturally significant artist, one whose work is in many major private, public, and museum holdings.

I'm lucky in that I work at a major publishing house which prints over 1,000 books a year. Because of the volume of work we do with various printers, we have an economic clout that many smaller presses don't have. The end result was that my production department was able to get a printer to accept the job and the book will appear on schedule. This is book that could legitimately be considered a "study in gayness" and I recommend it to all of you.

So, you might wonder, what possible connection is there between the trouble with printing Dirty Pictures and the ridiculously poor review of Plato's Garage? The other day one of my colleagues at another publishing house asked me why I (and my associates) put ourselves through all the trouble and difficulties involved in publishing gay/lesbian books. This has become a rather common question and on a good day I would answer it by saying that, as a literature, I think it is one of the most vital being written as well as a significant contribution to defining and explicating gay and lesbian culture.

On a bad day, much like this one, my answer would be, "I have no idea."

Keith Kahla is the senior editor who calls the shots at Stonewall Inn.


Previous "Having Our Say" topics:

Back to the Stonewall Inn