All this week Tahoma Literary Review is offering a discussion of diversity in literature, with posts from a TLR contributor or editor. We hope the series will lead to a lively discussion. Comments are open this week.
By Stefen Styrsky
When I started writing years ago, I was encouraged by the high regard that David Leavitt, and in particular his story “Territory,” had earned in American literary culture. A gay writer of quality and substance writing about gay people: what could be more heartening for a new writer who aimed to do the same?
But I was also disappointed. It seemed that Leavitt was the one and only openly gay writer whom editors were willing to include in contemporary fiction venues. “Territory,” was first published in The New Yorker and later collected in The Granta Book of the American Short Story and then in the Scribner’s Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. A different Leavitt story also showed up in the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, an arbiter of “good” literature if there ever was one, and he even got a spot in Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.
My disappointment was not because Leavitt is a bad writer or that “Territory” is a bad story. He’s a fantastic, talented artist, and “Territory” is a wonderful, deeply affecting work. But at the time I wondered what was wrong with other talented gay writers such as Edmund White, Guy Davenport and Andrew Holleran. They were not included as frequently, or at all, in surveys of American writing. And though Leavitt was brilliant, only twenty years old when “Territory” was published, I could see why his work might be more palatable to general readers. It was as if Hemingway’s advice to “write one true sentence” wasn’t good enough for a gay writer unless one’s true sentences were readily identifiable to a wider audience.
I felt trapped. For how can we tell the truth without telling how we, as writers, see, hear, understand and experience the world? If we do tell the truth, something that is part of our experience will emerge, and that experience might be different (sometimes radically) from what other writers, editors and readers know. And that experience might not always be met with acceptance.
The past provided me with numerous examples. E.M. Forster’s Maurice wasn’t publishable in his lifetime. The bisexual characters in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room have sometimes been termed compromises, perhaps to make the book more acceptable to general audiences. Totempole by Sanford Friedman, a brilliant novel by any measure, was met with outright critical hostility when it was published in 1965. And how widely known was (is) gay/queer writer David Wojnorawicz, not to mention his raw and intimate The Waterfront Journals? Or Sarah Schulman, author of the effervescent and cutting After Delores?
If you were working outside mainstream styles or concerns, this made for a chilling atmosphere. Not only did you feel relegated to the “literary ghetto,” but you wondered if maybe your stories were even worth telling. A determined artist will damn anyone who says that the writer is not doing the right work, but even among the most bull-headed, a nagging suggestion of irrelevance can be a powerful censor.
There was a reason a gay/queer press devoted to printing literature about gay men and women developed. Their work was often neglected, ignored or denigrated simply for its subject matter. Journals such as The James White Review, Christopher Street Magazine, and the Harrington Lesbian Literary Quarterly; review magazines such as the Lambda Book Report; and publishers such as Stonewall Inn Editions (an imprint of St. Martin’s) provided havens and much-needed validation for unconventional writers.
In recent years, American society has seen sweeping and profound changes when it comes to the acceptance of gay people and other minority groups. Yet, it’s still encouraging to know that some mainstream venues have declared they are actively seeking work that represents the span of peoples laboring in today’s literary field. Some might believe this effort is no longer necessary. Or that it smacks of politically-correct quotas unconcerned with artistic merit. I doubt these journals will ever sacrifice quality in the service of diversity. However, I do believe the editors of these journals mean to ensure that no one voice, cultural viewpoint, or type of narrative dominates literature. No one will be the worse, and we can only imagine what new and exciting stories, poems and essays will get their deserved attention.
Stefen Styrsky’s fiction appeared in TLR’s first issue. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The James White Review, Cactus Heart, Between, Seltzer Zine and Fresh Men 2: New Voices in Gay Fiction. He has written for Gay City News and the Lambda Book Report. He lives in Washington, DC.