gay and lesbian writing

gay and lesbian writing
   The increasing visibility and confidence of gay and lesbian culture in Britain in the postwar period has been matched by a growing body of explicitly gay and lesbian literature. Many high-street bookshops now have special sections devoted to gay and lesbian literature, and a significant number of gay writers and texts have acclaim in wider generic or mainstream markets.
   The question of what makes a work of fiction gay or lesbian (the sexual orientation of its author, its subject matter, or a combination of both), is one that continues to engage critics and activists. This issue has been further complicated by the comparatively recent development of ‘queer’ politics and theory that contest binary divisions of gay/ straight and male/female and argue for more supple and subtle understandings of sexuality. Many fictional texts which predate ‘queer’ theory, as well as those which are contemporaneous, have explored issues of sexuality and gender in ways that have exceeded the constraints of the explanatory models and taxonomies of their historical moments. In the 1960s, Brigid Brophy’s In Transit (1969) featured a protagonist with no fixed gender, while the plays of Joe Orton, including Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964), Loot (1966) and What the Butler Saw (1967), foregrounded the chaotic pleasures of polymorphously perverse sexualities. While his plays shocked and delighted audiences, Orton himself achieved notoriety as an outrageous and iconoclastic personality, tragically murdered in 1967 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell.
   Maureen Duffy’s work, including plays, poetry and novels, notably The Microcosm (1966), portrays lesbian life. Duffy has been criticized for adhering to Freudian views on lesbianism and apparently endorsing butch-femme roles that some lesbians have found unacceptable, but her work has been celebrated for exceeding the constraints of its theoretical framework and for its candour. The criticisms recall those levelled against the first British novel by a lesbian about lesbianism, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928). The novel, which was banned in England as an obscene publication, endorsed the view that lesbians should be socially accepted and provided a powerful lesbian role model in Stephen Gordon. Hall’s adherence to the essentialist theory of ‘congenital inversion’, developed by late nineteenth-century sexologists, and the novel’s tragic dimension have been criticized for undermining the positive representation of lesbianism. In the cases of both Duffy and Hall, the specific theoretical models of lesbian sexuality espoused by the writers have been seen as limiting their explorations of lesbianism, but both writers have been celebrated for depicting lesbian relationships as a vital part of everyday life. The best-known lesbian writer in Britain today is Jeanette Winterson. Winterson’s semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) presents a young girl’s exploration of her lesbian sexuality by interweaving realist narrative and fairy-tale styles. The popular and critically acclaimed BBC television serial in 1990, based on the novel, made Winterson a household name and offered a rare opportunity to see a prime-time drama about lesbians. Winterson has continued to explore issues of different sexualities and of gender in other novels such as The Passion (1987), Sexing the Cherry (1989) and Written on the Body (1992), and in her short story collection The World and Other Places (1998), where she contrasts the intensity of some (gypsies, aviators, artists and sexual transgressors) with the mundanity of others (‘mass man: parent, spouse, teacher, home owner, voter’). Other novels of note in the late 1980s and early 1990s were Alan Hollinghurst’s critically acclaimed depiction of English gay life as seen through the eyes of its promiscuous aristocratic narrator The Swimming Pool Library (1988), which was followed by his Booker Prize-nominated The Folding Star (1994) and The Spell (1998), and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) which explored the impact of the interrelationship of sexual and cultural differences on its young Anglo-Indian protagonist. Related concerns with post-colonial identities are evident in Patrick Gale’s comic novel Kansas in August (1987), which, like his earlier and perhaps lighter novels Ease (1985) and The Aerodynamics of Pork (1985), features convoluted plotting and a wide range of characters searching for identity and love. A strong feature of recent English lesbian fiction is the popular crime novel. The best-known works are by Val McDermid, including the girls’ school mystery Report for Murder (1987) with ‘cynical socialist lesbian feminist journalist’ protagonist Lindsay Gordon, and a series featuring Manche-ster-based private detective Kate Brannigan, starting with Dead Beat (1992). Equally popular if less easy to categorize are Michael Carson’s comic novels including Sucking Sherbet Lemons (1988), which explores the clash of Catholicism and gayness in an alternative coming of age novel and introduces his best-loved protagonist Martin Benson, whose further adventures are chronicled in later novels Stripping Penguins Bare (1991) and Yanking Up the Yo-Yo (1992). Other notable novels of the 1990s are Neil Bartlett’s allusive love story Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall (1990) and Jonathan Neale’s The Laughter of Heroes (1993), a bittersweet comic novel that was favourably compared with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series. In the theatre, the most successful playwright dealing explicitly with gay issues has been American- born Martin Sherman, who lives in London.
   Bent (1979), his study of a young man’s development from self-loathing to understanding and the discovery of love in a Nazi concentration camp, opened at London’s Royal Court and was an immediate critical success. Its celebration of gay love in the face of oppression has made it a pertinent drama ever since, notably in the late 1980s when government legislation (specifically Clause 28) attempted to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality and threatened the funding of many gay and lesbian artists and writers. Jane Kirby’s realist drama Twice Over (1988) explored the discovery by a teenage girl of her grandmother’s unacknowledged lesbian relationship, and Peter Gill’s Mean Tears (1987), a satirical drama about contemporary sexual mores, was produced at the National Theatre. This was unusual as most gay theatre has been produced in fringe venues and by groups such as Gay Sweatshop, who were at the forefront of gay and lesbian drama through the 1970s and 1980s.
   Perhaps the most acclaimed figure in English gay writing is the poet Thorn Gunn (b. 1929). Gunn’s early verse celebrated heroic models of gay masculinity and often invited comparisons with the work of Auden and Isherwood. Gunn, like the earlier writers, moved to the United States and the impact impact of AIDS on his adopted San Francisco community is reflected in what is arguably his most acclaimed work, The Man with Night Sweats (1992). Against a background of homophobic denunciation of the gay community’s apparent hedonism, Gunn explores the interrelationship of pleasure and pain in formal poetry that captures personal tragedy of public importance.
   AIDS has been the spur and subject of much recent writing including The Darker Proof: Stories from a Crisis (1987) by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White, and Mars-Jones’s Monopolies of Loss (1992). Mars-Jones, a film critic and writer who edited an influential collection of lesbian and gay fiction by British and American writers, Mae West is Dead (1983), started to write about AIDS after acting as ‘buddy’ to two AIDS patients. His novel The Waters of Thirst (1993) does not deal with AIDS but has been widely interpreted as a commentary on the effects of HIV on contemporary identities and relationships. AIDS was also a major theme in A Matter of Life and Sex (1991) by film critic and novelist Oscar Moore, whose own experiences of living with AIDS were movingly recounted in columns in the Guardian until his death in 1997.
   See also: gay film; gay liberation
   Further reading
    Hobby, E. and White, C. (eds) (1991) What Lesbians Do in Books, London: Women’s Press.
    Summers, C.J. (ed.) (1997) The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, London: Bloomsbury.
    Woods, G. (1998) A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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