Rebuttals to Canning on Gay Male Fiction
To the Editor:
It’s the duty of a critic to be critical, and Richard Canning, in his review of my book Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall [Jan.–Feb. 2009 issue], makes some fair points. However, the title of his review—“Novel Ideas in a Static Landscape”—seriously misrepresents the book. After all, right from the start I characterize the period since Stonewall as one of “meteoric change.” Indeed, my first chapter is essentially a detailed account of those changes, which places gay fiction in an ever-shifting landscape.
What Canning does is to focus on an early passage in my book where I discuss the key role of literature in the development of gay consciousness. Literature still has such a role, I argue, even allowing for the high profile that gay sexuality now has on television, in film, music and the press. This, then, is the situation that “has not much changed.” In other words, I am not convinced that gays learn much about their sexuality from popular cultural forms. Of course, I may be wrong about this, but even if I am, it’s unfair of Canning to suggest that my general argument amounts to an assertion that nothing has changed, and less than generous to present my remarks as part of the backward thinking of the elderly and out-of-touch.
It’s also meanspirited of him to pounce on a few minor problems of editing in his final paragraph, rather than conclude on some broader note. His nitpicking here rebounds on him, too, since the misspelling of Alan Sinfield’s name that occurs earlier in the piece—Allen Sinfield—shows that he is not above such errors himself.
Les Brookes, Cambridge, England
[Editor’s note: The title of Richard Canning’s review, “Novel Ideas on a Static Landscape,” was written by me in an attempt to capture the author’s main thesis. The misspelling of Alan Sinfield’s name was an editorial error, not Canning’s, and is greatly regretted.]
To the Editor:
I am writing to protest at Richard Canning’s slipshod and unfair review of Les Brookes’ Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall (Jan.-Feb. 2009).
Having misread Brookes’ observation that “the “situation has not much changed,” referring in Brookes’ book to the fact that fiction continues to contribute to the growth of gay consciousness, Canning then proceeds to base a major part of his critique on this misreading. In actual fact, Brookes devotes a considerable amount of space to detailing the changes that have occurred in gay political, ideological and literary perspectives since the 1960’s and 70’s—as Canning would have recognized had he read the book more carefully.
Another problem with the review is that Canning devotes an excessive amount of it to airing his own views on gay/queer fiction, using it as a space to display his own rather narrow preferences. I can’t understand why he should object to Brookes including in his discussion reference to works of genre fiction by Poppy Brite and Clive Barker. We are living in a postmodern age in which genre fiction is recognized as a significant literary form. In my view, the reference to the fiction of Brite and Barker increases the range and interest of Brookes’ book. He merits praise for it rather than criticism.
While devoting space to other matters, Canning makes little reference to Brookes’ closely argued and richly illustrated analysis of the debate between “assimilation” and “radicalism” that he sees as informing gay male fiction since 1969. This forms the central thesis of the book, and it is a pity that Canning does not give it more attention.
The sneering reference to Brookes’ age that Canning inserts on the opening page of the review is invidious and ageist. I could scarcely believe my eyes on reading it and am surprised that the editor let it stand.
Dr. Paulina Palmer, Cambridge, England
But Who Was Harvey Milk?
To the Editor:
This is in response to the articles on the movie Milk that appeared in the last issue [March-April 2009]. Everyone in the gay community today knows the name of Harvey Milk. And yet we have but a paucity of detail on who he actually was and what he was like. If he were a figure from the Middle Ages, that would be understandable. That he died only thirty years ago, the absence of depth and detail is appalling.
To date we have but one major source: Randy Shilts’ hurried-into-print and unabashedly laudatory biography, The Mayor of Castro Street, which began by appearing in 1979, in gay periodicals, a year after Milk’s death. Shilts was a tabloid journalist; he was neither a scholar nor a researcher. His aim was to make a good story and get it out. To his credit, he produced a very lively and readable book.
Harvey Milk created no account of himself for posterity’s sake. He left little or no estate. He was far from a literary person. There are no autobiographical sketches, no diaries, memoirs or important letters. There is no commentary that one can turn to for depth, insight, or speculation. What artifacts do exist are little more than the flotsam and jetsam that he had in his pocket when he was shot. He was in office but a short time, and there are few civic accomplishments to lay at his feet.
The gay men of San Francisco who were Milk’s contemporaries and helped him fashion his image and shape his strategies are dead. Old age and AIDS has already taken that generation of early gay liberationists.
Still, Harvey Milk reigns as the Miss America of gay liberation politics. No one before him or after him has reached his pinnacle of fame and and the power to inspire. What is yet to be done is to document and record any living information and vestiges of his life and times. Thirty years from now will be too late.
For those interested in posterity, this might be this generation’s most important undertaking: to concretize the foundations of Harvey Milk’s renown, and not let his life and legacy become merely grist for the Hollywood star mill. Gay historians and archivists, get busy!
Paul Lorch, Guerneville, CA
It Was the American Arts Festival
To the Editor:
I was delighted to read, two issues ago, that John Glines still thrives at 76, although now far removed from Manhattan, and from the very the building where I happen to live (1900 Broadway) and where I used to see him when he worked for Sesame Street.
I wasn’t so delighted, however, to notice your writer’s mention of “the First and Second Gay Arts Festivals.” When my partner and I (now going on 49 years together) worked for John and Larry Lane to help promote the events in question, I insisted that they rename the series, “The First Gay American Arts Festival.” (The venue was Lincoln Center, which also happens to be across the street from 1900 Broadway.) John and Larry took my advice, and the series was officially renamed. To my knowledge, it was the first time the phrase “gay American” was ever used in so publicly proud a fashion. I doubt that ex-governor McGreevey [of Jersey]was ever as proud of being a gay American as were those of us who first used this term all those years ago.
Marshall Yaeger, New York City
Why ‘Marriage Equality’ Should Reign
To the Editor:
Please let me clarify a point made in a letter from me that was published in the last issue. Marriage equality does not mean marriage. Marriage equality is having all rights of marriage, both state and federal, regardless of the title, be it marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership. Our community has been convinced that marriage equality equals marriage, but it does not. Massachusetts and Connecticut marriages lack federal marriage rights. It is wrong to refer to those marriages as marriage equality. President Obama supports marriage equality as stated on the White House website. He simply doesn’t believe those equal rights should be labeled “marriage.”
National polls have not changed since 2004. About 55 to 58 percent support marriage equality, which would include all the rights of opposite-sex couples, but only about 35 percent support labeling those rights “marriage.” Given this fact, our losses in California, Florida and Arizona are understandable. We’ve lost 31 of 32 referendums. All of our Proposition 8 analysis will not change this fact.
Our fight for the rites of marriage, as it were, has obscured our fight for the rights of marriage. Since 1971 the pattern has not changed. We go to court and, win or lose (mostly lose), there’s a strong reaction that leads to same-sex marriage being outlawed in more and more states—we’re now up to 45. As righteous as this cause may be, the strategy to achieve it has been a failure. Conversely, our success in getting marriage rights through state legislatures has never been reversed.
If we do not change our focus from state marriage, we will lose a historic opportunity to achieve federal marriage rights. President Obama has high approval ratings and we have large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. The time to act is now. If we fail to follow President Obama’s suggestion to work for federal marriage rights, not “marriage,” we will have neither marriage rights nor marriage rites except in a few scattered states.
Leland Traiman, Alameda, CA
1970’s Rome Was a Happening Place
To the Editor:
A small correction to Eduardo Febles’ review of Big Trips in the March-April 2009 issue: Given that my contribution, “Lamb of God,” is fiction and just a snippet of a novella dealing with the waning of the Cold War and the looming onset of AIDS, I hesitate to quibble with Mr. Febles’ generous comments on the anthology in general and my 1970’s Rome excerpt in particular, except to note that the nostalgia to which he refers is not for “by today’s standards an unrecognizable city plagued by the remnants of fascist thought,” but rather a melancholy celebration of gay, lesbian, feminist, Euro-Communist experience in what was then a place of vibrant progressive politics and social life against and mixed up with those nasty postwar hangovers. Indeed, it is arguably true that Rome, whose recently elected mayor is a former member of the reconstituted Fascist party (Movimento Sociale Italiano) and whose inauguration was greeted with raised-fist Fascist salutes to the cry of “Duce” (as opposed to the 1970’s mayoralty of the leftist art critic Giulio Carlo Argan, to cite one example) is more fascist now, albeit in a “normalized” way, than ever since the end of World War II. Italy has fallen under a spell of “conformist indifference,” to cite the key words of two of Moravia’s best novels.
With the forces of the thrice freely-elected, criminally-indicted Berlusconi regime controlling just about all media and manipulating the courts, while organized crime (see Roberto Saviano’s book or film Gomorrah) and the reactionary forces of the Vatican—referred to by Italian friends as Ayatollah Ratzinger—run roughshod over life in the bel paese in the wake of the collapse of the progressive Italian Left, the narrator of “Lamb of God” is nostalgic, but not for anything about a Fascist past. Italy in 2009 is a wasteland compared to its exciting culture of the 70’s, including the last gasps of the “dolce vita,” in which sweet little pleasures were imbibed as an end unto themselves. This is not the nostalgia of an older man looking back thirty years, but the optimism of a 23-year-old who engaged in what Bertolucci (Prima della Rivoluzione) called a “nostalgia del presente.”
Ty Geltmaker, Los Angeles