Canning Defends Stonewall Review
To the Editor:
I’m always pleased to kick off a debate, so the responses concerning my piece on Les Brookes’ Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall (Jan.-Feb. 2009 issue; letters in March-April 2009) from the author and from Paulina Palmer were largely welcome. As Brookes notes, it is the duty of a critic to be critical, but I don’t believe overall that I was unduly so. Positive comments include: “Brookes doesn’t oversimplify the concept”; “You couldn’t put it better”; “Other sections are, I think, richer and more original”; “a worthwhile book, all too clearly worth arguing with.”
Brookes writes, however, that it was “mean-spirited” of me to note some of the many errors in the book at the conclusion. This is standard academic practice in many disciplines and does not imply any special importance to the matter. But nor, as I point out, should such things simply be overlooked, particularly in the case of a volume sold at such a steep price. I was careful, however, to apportion blame squarely to publishers and the editing process, not to Brookes himself. Other faults, though, must lie with the author, such as the description of Colm Tóibín as “British.” I note that in his letter Brookes does not respond to any of my specific reservations about textual readings.
On the wider point he does take issue with—referring to his own claim that “literature has been almost the only place where one could learn about homosexuality”—I stick to my guns. It may be that the editor’s title for my piece, “Novel Ideas in a Static Landscape”—not my choice—raised the importance of this concern unduly. But a simple tense change in Brookes’ argument would have solved it (“was,” not “has been”). I’m glad that we agree on the “high profile” of gay sexuality in contemporary popular cultural forms. Still, in a culture where millions see movies, watch TV, listen to songs, and read the newspapers, compared to the dutiful thousand or two like myself and Brookes who still read gay fiction, it is surely highly improbable to argue, as he does here, that gay men and women (and straights!) don’t learn much from the sexual representations these contain. One of the novels he esteems, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, is in part about precisely this: the importance of fashion, the tune of the moment, the drug of choice to the emerging gay male subculture. Such concerns are shallow and simultaneously momentous, as inter-war authors such as Fitzgerald and Waugh understood them to be.
Less fortuitous was Paulina Palmer’s bizarre account of my ideas. Palmer calls my review “slipshod,” but the interpretation I made of Brookes’ views regarding popular cultural forms is confirmed by his own reply; it is not a “misreading.” Nor does it suggest that I need to read “more carefully.” Palmer might usefully read my review again; nowhere do I argue against the idea that fiction “continues to contribute to the growth of gay consciousness.” As for the claim that I used the review “as a space to display his [my]own … preferences,” I’m happily a hundred percent guilty. The long, discursive essay reviewing a book has a centuries-long history in literary criticism, as Palmer knows, and still characterizes superior pieces, as published, say, in the TLS, LRB, and learned journals. My detailed thoughts on Brookes’ work, I hoped, themselves paid tribute to its importance.
Brookes’ own communication—thoughtful and temperate—contrasts sharply with Palmer’s unhelpful invective, itself related to her implicit argument: that I should summarize Brookes’ thesis, rather than have a view upon it. But that is a P.R. person’s job. We may all be “living in a postmodern age,” but that does not require us to share uncritically all, or any, of its values, thankfully. I remain unconvinced of the worth of the two genre novels Brookes considers in their context, though I nowhere imply that genre fiction per se cannot enlighten us. As for Palmer’s point that I neglect the book’s central thesis concerning assimilation versus radicalism, could she look at paragraph four again? Here I explain and accept the notion, while wishing that Brookes had “developed this thesis further, with respect to aspects of literary style.”
Lastly, I’m sorry that Palmer interpreted my reference to the possible relevance of Brookes’ age as “sneering.” It was certainly not meant thus. We are all bound by the deficiencies as well as the strengths of our own generational and cultural circumstances, whatever they are. To my mind, this underlines the reality of the “speed of change” characterizing the phenomenon of contemporary gay fiction. I’m at a loss to understand what generates the strain of biting personal attack which characterizes Palmer’s letter, which ends on a call for editorial censorship. (Imagine if novelists were unable to reveal the age of their characters, on account of the charge of “ageism”!) Still, I am clear that critics can debate fruitfully and with more consequence without it, as Brookes’ own response illustrates. Just as his book engaged positively with my own volumes of interviews with gay novelists, so I too have sought to engage carefully and constructively with “gay male fiction since Stonewall.”
Richard Canning, University of Sheffield, UK
Who Got the Times to See the Light?
To the Editor:
I recently read Allen Ellenzweig’s undated letter to the editor [March-April 2009 issue], adding his own corrections and recollections about glaad’s meeting with The New York Times to discuss a broad range of issues regarding the content of their coverage of gay- and AIDS-related stories and their style rule of not allowing the usage of the word “gay.”
What I remember, as then head of the Media Committee at glaad, is that the meeting was precipitated by the appointment of Max Frankel as managing editor of the Times. It was he who accepted our request for a meeting. His predecessor, Abe Rosenthal, who had in fact been perceived as setting homophobic policies at the Times, was not present. Our meeting with Max Frankel was cordial and each of us made points that Frankel agreed were well taken. It is my memory that it was Andy Humm—although not a member of glaad, but someone who joined us at the meeting—who pointed out that the word “homosexual” is far longer than “gay” and thus takes up more space. When Frankel argued that the Times always took a slow, considered approach to changing usage, I pointed out that it could make rapid changes in usage when it pleased the Times, as when it switched from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “African-American” or “person of color” in rapid succession. Mr. Frankel ended our meeting by admonishing us in a friendly way not to expect the Times to become a “gay” newspaper, adding that it shouldn’t be thought of us a “straight” newspaper either.
A few days after our meeting, we were shocked and delighted to discover that, for the first time in its history, the Times adopted the use of the word gay! As Allen Ellenzweig correctly points out, it was this meeting called by glaad and my Media Committee that lead to this turning point in the Times coverage of the GLBT community.
I would also ask you to recall the full-page ad that was taken out protesting the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Georgia sodomy law in Bowers v. Hardwick in 1986. It was my idea to gather the names of the most prominent law professors and lawyers to shame the court for its appalling decision and present their protest in the Times on the opening day of the court’s new session in 1986. I presented my idea at a board meeting to unanimous board support, and Evan Wolfson was brought on board to coordinate what came to be known as the Supreme Court Project. I still retain the galley proofs for this ad as part of my personal archive.
Michael Hunt Stolbach, Fleetwood, PA
Why Civil Unions Aren’t Good Enough
To the Editor:
In his letter to the editor in the May-June 2009 issue, Leland Traiman states that “Marriage equality does not mean marriage.” This concept is a very destructive regression into the policies of the past.
Marriage equality cannot exist without true marriage, which includes both civil marriage and religious marriage. The church can convey God’s blessings, and the state can convey civil rights. However, in reality, “marriage” is comprised of yet one more component: emotional acceptance. In the eyes of most couples, this is more important than civil rights and probably even more important than God’s blessings. When Aunt Sally—not the state of Iowa or the United Church of Christ—recognizes that Rick and Bill are married, then they will truly feel married.
Religious marriage equality derives from a wise and unbiased study of theology and scripture. Civil marriage equality derives from a wise and unbiased study of constitutional law. True marriage equality comes only from the evolution of society’s collective emotions. Perhaps the most important role either the church or the state can play in this scenario is being the catalyst for making the people really believe with their hearts rather than respond with their irrational fears.
Leland goes on to state, “As righteous as this cause may be, the strategy to achieve it has been a failure.” This, too, is not the case. The strategy has been a great success and continues to move forward rapidly in this era of social change. In 2000, some of us in California tried to put a pro-marriage equality proposition on the ballot. The major gay fundraising groups shied away, preferring to fight the conservatives than to take a positive stand. That sort of action, which dominated the gay political arena for twenty years, is why it appears that “the strategy to achieve it has been a failure.”
“Separate but equal” is not equal. There is no marriage equality without real marriage. Civil unions, domestic partnerships, and holy unions are part of the problem, not the solution. While these legal and liturgical exercises grant real benefits, they dance around the issue and, at a deep emotional level, convey a sense of inferiority. Aunt Sally is unlikely to tell everyone her nephew just got “civil unioned” because there are no convenient terms for this concept. She probably would tell everyone her nephew just got married. While today she may be uncomfortable reporting that he married a man, eventually—as the concept of true marriage equality grows within society—she will not hesitate to say so. That is why for 22 years the Ecumenical Catholic Church has celebrated same-sex marriage and forbidden the term “holy union,” using exactly the same rite as for a different-sex wedding.
When Aunt Sally’s friends don’t immediately picture a woman when she tells them her nephew got married, that is marriage equality. Not until that time will marriage equality truly exist, even if all fifty states and the federal government pass laws granting full rights, and even if all the churches have rites of partnership but don’t call them “marriage.” Whether we like it or not, it really is all in the word.
Most Rev. Mark Shirilau, Riverside, CA
In Defense of Allen Ginsberg
To the Editor:
I write to protest the scandalously unfair review by Richard Canning of The Letters of Allen Ginsberg [Nov.-Dec. 2008]. This review is nothing less than a profoundly uninformed and misleading attack on one of the 20th century’s greatest poets—and one of the most generous writers of all time. Moreover, Ginsberg was among the people in the arts who did the most to advance gay and lesbian civil rights in the last century, simply by having the courage to write frankly and openly about his homosexuality when no one else would. Canning’s unfairness is all the more regrettable as the book under review was a labor of love by the respected and selfless Ginsberg scholar, Bill Morgan.
In his almost 2,500-word-long diatribe against the poet, Canning describes Ginsberg as “depressingly base,” “whining, wheedling, on the make; defensive, accusatory, and sly,” a writer who “will exhaust and enervate” the reader, someone whose every letter has “an overblown quality,” a writer who is given to “name-calling” and is “weirdly pedantic.” He portrays the poet as a calculating man interested in “mutual exploitation,” whose “grubbing for favor is unappetizing,” someone who liked to “blow his own horn,” who wrote “hubristically,” and whose “accounts of his travels are perfunctory, even clichéd,” resembling a “National Lampoon’s Vacation, or the rampant text-messaging of an adolescent.” Canning ends his article by denouncing Ginsberg as “conceited” and “bombastic.”
One wonders, then, why artists as varied as Vaclav Havel, Edmund White, Bob Dylan, Robert Frank, Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, John Giorno, Gus van Sant, and a host of other artists consider Ginsberg to be a major poet and, as Lou Reed said at his funeral, a very nice guy.
Canning’s review contains such twaddle as “it’s striking how uninterested he was throughout his career in the poetics of poetry.” In point of fact, Ginsberg wrote many detailed and extraordinarily insightful discussions about just this topic. In Spontaneous Mind, for example, Ginsberg elaborated his views on poetics for over a hundred pages.
To give another example, Canning writes: “The truth is that through this consistent inability to observe other things and people, Ginsberg reveals that he was fundamentally uninterested in anything outside or beyond himself.” Perhaps Canning would like to explain how it is that many people who met the poet have reported how surprised they were that he was as interested in them as they were in him.
When Allen Ginsberg died, one of the world’s largest churches, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, was filled with mourners. It is difficult to explain why the public turned out in such numbers if Ginsberg was a tenth as mean-spirited as Canning would have us believe. Perhaps it is rather the reviewer who suffers from some of the qualities that he attributes to his subject. This is a nasty and deceitful attack on a great and generous writer.
David Carter, New York City