The Epidemic That Barely Was
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Published in: March-April 2011 issue.


I STARTED TEACHING courses on hiv/aids literature to undergraduates after spending more than five years researching the subject for my doctorate. The period in which I initially sought out and devoured any and all types of “AIDS literature” was uneven enough. During my first year as a graduate student, 1990–91, it felt like a narrowly delimited topic with a few score works of creative literature in all genres, and just a handful with substantial literary interest.

The first decade of the health crisis witnessed a number of plays, films, poems, memoirs, and novels about AIDS. But this was nothing compared to the deluge that appeared in the years 1990 to ’94. There had simply been a time delay. GLBT authors in particular had taken to the immediate needs of their own health, and that of their partners and friends. Even where that was not true, they had sometimes borne witness, sometimes taken notes, sometimes prevaricated, and sometimes protested through political activist organizations such as ACT UP. Literary productivity implied reflectiveness and the achievement of perspective; the day-to-day reality for gay writers, as for gay men generally, ruled out both reflective and perspective-bearing modes of thinking.

When the deluge came, it coincided with a marked upturn in the critical and commercial fortunes of GLBT literature, drama, and film, but most of these would have nothing to do with the epidemic. Gay men and lesbians were discovered to possess previously unrecognized purchasing power, comprising a niche market that might be tapped through its own stores, bars, and lifestyle magazines. The problem for hiv/aids, meanwhile, was quickly understood: nobody was buying. Publishers, booksellers, and film production companies understood the potent aura of stigma and taboo around the syndrome. Factor in the decline in health of those affected by AIDS, and you were left with a very select group of potential readers and viewers: academics, students, and a few others who continued to take stock of AIDS culture.

Just a year before, in 1996, “AIDS culture” had witnessed a different sort of watershed: a high-profile fictional account of hiv/aids’ impact on several constituencies, namely women, teenagers, African-Americans, and heterosexuals.

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