“Oh, I don’t read gay literature, it’s too depressing: all coming out stories, AIDS memoirs, and undiluted angst,” a gay man said to me not long ago when I told him that I was a judge on the Polari First Book Prize, which now in its sixth year, is awarded annually to a writer whose first book explores the LGBT experience, whether in poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction.
In some ways, I can understand where this man’s opinion came from. LGBT-themed books can be dark. Certainly, those written in the 1950s were often unremittingly bleak, focusing on the tragic destiny of gay men and lesbians, and frequently resulting in inevitable death for the protagonist. Yet coming out stories and AIDS memoirs (particularly popular in the late 1990s, when the epidemic was at its height) are vital in that they document key historic moments in our culture. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for any writer, therefore, is to present these often sombre themes in a way which highlights the positive aspects of our lives, the hope that can be found in even the darkest of experiences.
My first love affair with gay literature started – as it did with many gay men of my generation – with Edmund White’s autobiographical novels: A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty and The Farewell Symphony. The last of these made an indelible impression on me. It charted the attempts of a gay man to forge a new queer aesthetic in writing during a period of monumental change during the 1970s - 1980s in New York. Its intricate tapestry of personal histories captures the defiant hedonism of the era and the inexorable quest for an alternative, workable lifestyle outside the bounds of what was then considered “normal” – and so restrictive.
The best LGBT books take us on a journey, inspiring us, and in many cases showing us difficult realities can be transformed into life-changing strategies for survival. A few years ago I interviewed Armistead Maupin about his Tales of the City series. He spoke about the way that he addressed the gay epidemic, and explained that Edmund White objected to the humour that he used in his books, saying that it was inappropriate when exploring the disease which was killing thousands of gay men. Maupin said that White has since withdrawn that remark, but that at the time he was sensitive to it because “like everyone else, I wanted to be doing the best thing I could” to depict what he saw happening around him. Crucially, every LGBT writer has a different way of doing this.
This is now the second year that I’ve been a judge on the Polari First Book Prize, and the variety and high standard of submissions have once again delighted me. At a time when publishing is facing huge challenges, LGBT writing is very much alive and continues to not only tackle the issues queer people face here and now but to also look ahead and imagine the what a future society may look like.
The force behind the prize is author and journalist Paul Burston, who edited the LGBT section of London’s Time Out magazine for 20 years. He also hosts and programmes the monthly literary salon, Polari, at London’s Southbank Centre which gives both established and new LGBT writers invaluable opportunities to showcase their work. As such, Burston is well placed to comment on the trends in LGBT writing today.
“There’s more of it now than there was a few years ago,” he tells me. “This is largely thanks to self-publishing but also to smaller independent presses willing to take a chance on books that are often seen as ‘too niche’.” He cites the publishing house Salt, who published two previous winners of the prize: John McCullough for his poetry collection The Frost Fairs and last year’s winner, Kirsty Logan, for The Rental Heart.
But, Burston believes, commercial LGBT fiction in the UK is still way behind the US market. “There’s just not the support for it,” he says. “Where is the British Armistead Maupin or Stephen McCauley? What's happening more and more is that LGBT writers in the UK are writing genre fiction, e.g. crime, and getting gay characters into their stories. Sci-fi also has a tradition of looking beyond straight narratives. And these days, young adult fiction is increasingly LGBT friendly.”
This year’s longlist, which was announced on 1 June, features three books with transgender themes: Trans by Juliet Jacques, Slap by Alexis Gregory and Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin. Given the increased visibility of trans people, this is not surprising – and is certainly very welcome. But what other types of writing would Burston like to see?
“More books about the life we live now. I enjoy historical fiction but I also want to read about characters I recognise, not only those who inhabit some rarefied world few of us get to see. There are still lots of stories to be told about what it means to be LGBT in the 21st century. I'd like to read them.”
The shortlist of up to six titles will be announced on Thursday, July 28, 2016, at a special Polari literary salon held at The Southbank Centre. The winner will then be revealed at the London Literature Festival on Friday, October 7, 2016 at the Southbank Centre.
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