Conversations on…Gay Literature

Conversations on…Gay Literature

By Tim Parks

Gay literature and the people who write and publish it, have always faced somewhat of an uphill battle – although there have been authors like Armistead Maupin, David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs who have managed to achieve crossover success and best-selling status. Plus, there have been award-winning authors, such as Michael Cunningham who won The Pulitzer Prize for The Hours and Allan Hollingshurst snagged the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, bringing credibility to the genre, which has been looked upon as a niche market.  

But, times have gotten a bit tougher in this area of publishing over this last year, as a number of imprints have gone asunder, such as Carroll & Graf and Harrington Park Press.

I spoke with three authors, and one Editor-In-Chief of a major GLBT publishing house, to get to the bottom of the struggles they face, what place gay literature holds in the today’s marketplace, and the future outlook for this branch in the publishing tree.

John Scognamiglio, the Editor-In-Chief of Kensington Books, acquires all of the publishing house’s gay and lesbian titles, a program that has been intact since 1999, and he has called the process a “learning experience of trial and error,” due in part to gauging readers’ taste.    

He had this to say about the financial viability of books published in this specific sector, which can prove to be challenging.   

“Authors get advances, so you need to know how much you can reasonably afford to spend in order to make a profit off of the book. So, if it’s a gay book, that’s just going to appeal to gay readers, I’m not going to spend six figures on it – I need to be realistic.” 

Another person who is realistic about the area of challenges within gay literature is author Tom Dolby, whose books includes The Trouble Boy and The Sixth Form, and sees the struggle of writing in this genre as a matter of labeling.

“It’s sort of a curious thing where anytime you have a gay character in fiction, it’s suddenly a gay novel. And I think we, sort of, unintentionally ghettoize ourselves by doing that,” Dolby stated, and further expounded on this theory.

“There’s no other branch of fiction that I know of where, I mean people don’t go, ‘Oh, Toni Morrison – that’s African-American literature,’” he asserted. “With gay literature, for some reason because it deals with this issue of sexuality – and that’s a real hot button issue for people.”

One author that knows about this all too well is William Maltese, who has been hard at work writing erotically charged material since the 1970’s, beginning with pulp novels that had titles like Daddy’s Big Boy, written under a variety of pen names.

Although there is a stigma attached to this type of prose, and many of Maltese’s in-print brethren “ended up literally in the courts, and threatened with jail time for perverting the morals of society,” he never faced that dilemma, and still does not have a problem with what he writes – notwithstanding the requisite right-wing naysayers.

 “Despite some who may well argue to the contrary, it’s my opinion that everyone is more accepting of the genre, these days,” Maltese described. “Although there are a few die-hard Bible thumpers out there, who still take each and every opportunity to continue to bemoan, long and loud, how smut is destroying the world faster than global greenhouse gasses.”

Another area of concern, in regards to material being construed as controversial, is in the writing for an audience of young, gay adults. 

Josh Aterovis has tapped into this world with his mysteries featuring gay teen protagonist, Killian Kendall, in the novels Bleeding Hearts and Reap The Whirlwind.

Aterovis is not alone in this endeavor – one of his contemporaries, author Brent Hartinger, has had some of his books banned by schools and libraries; as of yet Aterovis has not been the target of censorship, but one never knows when a particular moral tide can turn against them.

“I haven’t had any of that, and I kind of wish I would, because it’s great for your sales,” he joked.

While Aterovis hasn’t experienced any backlash, Maltese has reveled in the time-honored saying that “sex sells,” and has a casual outlook on how his work may be looked upon by the populace.     

“As for the public at large, and how they view erotically charged material, then and now, I’ve never had any of my books banned in Boston, or thrown on the bonfire,” he attested.

While Aterovis, like Maltese, hasn’t weathered a storm of controversy, he knows the all-too-real prospect of losing his publisher, due to tough financial times, is no laughing matter.

“I had a publisher, but Haworth (part of Harrington Park Press) sold the non-fiction division, and the fiction division collapsed,” he recanted about leaving his upcoming book, All Lost Things, homeless. “I guess it all comes down to the bottom line of, it’s a business,” he stated.

Scognamiglio concurred with that sentiment, explaining where that business sense comes into play, and how it affects these writers.

 “It’s really discouraging that there aren’t a lot of mainstream publishing houses in New York, that are willing to take a chance on gay and lesbian writers,” he said. “What’s nice about Kensington is that we are a small house, and not owned by a corporation – we don’t have to answer to anybody. A lot of the big houses are looking for big books and big authors. While another publisher might think, ‘Oh, gay and lesbian books, those numbers are too small for us,’ they’re not too small for Kensington.”  

Bolstered by his confidence that there are still plenty of tales left to be told, Scognamiglio is always on the look out for “stories that are character driven and quirky or off-beat,” and feels that while gay literature “has a targeted audience,” some books still have the ability to appeal to all types of readers.

These three authors definitely embody this endeavor in their respective writing fields, all underneath the umbrella of gay literature, giving them an important place amongst the backdrop of corporate dealings – they are the voice of the people, in a respect.

Nowadays, Maltese writes on a variety of themes, including a horror novel, “SUCKS! Book #1 of The Draqual Vampyre Chronicles,” and an earlier sci-fi novel, “Bond-Shattering,” with that trademarked Maltese sexual current running through their pages. Maltese feels that by not being “pigeonholed” within any one genre, makes him stay relevant in the marketplace.  

Even though Aterovis’ books are geared towards readers in the springtime of their lives; he does receive e-mails from all generations of gay life (up to a correspondence with an 80-year-old). Aterovis referenced that, and the fact that he also receives word that his books have helped some teens come out to their parents; a reality which far outweighs any type of financial gain he could collect from his writing, and makes Aterovis an important voice in today’s literary world. 

“People have wrote me and said, ‘this book saved my life,’ you can’t measure what that’s worth,” he said.

Dolby cited similar e-mails in which people have told him that “I completely related to the story, and I felt like you were telling my story – if you tell a story a lot of people can relate to, then it becomes ‘their’ story,” giving credence to the fact that gay literature is a vital conduit for charting our history as a people.

“Literature by gay writers will always chronicle particular fears and joys of each time,” he reflected.

As for the future, all three authors see gay literature heading down the avenue of  mainstreaming homosexual fare, sandwiched amongst authors such as Stephen King or Danielle Steele, and each had their own mixed emotions on that occurrence.

“I think the classification of gay literature, if one is going to use it, can be useful in terms of readers’ just finding books,” Dolby recanted. “I think the thing that has happened is because we have become so mainstream; I think that’s what has taken or pushed some of these smaller imprints out of business,” he proclaimed.

 “You’ll just have to go find the authors on the regular bookshelves, which is a good thing, in the sense that it opens up our readership to many more people; but then it also makes it harder to find our books sometimes,” Aterovis replied.  

As for his specific area of man-on-man writing, (a great deal of it is now written by and read by straight women) and his One-Hand Read series, in particular, Maltese sees it heading in the same direction.

“The m/m genre is actually on the verge of complete respectability, which leaves me a little sad – there’s always more fun in the forbidden, isn’t there? But, I am also delighted that my work has the chance to be exposed to more and more people than in the days, when it was only in the xxx-rated backroom of magazine shops.”

Scognamiglio sees the mainstreaming of gay literature as a positive aspect, as long it has the wider berth of readership curb appeal attached to it, which would help in the effort of having this brand of publishing be seen as more than just a niche market.

“I think it would be great if books with gay characters could have crossover appeal, if there could be another Tales of the City type of series,” he explained. “I think as long as there are gay readers, there are going to be gay books.”   

In a nutshell, gay literature boils down to the brass taxes of dollars making sense in the publishing of these novels, and the written word will sustain itself and carry on, indicative of the community that is being chronicled in the pages of these particular books.