Beyond ‘Will & Grace’

I’ve read that the gay novel is dead, the category a ghetto, the niche an anachronism, and I realize, as a would-be novelist facing the maw of the computer screen, that I’m supposed to care about that kind of thing.

But I don’t. Which is not to say I’m being willfully naïve. I am also a freelance magazine writer living in New York City and no breathing species on the planet better understands the economic imperatives of this particular moment in publishing. I have the ramen to prove it (andtoes that would make Tamara, the pedicurist/confessor whom I haven’t seen in over a year, recoil in horror).

It’s just—what else would I write about? You’ve heard the maxims: write what you know; show, don’t tell; etc., etc. And, well—I’m gay. I don’t have much raw material for a YA vampire series or a zombified historical fiction, and no offense to parties concerned, I’m not interested in that sort of thing anyway—not that there’s anything wrong with them, of course.

Besides. You can’t focus-group imagination. Market research demography is a creativity buzz kill. I am what I am. I write what I write. And the vein I currently mine runs deep and pretty damn queer.

When I started working on my novel, Monarch Season, almost two years ago, I really had no choice. What came out was necessarily gay. I didn’t think about marketing it as a thriller or a romance or some other piece of genre fiction (I still don’t fully understand what the hell that means, by the way), nor did I seek to examine its eventual place in some broader homosexual canon (god, I cringe even to type that word). I didn’t set out to write anything more ambitious than 1,000 words. And when those first 1,000 words came, and steadily, grudgingly kept coming, I was so bowled over by the miracle of it that to stop and suddenly look down would have invited free fall—suspension of disbelief, meet reality. The splat would have been heard all over Chelsea.

So I wrote what was all around me: the aforementioned gayborhood and its corresponding summer colony on Fire Island, where I was spending much of my weekends.

I know, dollface, I know. I’d roll my eyes, too. Believe me, I’d roll my eyes. You wouldn’t see my stupid pupils for five whole minutes. It’s been done before, I hear you. I’ve also read those books. They’ve given me goose bumps—the goose bumps I always get when reading a book that enthralls me. And not just the ones that reflect my own milieu, but also the ones that render a different world accurately, that catalogue the bits and pieces that make it real, no matter how foreign to me: the cold potatoes in the chipped farmhouse sink, the black scorpions hidden in the dusty scrub.

And so there I was at the beach, greased up in SPF 8, waging a war of attrition with a million grains of sand, when it occurred to me: I didn’t have to do anything more astounding than accurately record a slice in the lives of the sunbathers dotting the surronding dunes. Because while the places and people portrayed in the books already written are in many ways still the same, they are also different in ways I think are important.

For one thing there’s not much hand-wringing over sexual identity going on in the Manhattan–Fire Island circuit, I’ll tell you. And I can’t remember the last time a gay man bothered to tell me how he came out. Many of the people boarding the ferry embody the punch line of that William Haefeli New Yorker cartoon: “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re used to it.” I’m not saying they’re apathetic—they donate, they march for marriage, and the sound of Sarah Palin’s voice can be relied upon to make their ears bleed. I won’t argue that this brand of agitation is equal to standing up to a cop while clad in wig andthree-inch heels or handcuffing oneself to the White House gate in the name of millions dead, because that’s not really the point. We live in different times. Thanks to all those people who did all those heroic things, the men on that ferry revolt in the only way such a populace in the historical brew that is 2010 could—meaning, like every single one of us, they are a product of their environment.

And as products of that environment, they were never really amused by the antics of Will & Grace. And okay, sure, I think they understand the benefit of Will & Grace, the gays on TV, woo-hoo, another boundary busted—but that sitcom wasn’t really written for them. The laugh track was dubbed for another audience entirely.

Sue me if I don’t see anything wrong with writing something specifically for them. I think they deserve it. Even if that makes me unrealistic, or delusional, or forever doomed to my ramen noodles.

To judge from current conventional wisdom, writing professionally, especially a novel, in this climate, in this economy, in this day and age, is practically an act of madness. It’s a leap of faith, a shot in the dark, one chance in a million. But it seems to me that it’s always been, no matter what story you have to tell—gay or straight, white or brown or black, male or female, whatever. I don’t know that I’ll always write gay anymore than I know I’ll always have scrambled eggs for breakfast. But writing for me is not a lark. Neither is it some mysterious art brewed from a cauldron in the dark. It’s part craft, part discipline, and a hell of a lot of practice. I have no choice. Thank god. I have no choice.

Previously published in Publishers Weekly.