This year has seen major literary debuts from Choire Sicha and Caleb Crain featuring modish gay protagonists, an all-gay YA novel from David Levithan, a new collection of essays by David Sedaris, and a first-time Lambda Literary Award for transgender literature. All of this has been set against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on DOMA and the legalization of gay marriage in three states. So why is the biggest LGBT literary event of 2013 the publication of David Margolick’s biography of John Horne Burns? The gay author of a long-forgotten World War II novel who was infamous for his demonic personality, and who drank himself to death in Italy at the age of 36. Why, in a year of historic gay successes, are we still so fascinated by the failures of a singularly monstrous homosexual?
Until 2004, when the New York Review of Books re-issued his acclaimed novel, The Gallery, hardly anyone had heard of Burns. Only now, thanks to Margolick’s aptly titled study, Dreadful, have the details of his life passed from the realm of literary lore to print. The accolades have been boundless: He’s “The Great (Gay) novelist You’ve Never Heard Of,” (The New York Times), “the writer Hemingway and Vidal envied” (Salon.com), “a gay writer before his time” (The Guardian), and “The Lost Novelist” (The New York Review of Books). The denunciations have been just as steady. Edmund White, writing for the New York Review of Books, calls him “bitter and sneering,” “cruel and dismissive to his fellow gays,” and notes that “his second published novel, Lucifer With a Book, was so cruelly satirical that one man he skewered committed suicide.” Vidal once put it more succinctly: “An awful man. Monster. Envious, bitchy, bitter, drunk.”
The disaster of Burns’ life (b. 1916, d. 1953) appeals to us as a kind of sinister nostalgia item from gay history’s earlier, darker era — one that the heroes of the LBGT rights movement today are trying to leave in the past. Burns lived in a time, the mid-20th century, when it was almost impossible for a gay person to go through life without enduring psychological suffering. His viciousness speaks to his loneliness, his delusions of grandeur to his shame. He’s an example, and an extreme one, of the emotional trauma that the societal stigmatization of homosexuality inflicts. Now that we’re living in an era of gay media exposure and marriage rights — of gay happiness and health — we can read the life of Burns as an unfortunate slice of history, a horrific but instructive time capsule of homo life past.
But reading Burns isn’t just instructive; it’s entertaining. And it’s more entertaining, I would argue, than reading Levithan, or Sedaris, or think pieces about DOMA, or any other writing having to do with the good things happening for gay people in our fortunate era. That the biography of a tortured gay novelist is garnering more attention than any of the progressive gay novels (such as Levithan’s) published this year suggests that we crave traumatic gay story more than we do healthful ones. Something about the old, dark, twisted gay narratives attracts us more than new narratives reflecting the brighter experience of gay life today.
There’s a reason for this: Narratives dealing with the trauma of gay experience possess a beauty that the new class of narratives has yet to parallel. Sociopolitical adversity sharpens the aesthetic vigor of classic gay narratives, like a whetstone to a knife. As the situation of gays today improves, the stories we tell ourselves will change, too. We’re approaching a time when the gay narratives we think of as classic and definitive will come to be seen as outmoded, irrelevant, and possibly offensive in their perpetuation of antique ideas and stereotypes. This is a future in which the distinction between straight and gay marriages will cease to make sense, and the event of “coming out” will have lost its epiphanic luster. Gays won’t need the stories we’ve comforted and educated ourselves with, now, for decades. As a result, the mordant beauty of classic gay literature becomes a literary antique. In order to understand what we risk losing, it’s useful to look deeper at the richness of these older gay narratives.
Minority literature springs from suffering, and derive its beauty from the particular nature of that suffering. When a person’s basic sexual consciousness — his most natural, reptilian form of longing — is held in contempt by his society, government, and religion, it opens a world of psychic distortion. One is ashamed and at the same time imperious; one is disgusted by sex and at the same time savage in his desire. Classic gay literature traffics in these themes of alienation, fraught sensuality, and arrested identity-formation. It gives shape to that phenomenon entirely unique to LGBT people: the delayed, self-willed, and often renegade actualization of the self as a sexual, loving human being.
The pain of gay experience — and the beauty to be found in it — has long been reflected in the stories we’ve chosen to tell about ourselves. The sexless middle-aged intellectual has embarked on a late-life sensual adventure (The Immoralist, Death in Venice, A Single Man); the taciturn brooder has broken his vow of selflessness (Brokeback Mountain); the scorned lover has murdered the object of his affection (The City and the Pillar, The Absolutist); the passive aesthete has glorified the noble family that will never admit him into their ranks (Brideshead Revisited, The Line of Beauty). The aesthetic and literary significance of these and many other classic gay works is indivisible from the ethos of secrecy and suppression in which they were written or which they seek to retroactively capture.
The somber beauty of Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, interspersed with flickers of white heat (“gray clouds with black bellies and veins of fiery silver”), speaks to the protagonist’s warring impulses of self-denial and desire. The erotic charge of the sex scene at the novel’s opening is linked inextricably with the perceived moral treachery of their actions. We experience the protagonist’s ploy to seduce a teacher and then get him fired as a triumph, and not a travesty, because in a story so devoid of simple sexual pleasure we learn to root for power and intelligence, not virtue. The novel’s themes and motifs draw on a gay psychological situation that our societal trend toward acceptance is likely to mend, thus enervating the force of this particularly literary approach.
Some gay narratives unfold entirely within frameworks that will likely be eradicated (and thus cease to make sense) as homosexuality becomes a non-factor. In Peter Cameron’s novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, the character of James Sveck is so wound with shame and self-consciousness that he avoids speaking — and being otherwise physically present — as little as possible. In a hotel room: “There was something about the stillness and the quiet that made me feel weird, like I shouldn’t speak or I would disturb the room … I wanted … to have the least effect on the room I could have.” Sveck is delaying the full acceptance and habitation of his body and sexuality. In the space of that disconnect he’s forged an entire personality, an ascetic self-consciousness and conversational reserve. Transport James to an ideal gay future — one in which homosexuals grow organically into their sexual selves in much the same way heterosexuals do — and his whole struggle, his story and the meaning we take from it, collapses.
Newer gay narratives make use of familiar material and are not, as a rule, any lighter in tone or aesthetic sensibility. They simply tell different stories; they ask us to sympathize with different characters and root for different human values. Of the two gay characters in the film Keep the Lights On (2012), Ira Sachs chooses to focus on stable, self-realized Erik; the film is a portrait of practiced vulnerability and overextended compassion, rather than emotional unreality or longing. Erik’s struggle is not about finding love in order to fill a fathomless void, but learning that he can’t be responsible for filling someone else’s. Tortured, self-punishing Paul, on the other hand, remains impenetrable to us. We see him in his barest moments — in bed with a prostitute, high on crack, sobbing — but the film sets clear rules about who we are and aren’t supposed to sympathize with. When Erik finally leaves Paul, he’s as much a living symbol for gay culture leaving behind its darker decades as he is a goofy filmmaker finally dumping that drug-addict boyfriend.
We still need gay stories, desperately so. But they should, as a rule, keep pace with our rapidly changing sociopolitical situation. Even as narratives of loneliness, frustration, adversity and “coming out” remain indispensable, the stories we tell ourselves should reflect our changing experience of the world — one less trellised by shame, loneliness, hatred and alienation.
It’s only natural that we should mourn the loss of classic narratives that transformed the trauma of gay experience — the hiding, the self-hatred — into artifacts of stunning beauty. We will continue to revere these examples and be fascinated by them, as we are fascinated by the story of John Horne Burns. It’s the lure of the old nightmare. But beauty isn’t reason enough to hang on to old things.