The order matters. Alluring books get readers to come to meetings. The sequence of books discussed becomes a chronicle of the growth of the reading group. Start off a book club with three bad choices, and chances are you no longer have a club. The beginning is where you get reader commitment.
Which novels or memoirs will work the best as an introduction to the many faces of gay literature? What we call our culture as gay people often has its roots in the many psychological defenses we’ve created to survive persecution by straight society. The coming out novel. The social justice novel. The moral problem novel. Get rid of intolerance, and a prominent chunk of gay literature is left by the wayside. Young gay people today have a hard time even imagining a pre-Stonewall gay life.
Much of our literature so far involves the individual gay person and his/her method of growing up and dealing with a society that disapproves of gayness. The development of integrity, the ability to be honest to yourself and about yourself in spite of social disapproval, is often the value that culminates a gay memoir or novel. It’s called coming out of the closet, and for many gay authors that’s the self-defining step. But is it for young people who don’t know what the closet is? One of the questions of our book club will be: how is gay culture more than simply a response to oppression?
Gay people who read (not casually, like read magazines, but passionately, as though books matter and might change you) are a particular minority sub-culture. But we exist. We’re often solos, on the outskirts of gay society. Once I realized homosexuality was a mortal sin in the Catholic Church, reading became my frantic attempt to make sense out of my crumbling morality. Reading was my salvation, as I desperately tried to figure out what was “wrong” with me and why I had such an unusual attitude toward boys. I dived into psychology looking for answers. I gobbled up books by gay authors, people who were like me, to see how they dealt with the unfair blows and the gnawing secrets and the unspoken passions.
Those books anchored me. Those authors assured me I belonged to a tribe of sane and good human beings. Which is why I want this club to succeed. It’s my give-back. It’s my heritage, these thrilling and revealing books, these monuments to gay giants, and I want to pass them on. I’m trying to design an ad campaign to get the attention of those lonely solo readers out there on the outskirts. I want to gather them to Dunshee House to discuss great books together.
So this Wednesday we’ll shoot the studio photo that will become the postcards and the posters and the newspaper ads: two naked guys in a yin/yang position reading. The motto of the ad will be “Let’s Read Them Together” and the naked models will be doing just that. The bottom of the ad will list the first six books we’ll be reading. Which are…?
I need to decide. I have to make a call on the order of those first six books. I need to start with the books that will attract the most readers to this project. My instincts are to hold back on my favorite novels till I have a core of strong readers – Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters. Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire will each have particular challenges. Robert Musil’s Young Torless and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice are darker visions to save for later. I had thought to begin with one of my all-time favorites, E. M. Forster’s Maurice, until I heard it dismissed as “that boring British movie.” Yike. When I first read it in 1972 it was a jolt of reality. But then, after all, it’s Edwardian gayness. Okay then, not Maurice, and not the European classics. Maybe that’s the clue, then – maybe the way to get this group on its feet is to start with the American experience.
With that in mind, I hesitantly come up with this first list of six books, open to revision, to start off the 2009 Gay Classics book club in Seattle:
January 28 The City and the Pillar by GORE VIDAL
February 25 Rubyfruit Jungle by RITA MAE BROWN
March 25 A Boy’s Own Story by EDMUND WHITE
April 29 Becoming a Man by PAUL MONETTE
May 27 Bastard Out of Carolina by DOROTHY ALLISON
June 24 A Single Man by CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD