Saturday, July 04, 2009

Review: Between Men 2: Original Fiction by Today’s Best Gay Writers

Between Men 2
Edited with an Afterword by Richard Canning

Published by Alyson Books

Review by Jonathan Statham

It has often struck me as somehow significant that the gay section in a mainstream bookshop (if it exists) often contains a high proportion of books which anthologise short stories. Many of these are of course erotica but there is besides this a healthy supply of collections like the one currently under review: anthologies of contemporary authors using fiction to engage with and be literate about gay life (contemporary and historical). Furthermore, in the current publishing climate, it is these books which seem most happy to label themselves ‘gay’ and to take homosexuality as their explicit subject matter. Why this is the case is perhaps more problematic. What does short prose have to offer that it should be such a staple for gay readers today?

From one point of view, there seems to be a general sense that to make homosexuality the explicit subject of a novel would be gratuitous – as the editor of the current volume, Richard Canning, put it in his Afterword: “some of us live in a world where being gay may prove no big deal”. Certainly, many of these stories do take as their starting point the notion that being gay is but a part of their characters’ lives. Yet it is the strength of these stories to betray that starting point, to demonstrate instead the pervasiveness of their characters’ (homo)sexualities, the ways in which their being gay affects every relationship they have, sexual and non-sexual.

Indeed, I think the most interesting stories here are those in which the ‘couple’ is not the strict focus, because it is then that the socially pervasive character of homosexuality gets brought out, the reasons why even if it is only one part of a life it is still always a big deal (not least because it is quite frankly a big deal to have a sexuality at all). To give a few examples: John Weir acutely assesses male friendships that, as it were, cross the orientation divide. Aaron Hamburger looks at a mother emigrating to be with her gay son in America and shows how sexuality and nationality and the creation of community are complexly interwoven and not always harmoniously. Then there is Eric Karl Anderson’s (he who is also the editor of this blog) intricate story of a father and son in which the son’s relationship with his own homosexuality and that of those around him impacts upon his relationship with his father. Wayne Koestenbaum’s piece is perhaps an even more extreme example, being a posthumous dialogue between Sylvia Plath and Rainer Werner Fassbinder who both, being dead, now reside in New Jersey – their conversation revolves around Fassbinder’s erection and is many ways a debate on the emotional nuances of sexuality and sexual acts. An exploration shared, as it were inversely, by David McConnell’s story in which the sexual nature of the relationship is precisely what is in question, specifically with regard to the prescribed sexual roles, top and bottom (“mindless concepts […] which eliminated all subtlety and all fine distinctions”). In each of these stories, and others in this volume, it is a question not of making homosexuality an issue but of examining what homosexuality puts in issue, how it changes the social dynamics, creates alternative possibilities in its departure from the normative. And this is one thing the short story can do best: show how an aspect, a significant detail, a part, transforms the whole.

Patrick Gale, Richard Canning, Eric Karl Anderson

If that already sounds like the dynamic of gay liberation, its search by means of homosexuality for new socio-sexual formations, relations and communities that might free homosexuals, heterosexuals, bisexuals and the whole queer lot of us, then I think that is no accident. Furthermore, we might take the digression or departure from a focus on the conventional couple (that core model of heterocentric life and culture) negotiated by these stories as some kind of answer to a question posed to us recently by Peter Tatchell, writing in The Guardian on the eve of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary: “are queers the new conservatives, the 21st-century suburbanites?” Well, almost we are, almost but not quite as this volume seems to bear testament. For while many of these stories take up domesticated life, they do so in order to unravel it, to reveal how it is striated not only by sexual orientations but also by race, gender, age, nationality and death and the intertwining of these things.

In addition to the stories themselves, Richard Canning has included an Afterword in which he gives us brief literary critical ‘readings’ of every story included in the volume (with the exception of one of the most striking stories, Koestenbaum’s dialogue already noted, which he mentions only in passing, possibly because his literary critical approach does not lend itself to a reading of a piece so unusual in form). However, these readings, insightful as they are, seem to do a disservice to both the stories and the reader neither of which in fact require an explanation or an interpretation (though the sense Canning sometimes provides of how the tale fits into the author’s corpus of work is certainly enlightening). The Afterword becomes interesting only as he concludes by beginning to question the collection itself, specifically “the diversity of voices and experiences collected here – and possible lack of it”. This leaves me immensely curious as to why Canning wanted to create this series of books in the first place and what he thinks the anthologisation of these writers might accomplish or work towards.

For, what I do not get, neither from Canning’s Afterword nor indeed from his selection of these specific stories, his bringing together of these particular pieces, is a sense of why this book is being made. The volume as whole, and this is no criticism of any of the individual stories, lacks a sense of purpose, a sense that it is trying to accomplish something. Of course, Canning is right when he asks “why have a set of requirements for fiction? Why “must” fiction do, or be, anything?” – except that neither ought it do or be nothing. In a particular instance it must indeed be something or we are left with a blandness, which in this case is grossly unfair to some exquisite short stories. This is not a question of establishing ‘requirements for fiction’ – certainly there is no single thing that fiction must always do – but an anthology (or any publication for that matter) is a situation for fiction in which an idea of fiction takes shape (and does so whether one intends this or not). But what Canning suggests in his Afterword is that this volume merely collects what he considers to be good writing by authors who only happen to be gay (among other things). Yet if this volume illustrates his idea of good writing then it obscures its own project as a gay collection and betrays the stories it collects. Having said that, it is noticeable that the authors are almost all novelists and it is clear to me that the short form is here neither explored for all its possibilities nor pushed to its limits to create new possibilities. Sometimes we are even given a chapter from a forthcoming novel. This seems a missed opportunity to me, as if the volume were willing its own ephemerality rather than seeking to make a genuine contribution to the ongoing process of gay culture and art through the development of form. Nevertheless, the stories here can be appreciated individually as accomplished works redolent of twenty-first century homosexuality’s search for its place and its meaning in a world ever more diverse, ever more complex and ever more changeable.

Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.

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