Some of the best books I’ve ever read could be designated ‘gay novels’ and yet it’s a term that raises a lot of questions and one I hesitate to use. It’s something I’ve wanted to examine for a long time, so I am delighted that Saleem Haddad, author of superb debut novel Guapa, one of my Winter 2016 Sofa Spotlight titles, accepted my invitation to contribute an essay on the label and what lies behind it, in both content and attitudes. When Saleem asked if he could exceed the usual word count, I didn’t initially realise he meant by more than double, but this provocative and illuminating piece, with topical parallels including race and gender, is worth your time.
Thank you to Saleem for choosing to share his thoughts on the Literary Sofa – it may not seem the most likely place, but then again, why not? This is fuel for serious debate, and we would both be interested to hear your views. My thoughts about Guapa will be posted prior to the Christmas break.
A few weeks after my novel was released, I received this text from a friend:
I couldn’t find your book under ‘General Fiction’. Turns out it was in the LGBT section.
This may not be shocking for a novel whose central character is gay, but—as the author—I had never thought of Guapa as a ‘gay novel’. However, my surprise was soon replaced with bemusement when I walked into a small independent bookshop in North London and discovered that the novel had been shelved under the ‘Travel—Middle East’ section. The irony of a novel that is set in an imaginary country being put in the ‘travel’ section was not lost on me. Was my novel, by virtue of being set in the Arab world, now a travel guide to a Middle Eastern country that does not actually exist? Similarly, by virtue of having a gay main character, does this automatically make my novel ‘gay’?
The question of how to categorise a novel is not limited to the race and/or sexuality therein. Long-standing debates on the distinctions between science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction have plagued canonical writers like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, while countless articles have exposed the sexist implications of categorising some novels written by women as ‘women’s fiction’ or, worse, ‘chick lit.’ The author Terry Pratchett once remarked, “You can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.” Similarly, through the categorisation of “gay fiction”, are we at risk of pigeonholing novels with gay protagonists? (You can do all you want, but you put in one fucking gay guy…)
The specific requirements for what constitutes a ‘gay novel’ remain unclear to me, a novelist who happens to be gay. Is it a question of perspective, of style, of substance or sensibility, or is it inherent in the writers themselves? Is there such a thing as a gay ‘perspective’? Is a novel ‘gay’ if the writer is gay, or does the main character need to be gay too? Is it a question of the degree to which the novel’s plot or theme is gay? If so, what is a gay theme or plot? And what’s the tipping point? What percentage of the book must be designated gay for the book to be categorised as a ‘gay novel’? These are just the immediate questions I have before even turning to the subject of whether gay identity itself can be assumed to be transhistorical and transcultural.
Beyond semantics, the classification of ‘gay fiction’ betrays a significant power dynamic: the unspoken assumption when categorizing a novel as ‘gay’ is that the neutral space outside of this is ‘straight’. Despite this, I have yet to come across a single bookstore anywhere in the world that has a section for ‘straight fiction’, nor are there any think pieces about what constitutes a ‘straight novel’. But if there’s no ‘straight fiction’, where do we consciously place Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, or Danielle Steel? None of these writers or any of their novels is identified by their heterosexuality. One wouldn’t think of putting Knausgaard on the same shelf as Mills & Boon under the label of ‘straight fiction’, and yet this is what many bookstores do with ‘gay fiction’.
By singling out gay fiction without defining it or doing just jurisprudence to straight fiction, booksellers are at risk of re-affirming the heteronormative structures built within the publishing industry. Through this artistic apartheid, ‘fiction’ beyond the ‘gay genre’ remains a strictly heterosexual domain, and the subversive potential of gay novels is neutralized.
To their defence, booksellers are often quick to point out that genre categorizations are fundamentally marketing tools to help sell books to niche audiences. That’s fine; but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that these categorisations are in any way horizontal. Given the way most bookstores are organised, shelving a novel in the section of ‘LGBT fiction’ often puts these books out of reach to most readers, and contributes to the notion that while general (i.e. straight) fiction is universal, LGBT fiction is ‘niche’: i.e., while stories with straight characters teach us about the world, stories with gay characters only teach us about being gay.
That is until, of course, the gay novel has proven its ‘relevance’ to straight readers. One reader on Goodreads noted that in one bookstore Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty was housed under the ‘General Fiction’ category, while his debut novel, The Swimming Pool Library, was in the LGBT section. Was it just the Booker Prize that allowed The Line of Beauty to transcend the LGBT section into the ‘neutral’ space of ‘general fiction’? Instances of gay writers and gay novels ‘transcending’ the genre reinforce the notion that ‘real’ literature has, as its primary readership, a straight (and often white) audience. If a gay novel is deemed worthy, if it has proven that it has something to teach ‘us’ (‘us’ who?), then it drops the ‘gay’ and becomes simply ‘fiction’.
The question of ‘gay fiction’ as a sole marker of identity also underscores the lack of diversity in publishing. For queer writers of colour, identifying their work solely as a ‘gay novel’ undermines the importance of intersectionality. Nearly thirty years after the concept was first coined by the American civil rights movement, the meaning, significance and affect of double, or even triple, marginalisation continues to be misunderstood. For queer writers of colour, the stigma can be twofold: as a queer Arab immigrant to the UK, I’ve got 99 problems and being gay is just one. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to interrogate and incorporate intersectionality in all aspects of our lives—including our literature—by questioning what parts of a person (or novel) do we acknowledge first? Second? Third? And what does that tell us about the world we live in? The black and queer rapper L1ef rapped about this tension: “You ask a gay question/ here’s a black answer.” As a ‘queer’ (in more ways than one) writer, this is how I sometimes feel when writing: You call this a gay novel/ here are forty pages where the main character grapples with his Arab identity.
Of course, there are very real arguments as to why we need ‘gay fiction’. We live in a world where suicide rates remain staggeringly higher amongst the LGBT community; a world where homophobia is rampant—sometimes expressed in grandiose fashion like the shootings in Orlando, Florida in June, but more often through moments that infiltrate our daily, sometimes hourly, lives: homophobic attacks, stigmatisation, and marginalisation. In the same vein as Black History Month, which through its very existence underscores how history is so often told from a white, Eurocentric perspective, highlighting LGBT fiction brings to light how often these lives have been hidden from society, culture and literature. Fundamentally, what it boils down to is that we need to visibly highlight ‘LGBT fiction’ because we continue to live in a heteronormative society that views homosexuality as (at best) an ‘other’.
In my mind, this need for visibility and representation remains the only compelling argument for the LGBT section in bookstores, and for highlighting a certain type of gay fiction genre. Ideally, copies of novels that deal with same-sex experiences would be housed in both the ‘fiction’ and ‘LGBT fiction’ bookshelves, and to their credit many bookstores have begun to ensure that this happens.
At the same time, I remain ambivalent. The categorisation of novels by sexuality undersells the power fiction has in transcending this manufactured divide between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. Novels allow readers to live inside the mind of another person, bringing with them their own unique experiences. The experience of reading a novel therefore becomes a very personal engagement with each reader’s psyche, allowing a single story to be read in starkly different ways. In Guapa, while a straight reader may not be able to relate to the specific challenges Rasa faces due to his sexuality, they may understand his feelings of loss, shame or desire, or the nostalgia for a moment of political change that was snatched away from him. This multi-dimensionality is why many Arab women have come up to me saying that they relate to Rasa, and that the relationship between Rasa and Taymour is a familiar issue in the Arab world, not just among homosexual couples, but heterosexual couples as well.
As a young gay man, one of the first things I did after first arriving in London was go to a bookstore and self-consciously hover by the ‘LGBT’ section, searching for books that would provide me with a sense of comfort and understanding. But I also found comfort and understanding in ‘straight’ novels: in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar’ in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, in Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, in Jean-Paul Sarte’s Nausea.
As a writer and reader, I found solace in novels that dealt with ‘otherness’. Perhaps this comes from growing up gay and feeling like an outcast, ridden with confused identities, hidden desires and shameful secrets. Certainly the challenges of identity, shame and belonging remain recurrent themes in novels that tackle homosexuality, if only by virtue of the continued marginalisation of LGBT people around the world, yet they are not solely the realm of gay fiction. More than ‘gay’ stories, in my writing and reading I find myself attracted to ‘outsider’ stories. In a sense, to ‘queer’ stories.
The word ‘queer’ is a slur. It means different, deviant from the norm. In a way, ‘queer’ transcends sexuality. It is political. It is subversive. It is radically inclusive. Long after homosexuality is accepted by the mainstream, queer—by the very definition of the word—will continue to be counter-hegemonic. Writers who write queer novels don’t do so all the time. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is a queer novel in a way that The Goldfinch simply isn’t. Both are brilliant in very different ways. Perhaps that’s what we need: a queer literary genre that includes not just homosexual literature, but also novels such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, Sedagh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl, Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. Such a genre would include novels that explore characters outside of mainstream society, and tap into ideas deemed deviant by conventional wisdom. A queer novel would celebrate the forbidden, the abnormal, the alien, the outsider.
Is Guapa a gay novel? Sure, maybe it is, although that’s not for me—the author—to decide. But when writing, it was clear to me that Rasa was not simply struggling with how to exist as a homosexual man; he was also learning to exist as a citizen, an Arab, a Muslim, a young man who has lost both his parents, and, fundamentally, as a human. If Guapa was read solely as a ‘gay novel’, how much of these other factors may be overlooked?
Perhaps one day I’ll find Guapa on a shelf marked “queer fiction”, maybe once we build a world that allows us to categorise ‘gay novels’ as simply ‘novels’. Sadly, we don’t live in that world yet. In the meantime, I will be waiting with baited breath for Martin Amis’ essay on the “straight novel”.
At the weekend you can look forward to my take on GOOD SEX NIGHT, (a counterpoint to this week’s Bad Sex Awards), a panel event which I am attending on Friday evening at Waterstones Gower Street. Tickets are still available. I may have trouble sticking to my own word count!