Gay Lit and the Pulitzer

Early on the afternoon of April 12, a joyful buzz spread through the queer literary community: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours had just been awarded the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Earlier that month it had been a runner-up for the National Books Critics Circle Prize Award, and it had won the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Publisher’s Triangle Ferro/Grumley Award for gay male fiction. But the Pulitzer? That was the big time. In the 81-year history of the Pulitzers, Cunningham was the first openly gay writer to win in the fiction category.

The prize was certainly well deserved: The Hours is a dazzling feat. A meditation on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it tells the story of Clarissa Vaughan, a lesbian editor who lives in Greenwich Village, on the day that she is to give a party for her best friend Richard, a famous poet with AIDS. Interwoven with this story are those of two other women: Woolf and Laura Brown, a housewife looking for fulfillment in the empty, lonely culture of postwar Los Angeles. Using Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness technique to explore the inner lives of his characters, Cunningham plays with the complicated ironies of life and art. By the end of the novel, the characters’ lives have taken unexpected turns: they, and we, must grasp the inevitability of death and the pain and joy of consciousness.

Although three other Pulitzer winners this year were openly gay or lesbian–Margaret Edson in drama for Wit, A. Scott Berg in biography for Lindbergh, and Jonathan Capehart for journalism-The Hours was the only work that featured openly gay or lesbian content. Editorials in the gay and lesbian press called Cunningham’s win a breakthrough moment. (Of course, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which has gay content, won the 1993 Pulitzer for drama, but these enthusiastic writers frequently neglected to mention that-perhaps because of a presumption that homosexuals are supposed to win theater awards.) But is it? What does this Pulitzer really mean? Is it a milestone for gay writing? Evidence of a shift toward tolerance in popular culture? Or a lot of queer sound and fury signifying nothing much for the dominant society?

One way to begin answering these questions is to look at the way Cunningham’s novel was handled by its publisher, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG): although it was written by an openly gay man and covered in most of the gay media as a "gay book," it was not specifically marketed as such.

This was no accident, according to Elisabeth Calamari, deputy director of publicity at FSG. "It is clear that Michael has always had a wide gay readership, particularly with Home at the End of the World, and we saw that as a core audience," she says. "But we also felt that there was a much broader audience, one that was interested in literary fiction. When I was setting up interviews for The Hours, we tried for as large an audience as possible. . . . We would never ignore the gay press-Cunningham has a strong, faithful audience there-but we spent a lot of energy reaching new readers as well." Obviously, the strategy worked. The Hours is now in its sixth printing, with 117,500 in print. But it is interesting to speculate on what the chances of its winning the Pulitzer would have been if FSG had pitched it as a gay novel.

It is also illuminating to look at how the media dealt with Cunningham’s sexuality. When the Pulitzer prizes were first announced, almost none of the stories in the mainstream press-the New York Times, Washington Post, or the LA Times, for example-mentioned that Cunningham was gay or that the novel had gay content. Even most of the more-detailed follow-up profiles did not mention that he is in a long-term relationship (he frequently refers to his lover, Manhattan psychotherapist Ken Corbett, during interviews) or even ask, in connection with the book’s plot, the obvious question: "How has the AIDS epidemic affected your life and friendships, and how did that inform your novel?" The bottom line is that Michael Cunningham can be as "out" as he wants to be, but if the mainstream media decide that they are not interested in this fact, they won’t discuss it. These reporters often think that they are doing a writer like Cunningham a favor by not mentioning his sexuality-essentially "inning" him-because they believe that this information might keep straight readers away.

They aren’t wrong: writers and books that carry the "gay" label risk being marginalized and ignored. Imagine, for example, if Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina had not been published by Dutton but by the small feminist publisher Firebrand. Would the New York Times or Newsweek have recognized the book’s considerable literary merit and emotional power? Would it have been made into a film? If Allison’s narrator had been an out lesbian, instead of one whose sexuality was not made clear (but easily presumed to be lesbian-certainly by many of Allison’s long-time readers, would the book have been greeted so warmly by the mainstream press? Would the buzz have been as strong, the sales as good, if mainstream reviews of Bastard Out of Carolina had mentioned that Allison also wrote highly erotic lesbian fiction and poems, often with S/M themes? That she identified as a lesbian feminist? That she was a lesbian parent?

The issue is simply that the content and marketing of a novel by or about gay people has enormous influence not only on who reads it but on whether it is taken seriously by mainstream heterosexual editors, publicists, reviewers, and book sellers. If The Hours had been published by Gay Men’s Press in Britain or by Alyson Publications in the U.S., it’s unlikely that it would have received the attention it did coming out from FSG. It’s important to remember that the term "gay book" is really little more than a marketing construct. There is no such thing as a gay book. (Playwright Robert Patrick-who was one of the originators of Off-Off-Broadway theater in the early 1960s-always joked that a gay play was a play that slept with another play of the same sex.) Or rather, a gay book is one that is sold to and read by homosexuals. It probably has gay or lesbian characters, and it is probably written by a gay person, but beyond that, the term is so elastic that the criteria have changed constantly over the past 25 years. A gay author and gay characters do not necessarily add up to a "gay novel."

For example, Stephen McCauley is openly gay and his novels (The Object of My Affection, Man of the House) are predominantly about gay characters and affairs, but he has extensive crossover sales to straight female readers. The same is true of E. Lynn’s Harris’s novels (Invisible Life, Abide With Me). So while many gay readers think of McCauley’s and Harris’s novels as "gay books," this is not how the publishing industry sees them. Edmund White’s novels (A Boy’s Own Story, The Farewell Symphony), on the other hand, are almost always marketed as "gay books"-covers with attractive boys on them, ads in the gay press, readings at gay bookstores-because his publishers understand that although he receives high praise from mainstream critics, his audience consists essentially of gay men.

As for Cunningham, the media and the industry have never considered him a "gay novelist" like White, Andrew Holleran, or Sarah Schulman-even though he has always been open about being gay, has always written about homosexual characters, and has always been seen as a gay novelist by gay readers. Part of this is because Cunningham has, from the very beginning, been tracked as a "literary" writer-he attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Program and first published in the Atlantic Review and the New Yorker, which puts him in a very different category from writers who first published in small queer presses.

In fact, The Hours fits neatly into a trend toward positioning certain books with gay or lesbian content as "literary" rather than "gay." For example, both Keith Ridgeway’s The Long Falling and Naem Murr’s The Boy have gay characters, but when Myra Baran, associate publicity director at Houghton Mifflin, worked on marketing these books last year, she did not emphasize that fact. "While we did some interviews with the gay press, for the most part we were aiming at a literary market with these books," she says. "The gay content was central but it was not romantic, and we felt that a literary gay audience would find these books, and it was important to aim at a wider reading audience." A similar marketing plan was used recently for such diverse novels as Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, Shanee Mootoo’s Cerus Blooming at Night, and Michael Lowenthal’s The Same Embrace.

Certainly, all these books had considerable literary merit. But if the bottom line of marketing is to sell as many books as possible, the "literary" approach may not be the most effective. "While the gay and lesbian market may not be very large-often I am happy to sell 6,000 copies-the literary market can be even smaller," says Keith Kahla, a senior editor at St. Martin’s press and editor of its Stonewall Inn Editions, which includes such writers as Paul Monette, Randy Shilts, Nisa Donnelly, and Justin Chin. "You might aim for a more diverse audience and avoiding the `gay ghetto,’ but often enough you may end up with a smaller audience." Rabih Alameddine’s KoolAIDS may offer a cautionary tale. Michael Denneny of St. Martin’s Press, who was one of the first editors to publish openly gay and lesbian material in the early 1970s, bought the highly literary, experimental novel and enthusiastically likened it to Angels in America. He planned to market it as a "gay novel," but he discovered that his straight colleagues "wondered why I thought of Angels in America as a `gay play’-they just saw it as an award-winning play about AIDS. So we decided to market KoolAIDS as a `literary’ novel." Although the few reviews it received were positive, its sales were disappointing.

There is no way to know whether KoolAIDS would have had sold more copies if it had been pitched firmly at a gay market, but it probably would not have sold any fewer. The Hours may simply be the exception that proves the rule. If novelists and publishers can sell more books by targeting a gay market, why don’t they? Unfortunately, there is often a stigma attached to "gay books" in the minds of publishers and the mainstream media. Veteran gay editor Jed Mattes, who has represented and sold books by Eric Marcus, Urvashi Vaid, and Michelangelo Signorile, claims that it is "now harder to sell gay-themed books to editors then it was a decade ago. I keep hearing that gay books and the gay market don’t make enough money. And it is true that a few years ago a few books with huge advances did not pay back their advances. But that is, to a large degree, an excuse. Right now I think publishers are jumping at the chance not to publish gay books. They seem to have already decided that they will not sell, rather then finding ways to sell them. I really believe that the bottom line here is not sales, or the possibility of sales, but that a lot of people-heterosexuals-are not all that comfortable with gay and lesbian material."

To make things even worse, the number of openly queer editors has significantly decreased in the past five years, and they have typically been the ones most interested in acquiring these books. This is a particular problem for lesbian work, according to Charlotte Abbott, who edited many gay-themed books at Avon (including Sarah Schulman’s Shimmer) until she left to become the nonfiction book-review editor for Publishers Weekly. "There were never many out lesbians working," she says, "and now with one or two exceptions-well, probably one-there is no one who is prioritizing the acquisition of lesbian books." Even if a book is published, getting it into stores is another obstacle, according to Kahla. "I frequently hear from sales reps that it is very difficult to get books with overt gay or lesbian content into lots of bookstores," he says. "The book sellers claim that they have no gay customers or that their regular customers will be put off by seeing the books. This isn’t everywhere-and we are not talking about the big chains who will stock almost everything because they need to fill the space-and it isn’t in big cities, but it happens all the time."

Reviewers and prize committees are no more receptive, Kahla says, especially if the books contain sexual content. "Ed White is as fine a writer as Michael Cunningham," he points out, "but his books are filled with sex–and, even worse, teenaged boys having sex-and you will never see them getting a Pulitzer prize. This past year Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight-which has explicit sexual material and is a very gay-centered retelling of the Trojan War through the lens of 1970s gay male culture and AIDS-received almost no reviews in the straight press, even though four years ago his novel American Studies was highly praised by straight critics and won the prestigious Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. A highly literary, beautifully written novel like Neil Drinnin’s Glove Puppet, with tinges of pedophilia and incest, is completely ignored by the mainstream press." The separation of "gay lit" from "American lit" is a false one, but it mirrors the dominant culture’s profound desire to view homosexual experience as fundamentally different. Part of the problem here is the myth of the "universal"-that canard that mainstream culture trots out when it wants to diminish or disregard the art and experiences of people outside the mainstream.

Fortunately, the old definition of the universal is slowly being discredited. Where books about slavery by African-Americans were labeled "minority literature" just 25 years ago, most critics now embrace as "universal" a work like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with its beautiful meditation on human cruelty and survival, history and memory, the intricate relationships between the physical world and the life of the spirit. And many of us now recognize that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is no more universal than Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance-both are beautifully written works that deal with the conflicts between reality and fantasy, love and lust, transgression, and doomed transfiguration. The one difference is that the first is in the context of a grand heterosexual passion, and the second in the context of pointless homosexual promiscuity.

But anyone who doubts how far we still have to go need only read John Updike’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Spell in the May 31 issue of the New Yorker. The Spell details a country weekend vacation in which a group of gay men, under the spell of the night and moonlight, couple and uncouple to discover some profound truths about themselves and one another. But although Updike appreciated Hollinghurst’s exquisite style, he found that the book had "little momentum" because nothing more was at stake than "self-gratification." In contrast, he wrote, "Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish estimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient sacralized structures of the family." Hollinghurst’s characters are not much different from those fool mortals-and fairies-in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream (from which he borrows both plot and imagery), but you wouldn’t know that from this review. There are no easy conclusions to be drawn here. It is great that Michael Cunningham’s The Hours won the Pulitzer prize, and it’s true that this might not have been possible ten years ago. But gay and lesbian writers continue to publish in a society that regards homosexuality as an indelible difference (in fact, the lesbian writer and scholar Esther Newton has suggested that the John Updike review was a defensive reaction against the reality that an openly gay man writing about gay characters could win a Pulitzer). It’s probably safe to say that Cunningham’s novel would not have won the Pulitzer if the book had been marketed differently. Until queer writers and their work become "universal" in the eyes of heterosexual society, there isn’t a prize that will matter at all.