If you care about gay culture and/or good writing, you need to read Garth Greenwell’s debut What Belongs To You. The slim novel, which chronicles a multi-year relationship between its narrator and a hustler named Mitko that he hires after meeting him in a bathroom under the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, has been acclaimed by the likes of the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New Republic, which called it “the Great Gay Novel of our times.” Since its January release, it’s gone on to become a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
Earlier today, Greenwell sat down with journalist Steven Thrasher (Buzzfeed/The Guardian) and fellow novelist Alexander Chee (whose Queen of the Night has also experienced considerable critical and commercial success) at NYU’s Department of Social & Cultural Analysis. The novelists read from their books and then talked about them. Chee mentioned pushback he’s received as a gay writer who writes gay things. His experiences sounded quite familiar to me. And then Greenwell launched into what amounted to a spontaneous essay on the subject and took me to church. He spoke to so much of how I feel as a gay man who spends a lot of my time writing about gay issues and culture (as well as the forces that ask for us to do this less, prescribing a public sanitization of gay life that strikes me as fundamentally dishonest, at best). He did this with such eloquence that I asked him after the talk if I could publish his words on this website. With his permission, this is a slightly edited (only for repetition and the kind of verbal crutches that are inevitable in speaking) transcript of his answer. (The audio is embedded as well.)
I certainly was aware—and I was aware of this as a reader, and I was aware of this as somebody in the literary community—of this stigma about gay books. And I was also aware of a kind of gap between the generation of these trailblazers like Edmund White and Andrew Holleran, and my generation, in terms of those novels that document gay life at a particular moment. One explanation for that is very obvious: It’s AIDS.
Another explanation for that, though, is, I think, the kind of pressure of this conventional wisdom that I think for a while really did reflect the reality of a market, and then, I think, at a certain point became just a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which was that if you write a book that is centered on gay lives, it won’t find an audience. And I love that we’re at a moment where—I was just having this talk earlier today with someone who’s considering going to Iowa, who was saying that he’s been hearing from his advisors or from other writers if you write a gay novel it won’t sell—and I love that I can say they’re wrong. It’s just not true.
I would also say that stigma about gay novels, which I do think is often expressed by gay writers who say, “I’m not a gay writer,” or, “This isn’t a gay novel—this might be a novel with gay characters,” or, “I’m a writer who happens to be gay, but that’s not the identity.” I would never want to put any pressure on anyone to identify in any way in any aspect of their lives, but to me it feels kind of desperately urgent to identify as a queer writer, and to say that this is a queer novel. And I think part of that is because of the political moment we’re in.
We’re at this moment where gay people have gotten a kind of mainstream acceptance, and gotten a set of legal rights that was unimaginable even a decade ago. And I think that that’s incredibly important. And I think that marriage equality is incredibly important. And I think the marriage equality battle was important and it’s important that we won it. I also think that it came at a really great cost. And that cost was a marketing campaign that took queer lives and translated them into values that could be appreciated by people who are disgusted by queer people. And that meant presenting one model of queer life, which is a model that looks very much like straight life, which is a monogamous relationship centered on the raising of a child. That’s a beautiful model of human life, and it should be available to queer people. It is not the only model of queer life, and I think it forecloses much of the kind of radical potential in queer life. And that radical potential, I think, inheres in spaces like cruising bathrooms and parks, where the categories by which we organize our lives, like race and class, get scrambled by desire, which is a reason why our culture is so terrified by desire, because it scrambles those things. Without romanticizing those spaces—because they’re spaces in which people are assaulted and robbed and used in instrumental ways—anytime you have face-to-face encounters by human beings across those divides, you have the possibility for a kind of ethical spark that can engage the entire gambit of moral and emotional response. And that seems to me radical.
And if we accept the narrative of queer life that cleanses it—and those are the terms, “dirty” and “clean”—of those spaces and of relationships whose value is not immediately recognizable by mainstream culture, I think we sacrifice too much.
I think for queer writers to say, “This is a queer book. This is a book about queer communities. This is a book that is not going to translate the values of those communities into a mainstream value,” I think that’s important. That’s certainly the work that I want to do.
Toward the end of the talk, Greenwell discussed why he writes about sex in such gorgeous detail:
Even in this moment of marriage equality and the mainstream acceptance of queer life, it does seem to me that queer bodies, and especially queer sexual bodies continue to be despised. I think that one reason it’s important to me to write sex—because that’s a question I get sometimes, like, “Why does there have to be sex in the novel? Why do you have to rub our faces in all the sex? Why so much bad taste?” And the answer is when you write something, you make a claim about it, and especially when you write something, to the greatest extent possible, with sort of these extraordinary resources of the literary tradition, and especially the poetic tradition, and of the lyric tradition, you’re making a claim about it. And you’re making a claim that it has value. And you’re making a claim that it’s beautiful. And so it does seem to me that in the context of a culture in which queer sexual bodies are despised, writing about them in a way that foregrounds beauty is, I hope, a way of cherishing them, and of declaring their value.
Amen. I find this all very affirming.