Why I write gay protagonists (part two, in someone else’s words)

My buddy Bryce Wilson is sort of insane. I say that more with admiration and awe than anything else. 517cE3HYo0L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-59,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_When I put out my call for readers to help answer questions about their awareness of and relationship to gay literary protagonists, a lot of people responded to the call. Bryce is the only one who wrote an uber-informed novel on the subject that made my own thoughts on the matter appear trivial … and brief.

With his permission, these are his answers (and if you like them/ his writing, you should check out his book, Son of Danse Macabre):

How many books would you say you read on average in a given month?

Let’s say ten.

At what age did you start reading?

I literally can’t remember a time I wasn’t reading. I’m sure there was one, but it’s sort of like asking me when I started walking.

What are some of your favorite books? Do you have a favorite genre?

The Man Who Was Thursday GK Chesterton; Watchmen, Alan Moore, Number9Dream, David Mitchell; The Dog of the South, Charles Portis; The Shining, Stephen King; Darkness, Take My Hand, Dennis Lehane; Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor; Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Hunter Thompson; The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson; Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon.

No particular genre. Committed Omnivore.

Do you read ebooks or print books? If a little of both, what would you say is the ratio?

I switch between ebooks (I like them for fantasy, biography, short story collections, backups for books I have signed, etc. etc.) and print. I’d say I keep it at a pretty even 50/50 split. If there is variation it’s negligible.

Have you ever read a book with a gay protagonist? If so, how many and which books? What was your overall impression of them? (And if there weren’t any gay protagonists but there were some gay characters that had an impact on you, who were they?)

Hmmm … very interesting. Frankly, I think gay characters might be a bit more prolific than you think though probably still not enough to be representational. Particularly in genre fiction.

Starting in crime, Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series has featured a gay co-lead since 1990 (the series is about 10 books in). Lisbeth Salander was bisexual and she was arguably the lead of the Millennium trilogy, if not certainly the co-lead.

Early crime fiction used gay characters as muscle characters for their exoticism (think Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon). As you might guess these were hardly positive portrayals but at least had the benefit of frankness when most of society was pretending that homosexuality didn’t exist.

It might surprise you that horror has always been pretty inclusive towards gay characters. Not just from authors who are gay (Clive Barker) or transgender themselves (Poppy Z. Brite) who featured similar characters in their novels and short stories (check out Barker’s In the Hills The Cities sometime. It’s a great read.)

But more mainstream authors have been inclusive as well. John Lindqvist has mined questions of gender identity to great effect. Ramsey Campbell had gay leads. Stephen King has always been pretty good at including gay heroic characters (Cell, The Stand, and Rose Madder leap immediately to mind) though usually in secondary roles. I’m pretty sure even old crazy Dean Koontz had a sympathetic homosexual character or two over the course of his career. Though I couldn’t swear to it because life is too short to read Dean Koontz.

When it comes to sci fi and fantasy though I am a bit stumped. Even authors with pretty well established progressive records don’t offer much. Patrick Rothfuss and John Scalzi have had a few supporting characters be gay. One of the interesting details of Scott Lynch’s world is that homosexuality isn’t a taboo. (Those books are a ton of fun BTW; you should pick them up.) But none of the principals are gay. Though I hate to give the old objectivist loon credit for anything, I seem to remember that Terry Goodkind portrayed lesbian relationships pretty unsensationally. Or as unsensationally as relationships between a warrior/torturer caste clad in red leather could be. (Big disclaimer here, as with Koontz’s I’m relying on memories of 14-year-old Bryce here. And when 14-year-old Bryce read about lesbians, politics were pretty far from his mind.)

In YA you have stuff like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Barry Lyga. I think Frances Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books deserve a lot of credit for breaking that particular wall down early but good. (You’ve read those, right? You’ll absolutely love them and they take like five minutes.)

In literary fiction things do break down a little. I just read John Irving’s new book In One Person which follows a bisexual author through the last fifty years of sexuality where basically the entire cast is LGBT. But that’s the exception.

I think literary fiction tends to use gay characters for “color” cogs in large ensemble casts. To a certain extent I can sympathize; it’s a similar thorny problem with writing characters of other races or religions. Write a saint and you’re accused of tokenism, or as with Salandar exploitation. Write someone as too tawdry and you get accused of demonizing an entire people (Buffalo Bill syndrome).

Now you go back a few decades and skip across the Atlantic and you have a whole mess-load of gay or bi writers writing about gay characters, albeit in code (Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Forster all over the place).

Of course, we are not without our own tradition of queer literature. A la William Burroughs and James Baldwin. But I think that’s kind of the problem. American gay writers tend to write exclusively about queer identity or at least sex in general (and with good reason, yada yada establishment of identity yada yada yada, identity politics, etc.). The problem is, straight writers writing about gay characters tend to follow suit. As I said, In One Person was a very good book, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat exhausted after five hundred odd pages of sexual pairings. It wants for variety.

I see the new generation of gay writers like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs breaking away from this. Writing about sexuality as an aspect of their identity rather than the aspect of their identity. Sedaris will title an essay, “I Like Guys,” but he wouldn’t title a book the same thing.

(Deep Breath)

So there you go: more than you asked for per usual.


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