Yesterday at Salon, Daniel D’Addario raised an important question: when will there be a buzzed-about novel that finally gets the gay experience right? D’Addario mentions Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, a big novel with a rainbow-colored cover that follows a group of friends in the late ’70s and early ’80s; one of them is a gay man. And, of course, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, the popular novel from 2011 about the interpersonal relationships of collegiate baseball players and the middle-aged college president who, despite his lifelong heterosexuality, falls head-over-heels in love with the sole gay player. Both books, along with Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, feature fairly limited views of the gay experience, as their homosexual characters are more symbolic than fully realized. All three of these authors are straight, but would their characters feel more real if they were written by non-heterosexuals?
The fact of the matter is, a popular, talked-about novel featuring realistic characters that fall within the LGBT umbrella is not likely to be published any time soon. This is a notion that D’Addario admits in his piece. “Publishing is not a charitable endeavor devoted to equal reception for all,” he writes. “It’s a business catering to the interests of an audience comfortable with gay people but not necessarily comfortable with stories that don’t cohere with a mold recognizable from, say, the most recent Michael Cunningham novel, about a bougie, respectable art dealer.” It’s a non-homosexual world, and the majority of those who are buying, selling, and reading literature are non-homosexual. When a marginalized group of people are being packaged for a larger, mainstream audience, the representation is never truly going to be honest or believable to LGBT readers.
A lot of it is marketing, yes, and that is problematic. Take Choire Sicha’s soon-to-be-released non-fiction book, Very Recent History as one major example of its publisher’s attempt to avoid its placement in the Gay Ghetto. “Well, it’s funny, you wouldn’t know that it was about gay people, because the word ‘gay’ isn’t on it or in it,” Sicha tells D’Addario. “I don’t think the word ‘gay’ is used even once in the whole book, which is hilarious and weird.” (One hilarious comment on Goodreads is a testament to the “surprising” bait-and-switch of Sicha’s book: “I found the book jacket summary of this book very misleading. It does not adequately describe the unusual writing style, nor does it reveal that John and all of the men mentioned are gay.”)
It’s admirable for non-homosexual writers to attempt realistic depictions of LGBT characters. As I have argued for more positive (and just plain more) LGBT characters in Hollywood films, it’s worth commending the publishing industry — a much broader, more diverse industry, for sure — for promoting works with gay characters. But as in Hollywood, the representation is still very limited, particularly because “LGBT” is seen as a genre and a convenient umbrella under which to place all non-heterosexual people. Until those in the publishing industry stop marketing its products according to the lowest common denominator and instead recognize that not every book will be relatable and well-liked by the average reader, there’s little progress we can expect. And, let’s be honest, the bottom line will always be more important than providing a niche audience and marginalized group with relatable books with fully formed characters that seem as real as the readers.