Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Death of Gay Literature

I read a great article yesterday that asks the question,“Is gay literature dead?” The article is in part an interview with Christopher Bram about his new book, Eminent Outlaws, a retrospective on the era of James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and other gay writers from the post-WW2 era. There are many questions about the death of gay literature, what caused it, the current gay generation attitudes towards the older gay generation, and the current era of gay literature. As a gay man myself, I have concluded that the days of great gay literature are indeed over. While working as a bookseller, I found myself unimpressed with the selection of “gay literature” that the chain bookstores stock, and even the stuff that is stocked in the independent LGBT bookstores.

When you look back on the post-WW2 era of gay literature writers, you can’t argue that they weren’t great writers. Gore Vidal is one of my major influences given he wrote on a variety of subjects. The Narratives of Empire series of books offering a look into our history based on fictional characters being the narrators are only a handful of Gore Vidal’s masterpieces. Gore Vidal’s ability to write fiction, history, politics, essays, plays, and screenplays made him an American literary icon. His gay literature novel , The City and the Pillar, that was published in 1946, is one of the first books in American literary history to have homosexuality as its main theme; The City and the Pillar was also controversial upon its release—The New York Times refused to review any of Vidal’s writings after its release. Vidal wrote his mystery novels under the pseudonym of “Edgar Box” to avoid any connection with the controversy of The City and the Pillar.

James Baldwin was just as brilliant of a writer as Gore Vidal. Baldwin also wrote on a variety of subjects and a variety of formats. He wrote novels, essays, poems, plays, and was a social critic. Baldwin was an African-American and a homosexual in a time when America was racially divided and homosexuals were scorned. Baldwin relocated to France given France’s treatment of African-American artists, musicians, and writers. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, published 10 years after Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, is about a young man living as an expatriate in France who has relationships with other men. Baldwin was also involved in the civil rights movement and took part in the Civil Rights March on Washington in August of 1963; his writings about combining the dissimilar philosophies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King inspired the second phase of the civil rights movement in the 1970s.

When you take a look at the gay literature of today and look back on the era of Gore Vidal and James Baldwin, it’s easy to say that gay literature is dead. Gay literature today, for the most part, is glorified erotica writing, love stories that are the Nicholas Sparks for gay society, and characters that don’t really have any depth to them. The closest thing to the gay literature that Vidal, Baldwin, Capote, and Isherwood provided in the post-WW2 era would be the writings of Armistead Maupin, the author of the Tales of the City series, which made light of the AIDS epidemic. It’s amazing to think that the post-WW2 era gave us the best years of gay literature. The interview with Christopher Bram asks if it’s a generational disconnect and whether the young doesn’t want to acknowledge the old, but it doesn’t seem that indifference is the reason for the death of gay literature given Bram doesn’t believe there is any difference between the older and younger gay generations.

When you take a look at modern literature, whether it’s gay or not, you could argue that literature is slowly dying. Many of the writers that defined literature in the postmodern era—John Updike, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett to name a few—aren’t leaving many worthy heirs in the modern day. We’re also living in the times where the formats are changing from print to e-Readers, corporate book stores and independent bookstores having any possibility for a future is in question, and when people are choosing to curl up with their James Patterson and Stephanie Meyer books. The quality of today’s literature is questionable given it doesn’t seem to inspire and influence the way that it used to. Gay literature is not the only genre that has gone through a transition of masterful literary works to erotic and romance writing in the modern era; African-American literature is now less Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and has become filled with the erotic romance novels of Eric Jerome Dickey, Zane, and Noire  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Gil Scott-Heron's "The Last Holiday"

"I was trying to get people who listened to me to realize that they were not alone and that certain things were possible." - Excerpt from The Last Holiday 

If there was a man who had a way with words, it was Gil Scott-Heron. The revolutionary poet and songwriter, who mixed jazz and poetry together, was an iconic figure in the 1970s. His songs and poems were the backdrop of the post-civil rights era and were the early inspiration for hip-hop and rap music. His poem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was a big hit and has been named one of the “Top 20 Political Songs” by The New Statesmen.

The Last Holiday was posthumously released in January after his death in May of 2011. In 2010, his career was on a comeback after a decade of drug problems, health issues, and incarceration. He released his first album in several years that was amusingly titled I’m New Here--the album was praised by critics and sparked an interest in his previous recordings. He started touring again and played the big music festivals around the world.

He begins The Last Holiday discussing his family’s origins. He has warm memories of his grandmother who raised him after his parents separated, he talks about his father’s career as a professional soccer player, and he talks about how all of his maternal family were educated people. There is no doubt that Gil Scott-Heron was an intelligent person, and we learn just how intelligent he was as a child when he discusses his full-scholarship to a preparatory school, his college years at Lincoln University, and Johns Hopkins where he received his masters degree in creative writing.

He discusses his music career with stories from the road and playing in various cities in America. One of which is where he talks about playing a benefit concert against nuclear energy put together by Jackson Browne, where he went on stage to an audience screaming for Bruce Springsteen, who was scheduled to play later on that evening. In one amusing tale, he talks about how we walked into his hotel room to find Bob Marley and his friends sitting in there after being given the key to his room. Touring with Stevie Wonder and talking about Stevie Wonder’s benefit to establish Martin Luther King Day included a story about meeting Michael Jackson, and when he and Stevie Wonder learned about the assassination of John Lennon.

The one problem I had with The Last Holiday is that it’s a collection of stories being told in chronological order as they happened. There were a lot of moments where I found myself wanting to know more and what happened next in transition, but you end up starting a new story when you turn the page. It’s as if you’re getting samples of his life at times and that you want him to emphasize more on what he’s sharing. I came to a part towards the end where he said that when he used to teach creative writing courses before he became a musician, he would tell his students to write about an event that they could remember in vivid detail, and it seems that’s how he decided to write his memoir. The memoir ends around 1999 when he talks about his mother’s death. We don’t get to hear anything about those lost years that followed where he was struggling with drug addiction, with arrests, and his fight to attain sobriety where he decided to revive his music career again. The one thing that he eventually admitted to in a later interview was that he was HIV-positive.

For music fans or anyone who has heard of Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday is definitely a delight to read. For those who are just being introduced to his music, it’s a good place to start. The Last Holiday is the climax and last testament of the life of the man who changed how he listened to music and how we experienced poetry.