Friday, December 5, 2008

Gay books: where are the good ones hiding?

Yesterday I was talking about the fact that diminishing numbers of people are reading at all ... not because they wouldn't read if they could, but because they just plain can't read. With illiteracy rates up over 50% in some parts of the US, is it any wonder that American politics is a game of deception and drama? Half the electorate can't go and check the facts on paper or on the Internet! Half the electorate is compelled to accept any twaddle handed out to them by a shonky politician, because they can't read well enough to verify and/or invalidate what's been said!

So, with reading becoming a rare skill, it's little wonder than even people who can read are not reading a much as they used to: the entertainment marketplace is becoming increasingly geared to the HUGE section of the public that has the vote, the job, the paycheck and reading skills which are so inadequate, you find them in the theatre or in front of the TV, not in the bookstore. The rest of us are, therefore, so inundated with the constant torrent from the visual and audio media that our choices are massively wide ... and sure, we sometimes read. But there's always something to do instead. Like, the new DVD or MP3. The new movie that just opened. The new season of something halfway decent on TV.

Reading is gradually being shuffled off into the background, and alas, creative writing is going with it -- because if no one is reading, who the hell is going to be bothered writing?!

Worse yet, for writers, (and particularly for fiction writers), with the inexorable collapse of the mainstream publishing industry, book reviewers are overlooking "marginalized" writers more and more. I just read a post by Brent Ledger at Xtra* in which he's lamenting the fact that the mainstream media appears to be blind, or at least myopic, when it comes to reviewing new gay books -- in other words, they only review the best-selling gay mega-stars; and meanwhile, a significant number of gay readers have "stopped reading gay, because they don't know what to read."

Well ... from my perspective (and I've been in this business for over 20 years now), the mainstream media never did review gay books from people whose names were not Edmund White, Gordon Merrick, Mary Renault, or Patricia Nell Warren, and so forth. I don't recall a single instance when one of my earlier works was reviewed by a mainstream paper or magazine, though I was quite often reviewed by the gay press of the day. I still use those pull quotes in my current books.

Perhaps the mainstream media avoided my books because they were "too gay?" Brent Ledger suggests that virtually all of the gay books reviewed in the mainstream lately have been written by straights ... in other words, these writers have possibly "packaged" gay stories and characters for the mainstream media, putting them in wrappers and ribbons that make the books acceptable, while a Keegan novel, from the Gay Men's press, would have been a gay story for a gay (or at least gay-friendly) readership, from a gay publisher. Which is altogether too gay to be comfortable to the mainstream.

It's an interesting question, and I left this comment on the post at Xtra:

Waiting for gay literature to be treated fairly in the mainstream media is like waiting for rain in the desert.

Frankly, I gave up on the media a long time ago. Much of the best gay writing, publishing and (often) reading happens online these days. When GMP closed, many of their writers, myself included, embraced cyberspace. (I was with GMP for 12 years.) Until the recent market crash, we were doing fine, and when the recession turns around and readers start shopping again, we expect to be doing fine again.

Here's the rub: looking for good gay reading, you have to stop waiting for the mainstream media (I agree 100% with all Mr. Ledger says ... and he's said it all here, no need for Keegan to reiterate).

In fact, you have to hunt down good gay books yourself. They're out there, but they seldom get into bookstores these days, since the "worms in the Big Apple" situation with mainstream publishing.

Looking for a good gay book starts, not with a bus or train downtown, but with a Google search. As a gay writer with a backlist of over 20 novels in print, I guess I view the situation from the reverse perspective. On one side you have readers desperately wanting to find a good gay book. On the other side you have gay writers desperately wanting to be read. There HAS to be a meeting of minds somewhere in the middle, and the internet seems to be the place where it's most likely to happen!

The situation leaves one a bit at a loss: people en masse go to the Internet for anything and everything these days. News, sport, weather, a new camera, DVD rentals, plane tickets, hotel bookings, roadmaps --

But, looking for a good gay book they would rather read nonexistent reviews in the paper or a magazine, and complain that there's nothing to read?!

People, please. Wake up. Google rules the world -- you haven't noticed?!

The bookselling marketplace is, at the moment, a depressed and depressing place to work. It's easy to become disillusioned with it, and one has to remember, the housing market, the new car market, the travel industry ... everything is flat as the proverbial bickie. Why should books be any different?

To readers, I would say: "Get on the Internet and use Google, that's what it's there for!" To writers I would say, "Have patience and have faith -- all recessions turn around, and the trick is to be there when they do." To publishers I would say, "Rethink your industry, because it's been strangling writers for decades, so who can be surprised when we gravitate to cyberspace?!"


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