Thirty years ago, the coming out novel A Boy’s Own Story transformed gay literature. Edmund White talks to Michael Langan about the thirtieth anniversary of the book, and how men and women have to learn to be gay.
Edmund White, 1988 © David Gwinnutt (Click Images to enlarge)
A Boy’s Own Story does, at the beginning, examine the role of the sissy, and that’s something I could identify with – the notion of the boy who’s not quite at home in the physical world or is very self-conscious in the physical world and is aware of that. At the same time the character is falling in love with a younger boy who is very comfortable in that physical realm.
And he’s not even gay that boy. I went to the University of Texas and talked to some grad students who said they wanted to teach A Boy’s Own Story to undergraduates but they couldn’t because of the ‘paedophilia’ in it. And I said, “Do you think a sixteen-year-old boy having sex with a fourteen-year-old boy is paedophilia?” and they said, “Oh yes.” But the older boy is the gay one to whom this all matters, whereas the younger straight boy just wants to get his rocks off – he’s the one exploiting the older one, not vice versa. But people often just think in clichés.
This notion of the performative self – often he’s looking at women who aren’t very happy, who aren’t having ‘successful’ romantic lives or relationships…
… like his mother…
…yes, and like his friend, Marilyn, who works in the bookstore. He’s reading a lot of novels as well, and getting a romantic notion of love, but what he sees around him are women desperately trying to please men and hold on to them and keep their youth at the same time.
I think you’re absolutely right, and he’s very sensitive to people who are a few rungs down on the social scale, like the black maid for example, and to their oppression in a way that a heterosexual white boy would be totally unobservant of. Even though he’s born into a privileged family, he’s very aware of the cracks in the pavement and the ways in which people around him are being treated as second-class citizens, which is a very delicate thing in America. In England you have a class system that’s almost like the Hindu caste system and everybody thinks about it and writes about it, but in America, ninety-eight percent of people call themselves middle-class. As a teacher of creative writing if I bring up class and ask the students if their characters are meant to be middle-class, working class, or whatever, the kids blush bright red and won’t talk about it. They’d rather discuss incest than class – it’s the one really taboo subject. I think under this false veil of egalitarianism in America there is this tremendous amount of class distinction, more and more so. I think the boy is very aware of the hustlers being from a different world than he is, and aware of the black people around him in a very black city, and he’s aware of the women having a lower status, certainly in the 1950s.
Do you think this idea of the constructed self affects gay people much more than it does straight people?
Absolutely, because even the least intellectual gay people go through a process of thinking, okay I’m gay so who shall I be and how shall I act, should I be a top or should I be a bottom, all that stuff. When I was a boy it was a cliché that gay relationships didn’t last more than a few weeks, and now people are getting married. The longest relationships I know of are gay ones.
There’s also the notion of the self as a narrative. When the boy in the novel is in therapy, his therapist tries to impose a narrative on him, while inside him there’s a competing narrative that’s more Modernist almost; it’s fragmented and slippery.
Well, on a simple level, there were no psychiatrists in the 1950s who would say, “Oh it’s okay to be gay.” Part of their stock-in-trade was to treat people as sick and it was really very sinister. Everybody, gays included, was convinced that it was wrong and was an illness that had to be cured. But there’s something in the boy that tells him otherwise, though he can’t formulate it. Even a sovereign intellect like Proust couldn’t ever come up with a forgiving, or affirming, or normalizing attitude towards it. Proust wrote constantly about homosexuality and he has five different theories about what causes it, but they’re all pretty despicable. I guess we forget how much we’re victims of history and the idea of going to a heterosexual shrink with a view to being cured was very much an artefact of the period. People then were all the better at persecuting themselves. They turned their minds against themselves. But there’s something in the boy that suggests to him that the prevailing scenario of sickness isn’t quite right.
As you were speaking I was thinking about how, when I was reading the book in 1983, the AIDS crisis here in the UK had hit the media and the newspapers in particular had gone hysterical. As a boy in my mid-teens the narrative I was being fed was that I was a poisoned individual, that I was very dangerous. Even though I wasn’t having sex I was potentially this plague-carrying, filthy thing, which is very like the attitude the boy is subject to in the 1950s.
That’s really fascinating, and it’s interesting for me to hear your personal relationship to the story. You must stick to that.
Can we talk about your style of writing? I know you’ve been asked many times about being a gay writer and what that means. Very often it seems that people are referring to subject matter, or the themes in a novel, but they’re not speaking about style or form as being gay, or even queer. One of the things I think you did beautifully in the book is to make the writing effeminate – and I’m not using that term in a derogatory way – to have the voice of the narrator an effeminate one and not to be afraid of that.
One of the things I was aware of was that the writing was very careful. There wasn’t a sentence that hadn’t been really worked on. If you think of the prevailing models of the day in America, like Norman Mailer and all the descendants of Hemingway, often times there was a strong narrative but not much interest in sensual detail. I feel like gay writers were, in the ‘70s and ’80s, writing for the first time under the aegis of gay liberation, but they were working to a disadvantage. I think there’s a parallel with writers like Virginia Woolf in the ‘20s in that women back then had to prove that they could write as well as men, if not better. I think that gay writers like myself and Andrew Holleran, and others of the period, felt we all had to prove we could write in a so-called ‘literary’ way because many people thought gay writing was just plain pornographic, that there was nothing else. Though there were many other examples, such as Isherwood’s A Single Man, which was a terribly important book to me. Most gay fiction tended to be about very marginal figures, like in Genet’s work, or that of Hubert Selby Jr. For the first time we wanted to write about the guy who might be sharing your office, or another middle-class person, which was much more threatening to the straight reader. Mainly we were trying to show that we could write well, so maybe we were overly diligent, overly careful, worked the prose too hard. I think later we were all able to relax a bit but at this point there was still an effort to prove our credentials and affirm ourselves as writers.
And what was it about A Single Man that was so important to you?
It was really one of the first books that didn’t have an etiology, or ask “How did the writer come to be gay?” If you accepted the sickness model you had to show when the germ first entered the body, you know, but this book didn’t bother with that, nor did it indulge in self-recriminations about being gay, it just seemed to accept the homosexuality of a very middle-class character who’s very close to heterosexuals, he’s well embedded in the real world and not just in a ghetto. There were many things distinctive about that book that were new and strange to us then.
You mentioned Virginia Woolf, who ideally wanted a writing that was both ‘male’ and ‘female’, and it’s very easy to think of certain writing styles as gendered. But where do you think sexuality sits in relation to that? Is it possible to think of writing as being ‘straight’ and ‘gay’? Not just in terms of subject matter but perhaps even on the level of the sentence itself?
Well there’s certainly a lot of ‘careful’ writing amongst certain gay writers. If you take somebody like Alan Hollinghurst, who I think is the best stylist writing in England, and Colm Toibin who is another great writer, I think their writing shares a very vivid sense of society and the social moment they’re writing about, as well as an interest in psychology. And also their use of sensual detail. Yukio Mishima once said that Japanese readers don’t like to read Western novels because they don’t go into enough sensual detail, but I think that certain gay writers do do it, and some women writers too, such as Colette. Not every gay writer does it, obviously, but I think in the best examples there is a kind of care and polish to the writing that is remarkable.
Maybe that’s because of an outsider status that means you often become this detached observer in social situations, aware of those details?
I think that’s right. Plus a kind of over-compensation in that you want to prove you’re as good as other writers.
The book tackles relationships with parents or parent figures, such as teachers. I know that your father died just before you started to write A Boy’s Own Story and you’ve said that freed you up to be able to write it. To what extent do you think that, as gay men and women we retrospectively narrativise these relationships and their impact upon us, to try to make sense of being gay?
I once had a very good gay psychiatrist say to me that the cliché is that straight fathers tend to reject the gay son but, actually, the opposite is true – that the gay son rejects the straight father because the straight father doesn’t know how to love him in the way he wants to be loved. I think that makes pretty good sense if you think about it. The boy in the book is constantly unhappy with his father because he’s not treated with the warmth and sensitivity he wants because the straight father has been conditioned to be masculine in a very bluff way. It’s a seldom-mentioned dimension to this whole question.
What do you think it was about the book that made it such a breakthrough novel for you? Was it something to do with the moment of its publication, or was it a culmination of all the things you’d done before?
Well, A Boy’s Own Story wasn’t like other things I’d written up to that point, which were quite avant garde and therefore perhaps a little off-putting for the general reader. Forgetting Elena (1973) and Nocturnes for the King of Naples (1978) had been so-called ‘difficult’ books, but with this one I made a decision that the subject matter was itself new enough and it needed a much more transparent, traditional style. It would be silly to add all kinds of complications to the language. It should try to be efficient in rendering this new experience. I think that was a good decision. More importantly, I have this theory that there are empty ecological niches in the publishing world and there was suddenly a need for a coming out novel. Even though mine was an imperfect example, because the boy’s a little peculiar and he does lots of strange things, nevertheless if there’s an empty niche then even a book that’s a near fit will be crammed into that space.
And did you have any kind of mission when you were writing the novel? You were setting up the Gay Men’s Health Crisis at the same time.
I guess I felt that, with the advent of AIDS, gays were in danger of re-medicalising their whole existence. We had endured a hundred years of being a medical diagnosis and suddenly that had been reversed with the Gay Liberation Movement in ’69, but by ’81, little more than a generation later, we were in danger of being re-medicalised. I thought it was very important to, not affirm exactly, but express their identity, so I guess there was that political aspect to it, yes.
Well thank you so much for talking to me. The book has been very important to me and a lot of people I know, so thank you again.
And with that our conversation was over. I had just spoken for almost an hour to one of my literary heroes and felt elated.
In a 1988 interview with The Paris Review, White said:
“Writers can use literature as a mirror held up to the world, or they can use writing as a consolation for life (in the sense that literature is preferable to reality). I prefer the second approach, although clearly there has to be a blend of both. If the writing is pure fantasy it doesn’t connect to any of our real feelings. But if it’s grim realism, that doesn’t seem like much of a gift. I think literature should be a gift to the reader, and that gift is an idealization. I don’t mean it should be a whitewashing of problems, but something ideally energetic. Ordinary life is blah, whereas literature at its best is bristling with energy.”
At fifteen A Boy’s Own Story felt very much to me like a ‘consolation for life.’ At forty-five the sadness involved in that had dissipated and I felt much more the sense of literature as an energetic gift because I was able to read it in the same way the narrator tells it; safe in the knowledge that I survived my boy’s own story, and that I’m okay.