Pride and lament over positive reviews

Pride is in full swing in several cities. Perhaps not be the best time to bring up literature, but if you find yourself in a more intimate setting – away from the pulsing dance music and trying to pick up someone more cerebral – this might give you a talking point.

It’s about gay subject matter in the arts and how it affects marketability. It also centers on my debut novel, The Wounded Muse. Somewhat vain, yes, but narcissism and pride are two sides of the same coin, so listen up.

I was often told when I started writing the book that I shouldn’t make the main characters gay.

Why limit my audience? Why don’t I use my knowledge of China to write something that will get better exposure? Establish myself as a novelist before wading into such controversial territory. Or if I want to combine China and LGBT themes, how about a non-fiction work about how the community evolved there? Start with the Han Dynasty, when homosexuality wasn’t taboo, particularly among the educated elite. Make it academic.

Perfectly rational advice. And I filed it all under easy listening, knowing that I’d fail spectacularly at trying to play it straight – so to speak – as a writer.

I wanted to tackle head-on censorship, corporate interests, and the hypocrisy embedded in the almighty Sino-U.S. relationship. I wanted to show characters already off kilter for having to hide much of their lives confronting a whole set of other political challenges. And I wasn’t going to hide the raunchy reality of sex that must stay secret.

Nine months since the book was published, Pride is in full swing in more countries and cities than ever thanks to the ever-expanding acceptance that sexuality is much more complex than what many of us had been taught. Despite the push-back from sclerotic religious orders and conservative politicians, more people everywhere are asking themselves why we ever bothered drawing red lines around love and sex between consenting adults.

This is the spirit that pushed me to write a novel about censorship in China that drew on the experiences of gay individuals living there, against a backdrop of monumental economic and cultural change.

The outcome has been good and bad.

I couldn’t be prouder that reviews of The Wounded Muse have been entirely favorable, but what I’m happiest about is how few of these reviews directly mention the sexuality of the characters. Kirkus, for example, said the book “ably tells a tale of a China in the midst of transformation”, without ever using the terms “gay” or “LGBT”.

We may have reached a point where the sexuality of characters depicted in books and films are as consequential as the color of their hair, and the reaction to The Wounded Muse is a clear indication of this progress.

However, the book – tagged as gay fiction on Amazon – won’t ever sell enough to generate any significant income. Published by an independent shop with few resources for promotional campaigns, it barely registers as a blip in the larger world of contemporary fiction despite its five-star rating.

“Gay men don’t read enough books,” an editor at a major publishing house in New York told me recently. “And the subject matter is difficult to sell.”

I knew this would be the case. The story I wanted to tell was based on actual events that occurred within a small social circle of gay men living in Beijing. I wouldn’t have been able to write the story authentically had I removed the gay components. That would have removed the book’s beating heart.

The positive reviews, in this case, are bittersweet. It’s one thing to plow into 10 years of work knowing that it would not yield a life-changing best-seller and another to be happy about that reality. It’s resignation versus contentment.

Sometimes I wish the reviews were bad because positive feedback feeds determination, which translates into many hours of financially unsustainable work.

I need to recognize here that mine is the lament of countless artists throughout the ages. Only one in very many get paid reasonably for the time they put into their craft. And minorities in the arts, as in every other aspect of their lives, have always faced the greatest challenges.

But that doesn’t mean a gay white man can’t speak up about it. So when the Pride parties are over this season, my fellow gay men, pick up some books written by your brethren. Michael Cunningham, Andrew Holleran, and Edmund White have all produced some amazing work that will move you.

Everyone in the gay community should at least be familiar with James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Published in 1956 by an author who already had to live with the burden of racism, the book is about an American in Paris, engaged to a woman but having an affair with a man.

Baldwin’s publisher, Knopf, said such a book would ruin his career, but he went ahead with it anyway. It’s a great psychological study, and when you keep in mind how rigid gender roles were when Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room, the book becomes engrossing.

Oh, and give mine a chance too, bitches.

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