What You Missed at the Lamdba Awards

Both [Terrence] McNally and Albee spoke of what it means to be a gay author. In accepting his award, Albee said, “I’m not a gay writer. I’m a writer who happens to be gay … I’ve written a number of plays with gay characters in them, but I have never written a play that could be considered a ‘gay play’ because I consider that a lessening of the creative act, to limit oneself to one’s own sexual practices as subject matter for one’s work.”

In the less then 48 hours elapsed since these words were spoken, I’ve already noticed a growing flurry of response to Albee’s commentary on his life, which by extension feels like a commentary on the Lambda Literary Foundation, and further by an extension a commentary on writing and identity–our associations, allegiances, and, ultimately, our communities.

I received in my inbox a letter from a colleague who bemoaned Albee’s stance, feeling in many ways slighted by this attitude. On the one hand, Albee’s comment seems unnecessarily sharp, more a criticism of others than a statement of self. The statement, while brief, is bloated with connotation and assumption; that is what I think provoke confused and angry responses to his words.

On the one hand, Albee is prioritizing his own identities, putting his creative identity ahead of his sexual identity. Albee seems to imply his goal is to transcend self in his writing–that being gay is no more important to him than being straight might be to another playwright. I don’t think anyone assumes that heterosexuals write more “legitimately” or more “honestly” about other heterosexual people or experiences. Or do they?

At its core, Albee’s position takes up an ongoing tension in the community of gay writers and writers who happen to be gay. Writers in the first camp don’t feel like homosexuality “happened” to them; instead, they may feel as if their sexuality provides a lens through which they view the totality of their lived experience. Writers in the second camp may not deny the lens is there, but might say the lens doesn’t limit or dictate what they look at through it. There may be a misperception that “gay writers” use only their own “gay experience” as subject matter, but this is untrue. Some writers who self-identify as gay writers may use their own experience, but I would hazard to say this ratio is probably equal to the number of heterosexual writers who use their own life as subject fodder. We don’t discount these straight writers, but we also don’t consider them brave or trailblazing, either. In either case, disparaging the choice probably doesn’t help.

The deep tension here, though, seems to be the break between gays who are fundamentally assimilationist and gays who are separatist. A gay writer is more likely to consider him or herself as separate from the dominant literary community–specifically from both heterosexual writing and heterosexual culture. A writer like Albee seems more assimilationist in approach, gaining–and then perhaps being scorned for gaining–wider appreciation for work that is generally more inclusive of different kinds of people. Almost in every case, a writer who takes Albee’s position has a greater chance of success in the literary world, partly because his or her stories will have a wider audience and partly because segments of that wider audience don’t want to encounter gay people in the work they read.

Futhermore, Albee is also ascribing to the word “gay” a simple idea–that being gay is a behavior, not an identity. Part of the gay rights movement has been dedicated to reserving the notion that what separates gays and straights is what happens under the covers (although, trust me, it’s different). But amplifying gay behavior into a gay identity is a fallacy. Our world is full of otherwise heterosexual people who, either temporarily or on an ongoing basis, love having same-sex sex partners. It doesn’t affect their overall identity to do so. This is because being gay is really something else. If it weren’t, I would spontaneously revert to being a heterosexual whenever I’m not having sex–which, honestly, is most of the time. If I were to consider the only gay thing in my life to be the sex I was having, obviously “gay identity” overall would take on a much smaller part of my overall identity. This may be the case for Albee. For those who perceive their gay identity as having wider repercussions, for touching on most or all aspects of their life, a perspective like Albee’s feels reductionist and oversimplified.

And this is perhaps the concerning implication of Albee’s statement: is he, by virtue of this attitude, contributing to the “recloseting” of homosexuality? By not taking a stake in being a gay writer, Albee, from some vantage points, is able to “pass.” In the entire history of oppression, those who pass are met with resistance and disdain from both the people like them who cannot or choose not to pass and those for whom they seek to pass. Writers like Albee ultimately end up alone, outside of the dominant community and unwelcome in their marginalized community. Aspiring to pass can be read as a desire not to be seen as gay, which is fundamentally the same as desiring not to be gay in the first place. Aspiring to pass, then, can be perceived as a rejection of this marginalized identity, a yearning to be accepted by the majority as “one of them,” undifferentiated–equal.

Are gay writers responding to this aspect of Albee’s speech? Yes. Is this implication troubling? Hells yes. Because of our current complicated moment, when gays and lesbians had their marriage rights revoked in California, when our rights are debated in front of us in coffeeshops and on news programs, it is very troubling. In fact, more than that, it almost seems antiquated. But perhaps this is because of our current moment, when LGBT writers who are invested in the furthering of our rights are the ones holding the microphones. It is unlikely that Albee’s words will turn back the clock (or, as a gay writer might say, “turn back time”). It’s interesting that Albee was introduced by McNally, who wrote one of the most incendiary gay plays ever (Corpus Christi), which was so controversial McNally received death threats after it premiered. There, in a nutshell, were two very unique approaches to work in American theater.

Gay literature/literature by gay people still has a lot of issues to work out in this area. I know this debate–are you a gay writer or writer who is gay?–is one that has come and gone a few times on blogs and elsewhere, but sincerely, these ideas bear repeating. I will never forget a moment in a workshop with C. D. Wright during my MFA program. One of my classmates, who was raised in South Carolina, asked C. D. Wright about how people try to classify her as a “Southern writer” and whether or not that label was helpful. Wright very plainly said when people want to classify you, “don’t sign up.” Don’t sign up. Don’t sign up. I keep repeating it to myself. It seems like she’s saying don’t classify yourself, but I don’t think that’s it.

I think she’s saying, “Don’t let other people determine who you are.”

And, fundamentally, that’s the debate here. Albee doesn’t want to sign up. There are those in our community who are desperate to place him in our community, and maybe that impulse is even part of what prompted him to receive this award right now. And it’s Albee’s option not to sign up.

I think Albee’s done nothing wrong in making this statement. It is his own prerogative to define himself, just as those with an opposing viewpoint want the same luxury, to define their creative identity as being inextricable from their queer identity. For every Michael Cunningham, there’s a Bret Easton Ellis. The argument on both sides is flawed: both camps want to limit the kind of definitions that can take place, but by doing so, they negate their own right to self-define. What we need to do is give each other permission to self-define, even when those definitions don’t jibe with our perception of the greater issues at stake. Albee’s stance won’t single-handedly roll back LGBT visibility or progress.

Imagine if we never knew Albee was gay. We wouldn’t have experienced any sense of loss. But what might have been in bad taste was saying this while accepting a prestigious award from an organization that fosters and promotes writing by LGBT artists.

But even then, no one wins a Lammy for being a good queer, right?

Please spread this around.

The Writer’s Center Announces Fellowships for Emerging Writers

The Writer’s Center, metropolitan DC’s community gathering place for writers and readers, is currently accepting submissions for several competitive Emerging Writer Fellowships. Emerging Writer Fellows will be selected from applicants who have published up to 2 book-length works of prose and up to 3 book-length works of poetry. We welcome submissions from writers of any genre, background, or experience.

Emerging Writer Fellows will be featured at The Writer’s Center as part of their Emerging Writers Reading Series. The readings, held on Friday evenings, bring together writers in different genres with a backdrop of live music. The Writer’s Center book store will sell titles by the Emerging Writers throughout the season in which they appear in an effort to promote them and their work to a wide audience.

Selected Fellows are invited to lead a special Saturday workshop at The Writer’s Center, with compensation commensurate with standard Writer’s Center provisions.

Fellows receive an all-inclusive honorarium to help offset their travel costs in the amount of $250 or $500, depending on their place of departure.

Fellows for Fall 2009 include novelist Alexander Chee (Edinburgh), novelist Lisa Selin Davis (Belly), poet Suzanne Frischkorn (Lit Windowpane), poet Aaron Smith (Blue on Blue Ground), Canadian fiction writer Neal Smith (Bang Crunch), poet Srikanth Reddy (Facts for Visitors), and poet Nancy Krygowski (Velocity).

Their events will be held in September, October, and December. See our events calendar for more information.

Spring 2009 events will be held in February, March, and April/May.

To be considered, please send a letter of interest, a resume or CV that details publication history and familiarity facilitating group discussions, and a copy of your most recent book. Self-published or vanity press titles will not be accepted. A committee comprised of The Writer’s Center board members, staff, and members will evaluate submissions on behalf of our community of writers.

The deadline to submit is August 15, 2009.

Applicants are encouraged to call Charles Jensen, Director, for more information at 301-654-8664.

The Writer’s Center, established in 1976, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest literary centers. We provide over 60 free public events and more than 200 writing workshops each year, sell one of the largest selections of literary magazines in our on-site bookstore, and publish Poet Lore, America’s oldest continually published poetry journal.

The Return of Laurie Notaro

Last night I trekked into DC to catch the Laurie Notaro reading event at what turned out to be the most cleverly hidden Borders store in the world. I first encountered Laurie’s work when my old roommate Julia plastered magnets of Laurie’s book covers all over our fridge and then proceeded to read passage after passage from Autobiography of a Fat Bride, each prefaced with, “Oh my God, you have to hear this!” followed by raucous laughter before her interpretive reading would begin.

Laurie came to the ASU Writers Conference one year and read with Peter Pereira and Tony Hoagland. This may or may not have been the same day she and another writer I won’t name nearly came to blows on the “Humor in Literature” panel, when he referred to her as “the pottymouth” during the session.

Laurie’s reading are equal part readings and stand-up, which is an accurate approximation of her work. What tends to irritate literary types about Laurie’s work is precisely what I find so endearing about it (and her): she’s more likely to use a vivid metaphor or turn of phrase in the interest of causing a chuckle than to, you know, sum up what it means to be human.

But for many of us—the people who trip on sidewalks (as I did after the reading) or who laugh awkwardly (but geniunely) in public or who have ever returned home from work to discover the “barn door” is open without being able to theorize exactly how long it had been the case—that is what it means to be human. You either laugh or are laughed at.

And those who are laughed at quickly learn to orchestrate the laughter, to control it, and take away some of the sting.

I picked up Laurie’s first book and her most recent last night, and I think I may have gotten her another reader in the guise of my friend visiting from out of town, who, in exchange for my likelihood of getting a cocktail afterward, accompanied me to the reading.

Highlight of the event: an audience member asking Laurie what exactly it meant to “play beard” for someone.

Welcome to the Jungle

A few wonderful people have joined my blogroll in the past few weeks, and I wanted to point them out to you:

Aimée Baker, one of my colleagues at the Piper Center for Creative Writing, stays up far too late and sleeps in until the day’s half over. But she’s also blogging now, and she has a book recommendation for you already.

Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer and author of Black Bodies and Quantum Cats and my treasured The Physics of the Buffyverse, titles that blend literary criticism with scientific explication. She recently visited ASU’s Physics Department and signed my Buffy book for me!

Mary Sojourner is an upcoming visitor to the Piper Center for Creative Writing. A novelist, essayist, memoirist, and former NPR commentator, she lives and writes in Flagstaff, where she is passionate about conserving the natural environment.

Scott Heim is the author of several novels and collections of poetry, including the forthcoming We Disappear and Mysterious Skin, which became a Greg Araki film a few years ago.

Wait…are you saying literature isn’t dead?

I think one of my biggest minor annoyances in life is talking to people about literature. Books.

When I meet people, I generally don’t offer up that I write, although it is frequently a question that follows once people have asked what I do for a living, since it seems a natural extension of the place where I work. I cop to it if asked, yes, and then for some reason, people always feel compelled to confess to me various aspects of their reading habits. “I don’t read much,”
they’ll say, as if apologizing to me personally, or to pre-empt my seemingly inevitable judgment of their intelligence, class, or cultural savvy.

[As an aside, something similar occurred when I first came out. People would respond with the most outlandish confessions, like “Once I stole lip gloss from Wal-Mart!” or “Once I let a boy do me in the butt!” As if there’s an equivalency there.]

The people who don’t read much, I understand. People are busy. Books take a lot of time, and a lot of them are kind of bad, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for, have gotten a crappy recommendation, or are new to reading for fun. For most people, reading is a chore akin to carefully flaying their own skin from their body and stretching it taut across a drum to be tanned into leather. I get that. Sometimes, some books make me dislike reading. This is the case with any book my father would enjoy: non (*shudder*) fiction.

People, I don’t care if you read. Don’t read if you don’t want to. I’d rather talk about what’s on TV anyway. Did you see the Veronica Mars finale??

Those who do read, I find, generally begin to ask me if I like a series of writers. They generally ask like this: “Do you like ____? Do you like ____? Do you like ____?” as if this were high school and I were handed a note that says, after each one, “check yes or no.”

Their list of writers oftentimes looks like this:

Dead white guy
Dead white guy
Dead white woman
Nearly dead white guy
The DaVinci Code
White guy I think is probably dead, maybe in the past couple of months
Dead white guy

It’s as if most people believe that “literature” is no longer being created. That all of these great books, written by dead people, somehow just appeared on the shelves in their local bookstore. They don’t seem to understand that there are actual living writers creating actual works of art RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. They also don’t seem to understand that they can read those books shortly after they are published, while the writer is still alive, and that typically they can also go somewhere not far from their house to hear the author read, meet the author, etc.

I’ve learned when people ask me what I read that I generally have to list for them the dead people whose books I’ve enjoyed, or else they look at me quizzically, wondering who these writers are they’ve never heard of. “Oh, they’re still alive,” I explain, and then I’m met with a very skeptical look that I know means nothing written by a living person could be worth reading.

I think America’s reading-living-writers crisis has become so extreme that “Living Writers” could be a real stumper of a category on Jeopardy!

Unless, of course, the book has been made into a movie, a TV movie, or a mini series.