The Golden Age of Gay Fiction

2,086 Views

Golden Age coverTitle: The Golden Age of Gay Fiction
Editor: Drewey Wayne Gunn, with 19 contributors
Publisher: MLR Press
Genre: Non-fiction, history of gay literature (1948-1978)
Length: 277 pages (includes introduction, index, bibliography and contributor biographies)

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

A guest review by Leslie

BLURB:
It was the first great explosion of gay writing in history. These books were about gay characters. They were written mostly by gay writers. Above all, they were for gay readers. And, as this entertaining chronicle of the emergence of gay literary pride makes clear, it was a revolution that occurred several years before Stonewall!

Their characters were mostly out or struggling to get out. The books were definitely out—out on the revolving paperback bookracks in grocery stores, dime stores, drugstores, magazine agencies, and transportation terminals across the nation for youths and senior citizens, in the cities and the rural areas alike, to find and to devour.

Here 19 writers take you on a tour of this Golden Age of Gay Fiction—roughly the period between the first Kinsey Report and the first collection of Tales of the City—paying attention to touchstone novels from the period but, even more, highlighting works of fiction that have been left unjustly to gather dust on literary shelves.

Written by authors, scholars, collectors, and one of the publishers, their essays will inform you. They will sometimes amuse you. They will take you into literary corridors you only suspected were there. And the some 200 illustrations, chosen for their historical as well as their artistic interest, provide a visual record of why this was the golden age.

REVIEW:

Pop Quiz: You enjoy reading m/m romances and gay fiction. Which of the following describes the depth of your familiarity with the genre?

A. You name it, I’ve read it, the more obscure, the better.

B. I’ve read Maurice and bought a used copy of The City and the Pillar off eBay to read…someday.

C. I read Brokeback Mountain in The New Yorker back in 1997 and that got me hooked.

D. I never heard of m/m until #amazonfail last spring – that’s when I read False Colors.

Whether you selected A or D or fall somewhere in between, run, don’t walk, to your favorite bookseller to order a copy of The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. If  you are solely a reader, or a reader and writer both, this book is an essential resource that provides context and understanding for the gay fiction genre.

Edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn, the book is a collection of 22 essays from 19 contributors, organized in four sections: I) O Brave New World; II) “I Know It When I See It”; III) Frightening the Horses; and IV) Secrecy and Adventure. The Introduction by Gunn grounds the reader as to the purpose and scope of the book: a comprehensive review and analysis of gay fiction from its Golden Age, dated as 1948-1978. The books reviewed include “the pulps” – paperback novels that were cheaply printed, broadly distributed, and widely read. While often not paragons of great literature they were extremely influential in bringing gay writing—and many gay men—out of the closet. Gunn notes that “scholarly” writing about gay literature has largely ignored these books; bringing them to the forefront and recognizing their importance is a major strength of The Golden Age.

The essays are uniformly well written and interesting; some are funny, some are serious, depending on the topic at hand. On Being There…Or Not by William Maltese had me laughing out loud. Lonnie Coleman Remembered by Nowell Briscoe was a touching memory of an author who is now, unfortunately, largely forgotten. I particularly enjoyed Conversation in a Coffee Shop by Dennis Bolin. He notes that in any serious conversation about “important” books that one “must” read, six titles always rise to the top: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote; The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal (both published in 1948); Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, published in 1956; two from the sixties, City of Night by John Rechy and Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man; and last, but not least, Maurice by E.M. Forster, published in 1971 but written in 1914. Bolin bought all six, read them, and discusses them thoroughly. I freely admit that I have gaping holes in my own personal “must read” background—take me out and shoot me, I’ve never read To Kill A Mockingbird—but I’ve filled those holes (sort of) with essays like Bolin’s. So, thank you, Dennis, for doing the hard work since now I don’t have to. I probably won’t bother trying to plow through Pillar; I’ve never been much of a Vidal fan, anyway. But A Single Man sounds interesting and I may dig out my old copy of Maurice which is packed away in the attic for a second re-read, almost forty years later.

One bonus for readers is that many of the books discussed are being re-issued in new editions, so titles that catch your attention may be readily available in print and for some of them, as ebooks. Have you always wanted to read The Man from C.A.M.P. by Victor J. Banis? You can. Other Voices, Other Rooms has the “scandalous” picture of Capote with his bedroom eyes and come hither stare, only this time it’s on the cover, not the back.

But if you want to see what Capote looked like on the original cover, then turn to page 27, because this is another wonderful feature of The Golden Age: more than 200 full-color illustrations of book covers, many of them which are now very difficult, if not impossible, to find. The amount of work that went into tracking these down must have been phenomenal and we all benefit by having them preserved within the pages of The Golden Age forever.

The Golden Age of Gay Fiction is beautifully designed. I love the font that was used for the chapter titles (which is the same as on the cover, in case you want an example). The cover painting was commissioned by MLR Press for the book and was done by an Ohio artist named Paul Richmond (who also did the cover for Zero at the Bone by Jane Seville, in case his style looks familiar). I read the book as a PDF for this review but I will be ordering a print copy for my collection. While  it is available as an ebook, really, you need to have it in print to do it justice. It is worth the $70 investment.

Scholarship throughout the book is evident. References are cited and the back matter includes a ten page “Index of Fiction Discussed” which includes not just the index to the book but also complete bibliographic data for the books that are cited, even in a casual mention. The book also includes a bibliography of secondary sources for further reading. I am so impressed with the index and bibliography, I daresay they will become the gold standard for a comprehensive listing of gay literature, both fiction and non, for the time period covered in the book.

Last, the contributors, who are the heart and soul of the book. I am going to list them all at the end of this review because they deserve to be recognized. They have an eclectic mix of backgrounds and experience, ranging from authors, avid readers, and book collectors to known scholars and academicians. As noted earlier, the writing is uniformly excellent. Clearly all the contributors have a passion for their chosen topic. They also pulled off a feat that eludes many contributed non-fiction collections: the book is interesting and fun to read. This is not some dry, dusty tome that will be relegated to the libraries of esoteric researchers; rather, anyone who is interested in gay fiction, even if only marginally, will find something enjoyable to read in The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. I am willing to bet on it.

Kudos to Laura Baumbach and the MLR Press team for bringing this book to fruition. It really is a jewel in the crown of her published titles and she should be very, very proud of this accomplishment.

Gunn, D.W., ed. (2009). The Golden Age of Gay Fiction. Albion, NY: MLR Press. Contributors: Victor J. Banis, Dennis Bolin, Nowell Briscoe, Michael Bronski, Philip Clark, Fabio Cleto, Neil DeWitte, Dave Doyle, Jan Ewing, Drewey Wayne Gunn, Earl Kemp, Josh Lanyon, Rob Latham, William Maltese, Rob McDonald, Tom Norman, Joseph M. Ortiz, Paul Richmond (artist), Roger H. Tuller, Ian Young.

Note: This review is also posted at Speak Its Name. Thanks to Wave and Erastes for allowing me to post in both places and further spread the word about this excellent book.

21 thoughts on “The Golden Age of Gay Fiction

  1. Victor J. Banis

    Thank you, Leslie and Wave, for this generous and insightful review. I cannot but mention Judi David, who had the considerable task of content editing for the publisher, and Kris Jacen, who put in hours of hard work formatting it (and, yes, honey, it’s gorgeous!) are both deserving of kudos. But of course major thanks are due to Wayne Gunn for conceiving and spearheading this project and for his incredible devotion to it over a period of months, and his impeccable scholarship, setting an Olympian standard which everyone involved strived to match; and of course to Laura Baumbach for giving this her nod. Wayne said it rightly: she is a class act.

    For my own part, I am humbly grateful just to have been included. I said more than once, I would have happily paid to have been a part of such a wonderful achievement.

    Victor J. Banis

    1. Wave

      Hey Victor
      The review was all Leslie’s work — I only helped by getting Laura to send me the book.:) Many authors, including Josh Lanyon, sent me copies for which I am truly grateful. However the review (and any review for that matter) is only a summary and opinion about this wonderful work, and any kudos should go to the authors involved, not only in the The Golden Age of Gay Fiction but in writing gay literature over many decades when they were imprisoned or otherwise harmed for doing so!

      **

      This is indeed a proud achievement for everyone involved in the project. I had no idea about some of the writers who wrote these books “back in the day”. Your contribution over many decades, not only to this wonderful crowning achievement, but also your own work, is truly remarkable.

      **

      I know that Kris is your editor for many of your books, including the Deadly series and her own contribution to the book should not go without at least a mention here.

      **

      Of course this book may not have seen the light of day without Laura’s participation and the active involvement of MLR Press to bring it to publication. She’s a truly a remarkable woman and publisher. I can’t wait for the print version in about a week.

      **

      You guys rock – that goes without saying. Of course William will probably say it’s all his wonderful work.:)

  2. Laura Baumbach

    Thank you to both Leslie and Wave for this generous and insightful review. Leslie, you nailed the essence of the book! This was a labor of love for all involved and we are undeniably proud of this achievement. I hope it opens eyes to the history of the genre we all hold so close to our writer’s soul. Thank you!

    1. Wave

      Laura
      The thanks should go to you and all the authors involved in this project and, in particular, for your insight in bringing these authors to a wider audience for gay literature.

      **

      Drewey Wayne Gunn’s vision, not only in recognizing the value of such a work, but in spearheading something so remarkable, is an achievement to be celebrated! I’m sure he’s smiling while he’s having his coffee, when all the praise comes rolling in.:)

  3. Leslie Post author

    “You nailed the essence of the book.” Thanks, Laura, you made my day!
    *
    In one way, writing the review was a snap, because it is such an excellent book. On the other hand, it was a challenge, because I wanted to go on and on, detailing all of the essays and authors. I knew Wave would kill me if I handed in a review that rivaled the book itself in length. :-)
    *
    I hope the takeaway that everyone is left with is: read this book. It really is essential for anyone who has an interest in gay fiction and m/m romance. I always find that my reading of anything is enhanced when I have a frame of reference for understanding. The Golden Age of Gay Fiction serves to provide context and meaning and does so in a very accessible and entertaining way.
    *
    L

  4. Jeanne Barrack

    I read the sampling over at Earl Kemp’s ezine the other day. All I can say is to echo Leslie: this is a must read for any young author and reader to wants to learn about the pioneers who blazed the trail scampered down so happily today. It shold be listed in every course work on contemporary fiction and in every store – “straight” or “gay” that purports to support diversity in the history of American literature.
    Kudos to everyone involved!!

  5. josh lanyon

    Thanks so much for this stellar review, Leslie. (And Wave, as always thanks for your support — we did sort of flood you with copies, I know.) I want to second Victor’s kudos to Judi and Kris. This was no easy project to put together, and they did Wayne’s vision proud, I think.
    *
    It’s an honor to be part of what I believe will be a major literary resource for many years to come. But from a purely personal standpoint, I’m so delighted to have these wonderful essays to read and enjoy. And those covers.
    Those wonderful old pulp art covers.
    *
    MLR did terrific work with this one.

    1. Wave

      Josh
      Leslie did a wonderful job on this and I think it was a labour of love. I forgot to say earlier how much Judi’s work must have contributed to the end product and I hope she will forgive me.

      **

      If you did flood me with copies I notice that no one, so far, has sent me a coupon for the print book. :) I suspect I’ll have to buy my own copy but I don’t mind.

      **

      Josh, even though you weren’t around in those days (at least I don’t think so) I think your contribution to gay fiction and m/m romances, especially in the area of mysteries for the past 10 years, is something to be celebrated!

  6. William Maltese

    Come on, Wave — did you really write: “Of course William will probably say it’s all his wonderful work.:)”? Well, all I have to say to that is that, “I’d like to thank my mother, my father, my nanny, my kindergarten writing instructor, my agent, my many fans…”

    Seriously, buddy, no way could I claim all of this as “mine”, in that the time and effort that went into this compilation of work, by Wayne, by Laura, by Judi, by Kris, by one and all, just makes me exhausted thinking about it. Besides which, I still feel so odd about finding myself listed in a reference book’s “Index”, including this one, that I don’t think I could ever bring myself to do that myself.

    So, I’ll go no farther than to claim my small essay in the total, and the books that I wrote that became reference points for some of the other authors’ texts. And, modest person as I always am, I shall let the bulk of the praise rest with those who provided so much more input than I did: Wayne always at the helm of the ship, Laura always in the background doing a lot of the skillful and diplomatic navigation that it took to get this book launched and safely docked on the bookshelves, Judi and Kris making sure that everything aboard was ship-shape.

    And certainly, I’m pleased to find well-respected reviewers, like Leslie and you, Wave, obviously appreciative of the time and effort and love that went into making this tome possible, and to those who contributed to whatever success it might (and rightfully-so) achieve.

    Now, drop your pants, Wave, and get your cute ass over here!

  7. Wave

    My darling William

    “Come on, Wave — did you really write: “Of course William will probably say it’s all his wonderful work.:)”? Well, all I have to say to that is that, “I’d like to thank my mother, my father, my nanny, my kindergarten writing instructor, my agent, my many fans…”

    **

    I don’t know what made me say that. There must have been a gremlin around.:)

    You are so humble and I know you really believe that everyone who contributed to this book deserves the praise more than you do.*g*

    **

    There is no doubt about Wayne and Laura being the biggest contributors in terms of making this happen and launching this book.

    **

    “Now, drop your pants, Wave, and get your cute ass over here!”

    You do recall, honey, what happened the last time we were together don’t you? You said, and I quote, “I don’t understand it. This has never happened to me before”.
    But, I forgive you.:-D

  8. William Maltese

    I know, Wave, it HAS been only with you that I’ve been able to orgasm ten times consecutively! Of course, the characters in my books (including those mentioned in THE GOLDEN AGE OF GAY FICTION do it all of the time).

  9. gaycrow

    I was looking forward to this review, and would like to thank you Leslie, for providing such an informative post. It’s certainly made me want to buy the book.
    *
    I really do hope some of the earlier works surface in print (or I’ll even read them in e-form if I have to ;-) ). I’d love to read Joseph Hansen’s stories under his other pen-names, and I’m sure there are other authors I’d enjoy as well.
    *
    Thanks again to you, and the editor(s) and authors that have contributed to the “Golden Age …” I hope it sells like hot-cakes!

  10. Ally Blue

    Awesome review! I’ve really been looking forward to this book’s release, and it sounds like it’s every bit as excellent as expected :) Big hugs to Laura and everyone who contributed! Y’all are ALL the best!

    1. Wave

      Ally
      I agree. This is an awesome review for an outstanding work chronicling several decades of gay history. Leslie did an incredible job on the review. Everyone involved in this project should feel justly proud. I’ll be waiting to buy my print copy as soon as they are released.

  11. Kris Jacen

    Yes, Wave, I do get to work with Victor on his Deadly series and others. My authors were very patient with me as I took the time to wear my formatting director hat for an extended period of time.

    Thanks Victor, Wave, Laura and William. I’m so happy that the book is being received well. Those that were there (or not) deserve this.

    Kris

    1. Wave

      Kris
      You did good, but then you always do. The thanks for the review should go to Leslie who did an outstanding job.

      **

      Victor is doing his own wrap-up of the Golden Age of Gay Fiction on October 20 when he’s guest blogging here, and he does it in his own inimitable style. Don’t forget to check back to hear what he has to say. My lips are sealed.:-D

Comments are closed.