Gay Literati Celebrate New Era of Acceptance : Publishing: The number of books by and about gays is increasing, as is the number of specialty book stores.


When Mark Thompson was named book editor of The Advocate in 1980, books from publishers seeking reviews would trickle in at the rate of three to five a month.

A decade later, that trickle has turned into a torrent. "Now, I get three to five books every day," Thompson said.

Thompson's workload is just one indication of the explosion in gay literature--books by and about homosexual men and lesbians.

Another sign of the boom is the burgeoning number of bookstores catering primarily to gays and lesbians: 37 nationwide, compared to seven a decade ago.

A Different Light, with stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, stocks 11,000 gay titles, including novels, short stories, biographies, plays, histories, self-help books, mysteries and science fiction. The chain carried 900 gay titles 10 years ago, said Richard Labonte, manager of the San Francisco store.

Thompson and Labonte were among the 1,200 gay literati last weekend at OUT Write '90, a national conference designed to celebrate and sustain the boom in gay publishing.

Those in attendance--gay and lesbian writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, agents, critics, journalists and readers--participated in two days of workshops and discussions on subjects as mundane as finding an agent and as weighty as "AIDS and the responsibility of the writer."

"We are here to mark the coming of age of gay and lesbian literature," said Jeffrey Escoffier, co-publisher of OUT/LOOK, the national gay and lesbian quarterly journal that sponsored the event.

"We are creating a literary infrastructure," added George Stambolian, who teaches gay literature at Wellesley College and is the editor of three anthologies of gay fiction titled "Men on Men." "We have gay newspapers, magazines, reviews, bookstores, readings, awards--and now conferences."

In addition to this gathering, a daylong symposium on gay literature will be held at UCLA on April 21, and Seattle's Alice B. Theatre will be host of a gay and lesbian theater conference in July, with activist playwright and novelist Larry Kramer ("The Normal Heart," "Reports From the Holocaust") as keynote speaker.

Though it remains relatively rare for gay books to cross into the mainstream and sell widely to heterosexuals, they increasingly are being taught at universities, winning prizes and critical acclaim.

Last year, Minnie Bruce Pratt, published by the lesbian-owned Firebrand Press, won the prestigious Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets for her collection of poems, "Crime Against Nature." And Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has begun to accept the manuscripts, journals and letters of important contemporary gay and lesbian writers.

Why this outpouring of gay and lesbian literature? Why didn't it occur in 1969, the year usually associated with the beginnings of the modern gay movement, when homosexuals rebelled during a police raid of a New York bar called the Stonewall Inn?

Because, said OUT/LOOK's Escoffier, "it has taken 20 years for us to . . . develop our audience and reach a critical mass."

"This is the literary reflection of an enormous social transformation," said Michael Denneny, a founder of Christopher Street magazine and a senior editor of St. Martin's Press, where he nurtures a line of gay and lesbian titles. "This is what happens when 25 million people stop thinking of themselves as sick, sinful or criminally deviant, and begin to affirm themselves and their lives."

"There is a desperate urge to define ourselves as a community, and one of the ways we are able to do that is through books," added David Groff, a senior editor of Crown Books and a founder of the Publishing Triangle, an organization for gays and lesbians in the publishing business.

Many point out that the new gay writing is more than self-affirming. At a time when AIDS is decimating the ranks of gay men--10% of the homosexual men in San Francisco have either died of or been found to have fully developed cases of AIDS, and another 40% are believed to be infected with the HIV virus--writing has become a means of achieving immortality for writer and subject alike.

"There is an incredible need to leave a written record," said John Preston, editor of the anthology "Personal Dispatches: Writers Confront AIDS."

"I wish to leave a proper testament of what my people have gone through," added Paul Monette, author of "Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir," the critically acclaimed account of his lover Roger Horwitz's illness and death. "The impulse to write the book was very much to leave a record for the future."

If there is an immediacy to their work, it is heightened by the fact that both Preston and Monette are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that is thought to cause AIDS. "AIDS is an event we will be spending generations trying to know and to define," added Sarah Schulman, a New York writer who derived some of the material for her new novel, "People in Trouble," from participating in ACT UP, the AIDS activist group.

Some observers believe the epidemic, like past cataclysms, will lead to a whole new category of literature. Said Mike Lyons, a Los Angeles playwright: "It is like after World War II, when suddenly there was an explosion of books: 'Catch 22,' 'The Thin Red Line,' 'From Here to Eternity.' "

But today's gay publishing boom encompasses much more than AIDS writing.

There are self-help books for recovering gay and lesbian alcoholics, how-to books for lesbian parents, tomes celebrating mythological goddesses, legal handbooks for unmarried partners, books on religion and spirituality, erotic fiction, and more. In short, conference participants say, the body of work has come a long way from the the Angst- ridden coming-out novel of the 1960s and the celebratory sex-and-disco novel of the 1970s.

Gay history and biography are also hot.

"In the past, details about people's sexuality were left out--often with the best of intentions," said Stuart Timmons, who is finishing a biography of Harry Hay, the father of gay liberation. "Being gay was considered a secret and a liability."

But the presumption of heterosexuality also had the effect of robbing gay people of their heroes. That is changing. Consider Alan Berube's "Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two."

Calling it "the definitive work on gay heroes and heroines of World War II," writer Studs Terkel wrote: "Their gallantry was in bold contrast to the cravenness of their detractors."

The gay book market has been developed by small gay-owned and -operated presses as well as publishing industry giants. In recent years, St. Martin's, Crown, Harper & Row, and New American have established large gay book lists. Some of their authors were first published by small gay presses.

"Part of the role of the small press, by its very nature, is to discover and nurture new writers, and to see them move on," said Alyson, who recently lost Los Angeles gay mystery writer Michael Nava to Harper & Row.

"You may as well complain about the sun rising."

Small presses such as Firebrand, Naiad, Seal, and Woman in the Moon are an especially important influence in lesbian publishing. Some have roots in the feminist publishing houses that grew up in the '60s.

"These publishing endeavors came out of a sense that we had to have this kind of material, and that it didn't exist anyplace else," said Nancy K. Bereano, editor and publisher of Firebrand.

Publishers large and small said they are able to make a nice profit on gay books, even those with relatively low circulation. "Our blockbuster--our biggest crossover book by far--was 'And The Band Played On' by (gay journalist) Randy Shilts," said Denneny of St. Martin's.

The critically acclaimed expose of federal inaction and scientific bickering during the early years of the AIDS epidemic made bestseller lists and sold 150,000 copies in hardcover.

"But we have also found a way to make a neat little profit from small print runs. Our overhead is such that we can make a profit selling just 3,500 copies of a book."

Crown, on the other hand, tries to buy rights to books that it thinks will sell at least 10,000 copies. "We need to develop the crossover market," said Crown's Groff. "And we need to develop a bigger audience among gay men and lesbians."

One way to develop the market, participants agreed, is to persuade more colleges and universities to offer courses on gay and lesbian literature, culture and history.

Groff said that, despite considerable progress, gay and lesbian authors still sometimes encounter condescending attitudes from society's cultural arbiters. As an example, he cited the generally favorable review of Paul Monette's new novel about AIDS widowers called "Afterlife," in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

Monette "wants to go beyond Gay Lit and invite us all in," reviewer Judith Viorst wrote.

Said Groff: "Can you imagine a reviewer saying that Alice Walker, in 'The Color Purple,' wants us to go beyond the plantation experience?"

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