Going for the Laugh : For years, gay literature has been dominated by somber topics--coming out, AIDS. Now, both writers and readers are turning to humor.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"At times like this, we need to laugh more than ever," says Mark Haile, an employee at A Different Light bookstore.

For a generation now, gay literature has been primarily a serious and somber business--first dominated by the anguish of coming out, and for the past decade by the tragedy of AIDS.

Not anymore.

"Most customers come in and say 'I want something funny,' " says Mark Simon, book buyer for A Different Light, Los Angeles' leading gay bookstore. "A humor book is one of our most common requests."

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Gilbert, a charming young man with a profound allergy toward employment, arranges a marriage with an immeasurably conniving female friend, in order to reap financial benefits from the presents their families will shower upon them. With the grudging help of Gilbert's hapless friend Philip, the scams swiftly pile up, leading to an extraordinarily outrageous climax.

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An undiscovered P.G. Wodehouse novel? While the boisterous epigram-riddled events might lead one to think so, it's really "Blue Heaven" by Joe Keenan, one of the most popular entries in the growing wave of gay comic fiction.

With pointedly wicked satire, zingy one-liners and absurd situations, gay comic fiction represents a revival of the classic comedy of manners, but with its own fresh and distinct twist.

Although the genre is part of a tradition that dates at least from Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, in the last couple of years it is experiencing a boom. Authors Keenan, Robert Rodi ("Fag Hag," "Closet Case"), Paul Rudnick ("I'll Take It"), Stephen McCalley ("Object of My Affection"), Robert Plunket ("Love Junkie"), David Sedaris ("Barrel Fever"), Christian McLaughlin ("Glamourpuss") and others are finding a strong audience with considerable potential to move well beyond the gay demographic.

While humor makes up a small fraction of the titles carried by A Different Light, it outsells the rest by a significant amount.

"Most books we sell five or six copies a year," says Simon. But in the past 16 months, Keenan's "Blue Heaven," for example, has sold more than 200 copies, while Rodi's "Closet Case" has topped 160.

"It is certainly one of the areas growing in publishing," says Peter Borland, the NAL/Dutton editor who handles Rodi and McLaughlin. Rodi in particular, he says, "has found a very loyal market--each book does better than the last, with 'Fag Hag' doing especially well in paperback. I expect Christian will do the same."

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What has prompted this revitalization? The most obvious explanation is that gay culture is badly in need of a laugh.

"In hard times," Keenan says, "when people are bombarded by tragedy, they tend to look to comic relief to take their minds off something so horribly persistent in their lives. It's what the film musicals of the '30s were to the Depression."

Some stress that the comic novel never really went away--it just took a nap.

"Comedy was the dominant form of gay expression until AIDS," says Keith Kahla, editor of the Stonewall Inn line from St. Martin's Press. "The angst- ridden fiction of the '80s was a sidetrack."

Says Sedaris: "I think (authors) went through a period where they were pretty much told they had to write about AIDS."

The immeasurable tragedy of the disease produced a tremendous, and much-needed, body of work, but "it does get heavy after awhile," says John Karle, a publicist at St. Martin's. Karle admits to reading dramatic works not so much because he likes them, but because "it's like eating right--it's something you do because it's good for you and helps to keep a balanced perspective."

Rodi believes that gay culture, after a grim decade and a half, is finally ready to be irreverent about itself.

"After Stonewall (the 1969 battle between gays and the New York Police that ignited the gay pride movement), there was a movement to make homosexuality respectable," he says. "It was an issue, and issues are always serious. But now we are at the point where we are past the saintly icon."

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Readers, too, are ready for a change of pace.

"Gays are tired of AIDS and coming-out dramas," says Rudnick. "What they are looking for is variety, the diversity of gay life. Coming-out dramas are like a gay 'Catcher in the Rye' syndrome. It's very effective, but then what happens? It's very important, but it's not the whole journey."

As an editor, Kahla agrees: "I don't want to see another coming-out piece unless it's brilliant ."

"The closet scene became trivial and obscene," Rudnick says. "People are sick and dying--and you are worried about what your neighbor thinks?"

Rudnick also believes that, cliches aside, oppression is a great humor developer. "Being able to entertain yourself is a good idea when there are people looking to beat you up."

"I never chose to write comedy," he says. "That's just the way it came out."

Even though each author began writing for different reasons, each ultimately came to the same conclusion: Funny is universal. Funny is versatile. And, frankly, funny is what they were best at.

"I had written a couple serious novels that didn't get published," Rodi says. "It wasn't until after I fell in love that my view changed. I was happier and I tended to see the less serious side of things."

The result was Rodi's first comic novel, 1992's "Fag Hag," an outrageous look at a woman determined to do anything to get her best friend, a gay man, to fall in love with her. It was prompted by similar experiences he and partner Jeffrey Smith had shortly after becoming a couple in 1988, as certain close female friends felt rejected and tried to sabotage this new romance.

Rodi sent his work to Dutton Editor Christopher Schelling, who had noted that humor was lacking from Dutton's otherwise broad gay list. Fulfilling every novelist wanna-be's fondest dream, Schelling, now at HarperCollins, bought it the day after reading it.

After "Fag Hag," Rodi wrote the unorthodox, nearly slapstick look at coming out, "Closet Case." Meanwhile, his work inspired another comic author to try his luck. McLaughlin wrote "Glamourpuss," a satirical tale of unrequited love set in the eminently silly world of soap operas, as a cross between what he terms the "emotional naked romantic stuff" of John Fox's "Boys on the Rock" and the comedy of "Fag Hag." And so he sent his manuscript to Schelling, and another publishing contract was born.

"Keenan and Rodi, those are fun books, ones you wanted to have written yourself," says McLaughlin, cheerfully admitting his influences. "I was just writing what I thought was funny. It doesn't have to be a big emotional catharsis each time."

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No one from this new school is claiming to have invented a wholly new genre.

"I was very influenced by Wodehouse," Keenan says, "in that I was trying to write a charming comic confection. He was so delightful and entertaining, it seemed a natural for imitation. Why had no one else tried to write one? It should have been the start of a whole school of comedy."

Some decades after the fact, it may be. Keenan is not alone in his attempt to model his work after classic comedies of manners, which is good news for those who feared the genre had died out. As the snooty upper class provided ample fodder for lampooning by authors from the earlier part of the century, so now do the quirks and foibles of modern society furnish today's writers with ideal material.

"E.F. Benson wrote comedy of manners," Rodi points out. "And he wrote gay-themed novels, but those tended to be very serious. It never occurred to him to combine the two. I like the idea of reviving a tradition and re-creating it as well."

One of the delights of this genre is the variety of styles within it. From madcap antics to satire to black comedy to affectionate homages to family, the range is considerable.

The degree to which homosexuality plays a role also varies widely. Rodi's first two books, as the titles indicate, are exaggerated looks at two gay-specific phenomena. With Keenan's and McLaughlin's books, the protagonists are matter-of-factly gay, with this detail only occasionally directing the action.

"I wanted (the book) to be about what these characters are doing, not about the fact that they are gay," McLaughlin says. "They are gay--let's go on from there. It's pretty late in the century for it to be a huge issue."

In Rudnick's "I'll Take It," the protagonist is clearly gay, but this is never actually stated out loud.

"I thought, 'OK, what if you took the tack that gay characters are absolutely normal?' " Rudnick says. "You would never point out that someone is hetero. I deliberately took the tack that the character's gayness is so assumed and equal that it no longer needed to be footnoted. But it is tricky. There is so far to go in terms of gay visibility. Still, it is interesting not to treat every character as a potential role model."

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Not every gay comic novelist is happy being called a "gay comic novelist." Armistead Maupin, whose "Tales of the City" series was arguably the vanguard for the genre, rages at the classification.

"I cringe at the categorization because I want to write for as many people as I possibly can about as many people as I possibly can."

Maupin points out that when "Tales of the City" first appeared as a daily column in the San Francisco Chronicle, it was about all parts of life in the city, not just the gay community. And when in 1978 he published the first of six novels based on the column, few bookstores even had gay sections. Thus the book went right into the literature shelves, where Maupin has for the most part stayed.

Ironically, some of the very advances in publishing and in bookselling, which included a strong awareness of the gay market, are backlashing for newer authors. Being categorized as a "gay novelist" means that one's books are placed in a special section, where they are readily found by a gay audience--but completely overlooked by straight readers.

"It doesn't serve writers and readers to have gay fiction segregated," Maupin fumes, "and it's just another way of keeping gay people at the back of the bus. And you have to question what it means--does it require an author to be out of the closet, or a percentage of the characters to be gay? I know some writers who aren't out, who write novels with gay characters, but they aren't called gay writers."

Considering the content, how much potential is there for crossover to mainstream, straight audiences? Sales at non-specialty bookstores indicated that, with some exceptions, there is still not much awareness of these writers outside the gay demographic.

Some authors and editors express doubt at the genre's crossover potential, citing either humor that draws too deeply from a culture's in-jokes or the inability of heterosexuals to handle the explicit sex found in some works. Others disagree--funny is funny, they say. And if the people who come to their book signings are any indication, funny absolutely reaches across "demographic" lines.

"Please, the number of straight women I know who have read 'Fag Hag'!" HarperCollins' Schelling says. "It is absolutely worth trying to affect a crossover. You are not going to get all John Grisham's readers to do this, but the numbers show this is on the rise. Publishers need to publish it in a higher-profile way. They need to be more aggressive about advertising."

"There is a great deal of curiosity about gay life--it's new material and juicy stuff," Rudnick says. "If you see a heterosexual with your book in their hand, you don't want to slap him, saying: 'Put that down! That's not for you! You wouldn't understand it!' "

Although full advantage has not yet been taken of the writers' potential, neither has it gone entirely unnoticed. Rudnick writes screenplays for Hollywood, including "Addams Family Values."

Keenan is executive story editor for NBC's Top 10 hit "Frasier," where he wrote the quickly-designated-classic "matchmaker" episode.

McLaughlin writes for "The Parent 'Hood," and he and Rodi have multi-book deals with Dutton. A flurry of recent signings will produce by the year's end Rodi's "Drag Queen" (Dutton), Lars Eighner's "Pawn to Queen Four" (St. Martin's), and "Out Loud and Laughing" (Doubleday), an anthology of short humor fiction.

But if mainstream audiences don't catch on, the loss will only be theirs. "I am perfectly comfortable being typecast," Rodi says. "There are far worse things than being pegged a gay novelist."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 15, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction Gay books--The name of one of the writers mentioned in the Monday Life & Style story on gay literature was misspelled. The author of "Object of My Affection" is Stephen McCauley.
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